In most parts of Quito, Ecuador, the fact that you make, study or are passionate about cinema can only be understood as a hobby, a recreation, a pasttime. When I opened my bank account, for instance, the clerk asked me what I studied as an undergraduate. I responded the way I always respond. I say, “Film Studies” and I see the woman hesitating at the keyboard, waiting for me to say something else, something more academic-sounding, more professional. “And Political Science”, I add. With a look of relief, she starts typing away. I ask her, “Does Film Studies not count?” She smiles politely, “It’s better if I write Political Science.” “Menos mal estudie dos careras,” I respond. Having graduated four years ago from a university where being a film major had the social prestige of being a football player at any other US university and the academic prestige of attending MIT, I was in cultural shock.
Fortunately, the 8th annual Festival de Cine Cero Latitud, a haven for cinephiles, filmmakers and film students, began only two days after I arrived in Quito. The festival’s official selection, dedicated to the first and second films of directors from el subcontinente, presents, in the words of the festival, “new talents, unpublished themes with audacious approaches that illustrate what the festival considers to be the future of Latin American filmmaking”. Ten films are in this category: 77 Doronship (Argentina/France), Agua Fria De Mar (Costa Rica/France), El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Colombia/France), Huacho (Chile/France/Germany), Ilusiones Opticas (Chile/Portugal/France), Manuel de Ribera (Chile); Memorias del Desarrollo (Cuba/United States); Paraiso (Peru); Prometeo Deportado (Ecuador/Venezuela); and, Verse (Bolivia). You can already see a running thread: the majority of these films are European co-productions.
The most memorable, true to its form, and compelling film in the selection that I saw – also awarded Best Latin American Feature Film – was the Peruvian fiction film Paraíso, directed by Héctor Gálvez, whose previous work includes the documentary Lucanamarca, a series of shorts in various genres, and documentaries about human rights issues for NGOs.
In Paraíso, his first narrative feature-length film, Gálvez tells the story of five teenagers growing up in an impoverished and forgotten slum outside Lima. While the adults continue to suffer from the violent and painful memories of the 1980s, the youth are left to seek warmth in one another: they play soccer, rob, kiss on an unlit street. Their unity and general feeling of neglect by society is perfectly captured in a single shot where the youth look out over the town and shout in unison, “Concha de tu madre!”
The screenplay is strong and subtle. The audience never feels ahead of the story. Ellipses are used to place significance on the effect, as opposed to the action. The story is in the details and the film asks for our close observation. For example, after buying two barrels of fresh water, one of the girls fills a small flask and later discretely cleans the dirt off her shoes on the bus on her way to school. She stops when three young men get on the bus and continues after they can no longer see her. Just as the script humanises, the camera simplifies. Many scenes are shot in wide long shots and occasional close-ups of people’s faces. After watching the film I wondered if the Ecuadorian audience had identified with their Peruvian neighbours. I saw the ticket holder divide the ballots – the largest pile was for “Buena” or “Good”. There were a few ballots marked “Regular”. One marked “Bad”. Two “Very Good” – one of which was mine. The fact that Paraíso won the highest award at Cero Latitud is reason to believe that at least the jurors (all Latin American: two from Ecuador, and one each from Colombia, Brasil and Argentina) found some kind of identification here. “Even if this film is not technically well-made,” Quique Chediak, the president of the jury said to Quito’s paper El Comercio, perhaps referring to the less than excellent sound quality, “Paraíso has a great story; it has the capacity to move, it’s humane, and it has a contemplative touch, while still remaining very clear. It can connect with every audience.”
“If Ecuador is the name of an imaginary line, then Ecuadorians are imaginary beings, which means we don’t exist. Ecuador doesn’t exist, but it hurts”, declares Prometeo, the protagonist of the only Ecuadorian film in the official selection, Prometeo Deportado, by Fernando Mieles. The film takes place entirely in an undisclosed European airport where people speak a (literally) backwards Spanish and where Ecuadorians are held indefinitely and without explanation before being deported. Setting an entire feature-length film in one place, never mind that this place is covered in white walls and cold furniture, is a feat that some would rather leave to the theatre. Fernando Mieles not only embraces this task for his very first feature film, but bravely places himself in the opening pre-credit sequence telling migration officials “Yo soy un cineasta, un guionista, un filmmaker”. Both of these techniques are distancing devices that establish a very particular relationship between the film and the viewer: the viewer will be critical of everything and everyone in this film, and when the film is over, the viewer will be critical of himself.
What I appreciated in particular about this film is its ability to shift between comedy and tragedy. There are two spaces in the film: one is the waiting room where Ecuadorian caricatures interact – this space is used for comedy; and the other is where one Ecuadorian, invisible and unheard to all around him, is left alone to wander endlessly on a conveyer belt – this space is tragic. We spend our time mostly in the former, but never lose sight of the latter. After about an hour and half or so of back-to-back cultural comedic references, the first sphere and the second become one – not in terms of physical space, but in terms of tone. How does Mieles do it? Surrealist satire. How else could Buñuel represent the psychological deterioration of the frivolous bourgeoisie in The Exterminating Angel? Mieles’ tale and Buñuel’s masterpiece both are social commentaries, similar in terms of setting and premise, but they differ on a very key point: Buñuel’s characters begin with the pretense of civilisation, while Mieles’ are unashamedly chaotic from the start. Mieles made this film for Ecuadorians; so far, based on the theatre’s audience response, the critics reviews, and the fact that several people have recommend this film to me, it seems that his intended audience is grateful.
This year, for the first time, there is also a category for only Ecuadorian productions called Parallel Zero. Ten years ago, such a category could not exist. Isabel Davalos, the festival’s director and producer says, “When I produced Ratas, ratones, y rateros, in 1998, one Ecuadorian film was made every five years; now, we’re talking about 10 national films a year.” There are five national films in this category, one of which may be the most-talked-about film of the festival, El Destructor Invisible (1996), directed, produced and written by Nixon Chalacamá. A vendor-turned-filmmaker from the Manabí Coast, Chalacamá is quickly becoming a legend around these parts. His films are produced entirely with the money that actors/friends/neighbours pay to be in his films. What each person pays determines how long their character will live – and how noble or pathetic their death will be. In addition, Chalacamá uses real bullets (they cost less than fake ones) and in 2010 convinced Ecuador’s former president Lucio Gutiérrez to act in his next film. His films have sold over a million pirated copies for which Chalacamá has never received a penny. This is underground cinema, Ecuador-style.
Another category, titled Meridiano X, is specifically for “new formats and films made under unusual production schemes, that develop alternative and innovative forms of circulation.” In this section, Viajo porque preciso, Vuelvo porque te amo is an experimental docufiction road movie from Brazil directed and written by Marcelo Gomes and Karim Aïnouz. Beautifully structured by a first-person narration by José Renato, a young geologist traveling alone, the film takes the viewer on a poetic journey across Brazil. The question which quietly lingers throughout the film and which José keeps coming back to is: why does he have to travel? (The film’s English title is: “I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You”). José initially claims to be investigating the possibility of constructing a canal to transport water in Brazil, but as the film progresses, his reasons for departure become more personal and contradictory. The film periodically breaks off into documentary-style portraits of women and workers he meets on the road. These anecdotes never feel out of place. The synthesis of video and Super 8mm creates a textured collage of images that works both visually and structurally, to please the eye as well as provide transitions that move the story – or journey – along. Much credit goes to the editor Karen Harley and the script writers Gomes and Aïnouz, who successfully piece together a story that manages to move forward and yet also takes its time.
In conjunction with the screenings, Cero Latitud presented several round-table discussions about filmmaking. One of these talks was aptly titled “The Intimate Stories of Latin America”. Many recent Latin American films share specific narrative and stylistic elements. Some narrative elements include: de-dramatised events, testimonial narratives, everyday mundane events, ambiguous endings. Stylistically many of these films used static camera, little-to-no camera movement, long takes, and very little action, if any. These narrative and stylistic elements differ severely from those of the realismo sucio (dirty realism) trend of the 1990s.
So, what happened? Why are Latin American filmmakers today interested in telling these minimalist, intimate stories?
According to Fernando Chiappusi, a programmer at Argentina’s largest film festival, BAFICI, these new trends came from abroad, specifically from North American directors like Brian de Palma and Jim Jarmusch whose films were absorbed by Latin American spectators in the 1980s. The Brazilian producer Assunção Hernandes argues that these changes were influenced by television and ultimately came from within Latin American audiences. “The desire to see yourself on the screen,” she says, “made possible by the democratic tool of digital video.” Brazilian films like Alfombra Roja (Luís Alberto Pereira, 2005) illustrate the director’s desire to tell stories that have never before been visualised on a screen and, she argues, the audience’s desire to see these stories visualised. As a successful producer, she is proud to say that there is an audience for these minimalist stories, to which Chiappusi agrees. BAFICI receives 200-250,000 viewers every year who want to see such films.
Colombian film critic Juan Carlos González does not believe there is an audience for these films in Colombia. Now, for the first time in Colombian history, filmmakers are cinephiles with film school educations. The quality of films is changing. However, there is a divorce between what the public wants and the films being made. According to González, Colombian audiences prefer foreign films to national films. They want violence and drugs – not quotidian, mundane stories with little-to-no action. And so, these festival films are produced and awarded but never seen by Colombian audiences. “They are about ordinary people doing ordinary things”, González adds, referencing Andy Warhol’s Empire as a warning. “Who wants to see a feature-film about this bottle of water here?” he asks, pointing to the table around which they are sitting. The room laughs imagining such a film, but González seems concerned, as if to say: “This is where we are headed”.
And yet, Ecuadorian film, for the most part, is not following this trend, and so the question is posed (by those that see this is a bad thing): “Why hasn’t Ecuadorian cinema reached this level?” All the speakers seem to agree with Chiappusi that Ecuadorian cinema needs to pass “the first stage” and return to nationalist themes. Chiappusi asks, “Could an Ecuadorian filmmaker made a film like Lisandro Alonso’s Libertad without the films that came before? No.” In other words, powerful films that break old traditions and create new trends do not come out of thin air. They are made possible by the films that came before, films that one by one break conventions and challenge audiences to think about cinema in new ways. “These films had to go to festivals and win awards in order for interest to be taken in them,” says Chiapussi, “The first novel ever written couldn’t be by Faulkner”. Young Ecuadorian filmmakers stirred uneasily in the audience. One young woman asks the panel, “So we have to make a feature film about a bottle of water in order to catch up to where cinema is today?” to which the panel answered (rather uncomfortably) “Yes”. At this point a few young Ecuadorian filmmakers in the audience left. It seemed as though the panel believed that all national cinemas must pass through the same linear trajectory, moving in the same direction from one trend to the next. This is a very academic way of looking at cinema, one from which filmmakers tend to distance themselves. Festivals and critics need to identify – and create – these movements and trends in order to better understand, curate and interpret what they see. But filmmakers do not need these categories in order to create.
This division present in the panel discussion is not new nor is it negative. It is my hope that the young Ecuadorian filmmakers in the audience will take this challenge and create their own cinema, regardless of whatever trends are floating around the festival circuit, and use the tools at their disposal to produce, exhibit and distribute their work. One is again reminded of the producer/director from Manabí whose films are financed by his village, exhibited on TV screens and in local buses, and distributed by movie pirates. He never makes a profit from his films but it is this financial need, and the love of Bruce Lee and kung-fu, which motivates him to always make another. When he was broke and could not afford to make a new film, he brilliantly looked through the unused footage of his previous films to create his most well received film to date, El Destructor Invisible (1996). He never went to film school, he has never received an award at a festival, nor received private or state funds to make his films, and yet he has created a type of marginal artisanal cinema that critics will be forced to notice.
Or we can look at young Argentine producer/director Pablo Parés whose sci-fi/action film Filmatrón was presented in the Meridiano X section. He and his friend Hernán Sáenz founded their production company, Farsa Producciones, twenty years ago, when he was only 12 years-old. He has directed and produced over 20 features and shorts, the majority of which are in the horror genre, including the feature film Plaga Zombie (1997) that was made with less than $120. When I spoke with Pablo he told me that from the beginning the production company refused to create a hierarchy within the production of each film. Each crew member is paid exactly the same, no matter if they are director, gaffer or assistant. Moreover, a production assistant can talk to the director and give suggestions or advice on how to make the film. Pablo Parés with Farsa Producciones has created a new economic and egalitarian way to make films which works; he has made an average of two films a year since 1991.
Filmmakers, take note! These are only two of the several paths available to young Latin American filmmakers today. Thank you Festival de Cine Cero Latitud for bringing these filmmakers to the forefront and for giving us all a reason to keep watching and making Latin American films.
Festival Cero Latitud
15 – 31 October 2010
Festival website: http://cerolatitud.com/