The Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) has reached its eighteenth birthday. The 2016 edition of the festival gave critics and organisers alike an excuse to deploy coming of age metaphors (one section of the out-of-competition Panorama selection was in fact dedicated to that very concept). In alluding to adulthood and responsibility, however, they perhaps inadvertently drew attention to the fact that the “Independent” character of the festival is, in some respects, ever harder to pin down. The BAFICI benefits from considerable institutional support (primarily from the Government of the City of Buenos Aires), and a striking proportion of this year’s competing films, particularly those from Latin America, were financed at least partially from state funds. The BAFICI has also become something of a cultural referent in Latin American festival circuits (it has, for instance, inspired similar initiatives in other countries, such as the SANFIC in Santiago de Chile), and this is perhaps a double-edged sword, lending it more of an established character than it might wish for itself. Many of the most striking films in the program arrived in Buenos Aires via Venice, Berlin or Toronto. The BAFICI cannot offer dozens of high-profile world premieres, then (although many of the Latin American entries, which will be the focus of this report, were being shown for the first time), and needs to maintain a distinctive profile in other ways.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the festival’s new artistic director, Javier Porta Fouz, has expressed a desire to develop the avant-garde and experimental aspects of the program. While much of this year’s programming had been completed by the time Porta Fouz was appointed, it was nonetheless possible to see something of a movement in this direction in the 2016 festival: one of the new competitive sections was named Avant-Garde and Genre, and the new Latin American Competition was specifically designed, according to the director, to showcase films which would otherwise struggle to find a slot in the regional festival circuit. One imagines that another motivating factor in these decisions may be a desire for differentiation from the resurgent Mar del Plata festival, which falls earlier in the festival calendar (in November), is accredited by the FIAPF, and has a far longer pedigree, having begun in 1954. Not all the new categories worked seamlessly: the definitions of “avant-garde” and “genre” seemed (inevitably, perhaps) almost unworkably capacious, and some of the films in the more established competitive sections were among the most formally daring and unusual of the festival. Other changes made this year deserve less equivocal praise: the expansion, for instance, of the number of venues, and the increased provision of free screenings and other events in cultural centres across the city, were highly welcome developments. The inclusion of a Human Rights competition, moreover, proved an innovative method for drawing attention to particularly socially engaged forms of documentary-making.
Indeed, for all its imperfections, the festival’s altered structure certainly served up a rich and strange selection of films. Though 2016 might have been a year of “coming of age” for the BAFICI, many of its films looked backwards in one way or another: two of the Panorama sections, Trajectories and Cinephilias, focused on the careers of established directors and the history of cinema, and this trend was at least partly reflected in the competitive segments (for instance by the Argentine film El teorema de Santiago / Santiago’s Theorem, dir. Ignacio Masllorens and Estanislao Buisel, which interacts in a self-consciously intellectual fashion with the work of the legendary Argentine director Hugo Santiago). More broadly, it might be said that the prevailing mood in many of the films in competition (and indeed in the winning entries) was one of anxiety about the future, and melancholic reflection on the past.
The winner of best film in the International Competition, La larga noche de Francisco Sanctis (The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, dir. Andrea Testa & Francisco Márquez), demonstrates both qualities in abundance. An adaptation of a novel by Humberto Costantini, it is a story set during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina, and follows the named protagonist as he receives potentially life-saving information about a young couple under threat of abduction, and struggles to decide on what to do about it. The film’s use of drab colours, close-ups and short focus effectively creates the world of a man hemmed in not just by political repression, but also by his disappointing middle-management job and abandoned youthful dreams. The nocturnal Buenos Aires through which he wanders is uncomfortably multi-coloured, blurry, inapprehensible. The film’s atmosphere of suffocation and claustrophobia is augmented by an impressively controlled performance from Diego Velázquez as Francisco, who looks to be about to explode from fear, frustration or regret at any moment. A remarkably assured debut from directors Testa and Márquez, which went on to feature in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes.
Edgardo Castro’s La noche (The Night), which won the International Competition’s Special Jury Prize, also strives to recreate the sensations of Argentina’s capital after dusk, albeit in rather different circumstances. Set in the present day, Castro’s film follows a middle-aged homosexual man (played by the director) whose entire existence is seemingly devoted to long nocturnal sessions of drink, drugs and sex. The camera sticks close to Castro’s body throughout, and its short focus proves a powerful tool for capturing both the drug-induced euphoria of the nightclub and the unsparing glare of daylight on the vampiric protagonist and his companions. La noche was by some distance the most daring film in this competition, featuring lengthy sequences of unsimulated sexual acts, and at two and a half hours it proved too graphic for several members of the audience at the press screening. Those who did stay to the end were rewarded with an extraordinary final sequence, which uses sudden distance and changed perspective to provoke an emotionally charged reflection on what has gone before. Castro’s project is a high-stakes gamble, then, which just about pays off.
Rosa Chumbe (dir. Jonatan Relayze Chiang) presents another vision of a Latin American metropolis, in this case Lima, as an overwhelming sensory experience. The film’s protagonist (a prize-winning performance by Liliana Trujillo) is a police officer, gambler and alcoholic, who lives with her troublesome daughter and baby granddaughter. When her daughter disappears without explanation, Rosa finds herself having to look after the baby, with catastrophic results. Trujillo plays Rosa as a melting pot of resentment, loyalty, bravery and despair, avoiding the clichés that so often stick to “troubled” figures in these kinds of narratives. Relayze Chiang’s camera deftly mixes architectural and emotional detail with broader shots that give a sense of Lima’s immense, intimidating scale. A parallel narrative about the Señor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles) religious procession in the city moves to centre-stage as Rosa seeks redemption towards the film’s close, and here Relayze Chiang successfully captures the powerful sensory and affective experience of Catholic devotion, as well as its strange relationship to popular culture (a dream sequence in which a TV presenter visits Rosa as an angel is perhaps the most explicit demonstration of this). The film’s weakness, insofar as it exists, lies in a surfeit of ideas: it tackles religious devotion, urban loneliness, addiction, and questions of motherhood and reproductive rights, with an aesthetic that flits between social realism, horror and religious iconography. There are, in other words, all the elements for a kind of cinematic magical realism in this film, but they never quite coalesce: this may, of course, be one of the points the director wants to make about the necessarily fragmentary nature of urban experience in this intriguing if occasionally frustrating film.
The new Latin American competition was the most uneven of the BAFICI this year, which is perhaps unsurprising given the selection criteria mentioned above: none of the films chosen had passed through the established European festival circuit. This unevenness was, in many ways, cause for celebration, given the wide and eccentric array of subjects tackled. These ranged from the lives of twenty-something slackers in Lima (Rodrigo Moreno del Valle’s WIK) to a teenage lesbian love affair in Ecuador (UIO: Sácame a pasear / UIO: Take Me for a Ride, dir. Micaela Rueda), from a portrait of a Bolivian poet obsessed with Amy Winehouse (La última navidad de Julius / Julius’s Last Christmas, dir. Edmundo Bejarano) to a sketch of a man who retrieves corpses from the mouth of the Magdalena river in Colombia, in the competition’s winning entry, Inmortal / Immortal (dir. Homer Etminani). This patchwork documentary recreates the languid pace of life in the coastal town of Puerto Colombia through its drawn-out static shots, and the slow revelation of the life of its subject, Cosme, poses the question of how deeply cinema really can “penetrate” a person’s character. Inmortal takes up this question on a structural level as it reveals that Cosme died during shooting: this intrusion of reality allows the film to add new dimensions to its haunting, if somewhat diffuse, reflection on death and memory in a part of Latin America that does not frequently find its way onto cinema screens.
Screening out of competition in the Latin American section, having won prizes in this year’s Berlinale, was Roberto Doveris’ Las plantas (The Plants). This Chilean drama follows the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, Florencia, who must spend large portions of her time caring for her older brother, who is completely paralysed and unable to communicate. There is an uncomfortable tinge to the implicit metaphoric resonance between the film’s title and this character in a “vegetative” state, but Doveris’ film questions the straightforwardness of that association as it maps a series of interesting variations on the nature-culture divide. Florencia becomes fascinated by a comic series called Las plantas in which plant life becomes intertwined with speculative technology and the fantastical, and the film suggests something of a parallel between the instability of social and sexual norms in the chat rooms and dating sites Florencia visits and the disturbing unknowability and transgressive potential of plant life. The sharp angles and edges of Florencia’s house are contrasted with its unruly garden, and the near-permanent state of twilight in which Doveris films these spaces, occasionally in long, oneiric tracking shots, reinforces the almost mystical character he attributes to trees, vines and flowers.
Las plantas was a notable addition to the festival program not just for its technical assuredness (particularly as a debut feature), but also for the strange pairing it formed with another Chilean film, screening out of competition in the Passions section: Sebastián Brahm’s Vida sexual de las plantas (Sexual Life of Plants). In Brahm’s film, young professionals Guillermo and Bárbara find their relationship severely strained when Guillermo suffers a life-changing brain injury after a fall while hillwalking, and to all practical effects becomes a different person: capricious, sex-obsessed and childish. Struggling to cope, Bárbara seeks solace elsewhere, but is unable to shake off memories of what was lost. In aesthetic terms Brahm’s film has little in common with Las plantas, offering instead a kind of indie realism that draws its power from the minutiae of conversations and daily life. Yet the association of human and plant life here (Bárbara is a garden designer) takes on some of the functions it serves in Doveris’ film: encouraging attentiveness, for instance, to how our interactions with the natural world inform and change our conceptions of human relationships.
Something of this group of concerns was also visible in the BAFICI’s Argentine Competition, which in contrast to its Latin American cousin was perhaps the most consistently impressive of the festival. The winning film, Primero enero (January, dir. Darío Mascambroni) is a reflective, sensitive portrait of a father and son on a final visit to a house in the mountains around the city of Córdoba, which is soon to be sold as part of the parents’ impending divorce. Mascambroni adopts a hyper-naturalistic approach to the drama, providing little in the way of a script or narrative structure, but the improvised dialogue and sparing performances of real-life father and son Jorge and Valentino Rossi achieve a striking, if austere, emotional depth. The camera’s prolonged attention to the surfaces and textures both of the natural landscape and of the domestic interior provokes a reflection on how the material environments we move through change us: asking, in a more literal sense than is usual, what relationships might be made of. Jorge’s somewhat stilted attempts to enact bonding rituals through felling trees, or slaughtering a lamb, and the son’s reticence, produce a set of restrained symbols which linger long after viewing. Primero enero is a delicate and deeply-felt addition to a substantial current emerging in Argentine film, the nuevo cine cordobés (“new Cordoban cinema”).
This question of labels often takes unwarranted prominence in discussions of Latin American film. If there was any lingering doubt as to whether the New Argentine Cinema of the 1990s and 2000s had outlived its usefulness as a designation, this year’s Argentine Competition made its obsolescence clear. It offered a wide array of genres, from unvarnished social documentary (Raídos / Frayed, dir. Diego Marcone, dealing with the lives of agricultural labourers in the country’s northeast) to raucous ensemble comedy (Primavera / Spring, dir. Santiago Giralt), from Raúl Perrone’s perplexing investigation of painting and early cinema (Hierba / Grass) to the hybrid indie rom-com Finding Sofia (dir. Nico Casavecchia). This last feature was intriguing for its genuinely transnational quality: telling the story of a frustrated New York artist’s impulsive and fractious stay in the Tigre delta near Buenos Aires, Finding Sofia evokes the havoc that the Internet and social media can play with relationships, and self-reflexively ponders the politics of the circulation of art and images across national boundaries. The script makes full use of the comic potential in linguistic misunderstandings, and the cast is uniformly strong (Rafael Spregelburd is on ferociously good form as a philandering Peronist artist). The film’s unremitting focus on the male protagonist’s image of Sofia, his acquaintance/lover/friend, places a question mark over its gender politics, but Casavecchia’s first feature is notable for its virtuosic mixing of US indie flick and Argentine class comedy (reminiscent of Martín Piroyansky’s 2015 film Voley in this last respect).
Las lindas (The Pretty Ones, Melisa Liebenthal), winner of best director in the Argentine Competition, also considers the effect of media and representation on our intimate memories and experiences (it’s worth adding that the winner of the Avant-Garde and Genre section, Stand By For Tape Back-Up, dir. Ross Sutherland, undertakes a similar operation). Taking an apparently mundane subject, the adolescent experiences of the director and her group of female friends, Las lindas makes it resonate in multiple and unexpected directions. Liebenthal achieves this thanks to an intelligent and powerfully honest script, deft use of photos and home video, and frank interviews. Las lindas is in part about social expectations of gender, and in part about how we choose to represent ourselves in various media. The film’s most moving moments come when Liebenthal discusses her relationship with her best friend Camila, with whom she made hours of home movies as a child, but who is now unwilling to be filmed. Here, Las lindas grasps towards the essence of a very deep friendship, but does not gloss over the limitations of its own medium for that task.
Liebenthal’s film was produced with support from the BAFICI’s work in progress fund, Buenos Aires Lab (BAL), and was one of several strong productions at the festival which suggested that the selection process for BAL funding is working very well. Others include Doveris’ Las plantas, and Boi neon (Neon Bull, dir. Gabriel Mascaro), which won the Orizzonti special jury prize at Venice last year and featured in the Avant-Garde and Genre section at the BAFICI. Mascaro’s film follows a worker in the vaquejadas (rodeos) of north-east Brazil whose secret passion is the design and production of women’s clothing. This story of disturbed social expectations and the perversion of expected gender roles is told with considerable flair: Mascaro’s use of colour and light is particularly sensitive, and the delicate parallels he constructs between animal and human bodies give cause for reflection on the roughness (or otherwise) of intimate affects and desires.
The BAFICI’s eighteenth birthday party was a rather pensive affair, all things considered: sober or anxious consideration of cinema’s capacity to understand human nature, and of humans’ capacity to relate to the rest of the world, emerged as something of a dominant thread. Efforts to understand cinema’s place in relation both to new forms of technology and to its own history were similarly prevalent. Time will tell whether the new Latin American and Avant-Garde and Genre sections are able to mature into effective and distinctive showcases for upcoming talent, but signs of potential are already visible. All this uncertainty is, in truth, oddly appropriate for a country and a region facing a more unstable political future than has been the case for several years, with the so-called “pink tide” of left-wing governments either already ousted (as in Argentina or Brazil) or at the brink of defeat or implosion (as in Venezuela, Ecuador and elsewhere). It is often said that cinema is out of sync with the present, offering untimely reflections. This year, for once, its anxieties and concerns seemed distinctly contemporary.
Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema
13-24 April 2016
Festival website: http://festivales.buenosaires.gob.ar/2016/bafici/es