Translated from the Argentinian Spanish by César Albarrán-Torres
The pandemic has had a very specific impact in cinema. At one point in its history – and it could have very well not been the case – cinema was defined as a slow and costly art that involves a number of highly specialised technicians who work together towards the final product. The hegemonic history of cinema is still being written under this notion that almost exclusively singles out full-length fiction films (either industry- or independently-driven) as the only parameter through which films are judged. We only have to go through the line-ups of red carpet-festivals or the best-of end of year lists to realise this. However, this notion runs opposite to our current times, when urgency, economic precarity and social distancing rule.
During the past few months, when cinema’s affair with this hegemonic practice came to a full halt, sadness settled in and filmmakers worldwide were condemned to wait. Either that, or they have started shooting films that are divorced from this gigantic image of cinema. Here and there, with a frequency we couldn’t have imagined, other kinds of films started to emerge: epistolary movies, artisanal experiments, domestic performances, essays created in solitude or pairs, films created with no camera – made with fragments of other images of diverse sources. Even those artists that are used to industrial production mechanisms have started to create this kind of cinema. All of a sudden, that which had been an absolute exception became the momentary rule.
Julio Bressane used to say that his O Anjo Nasceu (1969) “unearthed experimental cinema” in Brazil. It was as if this film had had the strength to bring out a latent but buried cinematic practice. Something similar seems to be happening during the pandemic. It is as if the momentary paralysis of capitalism as we used to know it has unearthed that which is obvious: that cinema is not an exclusionary synonym for an expensive, heavy, compartmentalised and suffocating industry. That the biological case of this learning is a respiratory illness is not the lesser of ironies. When we are struggling to breathe is exactly when we realise that there is such a thing as breathing.
Breathing has been there since the beginning of time. It is far from unnecessary to say that when the Lumière brothers sent their photographers around the world to capture images, cinema also had a different type of history, closer to painting or poetry than to opera. A history of craftsmen and women holding a camera or with no camera at all, composing visual and sonic rhythms for a screen.
It took many decades to recognise that the Lumière’s views were not a sort of preparation for the real cinema to come, but the beating heart of the cinema of the future. When Alexandre Astruc wrote his famous 1948 text about the caméra-stylo, he said that “little by little cinema (…) will rid itself from the immediate and concrete needs of narrative, it will become a medium for free writing, subtle like written language”. In the 1920s, Germaine Dulac had already called for a cinema “in which the author’s sensibility is noticeable, like with any artist and their work”. She said: “Cinema is the art of movement and light (…). A musician plays with sounds like a filmmaker plays with images”. Dulac put into practice a cinema of the never-ending quest for new visual chords that opposed stale standards, and her cinematic, critical and theoretical militancy lay buried, but beating. Now is the time to unearth it.
That was the reason why Glauber Rocha wrote in 1962 that “technique is haute couture, for the bourgeoise it is corny to have fun”. In Latin America, the notion of an artisanal cinema walked hand in hand with the creation of a political future. To unearth it, it was necessary to fight against the practices of an industry that copied what was done in the cinema’s epicentres, which was never truly established among us but that remained there, like a suffocating horizon. Perhaps, in this corner of the world, it is time to detonate the illusion of building an industry that is always rehearsing but never truly achieves anything, so we can make room for the dissonant breathing that we are capable of creating.
Some will object and call us romantic. The earth that covers artistic expression is the foundation of a film community, particularly in peripheral territories, and it also allows many people, and not just a few heirs, to make a living of making movies. But it is also time to come to terms with the fact that even a system based on state support for “independent” cinema has mimicking traces of the colonial system, and imposes suffocating mediations (competitions, scripts, labs) in which cinema becomes a compartmentalised and specialised space, much closer to an industrial structure than we would like to admit. The artisanal drive, the freshness and spontaneous nature of the best Latin America cinema are living proof that this imported model is destined to fail. If we want to talk in industrial terms let us not forget that at least in Brazil the most successful experiences with a sustainable film practice, those who had the chance to face the hegemonic U.S. cinema, were the chanchada in Rio in the 1930s up to the 1950s, and the Boca do Lixo in São Paulo in the 1970s. They created an organic form of communication with the local audience via the creation of low-budget production methods with no state support in which improvisation was king. We need to keep fighting to take charge of the State but today, at a time when the Brazilian government has ceased to support film altogether, it might be time to bring back that past to dream about a different future.
From my experience watching domestic films during this pandemic time, I can say that professional and personal interests have converged in a daily search for Latin American films, particularly Brazilian titles, shot in the 1960s and 1970s. By watching hundreds of these films I put myself in a paradoxical position: while being locked up in home for months, my screen would be crowded, full of people, colours, intense rhythms and movement. A few times, like in this region during that period, cinema became the encounter between a handheld camera and a crowd in the streets. In The Lyre of Delight (1973/1977), Walter Lima Jr. shoots a group of actors, both men and women, in a moment of full ecstasy during the Niterói street carnival in 1973. In the following years, when he got the money, he created a fictional narrative, a police thriller. In the end result the drunken carnival delirium, that state of being which opens up for a fortuitous encounter, this opening up of the body to the world, this risk of getting lost, seeps through the film’s textures, the montage, the plot, everything. The narrative structure of the police thriller is but an excuse to achieve infinite variation. When I thought about an image that could illustrate this essay, the first thing that popped into my mind was the ecstatic face of Anecy Rocha projecting over a crowd.
Maybe cinema will be able to go out in the streets once again without forgetting the lessons learnt during lockdown. The pandemic can be an opportunity to get ourselves reacquainted with experimentation, which has been a key feature of our best cinema. It is time to unearth a text like Towards a Third Cinema, make it available to those who fear words such as “militant” or even the mere mention of Solanas and Getino. We have to recuperate its libidinous, poetic and liberating energy: “Our time is a time of hypotheses rather than thesis, it is a time of works in progress, disordered, violent works made with a camera in one hand and a stone in the other, impossible to measure through the canons of traditional critique and theory. It is through this practice and experimentation, that the ideas for our own film theory and critique will be born”. If we can’t hold a stone yet, let us at least get drunk on carnivalesque delirium, hands on camera or over a computer keyboard.