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Discovering Latin America Film Festival in London

The third Discovering Latin America Film Festival in London

The third edition of the ‘Discovering Latin America Film Festival’ closed in London on December 5th amid great satisfaction among the organizers.

Although the event had grown considerably since last year, with a larger number of films and, for the first time, master classes, they had managed to make it run smoothly. This is an unusual film festival, run by a group of enthusiastic amateurs. The artistic director personally introduced many screenings, introducing the Argentinean charity that will receive the proceeds of the event. She also said that they wanted to bring ‘Latin culture’ to London and inform London audiences about the continent. Rather than film snobs, then, this festival was aiming at armchair travelers. As it turned out, many of them were homeward-bound travelers rather than tourists. Invariably, a large proportion of the audience at the screenings spoke Spanish. London’s Latin community clearly made the most of the occasion.

One may wonder, conversely, why the interest among the British public was not greater. A tentative answer is not difficult to find. London’s movie market is large, but also largely dominated by mainstream distributors. The number of minority cinemas it supports alongside the mainstream is limited, and there are peculiar pop-cultural biases. Hong Kong and Japanese cinema have conquered a fairly permanent niche, thanks to pioneers such as Ang Lee, whose fast pace, low-life stories and delirious color resonated with London notions of contemporary, ‘urban’ aesthetics. On the other hand, the flowering of Iranian cinema in the 1990s, with its low-key, slow, reflective films, has been noted, but never quite shook off the air of exotic curiosity and remained a resolutely highbrow interest. Unless a Latin American director emerges to make slick, big and colorful films to match Ang Lee’s, the recent burst of creativity in Latin American cinema is likely to share this fate.
The most striking films of the last few years in Latin America have come from the south of the continent, from Argentina and Uruguay. The Discovering Latin America film festival offered a rare chance to put this recent output into perspective. It offered not only a selection of some of the finest of these new rioplatense films, but also a retrospective of the director who for many long years beforehand had kept Argentina on the film-making map, Fernando Solanas. The contrasts and similarities between his work and recent films such as ‘25 Watts’ by Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, ‘Ana and the Others’ by Celina Murga or Gabriela David’s ‘Taxi, an encounter’ are striking. Take Solanas’s 1985 exile epos ‘Tangos’. Entirely made in Paris, where Solanas had fled from the military dictatorship in his home country, it clearly was influenced by the experimenting spirit of French filmmaking in the 1960s, playing with the disjuncture of text, sound and image and with a loose narrative structure. In this regard, Solanas is very much on the same page as his young colleagues.
On the other hand, the trademark of Solanas’s films is his love for big statement and didactic repetition. Experimenting with narrative, one suspects, suited him because it enabled him to squeeze in always yet another suggestion, yet another appeal. His filmmaking is baroque, his poetic images and grand political ideas run away with the plot. In this regard, he is worlds away from the lightness of touch and gentle melancholia that characterize the recent Argentine films mentioned above. This contrast was made strikingly evident by the first showing in Britain of Solanas’s latest film, ‘Memorias del Saqueo’, literally ‘Memories of the Sacking’, but entitled ‘A Social Genocide’ in the English version (thereby obliterating Solanas’s nod to the seminal Cuban film ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’). Solanas himself attended the showing, making it one of the highlights of the festival.
‘Memorias del Saqueo’ is a two-hour documentary account of the origins of the economic crisis that has gripped Argentina since 2000. Put differently, it is a two-hour-long documentary about fraudulent privatization, with lots of talking heads, empty corridors of power, enraged demonstrators and oil refinery plants. Its analysis is simple (corrupt elites colluding with the machinations of international finance) and its outrage tangible. The repetitiveness of didactic images and message alike makes it at times hard to bear. If one sits through it, that is very much due to the passion and warmth of Solanas’s voice. He used the question and answer-session after the screening to repeat the film’s anti-globalization message with the same passion. He also again failed to pick up its unanswered questions: what could or should have stopped this happening; what viable alternative policies were there? But as with his proliferating imagery, the force of the delivery makes one forget these questions.
The misery that the film documents posits the question of the relationship between Argentina’s crisis and the recent achievements of its directors. ‘Memorias del Saqeo’ is a much angrier and certainly much more explicitly political film than is characteristic for the recent cinema of the Rio de la Plata region. At first sight, there is nothing humorous about it at all. But at second and third sight there is. Confronted with the disastrous consequences of inept or simply criminal policies, people in Argentina still appreciate the comedy in their own tragedy. Take the delicious smile of the sacked whistleblower on a failed dam construction project when explaining that the auditor of the project’s account was the father in law of the main contractor, or the involuntary humor of an old lady outside the bank that has just slammed the doors shut on her life savings: throwing bombs, she explained, was not her thing, ‘so that’s why I am standing here banging on a pot.’ These moments present real-life templates for the gentle, lucid treatment of old age, isolation and the humiliations of everyday life in recent Argentine films.
Meanwhile, the festival also showcased yet another face of current Argentine film: feel-good movies with a difference. Pablo Trapero’s film ‘The rolling family’, for instance, is a very accessible, fluently paced and entertaining film about an extended family crammed in a camping car en route to a wedding. It takes on board topics that could have made for a grim film, such as serial infidelity and an abusive boyfriend, and effortlessly accommodates them into a deadpan comedy. In this it resembles another recent Argentine film that was on show at the London Film Festival in October, Daniel Burman’s ‘Lost Embrace’. Moreover, notwithstanding the current pre-eminence of the southern part of the continent in filmmaking, other countries had a lot to contribute. Juan Carlos Rulfo’s look at his writer father’s life in ‘Juan I forgot I can’t remember’, another film focusing on older people, made a vivid and absorbing portrait. The filmic version of the young Ernesto Guevara’s travelogue, Walter Salles’ ‘The motorcycle diaries’, was entertaining and a treat for the eyes in all its sentimentality.
Last but not least, the organizers deserve praise for their effort to show documentaries as well as feature films. They included outstanding ones such as Veronica Soutos’s ‘Cardboard Days’ on the struggles of Argentines to survive surging poverty. Others showcased the strong political reaction across the continent to its own oppressive past. They included ‘Passport to Justice’ by Paulo Sanhueza, on the arrest of the former Chilean dictator General Pinochet after long years of impunity, and Federico Urioste’s ‘Rebellion’ on an uprising that brought down Argentine dictator Ongania in 1969. The economic ravages of globalization, too, have met a vivid response by public and filmmakers (‘Which Revolution?’ by Asociacion Civil Ciudadania Activa; ‘Bolivarian Venezuela: people and struggles of the 4th world war’ by Marcelo Andrade and Kesang Serpa). It is to be hoped that the festival will achieve an equally equitable balance between documentaries, crowd-pleasers and low-key films next time around.
Felicitas Becker

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