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The Many Facets of New Argentine Cinema

An overview of the upsurge in new and independent cinema from Argentina.
Tamara Falicov
MUBI's retrospective New Argentine Cinema is playing from August 7 - September 28, 2017 in most countries around the world. 
La Ciénaga
Beginning in the mid-1990s, young directors, the majority of whom had graduated from one of many film schools in Argentina, began producing low-budget, independent films in a style that earned this group the classification of the New Independent Argentine Cinema.
Part of this upsurge had to do with a small grants program that was initiated by the National Film Institute (INCAA) in the mid-1990s. These recent graduates have made short films (cortometrajes), and then have gone on to raise funds through co-production funding (Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam film festival, the Visions Sud Est program from Switzerland, among others). They have relied on their own networks of like-minded young people rather than depend on the traditional film sector structure (the film union, established director’s associations, and the few film studios still in existence).
This cinema is different from the previous auteurs of Argentine cinema: some directors have created gritty, realist dramas in a aesthetic vein reminiscent of the political cinema in of the New Latin American Cinema movement of the 1960s and 1970s (symbolized by the 1968 Argentine film The Hour of the Furnaces), but rather than create overtly polemical statements or march under the banner of  a political movement, they are working to expand the notion of Argentine citizenship to include subjects and characters who have traditionally been invisible or excluded from Argentine screens. Examples are the Bolivian immigrant in Adrián Caetano’s Bolivia (2000); the young girl protagonist in Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl (2004); lower middle-class Jewish characters such as Ariel’s family in Daniel Burman’s Lost Embrace (2004); the Korean-Argentine characters in the film Do U Cry 4 Me Argentina? (2005) directed by Bae Youn-suk; Laura, a bisexual video editor who is Ariel’s love interest in Waiting for the Messiah (2000), and Albertina Carri’s The Blonds (2003). Carri’s film is an experimental narrative in which the actor who plays the role of Carri is challenging the mythos and memories of her “disappeared” parents during the Dirty War.
These filmmakers want to break with the notion of an Argentine exceptionalism, whereby Argentina is viewed as different from other Latin American countries due to its large immigration from Italy and Spain (i.e., European background and aspiration) and distancing from an indigenous past. In other words, this younger generation of filmmakers in large part does not identify with a European-influenced and -inflected culture. Rather, these filmmakers identify with ethnic minorities and working-class people in Argentina and project a more varied and heterogeneous face of national identity in Argentina. They show films from a rougher, working-class perspective (especially after the economic crisis of 2001), as shown by such films as Un oso rojo (A Red Bear, 2002) by Adrian Caetano, El Bonaerense (2002) by Pablo Trapero, and Taxi, an Encounter (2001) by Gabriela David. Additionally, there are films that work to deconstruct or disrupt the hegemony of the middle- or upper-middle-class family, as in Martel’s La ciénaga (2001), and Live-In Maid (Jorge Gaggero, 2004).
It is these filmmakers who will continue to push the boundaries of Argentine national identity through a low-budget cinema. Since their auspicious debut in the mid-1990s, however, some of these first-time directors, such as Pablo Trapero and Adrián Caetano, are now so esteemed and recognized that each were recently funded by larger production companies for their next projects (Trapero, in addition to starting his own production company, Matanza cine, collaborated with the producers of Comodines, Pol-Ka, (who partner with Disney) on his 2004 feature, Rolling Family.) Adrian Caetano worked with celebrity television host Marcelo Tinelli’s company to produce an eleven part television series, Disputas, before going to direct and co-write Chronicle of an Escape (Buenos Aires, 2006) which was received production funds and distribution rights by 20th Century Fox-Argentina. Although some filmmakers have been moving up the ranks and gaining more commercial exposure (for example, long time low-budget auteur Alejandro Agresti’s 2002 film Valentín was distributed in the U.S. by Miramax, and his first Hollywood film, The Lake House [2006] starred Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock), these still are the exceptions rather than the rule. This handful of “crossover” directors calls the term “independent” into question, and an issue hotly debated at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival in April 2004. Despite the fact that there was no resolution, it calls into question the idea whether Argentina has a full-fledged film industry or not. The larger studios would claim that there isn’t, thus affording themselves state subsidies, and other, smaller director producers would say that there is. One issue is clear: by the mid-2000s, the New Argentine cinema is winning accolades abroad, witnessed by awards at major international film festivals: Lost Embrace won the Silver Bear prize at Berlin in 2004, María Victoria MenisEl cielito (Little Sky, 2004) won multiple critics’ awards at San Sebastian, and Paz Encina’s Paraguayan Hammock (2006), a Paraguayan-Argentine co-production, won a critic’s prize at Cannes. These were films, which captured the international scenes, were all films made by newer directors—many of them women, the number which is unprecedented.
Las Acacias
The irony, of course, is that few Argentinians have come to see these films. Box office figures for these critically acclaimed films range on average from $100,000-$250,000, and producers claim that a medium budget film (to a tune of $1.5 million) film must make $500,000 to turn a profit, since ticket prices are so low. Thus, while Argentina has made a comeback on the international film festival scene, there are still questions about how to keep home audiences motivated to see national films.
A case in point: Las Acacias, the debut film by Pablo Giorgelli, which film critic Julia Montesoro argued was the biggest film festival winner for 2011. The film was invited to multiple festivals, including Cannes, Toronto, Venice, and others, winning three awards at Cannes including the Golden Camera, the Horizontes Latino award at San Sebastian, and a British Film Institute Award, in addition to the top award by the Argentine film critics, a Silver Condor for the best film in 2012. With all of this international publicity the film was sold in France and the UK, with more than 30 copies struck for European releases. However, when the local Argentine distributor had only managed to secure 13 movie theatres to screen the work, correspondingly, roughly 24,000 Argentine spectators came to see it. In this particular case, Las Acacias won many accolades abroad and favorable reviews at home, but it still did not draw local moviegoers to the theatre.
The new Argentine cinema featured at MUBI are truly maverick films that are the latest iteration of the New Argentine Cinema movement. Recognized indie auteurs such as Mariano Llinás, Alejandro Moguillansky, and Alejandro Fernández Mouján, alongside newcomers Laura Citarella and Martin Shanly, represent what film critic Quintín calls the “Non Official” Argentine cinema, compared to the Official Argentine Cinema (OAC). He suggests that this is ultra low budget filmmaking by directors who purposefully do not request state funding from the National Film Institute (INCAA). Moreover, in the case of Mariano Llinás, despite making a prolific number of films with extremely low budgets (he has made ten to date) he does not apply to European film fund grants such as the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund or Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund. These films are more experimental, non-mainstream, and non-conformist compared to their OAC counterparts.
The Gold Bug
Balnearios (2002) is probably Llinás’ most lauded and most widely circulated work. While it was made on a shoestring using archival materials documenting beach resorts along the Atlantic coast, the film was given prizes at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival and frequently featured at the Latin American Modern Art Museum Buenos Aires (MALBA) for its innovative, quirky method of storytelling.  Alejandro Moguillansky, in his film The Gold Bug (2014), pokes fun at the absurdity that can arise when a filmmaker from a Global South country aligns with a wealthier country such as Denmark to co-produce a film. At once a co-production and a self-conscious critique of one (which is also very humorous) The Gold Bug takes an irreverent position about the politics of funding a film from international sources. Other films in the series include a later, highly lauded film by Mariano Llinás, Extraordinary Stories (2008), and two earlier films by Alejandro Moguillansky, Castro (2009) and The Parrot and the Swan (2013). Director Laura Citarella’s ópera prima (first film) Ostende (2011) is featured this month, along with her co-directed (with Veronica Llinás) film Dog Lady (2014). Another newcomer, Martin Shanly, explores a girl’s coming of age in About Twelve (2014), and the last film of the series is a documentary by Alejandro Fernández Mouján, Damiana Kryygi (2015) which examines the historical wrongs against the indigenous Ache people of Paraguay in the late 19th century. The film focuses on one of the victims: a young woman’s life story that serves as a testament to the horrors of colonialism in the region.
The new Argentine cinema is resilient, despite being always in search of an national audience. These tensions grapple many national film industries, but Argentina’s rich cinematic history attests to the country’s attempts at remaking and renewing its cinematic art and industry.
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