Towards the end of Ski, an experimental feature by the Argentine director Manque La Banca, a woman who appears to be an activist congratulates the filmmaker on trying to challenge “behaviorist representation” in nonfiction cinema. At the same time, she offers a strident critique, whose main gist is that while it’s fine to challenge oneself, the exigencies of sociopolitical reality—in this case, the recent brutal murders of Indigenous youth at the hands of the national police—take precedence over formal concerns. “If you don’t take a stance, you become an accomplice,” she concludes.
La Banca’s film is notable for its willingness to challenge, and partly dismantle, its own construct. And while Ski may at first come across as a feckless exercise, in which the director wants to both experiment and evade criticism for privileging form over content, I believe that La Banca achieves more than just a contradictory project. He does so by denying cinema the privileged position, from which one makes coherent meaning of things. Instead, La Banca presents the place of his birth, Bariloche, in the Andes, the region’s key tourism center, through a series of dispersive yarns.
The film opens with skiing manuals and with footage of happy skiers, foreigners and Argentines alike, zigzagging down sunlit slopes. The first hint that La Banca is not really interested in their stories alone is the repeated cut to the bare hands of an Indigenous slope employee. This quick contrast, sporty gear vs. unprotected hands, then expands into a series of parallel threads, among them, the Indigenous youths who work at the local carpentry workshop. La Banca observes and interviews the young men, and eventually follows them to the slopes—here, a voice off-camera asks, “Can you ski?,” again a quick signal that the slopes operate within a strict social hierarchy wherein the Indigenous community provides the labor, vastly excluded from enjoying its fruits (although, to complicate this notion, La Banca also visits the local social initiative, in which children from Indigenous communities are taught how to ski). In another section, La Banca gathers brief remembrances of the activist Rafael Nahuel, from the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu community, who was gunned down by the national police in 2017, and black-and-white footage from protests against police brutality.
La Banca intercalates this found footage with looser threads, such as ski production in the region and an elderly German immigrant, Gringo Loco, recounting local lore. La Banca then includes stories of two monsters: One that haunts the local Nahel Huapi Lake, and another, called the Black Cape. In the staged scenes, the purported monster (a burly figure with long black hair) captures his victim. The gothic aspect of such fictional staging is countered, however, by comic scenes, like one in which a young woman in a furry Big-Foot-costume plays with a young girl, and is later seen taking semi-nude photos with her artsy friends. But what to make of the horror elements and their implication for the film? Are such stories displaced cultural artifacts, consumed as part of the region’s “merchandizing?” I’m not entirely sure. Clearly, within the film’s critical stance, the lore cannot function as a facile stand-in for the region’s violent past. One thing that’s clear in La Banca’s film is that leisure as a concept—those crisp, breathtaking mountain shots, which La Banca captures with a visual purity that evokes advertising—relies on selectivity. It allows lore, yet excludes history, because lore is a thing of the past, and so partly “processed;” history, meanwhile, is still being written.