What does a film festival mean after the election of Trump? This is perhaps too far-reaching to expect to be resolved in a mere matter of some hundreds of words, let alone with the President-elect having not taken office yet. And, indeed, I wouldn’t fault a reader for rolling their eyes at such a query, asking: “What does one have to do with the other?” The answer is everything, especially when you get on a plane only a few days after said election to travel to the Mar del Plata Film Festival in Argentina.
Mar del Plata can’t be faulted for being viewed in the lens of extreme political angst, having only born the poor chance of being scheduled in close proximity to November 8, 2016. However, this reality meant that it was only a matter of time before casual conversations turned to the topic of Donald Trump and what to do next, as was the case with American filmmakers like Ted Fendt (who had a retrospective of his work mounted at the festival this year) and John Gianvito, director of Wake (Subic), a documentary that chronicles an unintended effect of American colonial and military engagement in the Philippines: devastating environmental pollution. Even local Argentine critics were want to make comments, at first assuming I was American (“I’m Canadian,” I would—politely, of course—correct them). Underlying all these conversations is the festival’s own complex history: while this was the 31st iteration of Mar del Plata, it was founded in 1954, only to fall into turmoil (along with the rest of Argentina) after a military coup in 1966. Under the new fascist, anti-communist (and American supported) regime, the festival was controlled by the state and then eventually cancelled. It only to returned again in 1996. Jokes about dictators, even in the north, felt all too real.
Even when the lights went down in the theaters this current world order wasn’t far from my mind. In some cases, this was perfectly apt, as was the case with Vincent Carelli, Ernesto De Carvalho and Tatiana Almeid’s Martirio, which documents the plight of the Guaraní-Kaiowa people in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, who have been systematically forced off their land and murdered. Carelli has been working with indigenous groups for some 40 years, and here incorporates footage he filmed over the decades with recently filmed material. The effect is one of documenting history’s unjust forces unfold, as the Guaraní-Kaiowa have seen their territory continually shrink while facing violent attacks from farmers and the state. In using narration by Carelli and archival photographs, Martiros largely doesn’t challenge the documentary form. But having been filmed over the course of a generation in order to highlight the long colonial project of indigenous genocide, it’s not so easily dismissed, a fact that the Latin American Competition jury also agreed with, as they gave the doc Best Feature Film. On top of this, in light of the water protectors’ stand in America’s North Dakota, it’s also hard not to be moved by a film with an underlying declaration, as one subject says, of: “It wasn’t the whites that made this land.”
A film like Adolfo Arrieta’s La belle dormant, however, posed more of a political quandary, namely because it’s so charming and crafted with an almost naïve simplicity. Arriate’s reimagining of Sleeping Beauty takes place at the turn of the last millennium and keeps the fairy tale’s dream-like quality by setting it in the Kingdom Letonia—a place far too delicate and twee to approximate most of the real world. The Prince Egon (Niels Schneider and his sharp jawline step seamlessly into the role) bashes away on his drums in bourgeois boredom until a fairy, passing as the modern-day UNESCO archeologist Maggie Jenkins (the ethereal Agathe Bonitzer), reminds him of his calling: to venture into the forest and wake the Sleeping Beauty from her century-long nap. Mathieu Amalric plays a supporting role as the Prince’s advisor, providing dryly delivered comic relief, and none other than Ingrid Caven plays the la fée méchante who sends the princess into her slumber.
Striking a perfect tone of delightful irreverence and bordering on B-film aesthetics at moments (Arrieta took a year to write the script but shot it in under a month), La belle dormant is undeniably sweet. But the problem with fairy tales is that they demand letting go of reality, and suspension of disbelief felt not just impossible at this time but also morally questionable. Lest I seem like an outlier for this mode of thinking, the first question during the festival Q&A (as translated to me by a friend) was with regards to the film’s sweetness in a time of rising neo-liberalism and racism. The audience laughed, but I wanted to know the answer. Is now really the moment to escape? What kinds of privilege does it take to do so? (The answer is quite a bit.) Again, this was a matter of timing that meant a momentous question was, perhaps unjustly, laid at Arrieta’s feet.
This question continued to follow me from screening to screening, and I think, as I’m known to change my mind, what it comes down to is not rejecting beauty, but finding beauty with meaning. In this case, I was lucky to have seen a program of shorts by Flavia de la Fuente, “Works 2015-2016.” A co-founder of El Amante film magazine and former programmer at BAFICI, De la Funete only recently turned to filmmaking. “Works 2015-2016” showcased her shorts, most of which centre on De la Fuente’s relationship with the ocean, and take the form of experimental films of varying length and with varying degrees of her own aquatic submersion, though “Las notas de Die Soldaten” leaves behind the milieu of the water for the opera, in a behind-the-scenes look at the Teatro Colón de Buenos Aires’ staging Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s said to be un-stagable work Die Soldaten. (This section, too, is a testament to the festival’s bold programming choices that refuses strict categorization: docs play in the same sections as fiction; narrative features and experimental works alike share prime screening slots.)
De la Fuente is no stranger to Mar del Plata, both the festival and the locale, as she’s screened at the festival before and lives a few hours north along the coast from the resort town. This made the screening resonate with an intimate, hometown feel, and even bordered on immersive given her shorts’ focus on the ocean that was crashing on the beach just down the road from the cinema. In the first, “Nanadndo en san clemente,” de la Fuente walks along the shore near her home, treading with trepidation into the water. (A metaphor, perhaps, for her own foray into filmmaking, which these shorts also represent.) Eventually, she swims into the waves, offering the “reverse shot” of the surf. Instead of the lulling calm, chaos reigns here, as both de la Fuente and her camera lurch with the rhythm of the ocean, occasionally breaking the surface, offering a moment of sensory recalibration with a quick glimpse of the distant horizon or the receding shore. Then, only too quickly, de la Fuente and her camera are pulled back under the waves again.
The result is nearly panic inducing, but also a welcome reprieve from the familiar idea of the calming ocean and soothing surf. In her shorts, de la Fuente then approximates a more profound, and, arguably, political concept of beauty. One where beauty is not merely created in objective form, but found in courage, risk, and in facing or encountering what’s difficult and rough, only to find that this can be folded back into knowledge of beauty. (When de la Fuente exits the ocean, and even in the following shorts, I couldn’t help but look at the waves the same way again: with both wonder and fear.) This kind of post-screening effect is what festivals can strive to do with their programming. If they do, they’ll strive to also mean more.