Ela Bittencourt's column explores South America’s key festivals and notable screenings of Latin films in North America and Europe.
This year’s Neighboring Scenes, an annual showcase of Latin American cinema in New York, offers primarily a taste of the region’s narrative cinema, with a few showings of experimental film and video art. In the first category, a number of films stand out for either their carefully crafted characters and attention to social context or for their formal playfulness.
In the opening night film Alanis, by Argentine filmmaker Anahí Berneri, a young woman (Sofía Gala) negotiates motherhood and making a living as a sex worker. Berneri’s narration is assertive and quick-footed, with the entire film built around the dilemma of Alanis having been busted by undercover cops and lost her apartment, without which she can’t get back to work. The main complication—and the film’s strike of genius—is to present Alanis as a fumbling, struggling, yet determined and caring young mother. Berneri dispenses with moralistic judgment and sentimentalism in her treatment of the constant proximity between sex work and nursing, the former much safer when done at home and not in the streets. Unlike many stories about sex work, which focus on the women’s efforts to break out of the profession, Berneri focuses more on the activist, self-organizing point of view from within sex work: Alanis, after sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s boutique, makes the decisive step not to get employed as a low-wage cleaner, but rather finds another communal home, in which sex workers show their solidarity by taking care of her baby boy, and of each other.
A very different tone is set in Alejo Moguillansky's The Little Match Girl, which I first saw at its world premiere in April, 2017, at the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival (BAFICI), at a time when the country’s film industry was locked in a bitter battle with the national film board, INCAA. The film’s focus on art and economics, and on the socio-philosophical raison d’être for art’s existence, seemed to channel some of the very tensions I felt in Buenos Aires. Somewhat similarly to Alanis, the film’s main protagonists, a married couple, Walter (Walter Jakob) and Marie (María Villar), are in financial straits—the film opens with their being unable to pay their bill at a café. When Walter is subsequently hired to direct an obscure contemporary opera, The Little Match Girl, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s eponymous story, Marie as a supportive spouse provides him with crucial staging insights, while also earning a living and caring for their small daughter. Moguillansky uses as his backdrop a visit to Buenos Aires by real-life composer Helmut Lachenmann, and inserts actors into the rehearsals of an actual orchestra. Another renowned pianist, Margarita Fernández, plays herself. Despite his frequent cracks about the puzzling complexity of contemporary music (similar to his treatment of contemporary dance in The Parrot and the Swan), Moguillansky is dead serious about art’s potential to strike a deeper chord. In one affecting scene he invents the letter that the German terrorist, Gudrun Ensslin, is said to have written to Fernández, confessing her despair when pressured by other fellow RAF members to stop listening to Fernández’s music. The tension between the kind of introspection that art affords us, versus the more militant, unforgiving view that deems it as dispensable, decadent, or harmful, adds a poignant coda.
Where Berneri works in a carefully plotted, observational vein, and Moguillansky treads lightly in the space between drama and comedy perfected by some of his compatriots, such as Mariano Llinás and Matías Piñeiro, the Franco-Chilean filmmaker Niles Atallah works in a more imagistic, at times ecstatic, way, without giving up on psychology or narrative elements. Atallah’s film Rey picks on the true story Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a Frenchman who arrived in Chile in 1858 and eventually presented himself to the country’s indigenous Mapuche nation as their true leader that could help them rise against the colonizers. With such prominent films as Zama (2017), by Lucrecia Martel, we seem to be (once again) in a golden age of stories about gradually demented colonizers, with the New Land as a mirror that exposes the numerous civilizing missions to be the putrid, land-and-natural-resource-grabbing frauds they were. Still, even in this familiar thematic vein, Atallah’s approach is singular, his focus on de Tounens’s descent into dementia presented in vivid color and with fantastical elements. The scenes in which de Tounens appears to be actually drawing water from a spring, or is crowned by straw-men in the forest, are possessed of the kind of romanticized imagination that both gave rise to early conquest and fueled later ones. Atallah also envisions a trial against de Tounens, carried against him by the Spanish crown officials who accuse him of espionage. And while these scenes, with mask-clad actors, may raise some questions about the execution of the mise en scène, the film effectively plunges us into the bewildering, dangerously fluid state of confusion as it conveys de Tounens’ anarchic, messianic convictions. In this sense, and in the stunning manipulation of the image—Atallah shot parts of his film on 16mm, and certain sections are treated to look as if archival footage, with stains and abrasions—the film recalls such work as Triste Trópico (1973), by Brazilian artist Arthur Omar. Instead of consciously processing the full extent of socio-economic and historical circumstances around the Spanish colony, Atallah wants us instead to experience the delusion of the colonializing zeal, the very poison itself.
Perhaps no other film in this year’s line-up comes as close to the realization of poetry on screen as Pablo Escoto’s Ruinas Tu Reino (Ruins Your Realm), the winner of the FICUNAM Festival in Mexico. Escoto, along with his team, Jésus Núñez (cinematographer) and Salvador Amores (editor), are working according to their postmodern poor-cinema work ethic and aesthetics: They deliberately choose the affordable, DIY production mode with digital cameras, and contextualize their ambitions in the lineage of such political Latin American filmmakers as Brazil’s late Glauber Rocha. In Ruinas Tu Reino, Escoto accompanies fishermen in their daily toil on a small boat. But rather than an essay on labor, the film proceeds in a materialist way, with textures, light, primary colors, movement and rhythm taking precedence. Latin America’s Romantic cinema—romantic, in its ardent belief in the images’ power, just as Stan Brakhage once expressed it—his is the film you will probably want to come to last, to preserve its beauty a while longer.