I haven’t traveled all I have to Buenos Aires and back to tell you about how this festival, alongside Mar del Plata and Valdivia (this last one in Chile), form the triad of the most important festivals of Latin America, because if you know about it, you know about it. People that have travelled to Argentina for the past 17 years in April have felt the presence of cinema in the streets—and Buenos Aires is a big city.
The importance of a festival that brings over 300 titles, some of them for the first time crossing an ocean, is fundamental for the Latino viewer, as well for those who want to make the effort and come to see the movies that play here. On a closer look, what plays here may seem to be eclectic at times, it is purely due to what seems to be the motto of the festival: discovery.
Discovering new things, new directors, new ways of looking at life, or even re-discovering a classic, finding an unearthed treasure, that’s what film festivals should be, not the recurrence of the usual suspects, but a playfield for the shining moment of lesser known talents. Just like the International Competition showed.
Une jeunnesse allemande
The International Competition at BAFICI (the acronym in Spanish for this festival) never sports a director’s name that will be entirely well known at the time of the showing. This year is no exception, with the only major presence being the last film of Jean-Gabriel Périot, known for his experimental-diary-found footage visual approach, but the rest of the competitors is a cast of mostly unknowns, with this being either their first or second or even third feature film. Coincidentally, the best film in competition is indeed Périot’s Une jeunnesse allemande, which for those who have some experience with the works of this French director feels like the film that he was gearing towards: a found footage documentary essay film, which chronicles the rise and downfall of the Red Army in West Germany, but seen through the lenses of the media and the experimental filmmakers that surrounded the leftist and student movements. Without too much use of recorded voiceovers, the movie is a master class of editing when it comes down to presenting both facts and opinions at the same time just by juxtaposition of two different sources of information. While Périot seems to think that the student petitions were sound and had a basis on the needs of the society, he pokes fun at the absolutely ridiculous ways in which they tried to approach those concepts with their films, which play unaltered for the viewer. Their own passé editing tricks and generalizations bring forward a sense of naiveté that makes you doubt and think about the intelligence or actual knowledge of the outside world that these rebels had, and in a way it denounces the events as a revolution of the sons and daughters of the wealthy.
While there’s also a separate Argentinian Competition, there are times when there will be films from Argentina playing within the International Competition.. This year there were three: Días extraños (Juan Quebrada), El incendio (Juan Schnitman) and La mujer de los perros (Laura Citarella & Verónica Llinás), being each one a little better than the one before. The absence of the latest film by Matías Piñeiro in this section, The Princess of France, is obviously due to the international recognition that he has received since his first worked appeared and won prizes in both the Argentinian and International Competition of the BAFICI, so his relegation to the Argentinian Competition (which he won by landslide) is understandable, but at the same time it’s unforgivable that not one of these three films come even close to the visual mastery of the director of Viola.
Días extraños is maybe the worst film in the competition, being made by an immigrant from Colombia and showcasing his culture in Buenos Aires, he comes out as some kind of self-loathing director that portrays what is perhaps the least likeable, most worthless couple of Colombian immigrants living in Argentina. El incendio, on the other hand, also focuses on a couple of unlikeable characters trying to buy a new apartment, but at least here many bad things happen to them, and the acting from the main characters is really heartbreaking at times. Last, but definitely not least, La mujer de los perros is a quiet experiment of a film that follows a woman (played by one of the directors, Verónica Llinás) who lives in the border of Buenos Aires where the city gives way to nature, forest and loneliness; there she is accompanied by her dogs and we are witness to a year of her life going by. Many plot points are scattered in the movie’s 90 minutes, but all of them are discarded in favor of a poetic tone that brings forward the face of Llinás and the nature of her existence: she wants to live alone, and maybe sometimes we see her surrounded by others, but we are always left with her eyes, looking at the sunset, not searching, but satisfied with the lonely nature of her presence, she and her dogs, nothing else.
Maybe the most unique film in competition beyond Périot’s first feature length film is Transeúntes (Luis Aller), a movie that has been in the making since 1994. The film consists of moments, pieces, precise camera movements, and segments of film that chronicle the constant economical decline of the Spanish youth. Through most of its length (a hard sit when not one shot is held for more than five seconds just to be cut off to either another story, another shot, or just to black while the sound continues) I was thinking of the seemingly semiotic editing style of later Godard films, but here taken to an extreme that goes beyond imitation and has turned into an style that actually helps to portray the scattered nature of the minds and bodies of the protagonists, filmed throughout years and even decades, stories that make sense once the movie ends in a catastrophe as if nothing had happened, a movie that feels complete and round while being absolutely disastrous at giving any kind of closure to any of the characters that we meet during its 97 minutes. This might be one of the greatest achievements of editing ever put together, but at the same time it’s so aware of itself that it defeats its own purpose, as much as the movie works because of the editing.
There’s no distinction between fiction and documentary films in the competition, so most of the lineup usually plays with those always increasing blurred lines that are becoming more and more common (and, sadly, at times annoyingly more and more self-aware). This is true of three films in competition from all over the world, Cuba with La obra del siglo (Carlos Quintela), Brazil with Ela volta na quinta (André Novais) and finally Spain with Los exiliados románticos (Jonás Trueba). The Cuban film mixes documentary and fiction to tell a story of delusion and family destruction, all this taking place in the “nuclear city” that would’ve hold nuclear plants that were being constructed and then abandoned once the USSR collapsed. It uses non-actors to portray the realities and struggles of the Cubans living in what seems to be a part of their history that they just want to forget, where everything has a ghost-like quality: the half-done buildings, the framing, the characters and their conversations, it’s sadness and an accurate critique of the ways that certain ideologies work. But as the film reaches its climax, it puts aside any formal theoretical criticism towards communism or the Cuban regime, ending in a petty fight, equating the arguments to a simple masculinity test, where the three generations presented in the film literally measure their manhood, as if all this time it had come to that miserable simplification, while I think it could’ve gone into other more interesting territories. On the other hand, the latest film from Jonás Trueba, Los exiliados románticos, presents itself as a fiction filmed “on the run” while the filmmakers and the troupe of actors travelled through France, finding characters, actors and singers on the way and thus building some sort of narrative around these fortuitous happenstances. It ends with the same ticks that made his last film, Los ilusos (2013), a tough sit, with too much winking at the camera and self-referential elements that make it tiring what at the beginning was a formal narrative about a road trip where some friends got together to start new love lifes with women they’d find on the way.. Finally, the most interesting of the three films is the one directed by Andre Novais Oliveira, in which he uses his personal story and the characters that have lived with him to portray that same story, with a filming style that recalls an observational documentary but that later evidences itself as a fiction. The main characters are Andre’s parents as they go through a crisis, and we slowly find out the parallel life that his father has been living while her mother grows more and more sure that a life with him is impossible—all events that supposedly happened and are now being recreated for their son’s camera. While it would’ve been more powerful as a documentary, as a fiction it is still a force to be reckoned with, as his own struggle as a filmmaker is put on the screen and makes Ela volta na quinta one of the most interesting experiments of the festival.
The winner of the Best Film prize given out by the jury of the competition was for the Indian film Court (Chaitanya Tamhane), which may belong to a genre I personally enjoy a lot, that is the “judicial systems of the world and how they don’t work” genre. Maybe my favorite film of this particular genre is the Japanese study of the judicial system I Just Didn’t Do It (Masayuki Suo), and this particular Indian film follows a similar structure. It presents its court case in a neutral way, at the same time presenting the struggles of the innocent trying to prove the outrageous claims made by the government to convict a revolutionary old poet that just wants a better society for India. The fear of terrorism and the racial and cultural struggles are still present in what seems to be a modern country, but beyond that the film entertains and horrifies with its statements and calls for a better justice, while also giving context to all the sides of the situation. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the lack of attention given from the jury to the Iranian film Atomic Heart (Ali Ahmadzade), which showcases the talent of a new Iranian filmmaker beyond those we’ve known thanks to controversies or international praise. Here, Ahmadzade tells two halves of a story, that mixes the youth and the cultural syncretism that’s happening in modern Iran, while maintaining a vein of social criticism that comes from those who want the change, those who don’t want to be associated to a regime that controls what they can do, what can they see and what they can say in public. The film then bravely makes the jump to fantasy, and saying anything more would ruin the surprise, but the movie makes a conscious step towards the realm of fiction instead of being a documented portrait of “youth today in Iran,” but without losing any of the momentum nor the need to portrait the same themes of the mixture of cultures and the social upheaval that sooner than later will overcome this country: a move that makes this film stand out from the rest and makes it maybe the weirdest entry of them all.
Two more standard documentaries fill the rest of the lineup, Above and Below (Nicolas Steiner) and Double Happiness (Ella Raidel), with one being much more interesting than the other, but neither not truly achieving what they’ve set out to do. The Steiner documentary tries to be a portrait of loneliness and outcasts, people that have made the conscious choice of not being inside the realms of society, to not take part of it, all of them in the surroundings of Las Vegas. Its extended length defeats the purpose of alienation in that maybe we get to know too much about the weird characters that are presented: a homeless man that lives in the sewers, a homeless couple that lives in the water collectors, an old man that is an outcast from his family, living in the middle of the desert, and a woman who trains every day so one day she can be an astronaut on Mars. While the film is made in a splendid manner with extremely beautiful cinematography and even well-planned “arcs” for the characters, it does wear you down with the multitude of lonely speeches that they make, and thus when the concept becomes clear halfway through the film we are given another hour of the same concepts,. These give a closure to their stories (and in a way, how the crises are all put together in the editing room is maybe the best achievement of the film), but it tires the viewer that already gets the point. Raidel’s film tries to be an essay film about the nature of the Chinese urbanization and copies, as it travels back and forth between Hallstatt in Austria and the exact copy of the town that resides in a small suburb for rich people in China. Thus Double Happiness wants to become a deep analysis about modern China, but it doesn’t come close to the reason behind the need of the imitation: it gives too little information to the viewer in the “talking heads” interviews and well-shot travels through both constructions (finding differences and similitudes), so that it asks too much of its viewer to come up to the same conclusion that the filmmaker has already come to, and would explain the presence at the end of the film of another urbanization of China, the infamous city of Ordos. In a way, Ordos 100 (2012) directed by Ai Weiwei is a better portrait of the actual problems of modern urbanization in China.
NORTH KOREAN CINEMA - PANORAMA
The Flower Girl
The Panorama section of the BAFICI usually hold the most recent works from auteurs known all over the world, and this year they had the new films of Patricio Guzmán, Roy Andersson, Peter Greenaway and Pedro Costa, most for the first time showing in Latin America. But this year the Panorama was riddled with mostly Argentinian output that focused on their recent history and their own cinephilia, turning off some of the international viewers. Nevertheless, there’s always smaller sections inside the Panorama, such as the one that focused on the cinema of North Korea. With four films it tried to make an approximation to what this cinema is and what it means, a daunting task that was, somewhat, actually successful.
Starting with a film written by Kim Il-Sung himself (allegedly) and ending with a 2007 film signaling that the North Korean film scene hasn’t stopped, these movies move beyond the realms of pure propaganda, and those who were brave enough to venture out and try to see and understand these movies actually will come out with a better understanding of what’s going on inside the country, and not in a negative light. These films have a certain amount of common themes: they always feature some sort of love story, people cry all the time, there’s always a female protagonist, people sing all the time, and they always look as if they were made in the 70s, no matter when they were actually made (film stock and processing troubles, being a secluded country and all).
The Flower Girl (1972, Ik Kyu Choe & Hak Pak) is based on an opera that’s credited to ‘The Great Leader,’ but no actor in the movie sings, as the songs play in the background as the most melodramatic plot plays in the foreground: a flower girl has lost her brother after he was captured by the Japanese during their occupation of, her little sister is blind because a Korean collaborationist hit her, and her mother is so sick that she’s about to die. Thus, she starts selling flowers to try to buy medicine, while at the same time the mother is abused by the same family that blinded her child, threatening to take ahold of their flower-selling daughter if she doesn’t pay her debt. Death, crying, songs and the final idea of revolution permeates the whole film, making it one of the harshest melodramas that I’ve ever seen. Like the other North Korean films in the section, there’s a lot of bad and a lot of good, but most of the bad seems to come from the fact that they work in their own universe, based on the reality that they live in, as if there’s a visual language that only people from North Korea can manage to fully understand and enjoy what’s going on here.
Less obvious is the more propagandistic A Broad Bellflower (1987, Kyun Soon Jo) which is maybe the most complicated film in the festival’s Panorama section, as it tries to juggle two timelines and three storylines, but without any obvious or clichéd way to introduce the transitions, thus becoming a game of “guess who, when and what” from scene to scene. It’s also very interesting in terms of editing, but at the same time most eager to please an international or opposing audience, as it revolves around a poor town that manages to become richer with time, the story of one member of the town that abandons work because he doesn’t see any future in the teachings of The Great Leader, and how a doubtful man is proven wrong when his son comes back to the town and finds himself under the shadow of his father’s unbecoming behavior. This might be the toughest sit in ideological terms, as the references towards the goodness that the Central Government has towards this small town are irritating when it comes to the actual knowledge of why and how the people have to work towards the betterment of their lives, or at least their normalization. That’s why the bright colors and round full faces of the characters are deceiving here more than in any other film, as they seem eager to please a non-North Korean audience, and not the people that actually have to live through the hardships of work, as they know how it all goes down and are aware of how the work in towns is.
The Tale of Chunghyan
Less problematic is the period piece The Tale of Chunghyan (1980, Won Jun Yu & Ryong Gyu Yun), a folk legend that has actually been adapted many times, including in South Korea: the son of the chief of the local town falls in love with the daughter of an ex-courtesan, and they can’t marry, but they promise themselves eternal love. This is perhaps the most beautiful movie of the bunch and the one that feels less its weight in terms of length (over two hours), with bright colors and even poetic sequences in which the editing fades the couple’s faces together in a corny yet still transcending way, especially when they send poems to each other. In a way, this is the film that better represents what a North Korean film is: bright, loud, filled with tears, chockfull of songs, like a Mexican soap opera. North Korean cinema are filmed Mexican soap operas, but with a little bit of propaganda added in for good measure.
Even The Schoolgirl’s Diary (2007, In Hak Jang) fails to achieve the interest that the 1980 film managed to have, no matter how arresting it seems once it starts. The film opens with the image of a schoolgirl wearing a backpack with a picture of Minnie Mouse, and for a moment that image does appear revolutionary when put together with the way that our main character is. She hates her father and the sacrifices that he has made for the progress of the country while leaving her and the rest of her family behind. In the end, the film devolves into heavier propaganda, this one more focused on how one must always give your all for the betterment of the country, no matter what happens to you or your family. A harsh message that is actually contested pretty heavily by the protagonist, but any fight dies before it arrives at any interesting point, as if there’s always a big guy quietly patting the shoulder of the director. The doubts and questions are quickly refuted, and once our small schoolgirl understands what she must do, everything is forgiven, forgotten and she joins the rest of the students singing a song for Kim Jung-Il, who was still alive at that time (allegedly).
PERU: A COUNTRY'S FILMIC X-RAY - FOCUS
John Campos Gómez, director of one of the most interesting new film festivals in Latin America, Transcinema, presents in this section of the BAFICI the idea of how films can get lost and how occasions like this one make people from all over the world discover them once again, in his own words: “Historical revisions of Peruvian cinema that leave out some of the films that color this selection would be deprived from the inquisitive pleasure of questioning their own context through the images time has left us.” So, here I am, confronting myself for the first time with Peruvian cinema, and here I am left surprised and more confident on the power that Latin America has as a home for great cinema.
Certainly the best moment of the festival was the discovery of how great a certain revolutionary and reactionary movement inside the Peruvian documentary scene was in the first shorts program that united Runan Caycu (1974, Nora de Izcue), Miss Universo en el Perú (1982, Grupo Chaski) and Radio Belén (1983, Gianfranco Annichini). These three movies represent the capabilities of the Peruvian filmmakers at a time when no one was speaking about Latin American cinema, mostly because of the surge of military governments that came to repress the freedom of speech in general and the culture in particular, especially if that culture and that speech was against those in power, as these three films demonstrate. Runan Caycu is heavily influenced by the New Latin American Cinema of the 1960s, as this borrows some elements from films like La Hora de los Hornos (1968, Octavio Getino & Fernando Solanas), and at the same time it focuses on the struggles of the indigenous countrymen and how their strikes and protests had given them a space and a momentary triumph at the time. It is mostly a film about a political victory that is filled with speeches, yet its editing renders the whole process as an exciting political thriller. Radio Belén, on the other hand, is a more mute work, a 13 minute short film about a community radio in the port of Belén, in Iquitos, where people go to the market and then can swim back to their house, as everything is filled with water. Here we see the houses, the people, their faces as they go along, used to the reality in which they live in, and we are surprised by how they have managed to survive all these years in a port like this one (they don’t even call it a town, such miserable is the life they have there), and thus the radio (that blasts through high speakers positioned all over the streets) gives the sense of normalcy as it announces weddings, christenings, deaths and even a game of trivia to win a plate of food. Miss Universo en el Perú chronicles the experience of having the Miss Universe pageant in what was at the time one of the poorest countries in the world. Grupo Chaski (a collective of more than five filmmakers) manages to conjure expressive imagery like that of women from all ages watching the TV screen as the worldwide event is playing alongside commercials and TV reports about the situation in Peru that seems to disappear under the shroud of the conglomerates that have come to their city to demonstrate and use the beauty of the women to chase a higher, darker goal. While the film does give much of its length to the protest of feminist groups and the common generalizations towards the evil of contests like these, that doesn’t diminish the punch of seeing the protest and even some of the contestants from all over the world decrying the overt racism and commercialization of their image by the Peruvian government and those in charge of Miss Universe. These three films are a document of their era, and everyone should seek these out.
Sadly not the same can be said from the second short program that featured the works of Juan Alejandro Ramírez, with his shorts Solo un cargador (2004), Nadie Especial (2013) and Me Dicen Yovo (1995). With a similar style, these three shorts surprised me a lot in terms of how much they managed to annoy me: the three of them represent a displaced character from society, whether it be a backpack carrier, an old indigen woman or a series of South African citizens, and the director films them in a touristic way, with them smiling and waving at the camera or living their daily life. They are spied on by the director’s camera as if he were just another tourist, whom the subjects must be used to, those that point their cameras at them. But that isn’t the truly annoying thing, what pissed me off entirely was the fact that the director wrote a voiceover with the thoughts of these characters, as if he was capable of reading their mind, going through their lives and assuming what they think of what’s going on. This kind of cultural appropriation (and I’m sorry for using the term, but that’s what came into my mind as I became horrified watching these well received shorts) irks me more than anything, mainly because the visual style of the film gives the impression of a tourist shooting the scenery, pointing to a weird statue, seeing an exotic animal—all this but applied to human beings, and the director has the nerve of assuming (because in the credits of the film he explicitly says that the voiceover was completely fabricated) the experience of someone else, of someone he doesn’t even have the nerve to shoot as if he or she were a person: that’s what made me furious. If you’re going to make a film about people, please don’t look down at your source of inspiration, specially if you’re going to use their culture for the benefit of your “art”.
On a more positive note, out of all the films shown in this Focus, I had been able to see Días de Santiago (2004, Josué Méndez) beforehand, and at the time I had nothing but praise, as it reminded me of the literature of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa more than anything else, but in a particular way: it was as if this film was the aftermath of one of Llosa’s early novels of masculine violence and self-hate, as if the characters of one of his novels had grown out and were translated to modern Peru and tried to cope with what had happened before. The film follows Santiago, an ex-soldier that finds himself living in the capital of Peru and trying to find a new meaning for his life, particularly after the slaughter and violence that he had to go through in his years at the army in the Peruvian jungle of Amazonas. Here the descriptions of violence are more than enough to bring forward the main performance, which delivers a sense of quiet anger, as if behind the calm and blank slate of a face of the protagonist was this seething rage, this sense that maybe he has seen too much. One of the few films that can make you feel the blood and the violent acts without seeing a drop of it, nor a flashback to those moments.
Juliana (1988, Fernando Espinoza & Alejandro Legaspi) is, apparently, a famous film that is celebrated and played to this day in Peru. The film features two styles of filmmaking and, for some, that might’ve been arresting at the time, but nowadays it feels like a tired and even lazy concept. The film portrays Juliana, an abused woman that flees her house with her brother to be part of a gang of street kids who sing melancholic songs in the public transportation. They are all commanded by an old man that teaches them the ways of singing and making people care so they can give out the money that they desperately need, all this while she hides her female nature and calls herself Julián, as if to blend better with the group, that won’t accept females in their ranks. All the plot there is is incredibly interesting, but as we approach the middle of the film and we want to know about the child characters that have lived in the street, the film changes its discourse and it turns into a “talking head” documentary, in which the (now evident) non-actors are interviewed about their experiences in the streets, how they ended up there and what do they do to survive. While interesting in terms of social justice, this breaks the mood and the interesting elements that were at play regarding the violence in the masculine world, as well as the bonding that happens in the milieu, a missed opportunity just to achieve some sort of “importance.”
Metal and Melancholy
The last two films I managed to squeeze in my schedule were directed by Peruvian women that left their country and came back with funding from European countries to tell stories about their youth or about the social present of what they lived as kids. Du verbe aimer (1985, Mary Jimenez) is like a previous and less amateur version of Tarnation (2003, Caouette), with the story of how the death of the mother of the director in Peru affected her while she was studying filmmaking in Belgium. The audience is witness of the experiences she had as a child and teenager while she lived in Peru, and how they rendered her at the same time powerless and unaffectionate towards everything. Thus, she makes this very powerful and cathartic film, which travels through the experiences in a first person voice over, with suggestive imagery and some elements of post-modernism structure and editing. Nevertheless, the film is tiring in its repetitions and can bore a viewer that, in a world that is now being eaten and puked three times over by post-post-modernism, the techniques used may even be a bit ridiculous, but the film wins its ground as time passes and as the harsh experiences of the director become real, we get to care more. An entirely different animal is Metal and Melancholy (1994, Heddy Honigmann), which was made for Netherlands television, but features taxi drivers from Lima, Peru, in the time of economical crisis in the country. This might actually be my favorite discovery of the bunch, as it’s the director with a cameraman travelling through the streets of Lima on taxis, finding out how the drivers trick their way into living off of what was at that moment the only activity that people who didn’t have a job could do: they could make their normal cars into taxis just by putting a sticker in the windshield. I was continuously fascinated by the amount of taxis and how many people are supplying their normal income from their daily jobs with their taxis, or the women who haven’t had another chance after they had a child, and thus this becomes more than a portrait of who are the taxi drivers in Peru and more an ethnographic work of the best kind, with the most indirect approach, but at the same time becoming closer to any other kind of documentary could: here we see single mothers and even film actors having their passions turn aside because of the economy and thus, driving people all over the city, seeing them cry, laugh and even remember the better times in the past, this is more than a film a document of how this can be repeated and done all over the world, how taxi drivers sometimes are the pulse of what people are thinking and doing, for better or worse.
JOSÉ VAL DEL OMAR
For me, the best discovery was the one regarding lesser known Spanish avant-garde filmmaker José Val del Omar, director of only short films and without any aspirations of making anything longer than that. His experimentations started at a time that surrealism was blooming and he continued all the way throughout the 1950s and 60s with more expressive and at the same time more poetic works. Inspired by the Spanish poetry of Federico García Lorca (who was a friend of his until the poet, victim of the Spanish Civil War, died in 1936), the editing style and the use of visual effects is reminiscent of greats like Man Ray and Maya Deren, but more grounded in reality, as Val del Omar’s works are mostly based around the ground, the places, the art, the architecture and the people of people from all over Spain.
José Val del Omar was highly honored at the festival, having the people in charge of his estate introducing the two groups of shorts of his work. There was also a book published on him, showcasing not only his work on film, but also featuring his poetry and the work he did in collage, as well as essays and critical studies of his works, all of this by authors from all over the world.
The director’s work was separated in two groups, the first one called “The Early Val del Omar” featuring Estampas 1932 (1932), Fiestas Cristianas/Fiestas Profanas (1934) and Vibración de Granada (1935). The second one features the better-known ‘Elementary Thryptic of Spain,’ which featured Aguaespejo granadino (1955), Fuego en Castilla (1961) and Acariño galaico (De barro) (1995), the last having been posthumously edited and finished. This is an almost complete retrospective of the works of José Val del Omar, but truly it’s impossible to ever have a complete retrospective, as he directed over 40 short documentaries in his early years that are now completely lost.
In the first group of films we get to know the beginnings of Val del Omar, as he timidly approached experimental cinema. His first available work, Estampas 1932 is, in a way, an opposite of Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes. Here José Val del Omar manages to put together a vision of hope and future of the same communities that would be later portrayed in the 1933 Buñuel short, where the radical vision of surrealist would show a radically different picture. In Estampas 1932 neither Val Del Omar nor his team have any interest in portraying the lives and troubles that the poor people have in these long forgotten villages in the middle of the mountains in Spain, as it’s not the experience he wants to expose. The focus is on the helping hand of the state and the organization, to which Val del Omar films this for, that tries to bring culture and education to these forgotten towns, be it through films, music and/or public classes. It is interesting how little time is given to what the tribulations of the townsfolk actually are, especially when compared to the shots of the car in which the educated folk of the cultural organization are travelling in hopes of reaching to all the towns: a shot of the car going not only through one, but two big puddles of water, later to hop off the car and have to traverse through the landscape in mules. We are seeing the sacrifice of the worried and cultured aristocracy that tries to reach out as much as it can to in order to educate the uneducated, something that Buñuel would surely disagree with, despite the fact he came from that same educated group. In Las Hurdes, Buñuel does accomplish his goal of getting close to the experience of the people and their need of help without showing any being received. The Val del Omar short is, more than anything, a self-congratulatory film, done by a man that was part of an institution, and in that way done honestly—but at the same time slowly becoming aware of the repercussions of his images.
The other two works in this section are less controversial, as Fiestas Cristianas/Fiestas Profanas is a silent documentary done with the same team as Estampas 1932, but with the personal visual goal of showing the syncretism in certain small towns of Spain, editing together Christian and pagan rituals done in the streets, people following the cross in the Via Crucis followed by people dressed as corn and dancing so their crops grow well. Val del Omar films this without any bad intent, and one must be grateful that a document like this one is still available for later generations, as it shows how the people of Spain lived in those years. On the other hand, Vibración de Granada is one of the first timid steps towards a full experimentation and avant-garde filmmaking from this Spanish director. With poems of García Lorca as intertitles, this silent documentary tries to capture the feeling of a walk in Granada, viewing the architecture. For the first time in Val Del Omar’s career, he moves the camera to encompass more of a feeling than a need of showing something, that same ‘vibration’ that the title alludes to, all this with the green tint that makes the shots of the parks and nature of Granada all the more beautiful. This short is a first step towards what would be his later period;, his first short that doesn’t follow a fully spelled out ‘reason,’ it’s mostly a visual work, and it also works as a poetic travelogue.
His triptych is maybe his most well-known work among the die-hard cinephiles that have searched long and hard for the most interesting works of experimental cinema, but it’s still virgin territory for most viewers, and I honestly think that these three works, with time, may contest the grounds of what is usually considered the history of this ‘other side’ of cinema. Aguaespejo granadino is still, obviously, the weakest of the three, as it mostly features Val del Omar testing his work as both a more visually inclined filmmaker and as one that has to use sound. In fact, the short was made to test the workings of a new sound system developed by the production company in which he worked at the time, and thus we are presented with synchronized sound of the experiments that José Val del Omar wants to show us, at the same time as we are seeing the sights and the people of Granada, again, this time with a focus on the famous Alhambra, maybe one of the most underrated architectural works in the entire world. As I was watching it I had the impression that I was seeing the 1950’s equivalent of a kid in the 1990s playing with the functions in the VHS camera that his parents bought him, but obviously in a more complicated and much more elaborate manner.. But we are mostly present for a continuation of the steps he had made in his previous short, upping the stakes a little bit, adding sound and reversed footage, the use of negatives and how they are projected, flickering lights in the sky and many other elements, like an echo-y voice over that puts forward the issues and at the same time the preoccupation that he had towards the sounds of his films, something that would be crucial in his later shorts.
Fuego en Castilla
Fuego en Castilla isn’t only Val del Omar’s most well regarded work; it’s also his most important and the one that he was building up to throughout his entire career. It also won a prize in the Cannes Film Festival that year for its use of visual effects, as it truly transpires of something unique, as if he had seen the future and seen what the visual mindfucks consisted of in the 2010s and had anticipated them in the form of lights, shadows and screechy sounds on top of statues in the museum of Castilla. The juxtaposition of the flickering lights on top of the horrified faces of the Catholic figures in marble or wood is maybe a strange and fascinating image on its own, but accompanied by the flashy, modern and even screeching soundtrack, it even becomes one of the most frightening short films in recollection, giving all to the illusion of fire mentioned in the title, as if we were witnessing the condemnation of the souls impregnated in these statues in hell, as if they were melting and being conducted through the labyrinths of torture that we are most afraid of. It is in that conjuration of a sense of dread that Val del Omar manages to outgrow himself, throwing away any sense of travelogue or tourism of the cities that he most surely loved, but feeding them with a pious sense of a ‘fear of God,’ or even just a fear of death, or to be even more specific, a fear of condemnation to the flames of hell, being the most interesting issue that apparently no one is actually saved from the tortuous end, as even the holiest of holies goes through the flashing lights, the images and the shapes projected, the sky being turned black, the music that never stops putting forward the images in a barrage to the senses that seems that will never end, but once it stops, it seems that it wasn’t enough. Val del Omar had in mind a sort of film that you could actually feel, as if it had a texture, and he surely goes all the way in that feeling, but it leaves you with a little bit of desperation and overall sense that maybe nothing will be the same afterwards.
Acariño galaico (De barro) is clearly a posthumous work, for while it does feature a continuation in themes from his previous short, for some reason it doesn’t manage to conjure that greater fright or surprise in the viewer, especially when compared to his Cannes-winning effort. Val del Omar was growing in his ambition, as this was the first time that he used an actor in his films, a small boy who he covers in mud and, as the movie progresses, dries up and thus becomes another statue like the ones featured in this “caress” as the title suggests, of the art and the places of Galicia. It feels much more gentle than his fiery tribute to Castilla, but at the same time he does bring his fascination towards the still human figure, looking at the artisanal work made by locals in mud. The film turns into a reflection on the passage of time, just as the kid covered in mud slowly becomes more still, as if he were dying, because the mud in his skin is hardening, the movie explores caves, houses and landscapes where these small and large figurines lay around, most of them anthropomorphic, but at the same time with the illusion that the world has ended, that humanity is no more, and that all that is left are these scattered fragments of what once was the human behavior before the end: mouth agapes, eyes wide open, fetal positions. It’s a parade of horror that is calmed through the music and sound effects used. We could see a progression in the work of Val del Omar, as he becomes less attached to reality, having less and less interest for the people, but at the same time making a tribute to them, but only as an species that doesn’t exist anymore.
I can think of many ways in which the BAFICI could be improved, but there's no use in pointing them out here, as the reunion of over 200 films is not a cause for analysis (unless all 200 are useless, which clearly isn't the case) but one of celebration. It might be the biggest film festival in Latin America in sense of pure numbers, and while that doesn't account for quality, it does assert a certain mission of not only discovery, but landscape. It gives you a sense of what's going on in cinema today, more than any other festival could, as it focuses it main drive (the competition) in the up-and-coming filmmakers from all over the world, and they give enough space for their own Argentinian cinema so it can be one of the first and most important windows for the cinema that will be talked about the rest of the year, or that was the most talked about late last year. It's a condensation of the best that hasn't been seen around these lands, and a jump-start pad for the rest of 2015, at least in the Southern Hemisphere, so forgotten some times by the "powers that be" in the almighty North.