June 15, 2009

The New Argentine Cinema

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:58 am
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The final piece of coursework for the Sight and Sound/University of Glasgow film journalism course….

Film critics are always looking for the latest cinematic trends or patterns; perhaps national cinemas hitherto unknown. Recent discoveries include the national cinemas of Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Mexico. The films of Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have been well received at home and abroad, even securing English language releases and subsequent work in Hollywood for the directors themselves. For all the concentration upon these two countries though, one other Latin American country has dropped off the critical radar to some extent, despite producing some of the most impressive films made worldwide in the last decade or so. This is a richly diverse country that has undergone numerous economic and political crises in recent decades that has fuelled a prolonged period of creative film making. This country is Argentina.

Film production in Argentina has existed for almost as long as the art form itself has. Although domestic cinema flourished in the early half of the twentieth century, the inevitable growth in the distribution of Hollywood cinema had a significant effect, as did the increased censorship of the Peron era. Although there were fits and starts of artistic freedom, nothing had such a serious negative impact upon domestic film making than the National Reorganisation Process; the military dictatorship that governed Argentina between 1976-1983. Film making was so heavily censored that film makers could only deal with light hearted subjects that wouldn’t fall foul of the authorities.

Film making in Argentina is inextricably linked to politics. Only after the fall of the dictatorship was there a renaissance. There was such a need for artistic expression that an outpouring of creativity followed. Film makers weren’t afraid to examine the recent past either. Luis Puenzo, who had retreated from film making during the dictatorship directed ‘The Official Story’ (1985), which won the Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language and was a harsh and honest look at the atrocities and disappearances that occurred during the ‘Dirty War’.

What has been described as ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ emerged in the late 1990s and it was the economic problems that culminated in the collapse of 2001 that has inspired a new generation of film makers perhaps too young to remember the years of repression and censorship. This was a period of mass unemployment, the loss of savings for millions, with a third of the population plunged into poverty, yet it became a catalyst for film making, proving once more that Argentine cinema thrives in adversity. During this period, film makers such as Pablo Trapero, Lucrecia Martel, Daniel Burman and Lucia Puenzo (the daughter of Luis) have worked prolifically, as if inspired by recent events themselves, and their films have competed in international film festivals, won awards and placed Argentine cinema on the map.

Most striking about this group of film makers is actually how a diverse group it is. It’s much simpler to consider what distinguishes them than what they might share in common. These film makers hail from different regions of Argentina, set their films in different milieu and examine different themes, although they can all be loosely tied together by Argentina’s recent social, economic and political history.  Society and cinema are inextricably linked in Argentina. These film makers hold up a mirror to society.

Pablo Trapero first emerged with ‘Crane World’ (1999), a black and white feature about a middle-aged, directionless former musician in a band that had one hit many years ago, now eking out a living as a casual labourer in the Buenos Aires suburbs. It’s not only a sympathetic portrait of a man whose life is at the crossroads, who finds that making a new start at his age is difficult but also an astute examination of working class life on the margins, where prosperity appears to be on the rise across the country, but not for these people. His more recent films, ‘El Bonaerense’ (2002), ‘Rolling Family’ (2004), ‘Born and Bred’ (2006) and ‘Leonera’ (2008) concentrate on various social issues, such as police corruption, the family and injustices within the prison system. Trapero’s films can be categorised as kitchen-sink style social realism, influenced by neo-realism, including the use of non-actors and infused with a sense of social criticism of modern society.

Quite the opposite is Lucrecia Martel, whose three films to date; ‘The Swamp’ (2001), ‘The Holy Girl’ (2004) and ‘The Headless Woman’ (2006) were set in Salta, a religious and socially conservative region of North-western Argentina. Martel’s films are about the Argentina bourgeoisie; their self-indulgence, their self-pity and their self-absorption. These films are partly based on Martel’s own experience, which makes them cathartic for her and ultimately are a rejection of her own upbringing. ‘The Swamp’, in particular, uses vivid images of decay, including an iconic opening scene of a family matriarch injuring herself as the remaining adults watch, slumped in chairs next to a murky swimming pool. ‘The Holy Girl’ explores the religious and sexual confusion of an adolescent girl, whilst ‘The Headless Woman’ is another account of a narcissistic bourgeois family. The matriarch fears she’s been involved in a hit-and-run accident that killed a young boy. The mystery remains whether there was an accident but the family seek to cover it up nevertheless. Martel’s films are abstract, obtuse, with a particular interest in sound design and the interior of psychology of its protagonists.

Daniel Burman’s films represent inner-Buenos Aires, the hustle and bustle of a city with 13 million inhabitants and are made with a much lighter touch than both Trapero and Martel. Often compared to Woody Allen (a comparison he rejects, but is happy to accept given that he admires Allen more than any other film maker), Burman’s trilogy of films; ‘Waiting for the Messiah’ (2000), ‘Lost Embrace’ (2004) and ‘Family Law’ (2006), made with the Uruguayan actor, Daniel Hendler are largely autobiographical, light-hearted comedy dramas about being Jewish in Argentina and the often complex relationships between fathers and sons. His latest, ‘Empty Nest’ (2008) was a change in tack, focussing on the surreal fantasies of a middle aged playwright.

Lucia Puenzo is the youngest of the current generation of film makers, but as the daughter of Luis, she was born into the world of film making. Her debut feature ‘XXY’ (2007) was a sympathetic and nicely balanced account of an intersex teenager in rural Argentina. Puenzo’s second feature ‘The Fish Child’ (2009) appears to have borrowed from the Martel template of holding a mirror up to the decadent bourgeoisie as the daughter of an upper class family falls in love with their Paraguayan maid. The pair, whose love is frustrated by circumstances, then manifests itself in a life of crime. After only two features, no pattern is obvious in Puenzo’s work, but it’s more than likely that she’ll find her voice and she’s made an impressive start to her directorial career. The use of the young actress Ines Efron in both films, who has acted in the films of Burman (‘Empty Nest’) and Martel (‘The Headless Woman’) also draws the work of these film makers together.

What separates ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ from its predecessors is the fact that these films have been shown on the international festival circuit and been distributed abroad having received rapturous acclaim from overseas critics. The eyes of the world have finally been opened to the treasures of Argentine cinema. The critical high watermark was in 2008; when both ‘The Headless Woman’ and ‘Leonera’ competed at Cannes (this was Martel’s second Golden Palm nomination – she had also been nominated for ‘The Holy Girl’). Only France and the United States also had two films in competition, which demonstrates what an achievement it was. To date, these film makers have scored an impressive number of international awards; 25 for Trapero; 20 for Burman; 13 for Martel and 11 for Puenzo. Unlike their other Latin American contemporaries, they’ve not been tempted abroad. They’re making personal films about the country they were born in and they still have plenty to say about it.

This generation has been fortunate that not only have domestic crises fuelled their creativity but that democratic Argentine governments have always invested heavily in domestic film production. An intriguing fact is that only 10% of films watched in Argentine cinemas are Argentine films. It’s been suggested that domestic films aren’t watched because they’re considered too difficult or challenging but because Latin Americans doubt the integrity of their own artists, as if they can’t imagine one of them can be so gifted. The honesty in which they reflect Argentine society might reveal certain home truths that are too uncomfortable. Hollywood’s cultural dominance plays its own part too. Ironically, this actually works in the favour of Argentine film makers. Taxes are levied on non-Argentine films that are distributed in cinemas; all of which is reinvested in domestic film making. Therefore the films of ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ are subsidised by the very people who aren’t watching them! This system of funding means that there’s no commercial pressures placed upon these film makers. They don’t have to compromise or pander to a wider audience. Their films retain their integrity and their honesty. Given these conditions remain in place, there’s no reason to think that the forthcoming features of these film makers won’t confirm their directors’ promise and further represent Argentine cinema as one of the most innovative and intelligent contemporary national cinemas.


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