A Forward Tracking Shot Or The Triumph Of The Past

in 55th Cartagena International Film Festival

by Roger Koza

Right since the opening ceremony, a mantra was repeated and this mantra was supposed to become the official philosophy for a film festival with a very long and rich history. It is true that 55 editions by no means represent a small number and all these years the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI) has managed to remain active becoming one of the most mature festivals in the region, it is also true this entails the establishment of a tradition; however, the polyphonic mantra, laconic and yet synthetic, went: “We are what we were”. This message was systematically and insistently pressed in the graphic and visual materials, in the presentations of films, in all the institutional ceremonies; there was always someone to remind us of a statement which no one ever seemed to question. This mantra was used with doctrinarian passion and it went far beyond cinema itself —it was a cultural statement.

A first critical reformulation: by definition, the past was also the present once and past periods also had to face their own pasts. And if we’re talking about films it is essential to go over the past of cinema again and again, because for someone with a dogmatic taste and no knowledge of it a film from the present such as Pedro Costa’s Cavalo Dinheiro might seem an enormous oddity. I have to confess I am somewhat embarrassed about Costa’s film not getting any awards. I think this film is a masterpiece, a key movie to understand the transition from the extinct analogical form of cinema to its new digital existence. In Cavalo Dinheiro the unyielding ontological mutation of the image finds a mysterious form of continuity; note this film’s general lighting concept, or the meticulous work using shadows and darkness as the limits of the visual frame. The great Ventura is a conceptual and real character who, in the latest films by Costa, embodies the subjectivity of a 20th-century migrant without roots who could have been taken right out from a Jacques Tourneur film. A direct throwback to the past of a tradition, it also entails an operation to actualize that past in our own times under different aesthetic and symbolic coordinates.

The Official Jury decided not to give the Best Director Award to this Portuguese filmmaker and, to say the least, this was a scandal. Who else could film a sequence as the one in the elevator at the end of Cavalo Dinheiro? The objective brilliance of this sequence had to arouse Costa’s colleagues to admiration or, at the very least, to make them ponder about the real possibility of creating something which has actually never been seen before. The space is minimal and enclosed, only two characters and a magnificent sound work help us delving into the aftermath of political history. How is it possible to film History without being over explanatory or using flashbacks to revisit it? Costa offers a unique answer to this question and invents a radical cinematic form while he is at it.

However, the Jury decided —and it was their right to do so— to give the award to a young director whose evident formal meticulousness helped to control and give order to the malaise provoked by the tale he staged. It is true, Héctor Gálvez was certainly careful to represent things which cannot be represented: NN is a film about missing persons who reappear under the form of scattered bones and a few material traces which become possible signs to discover the identities of those who have ceased to exist. In this film there is a secret tension between the need to portray the experience of the relatives —those who survived and who are still searching for ghosts— and delivering the narration of the inner pain experienced by one of those heroic men who give their best in order to find missing persons, the scientific investigators appointed by the State. Gálvez is so respectful towards the subject he chose that at times he involuntarily mummifies his own movie as he shifts his attention to the ominous emotions that take over the soul of an investigator who is also the protagonist of a historic drama which, curiously, does not historicize enough its character’s misfortunes. Lateral and forward tracking shots, as well as a couple of precise extreme long shots managed to convince the jury members they were witnessing evidences of a flawless filmic direction when they actually just submitted meekly to the omnipresent motto of the festival —they legitimized a filmmaking style, they reified cinema’s past and saw true artistic intentions behind it.

A second critical reformulation: the past is also a part of the present and it can always be reinvented. The translation of this crossroads between the past and the present could be objectively identified in the set of films chosen for the fiction competition. Diana Bustamante, the new director of the festival, played her cards and placed her stakes high doing things in her own terms and, perhaps without even realizing it, she challenged the festival’s leitmotiv, its call to safeguard the source of the past.

As it happened, many films tended to look at the past to establish a dialectic distance from it in the name of a free cinema of the future. Films such as veteran Raúl Perrone’s Ragazzi, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, or Adirley Queirós’ Branco sai, preto fica (our choice for the International Critics Prize), as well as the already mentioned film by Costa (and even Gust Van Den Berghe’s failed theological comedy, Lucifer, a sort of Gnostic tour into a pure, pristine world which nonetheless offered a new search) were completely ignored though they represented the backbone of a subversive official fiction competition program; all these were films which broke away from blind obedience to the past and thus they also represented a threat to the stability of an archaic cannon which was finally endorsed through the official awards.

Indeed, aesthetic conservatism reigns when the members of a jury stop questioning and simply arrive to promote their vision of cinema and its associated sense of aesthetic justice —as long as it agrees with their own established, and never questioned, ideas. Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul might be a useful movie to point out some relevant, and urgent, issues lived by indigenous peoples in Guatemala and it offers a direct denouncement of the systemic corruption lived in a country where selling newborn babies would seem to be an institutionalized practice. Who could stand against such a film? However, beyond this film’s aesthetical and political correctness, Ixcanul offers no signs of innovation and even less of assuming any risks. Even the staged candidness of the main characters is part of a calculation, which might even be honest; the idea is to establish the goodness of the members of a family around which the film revolves, indigenous peasants who live poorly, completely abandoned by the State. Ixcanul is a film that illustrates a cause by putting images and sounds in service of denouncing social injustice, and nothing else.

Some of Bustamante’s formal decisions, however, do show some degree of audacity; for example, he avoids using extra-diegetic folkloric music though this was a temptation that hovered over the film since the opening shot when the protagonist is seen in an extreme close up, dressing up for a ritual. Also, the scene when the heroin loses her virginity is not necessarily portrayed following the manual for this kind of film, though this scene’s eroticism is far too painful and detached from any plausible idea of pleasure. This is a scene that answers to a need of the script rather than to a genuine effort to introduce sexuality in the tale, or to an eventual interest in exploring bodily pleasures within a specific culture; the scene is there just because it will be a determinant part of the denunciation; however, even so, it is still a notoriously unorthodox sequence.

The Official Jury gave a mention to Branco sai, preto fica, and we, the FIPRESCI Jury, decided to give our award to this extraordinary film by Adirley Queirós, a filmmaker who owes no favors to anyone and who made a film unlike anything else in contemporary cinema. Queirós’ second feature is “like an UFO”, as we used to say back in the day.

What’s the essence of this director’s cheeky sense of creativity? To start with, Queirós has managed to go far beyond that anodyne concept which is more properly used when talking about modern biology and agriculture rather than cinema: hybridism. So-called hybrid films can fall in a form of conformism which stops them to reflect about how sometimes reality can become fiction and fiction can also bear the marks of reality. The starting point is a historic event: 1986, in the outskirts of Brasilia a dance hall was raided by policemen who used as their excuse that they were looking for drugs. The policemen shouted: “Whites out, Blacks in”, and beyond the racial issue this also had to do, directly, with a class problem. In this brutal episode of power abuse two men —the director’s friends— experienced, in their own bodies, the microphysics of power. One of them was permanently paralyzed after the event, the other lost a leg.

Branco sai, preto fica uses that historic event as its starting point, but also sets its narration in three different recognizable times: the present, the past, and the future. In our times, we see the two main characters getting on with their lives. One of them heads an illegal radio station and, every now and then, reminisces about the events occurred in that March of 1986. His programs have a certain therapeutic quality for him, as he raps in them and gives vent to his sadness through street poetry. The other survivor makes a living by selling prostheses to other crippled people; and, sometimes, he also draws. The past, on the other hand, stretches over the present and in some sequences the photographic material of the dance hall is juxtaposed with the present everyday lives of the characters. Finally, Queirós also includes a visitor from the future who travels through time inside a container. And though this time traveler might be taken for a lunatic, his emotional state does not interfere with his political mission: to regulate the impunity enjoyed by police forces. However, probably this time trip is nothing else but a visualization of the comic strips drawn by one of the survivors, a form of poetic vengeance that ends with a direct attack against the centralized powers in Brasilia. As these words may suggest, Branco sai, preto fica is a film with a high level of complexity, but a keen eye will realize the three historic levels flow together coherently. These are filmic poetics not subservient to hegemonic, naturalized codes of representation.

In Branco sai, preto fica there is also another physical dimension which is related to the politics of space. Right from the title, there is a suggestion of territory as a public issue, as the division between denied and authorized spaces. In relation to this, Queirós came out with a brief but brilliant joke: the inhabitants of Ceilândia, that is, all citizens who live in the outskirts of the city, need a visa in order to go to the center of Brasilia. The concept of a center and a periphery is essential in a film which constantly, and preferentially, makes lives in the periphery visible through scenes in which the camera is always placed barely off the ground, while central power and its architecture remain off screen. This, in itself, entails a critical point of view. The only image of the city landscape appears in a drawing towards the end, illustrating the fantasy of an imaginary attack against this capital city. The documentary side of Branco sai, preto fica is also there to be seen in a second, and secret, film which can be discovered in the way spaces are filmed as the main narration moves forward.

A last critical reformulation: perhaps the most interesting aspects of life are not related with trying to keep being as one already is, out of respect towards what one was, as if somehow the past was more authentic and offered a more genuine and original clue to one’s identity. Sometimes it is more interesting to follow those signs which lead us to become something completely different and new; that is, to become something never thought of before, something unpredictable, but taking into account the symbolic coordinates from the past. Why, then, would not be possible for films such as Branco sai, preto fica and Cavalo Dinheiro to become possible templates for a future cinema?

In the 21st century, movies are undergoing a transformation. On the one hand, there are post-photographic films such as Interstellar and Lucy; on the other, there are signs in films such as Branco sai, preto fica and Cavalo Dinheiro that there is a persistent cinephile tradition that changes and becomes something essentially different without betraying its own past. The greatest challenge for an identity is to become something that could have never been imagined before.

Edited by Michael Pattison