A New Wave of Latin American Documentaries By Diego Lerer

in 4th Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

Dealing with the past and the present in ways that are at the same time expressive and totally unorthodox, some recent Latin American documentaries are showing different and original approaches to the history of the continent.

These films deal not only with the big political issues, but they also talk about social, personal and familiar concerns. Their most unusual feature is their style, how they avoid the abused traditions of the propaganda films from the 60’s and 70’s, and how they escape the pressure to provide any kind of entertaining or informative value. They are not movies to learn from, but films to live with, worlds to absorb and stories to decipher.

Take, for example, the Colombian documentary Paradise (Paraiso) by Felipe Guerrero. The film finishes with “Alheña y azúmbar”, a funny and surrealistic poem by the Colombian writer Jaime Jaramillo Escobar, whose last sentence can be translated as “If you don’t understand it/don’t understand it.” That poem (ostensibly about strange and possibly dangerous combinations of fruits and vegetables) comes after almost an hour that mixes archival images, Super 8 and DV silent scenes shot by the filmmaker, and a jarring and disorienting electronic/industrial music score, all relating to different aspects of Colombian history and society. The images won’t clarify to you what exactly is going on. Not the names of the people you see, nor the specific situations you watch, nor even what the filmmaker shot and what footage and newsreels he found. But you don’t have to be an expert on the history of Colombia during the last 60 years to perceive the uneasy, complex, explosive and sometimes contradictory feelings of what it would be like to live in that ‘Paradise’. Inspired by a literary movement that took place in Colombia during the 50’s and 60’s called Nadaísmo, the images, sounds and a few pieces of Jaramillo’s poetry are meant to create a disorienting effect, get the viewer to “experience” the film more than to be lectured or taught by the filmmaker about the past and the present of the country. And, as the poet says at the end, it doesn’t really matter if you “understand it” — it matters that you care and are provoked, fascinated and even confused by it.

Another “confusing” film might be the winner of the FIPRESCI Award, Copacabana by Martin Rejtman. As in his fiction films (Silvia Prieto, 1999, The Magic Gloves, 2003), the Argentine filmmaker takes away most of the information the audiences might feel they need to understand what is exactly going on in the picture. Almost without dialogue — just two or three scenes have bits of information that might be considered important — his film about one particular musical/religious festivity of the Bolivian community in Buenos Aires tells you more about the mixed feelings and experiences of immigrants than most of the films I’ve seen related to the subject. Avoiding everything that might be the center of any other documentary about the same topic (the extravagant music numbers, the hard conditions of the workers, the difficult relationship with the locals), Rejtman focuses his camera on the details: The preparations for the party, the rehearsals, the small pleasures and the hopes, dreams and frustrations of all the people involved. A beautifully restrained doc, Copacabana (whose Brazilian-sounding title adds to the confusion but ends up being perfect) opens a new way of seeing the immigrant experience in Latin America and avoids the expected clichés.

The Chilean doc, The Time That Rests (El tiempo que se queda), by José Luis Torres Leiva, introduces us to a more universal subject matter, but also does it in unexpected and non-traditional ways. The film takes place in a neuropsychiatric hospital in the outskirts of Santiago de Chile. Instead of a parade of dramatic, emotional and touching “life stories”, the director tries to convey the everyday experience of the place: the small games, the routines, the parties, the relationships between the patients, doctors and workers. Also, Torres Leiva gives considerable time to capture the surrounding areas (the woods, the trees, the insects, the wind) to create a vivid impression of the experience, but avoiding all information about the personal history of the patients. That distant approach, like in Paradise and Copacabana, might frustrate viewers who expect their Latin American documentaries visibly rooted in the social, political and even emotional stories (be they about immigrants, mental patients or even Colombian drug dealers, political leaders or soldiers). But it’s precisely this distance that gives these films their originality, their vision, their distinctiveness.

Slightly more conventional in terms of its informative qualities, the Mexican documentary Ser isla made in her native Korea by Eun-hee Ihm, who lives and studies cinema in Mexico, also creates a strong impression with its treatment of a little-known community of around 700 persons who suffer (or suffered) from leprosy and live completely separated from society on an island. Abandoned by their families (who often don’t even go to pick up their remains when they die) and barely attended by the state authorities, the inhabitants of the Sorok Island are stuck in a strange and grim neverland in which they have no any other option but sitting around waiting to die, which is something that a few of the patients have been doing for more than 50 years. As with the other films mentioned here, Ser isla (translated as either “Be Island” or “Island Being”) also makes a strong point about creating a sense of space.

In spite of their differences, these four films grab the viewer by their senses and their intuitions. Instead of going through the prepackaged motions of emotional or political button-pushing, they let the viewer penetrate their worlds and make them their own, so they can fill them up with their own thoughts, ideas and feelings.