An Imperfect Cinema, Like A Dream Made Real

in 34th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Jose Ramon Otero Roko

The Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana presented a long list of films in competition in its 34th edition, in which almost all of them had cinematic, artistic and social value, resulting in a complete representation of the high level of Latin American cinema in the new century and an endorsement of the hallmarks that have been building since the 70’s to today.  

The festival mainly hosts works reporting on the conditions of life in Cuba’s brother countries, and equally Cuban works (three in the competition) which portray humorous, controversial issues and aspects of their own society. It is a cinema of free Latin America that is deep, directed and performed by the resistance, a counter cinema made against its northern neighbour, with an even better technical finish and able, still, to try to rework new aesthetic forms and ethical poetic narratives and remain valid in some areas where the market has not fully occupied the place of creation and art.  

Our favourite, and winner, Los Mejores Temas by Nicolás Pereda, appeared in the official section with surprising documentary elements, with an initial spartan scene, and an obsessive method of plot development. The beginning of laughter and reflections could then literally kill the spectators with some last final minutes that were absolutely empty and anti-film. The audience left the room horrified, but our mission is not to interpret the film emotionally, but to perform an overall analysis. This time it was a circumstance that did not exhaust the fact that we had lived the remaining 80 minutes fascinated by the world of the Mexican director, its freshness and boldness, its disrespect for movie conventions and the consistency of its rebellion against a standardised idea of what cinema should be. The working actors do not act, they are aware that they have a job to do, which is not exactly the same as a “role”, and that this will be interpreted by the director, which makes something for them that they do not know as they perform (challenging even as they recite their lines) and also does something unknown in the editing room (from where the film will emerge, and of which they have not been conscious while filming). It is easy to understand and appreciate this movie. You may think that it is just a private game and is a failure of the author, but behind the laughter and the calculated improvisation on the table is the fragility of the social conditions of Mexicans, weak relationships, the difficulties of the children to get ahead, the lack of support from the state of its citizens and the denial of the identity of the parents when they can’t take care of their responsibilities. It is an imperfect cinema like a dream made real, but it is, in my opinion, an absolutely necessary film to inspire alternative narratives to dominant stories.  

That dominant narrative structure, nevertheless, can be used to subvert the messages usually incidental thereto. The three Chilean films No (Pablo Larrain), winner of the official competition, Los Cosas Como Son (Fernando Montero Lavanderos) and Violeta Se Fue a Los Cielos (Andres Wood), the Mexican After Lucia (Despues Lucia) by Michel Franco and Argentina’s White Elephant (Elefante Blanco) by Pablo Trapero showed evidence of great technical finish, with some interesting interpretations, if not with such mastery as Francisca Gavilan demonstrated in Violeta Se Fue a Los Cielos, and directors in charge of the service of communicating critical messages to their societies. What is at stake in these films are the ideas, wrapped by a steady hand and a well-crafted narrative technique. It is a film industry whose complexity lies in the target audience you are addressing rather than seeking new artistic paths. In No and White Elephant this is about moving societies that are still living in fear after military dictatorships. The first attempts to explain the fall of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and spur the young people left in the way to communicate ideas. In White Elephant it’s for progressive ideas to retrieve the field of helping the poor by the church; to value their work and denounce the complicity of the church hierarchy with professional politics. In Las Cosas Como Son it comments on autistic, affluent youth and social problems. This movie does put into play a less conventional narrative, with acting based on a working interest in the character of its protagonist as the plot unfolds at the end to find a way out of the contradictions of ethical character. Violeta Se Fue a Los Cielos complains of other conditions, that give passion to art. It’s an unusual work as a biopic and a successful union of music, performance and history. Finally, After Lucia shows a great understanding of the relationships between the young upper class, has a high level of detail in regard to bullying situations and turns away from concluding with a false moral lesson to convey the importance of those facts.  

Two more major works remain which are worthy of note. The Spanish-Mexican Aqui y Alla (Antonio Mendez Esparza) rightly insisted on the texture of the human drama of immigration to the US. All the circumstances of the trip enforced through a need to escape poverty, the provisional nature of success and failure, of helplessness and lack of protection of migrants, are highlighted in this movie. A great truth, a realistic picture, with a precious, uncompromising aesthetic, and a look of order that prevent it becoming a partial approach to privacy and privileged history. This is far from another Mexican film in competition Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas), which caused great excitement at the festival and is a work in the shadow of The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick) that mimics the stylistic defects of this and dilutes its own stamp of veracity in a story that’s intermittently artificial. In the context of a selection such as Havana’s of genuine works attached to reality, this lack of roots in the work of Reygadas was not touching in the least. Unlike the Uruguayan The Delay (La Demora) by Rodrigo Pla, which apart from the value of being of a minority cinema, is a film that built a complete account of a family situation within a social model in which people are not considered first and individuals reach the limits of their obligations. Technically conventional, but with strong moral fibre and nuanced (moving away from the snobby pose of other minor works), its narrative pulse and interest in history is also worthy of consideration.

Edited by Carmen Gray