Buenos Aires Movie Invasion

in 17th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Christian Eugenio Font

“You came in a good year”, a fellow critic said to me when I arrived in Argentina. And indeed that was an auspicious welcome to the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, BAFICI. In its 17th year, BAFICI has established itself as a leading festival in Latin America, showing more than 400 films in ten exhibition spots scattered through the huge city. The Festival takes place in a warm and harmonious atmosphere, a virtual holiday for avid moviegoers. And what choices for what to see! There’s an International Competion, a section of Argentinian production,  and also a children’s film program, the “Baficito”. The last includes not only the latest anime from Japan’s Ghibli Studio but a tribute to the renowned Chuck Jones, the mastermind of Warner Brothers cartoons. Also, there was a section dedicated to “Music and Cinema”, and retrospectives of French actress, Isabelle Huppert -the star visit of this BAFICI edition- and, in his centenary year, of Italian director, Mario Monicelli. And what about the public, the main ingredient of a successful festival? More than 380,000 attended BAFICI during its ten splendid days including 450 journalists.

The Competition

The opening night film, The Sky of the Centaur (El cielo del centauro), marked the return to filmmaking after many decades of Argentina’s Hugo Santiago. In 1969 Santiago directed the legendary Invasion, which had a screenplay co-written by author Jorge Luis Borges. The Sky of the Centaur is both a fantastic, surreal story and a love letter to the city of Buenos Aires. It was a more-than-adequate choice to start the BAFICI activities. But there were even better films shown.

For example, both the International Jury and the FIPRESCI jury gave their top prize to India’s Court (2014), the directorial debut of Chaitanya Tamane. “It’s a film that any jury would reward”, a colleague pointed out. Court is an atypical courtroom drama about a political-minded balladeer and poet. Absurdly, he is arrested and charged with inciting someone in the audience to suicide because of words spoken during a street performance. The action focuses on the work of the defense and prosecuting attorneys and also on the character of the presiding judge. Court exposes the contradictions of India’s jury system and shows how the bureaucracy and social and religious prejudices can influence the verdict. A strong drama with superb script and performances.

The public vote for Best Picture went to Naji Nabu Nowar’s Theeb (2014) from Jordan, an excellent choice. It’s unusual to see nowadays such a fine mix of an adventure film of the classic era with the atmosphere of an American western. The story is set in the desert province of Hijaz (Saudi Arabia) during the time of WWI. Theeb is a teenager who decides to follow his older brother into the desert when the brother agrees to guide and escort a British officer carrying a mysterious cargo. This story of survival and of Theeb’s transition from boy to man has brilliant performances and a fantastic use of locations. It’s as if Lawrence of Arabia meets The Wild Bunch.

Jonas Trueba’s The Romantic Exiles (Los exiliados románticos, 2015) is a lovable romantic comedy made in road-movie style. Three Spanish friends decide to cross the border into France in search of their female lovers, lost by time and distance. Beautiful scenery and fine dialogue and a stirring soundtrack courtesy of the Spanish folk band, Tulsa, were elements making this one of the best movies in Competition.

Some of the highlights in Official Competition were of the documentary genre. A Swiss production, Nicolas Steiner’s Above And Below (2015), addresses four stories shot in America from the angles suggested in the title. A couple living in a sewer below Las Vegas pray that the rain does not carry their belongings away in a flash flood. A lonely young woman lives with her scientist colleagues in the desert, where they simulate living on Mars. She’s willing to travel through space to the Red Planet , knowing its a one-way ride.

The audience for Above and Below also meets an army veteran who lives as a hermit in the desert. He rides a bike for many miles to reach a cafe with Internet connection. There, he can watch on Facebook how his faraway granddaughter grows up. Observing these “up and down” lives, viewers realize that there are as many ways of inhabiting this world as there are people.

Music and Movies: time for the unsung heroes

For me, the documentary genre reaches epic levels when it sheds light on a figure who, though far from popular recognition, is someone we know was there in the shadows. Such is the case of Elijah Drenner’s That Guy Dick Miller, told with irresistible grace. Miller is a veteran character actor in Hollywood who may not have reached the big leagues but is highly praised by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. The actor recalls his beginnings as part of the stock company of Roger Corman, for whom he made dozens of B-movies. He does not give special importance to having been in prestigious movies such as New York, New York or box-office hits like Gremlins. He’s happy just to be acting; and in the meantime, he’s on duty waiting for the phone call casting him in a new picture.

Bringing the aura of cinephilia to a film is not easy, but Argentinian filmmaker, Santiago Calori, succeeds with An Important Premiere (Un importante prestreno, 2015). This documentary about Argentine cinephile habits recalls an earlier time when the film-crazy crowds would leave one theatre and race across the street to another. The awful days of film censorship, the early seventies, are also shown, when dedicated Arengentine moviegoers travelled to Uruguay to see movies that were banned in their own country. There’s also a long, amusing anecdote about how the movie Julie Darling (1983) became a huge box-office hit in Argentina because it was given a bizarre new title: Let It Die Inside (Dejala morir adentro). Clearly,  audiences imagined another kind of plot.

Roque Catania’s The Troubadour Always Returns (El trovador siempre vuelve, 2015) tries to do justice to the work of Roque Narvaja, a fine songwriter who has been forgotten in his role as a pioneer of Argentine rock. Narvaja, along with beat band La Joven Guardia, recorded the all-time favorite, “El extraño de pelo largo”. But his career later changed to a repertoire of protest songs. The result is a warm but a bit disappointing film effort because, though meritorious, the option of having Narvaja’s songs played by other artists instead of the honoree is not very effective.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014) by James Keach is a strong and risky documentary. The former sessions artist and prominent country music performer, Campbell is a fine singer and a virtuoso guitarist. In 2012 he carried forth a farewell concert tour across the United States after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, we see a man who lives without recognizing himself and no longer remember the names of his children or his musicians. Still, when Campbell steps on stage, aided by a teleprompter and his patient crew, Campbell radiates light.  When he reads on the monitor, “Glen plays a long guitar solo here”, he repeats the words aloud, then realizes what he has to do. And he does it, masterly.

Another BAFICI edition ended, and that colleague was right: 2015 was a very good year to be in Buenos Aires watching movies.

Edited by Gerald M. Peary