Fragmented Families By Dave Kehr

in 8th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Dave Kehr

The warmly affectionate, mutually supportive and generationally extended family has been one of the traditional values of Latin American culture in general and of the Latin American cinema in particular. Yet a strikingly large number of new Latin American films at the 8th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema dealt with families that had failed or were in the process of violently tearing themselves apart. From Chile, Sebastián Campos’s La sagrada familia (the title itself is an ironic allusion to the family sanctified by the Catholic Church) tells of an upper middle class family that disintegrates over the course of an Easter weekend, when the eldest son introduces his disturbingly sexual new fiancée. Manuel Nieto’s La perrera (The Dog Pound) follows an aimless young man, banished to a remote village by his divorced father, where he is expected to build a home for himself with the pathetic pile of material and handful of money given him by his distant, contemptuous father. From Argentina, both Juan Villegas’s Los suicidas and Ulises Rosell’s Sofacama dealt with fatherless families, though in two different registers – Villegas’s film as a European-style existential drama; Rosell’s as an American-style situation comedy. And the film that seemed to resonate most deeply with the local audience and critics (it won three prizes in the festival, including best film of the Argentine competition) was Alexis dos Santos’s Glue – Historia adolescente en medio de la nada. A look at the life of a young teenager in a particularly desolate industrial suburb, Glue was at once familiar (director dos Santos owes an immense debt to the sexually ambiguous coming of age stories of Gus van Sant, Larry Clark and Gregg Araki) and surrealistically strange, for its portrait of a pre-fabricated “community” of flimsy homes, yellowed yards and dusty streets set down, as the title says, “in the middle of nowhere.”

Perhaps the source of this trend is Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 Argentine film La ciénaga (The Swamp), a story of two intertwined, equally dysfunctional families set in the unfamiliar (at least to non-Argentine audiences) northern city of Salta. The film’s aesthetic and much of its world view was established by the opening sequence, in which a number of inebriated middle aged family members lounge around a none-too-clean swimming pool, and are startled into action only when one drunken woman, struggling to carry a trey of fresh glasses, trips and falls on the concrete, and rises a bloody, howling mess. Martel’s handheld camera reels and lunges as much as her alcoholic protagonists, lurching from one close-up to the next, while her cutting perversely refuses to clarify the spatial (and hence, emotional and familial) connections between the characters.

Similarly, Glue begins with an enigmatic (but very funny) sequence in which a 16-year-old boy (who will turn out to be our hero) looks on with detached amusement as a heavyset, dark-haired woman slaps and insults a peroxide blonde who has been sunbathing in her cramped back yard. Only much later do we discover that the blonde woman is our hero’s mother, and her assailant the wife of one of her casually acquired lovers. Dad has long since been driven from the scene for his martial infidelities, though near the end of the movie he shows up again to take his fragmented family on a camping trip – one that distinctly resembles the family voyage in Pablo Trapero’s 2004 commercial comedy The Rolling Family (Familia rodante). But where the chaotic trip in Trapero’s film reassuringly brings an endangered extended family closer together, the family of Glue can’t even get their simple pup tent set up – another of the flimsy, collapsing dwellings that make metaphoric appearances throughout these recent films.

Fathers are either absent, idiotic or despotic; mothers are either sluttish, neglectful or self-involved – and the children, left to their own resources, seem much to prefer smoking marijuana, drinking beer or sniffing glue over planning for their (probably non-existent) futures. Narrative structures and family structures both seem to be collapsing at the same time – a reflection, perhaps, of the old political structures, of authoritarianism and exclusion – that have also been collapsing across Latin America? Only a fool or a film critic would make sweeping generalizations from such a small sample of material, but this foolish film critic can’t help but feel that a fundamental cultural shift is occurring in Latin America, and that its reflection can be found in the very interesting new films that the region is producing.