If it takes off... A new showcase for Latin America By Pamela Biénzobas

in 1st New Montreal Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

The first edition of the new Film Festival in Montreal came to an end. We can only hope that the event itself, as a potentially important part of the worldwide festival landscape, doesn’t come to an end after just one attempt. If it lives up to its intentions, it could become another important showcase for Latin American cinema.

Nothing turned out as it was supposed to at the new Montreal Film Festival, to the point that no conclusions can be drawn about what will happen next. One thing is clear: for this initiative rich in talent (a programming team headed by Moritz de Hadeln) and resources (plenty) to fully develop its potential and become a significant actor in the festival landscape, a series of changes must be made, starting by the dates.
So today, after a polemic first edition in which films seemed to matter less than the much publicized internal fighting, an evaluation could hardly be of any use for thinking of what this could become in the future. We can only talk of “ifs” and stick to intentions.

So if the festival takes place next year, if De Hadeln is still at the heading the program, and most important, if the FIFM takes place at a more logical date, it might start growing into what it’s meant to be. And one of the things it is meant to be – according to Latin American specialist André Pâquet and to the general programming – is an event with a Latin identity.

Films from Latin regions of the world were present all over: in the competition, as Special Events (mostly the French), or in the specific sections “Panorama of Young French Cinema” and “Cinéastes d’ici”. But it’s “Latin Universe” that offers the most specific and promising showcase for Latin American, and especially young Latin American, films.

Given the state of certain cinematographies that are striving to get their production seen by an audience larger than their neighbors (sometimes that doesn’t mean neighbor countries, but the filmmaker’s friends and neighbors!), all new chances to reach a new public, and hopefully a new market, are more than welcome. Even if the opportunities and the festival space are growing bigger, there is still a lot to be done, especially in the American continent.

Many Argentinean films, a few Belgian ones, three Brazilian, two Canadian, a couple of Chilean, one Mexican, and one Italian film were invited to this first eclectic universe. First films, classic filmmakers, conventional fictions, experiments, documentaries… putting them all together is perhaps the most realistic way to portray what is going on in Latin America’s cinema. Labels are easy to use and sometimes even necessary to start building an identity. But they soon become reductive and give partial and misleading ideas not only of a country’s filmmaking, but also of its idiosyncrasy, its social and aesthetic concerns, and its human, urban and geographical landscapes.

Having Fernando Solanas’ The Dignity of the Nobodies (La dignidad de los nadies), recently premiere in Venice, and playing alongside Joel Pizzini’s partially staged Brazilian documentary 500 Souls (500 Almas) is a healthy step towards showing that there are radically different ways of tackling social issues in Latin America. Whereas Solanas depicts the post-crisis reality of a wrecked but strong Argentina in a rather conventional manner, Pizzini fragments and assembles image and sound to build a puzzle that questions the notion of identity through the case of the Guato Indians in the Amazon.

Another example of this diversity is the Chilean case (being Chilean myself, nationality obliges). Although our cinema is gradually growing in quality and in the number and diversity of productions, newcomers are still hardly known in the international scene. For different reasons, it has been a more traditional and academic form of filmmaking that has become more visible. And that’s fine. Silvio Caiozzi (Coronation [Coronación] and Cachimba) and Andrés Wood (Machuca and Football Stories [Historias de fútbol]), for example, are important and valuable filmmakers and their work should be shown as widely as possible.

In a similar line, Alex Bowen’s second feature film My Best Enemy ([Mi mejor enemigo], which shows a remarkable improvement since his first film, Campo Minado) is constructed in a very conservative manner. Nevertheless, it works well. The cinematography is striking, and the careful rhythm and straightforward narrative, add up to an accomplished and clean product.

Bowen made certain choices, such as completely eclipsing the political context in this story of two enemy troops lost in the desert without knowing which side of the border they are on, precisely when their countries are on the verge of a war over that border. When this happened in 1978, Argentina and Chile were both smashed under criminal dictatorships. Bowen insists he omitted this context in order to make the “human” factor prevail. But in politics, in morals, and of course in cinema, refusing to state something is a statement in itself. He will surely be confronted with the same question all around, as he has been so far. And he will have to continue to defend his choice. But it’s good he gets to show it and it would be great if he could reach part of the huge world audience that actually prefers conventional and safely-constructed films.

But that’s not the only kind of cinema being made in Chile . There are other much more daring young filmmakers actually experimenting and trying to find new ways to express themselves through cinema. Sebastián Campos’ debut feature The Sacred Family (La Sagrada familia) is a fine example of that. His imperfect but utterly refreshing film about a well-off, traditional family (including the son’s new girlfriend) spending the Easter holiday in their beach house is full of promising talent. Shot on DV – though the image was treated to give much more of a Super 16 feel – without written dialogues and in three consecutive days, the film is immediately perceived as a rather playful exercise in style. But it avoids the risk of self-contentment and gradually draws the spectator into its game.

Though it does not pretend to be realistic at all, The Sacred Family offers a very real and easily recognizable portrait of a part (minority but influential) of Chilean society. The characters in themselves are so banal, so irrelevant and sometimes even contemptible, that it is almost surprising to realize how the actors’ improvisation builds up such plausible characters that one ends up involved in the situation, actually minding what happens in the (chemically) over-stimulated milieu.

Of course My Best Enemy and The Sacred Family are not all there is to Chilean cinema. But by selecting them both, the FIFM made a clear point: very different things are being made in Chile . There is a variety of styles, concerns, aesthetics and talents, and it is only propitious that they find a showcase in the international scene.