Latin American Cinema in Search of its Identity By Paulo Pécora

in 20th Toulouse Rencontres des Cinémas d'Amérique Latine

by Paulo Pecora

Latin American cinema today — as it has been for the last few years — faces a decisive challenge: to resist, accepting all of its shortcomings and possibilities, or to be diluted little by little in an ocean of images without identity and without destiny. As it happens and happened with other emerging peripheral cinemas, the particular signs of Latin American cinema, its idiosyncratic subject matters, aesthetics and narrative, should start from a full awareness of its impossibilities. It is about building from a unique perspective rather than copying systems of production, subject matters and visual forms that are not only foreign but also homogeneous, anonymous, and meant for a fast and unthinking consumption.

This dilemma about the search for an identity, which also respects the diversity and particularities of each and every one of the cultures and languages that integrate such a vast audiovisual territory, was put on the table by several directors and producers during the twentieth edition of the Rencontres Cinemas d’Amérique Latine de Toulouse, which took place in said French city between March 28th and April 6th.

Even though the opportunity to delve deeper into the problem was not offered, the meetings in Toulouse succeeded in providing a revealing diagnosis about a disease that already appears to be chronic and which threatens to metastasize throughout the weak and permeable organism that is Latin American cinema.

The conclusions arrived at by first-time filmmakers such as Mexican Nicolás Pereda (Dónde están sus historias), Costa Rican Ishtar Yasin (El camino), Brazilian Gustavo Spolidoro (Ainda Orangotangos), Chilean Elisa Eliash (Mami te amo) and Argentine Nicolás León Tanchenn (Furtivo) are identical to those that have been proposed for a long time now. But, repeated as they may be, they are valid and important insofar as they demonstrate the permanence and seriousness of the matter, and the great difficulties to solve them.

In the face of the monopoly of the image imposed by the large multinational production, distribution and exhibition companies, in the face of the unilateral onslaught of innocuous products created only for commercial purposes, Latin American cinema can only put up a sporadic resistance, generally a weak and disorganized one.

In spite of the quantitative growth of certain cinemas such as the Argentinean, Brazilian, Chilean and Mexican ones, and apart from the international recognition obtained by their proposals, these countries’ filmmakers still work without a definite objective and search — without finding — for the keys to their own unique independent art form, one at the same time reaches the largest possible amount of spectators.

The time has come to organize, to form a network of communication and joint efforts which, even though they must not adopt a revolutionary political profile, they could very well learn the lessons of the Latin American cinema activists who, during the 60s and 70s, set out on a possible path towards regional integration, even though they ultimately failed in their endeavour.

The social cinema promoted in Argentina by Fernando Birri, the poor cinema rescued by Glauber Rocha in Brazil and the revolutionary cinema of the Grupo Cine Liberación that had Fernando Pino Solanas as a member, should be examples to be taken into account. Not solely for the political ideas that inspired their creation, but especially because they proposed a cinematographic independence through the creation of films that were coherent with the limited technical and economic resources at their disposal.

The basis for the search of a unique Latin American aesthetic, thematic, and narrative identity is a full and honest awareness of its possibilities. Accepting its imperfections, its mistakes, its shortcomings, so as to build from them a cinema that does not ask for permission to speak its own language, with an original vocabulary, free of pressures and external demands.

In that regard, the Mexican film Cochochi, by Laura Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, which received the Coup de Coeur and FIPRESCI awards at Toulouse, showed that it is possible to make a film with personality, underlining transcendental human and artistic values, but in a simple fashion and with a modest budget. It is a film full of hope about two brothers, members of the tarahumara indigenous community, who set out on an initiatic journey through jungles, forests and mountains to deliver medicine to a sick relative. But, beyond its story and the beauty of its images, the film can act as a guide for other filmmakers, since it shows the particular culture of these indigenous Mexicans with a unique look, that owes nothing to the miserable, exotic and protectionist point of view so appreciated by spectators from more developed countries.

With its different virtues and imperfections, there were films exhibited at Toulouse that chose a path of authenticity to attempt new ways to see the world and to narrate stories that evoke the hardships of life and poverty that plague many countries in the region. One of them is El Camino, by Ishtar Yasin, that, apart from being (only) the thirteenth film ever shot in the history of Costa Rica, confirms that there is a cinema that — as proven by the awards obtained by the Guatemalan film Gasolina — is silently making its own way in Central America.

It was Yasin herself who proposed the creation of a parallel distribution and exhibition network in Latin America, with its own rules and formats, which would include video projections in new spaces, so that their films may reach a larger audience.

Resistance — and therefore the most appropriate path towards a true identity — consists in that, not in entering an uneven fight against multimillion dollar super-productions but rather in creating alternative forms of production, distribution, and exhibition, taking as a starting point the possibilities that are unique to each country, each culture and each cinema. And, especially, also in generating a network that integrates all sectors, that finds its strength in its heterogeneity and that accepts, above all, its real possibilities, poor as it may be.