Latin American Cinemas: Radiography of a Continent By Jean-Christophe Berjon

in 29th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Jean-Christophe Berjon

At year’s end, the Havana Film Festival offers a very interestingpanorama of Latin American’s creations in 2007. Some impressions:

A Mexican Triumph

The various habañeras competitions mapped out the current cinema of the region, with twelve countries represented. Brazilian production was, as usual, the most important, but Mexico’s — and this is new — attained the same level. Thus it appears that the spectacular success over the past few years of a few Mexican movies (with directors such as González Iñárritu, Cuarón, or del Toro) isn’t just a coincidence.

With an incredible eight films in the Opera Prima competition (first features), Mexico accounted for a third of the movies exhibited in this section — a real confirmation of the vitality of a new generation of filmmakers. And these first features came to Havana after successful exhibitions in the world’s most important festivals: The Zone (La Zona) won the Luigi de Laurentiis Award in Venice (Best First Feature); Two Embraces (Dos abrazos), the Narrative Emerging Filmmaker Award at Tribeca; Cochochi premiered with great success in Toronto, Under the Same Moon (La Misma luna) in Sundance, and Turtle Family (La Familia Tortuga) in San Sebastián; and Partes Usadas, Bad Habits (Malos Hábitos), and Blue Eyelids (Párpados Azules) each won prizes in Guadalajara. (The latter two were also presented in Cannes in the Semaine de la Critique). This impressive presence of beginners indicates a major hope for the next years.

In the meantime, validated Mexican directors garnered some of Havana’s most important awards. The winner of winners (the fiction competition’s first prize, plus three other important awards) was Carlos Reygadas and his Cannes-awarded Silent Light (Stellet licht). The Mexican success story also includes the winner of the short film competition (this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes), Watching it Rain (Ver llover), by Elisa Miller; the Opera Prima competition’s Second Prize, Partes Usadas, by Aarón Fernández Lesur; and the Audience Prize, The Black Pimpernel (El Clavel Negro, a Mexican-Danish coproduction). From now on, we really must bet on Mexico!

But, of course, and I won’t develop these points, other countries were presenting their best works. Argentina had The Other (El otro), XXY, The Mugger (El Asaltante), La León, A Stray Girlfriend (Una novia errante), and Encarnación. From Brazil came Alice’s House (A Casa de Alice), The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (O ano em que meus pais saíram de ferias), and Happy Desert (Deserto feliz). And Uruguay was represented by Kill Them All (Matar a Todos) and The Pope’s Toilet (El Baño del Papa).

Disappointing Cuban Creations

As the most important Cuban film festival, Havana affords us the opportunity to scrutinize contemporary Cuban movies. The results are quite sad, especially when it comes to its most ambitious projects. Its major figures were presenting their most recent movies.

Daniel Díaz Torres (one of the creators of the national cinema school) competed with Road to Eden (Camino al Eden). This historical romance based on the social and political situation in Cuba at the end of the XIX century should not have been in the competition of an international film festival. Produced by television, it’s formatted for that medium rather than for the cinema.

Fernando Pérez, the honored director of Life is to Whistle (La Vida es silbar) and Havana Suite (Suite Habana), presented Madrigal in the feature competition after premiering it at Berlinale (Special Event). Madrigal’s cinematographic language is more elegant but in a somewhat clip-like manner; its erotic effects neither seduce nor move the spectator.

Ultimately, the most interesting Cuban movies presented in Havana were two beginners’ films. The first, Personal Belongings, won the Opera Prima Third Prize. Even on a very low budget (and an ending directly inspired by the traditional Latin telenovelas), it had well-written dialogue, modern humor, and a pleasant bluesy tone.

The second film, Vedado, was presented (unfinished) in the section “Cine en Construcción”. In the same hopeless mood as Personal Belongings, Vedado — shot in only a few days without a real production structure but with a genuine visual sensibility — portrays the youth of Havana, their confusion and lack of aspiration. It is probably the most interesting Cuban vision of the year.