Latin American Documentaries: The Real Latin America

in 6th Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival

by Fernando Palumbo

As the international press is bewitched by the shining light of Oscar — despite this being an unimpressive year for nominated films — filmmakers still compete for the desirable prize.

Living in the shadow of the enormous neighborhood of the United States, Mexico once again had the brilliant idea to organize the sixth edition of the Festival of Independent Cinema.

This festival looks beyond geographical and cultural borders, unconcerned with snaring films that arrive with expensive promotional campaigns. FICCO focuses on auterist statements, looking for films that open up other realities and find them no more amazing — and no less fantastic — than our own. Films that guide us through our own history, and the history of our contemporaries in this part of the planet. It attempts to make Latin American anthropology universal. And in this new century, the documentary genre allows us to discover a world where history can be written far away from the glittering stage of commercial cinema.

In FICCO’s selection of Latin American documentaries, it’s possible to see three different subjects or levels, all of them not specific to the continent. The first group examines social, military and political repression in Latin America. The second addresses environmental issues. The third is a fairly open category, concerned with relating to individual people — different kinds of social actors, in different cultural roles, telling minimalist stories of disproportionate social importance. At this moment, musicians seem to be of particular importance to the Latin American identity.

Obviously, artistic cinema can’t be classified in this way. We need to create other models to address the realities of the genre. But a structure created by critics can never capture the full sense of the artistic creation.

Of that first group, the most representative film in recent years might be an Argentinean production, Nicólas Prividera’s M. The director searches through his memories of his mother, even as his camera recounts the urban war and military repression of his youth. In the Mexican film My Life Inside Europe (Mi vida adentro), Lucía Gajá told us about America’s persecution of Mexican émigrés. And the year before, Alejandra Sanches and José Antoni Cordero’s Under Juarez (Bajo Juarez la Ciudad Devorando a Sus Hijas) explored the still-unsolved disappearances of four hundred women in Ciudad de Juarez. Recently, the Chilean director Ignacio Agûero’s Agustin Diary (El Diario de Agustin) created considerable controversy by bringing evidence to the screen that implicates the popular newspaper El Mercurio in the repression of the Pinochet dictatorship.

We can place a number of other films under this banner: Damasia Merbilhaa’s Nine Months (Nueve meses), from Argentina; Anna Recalde’s Land Without Devil (La tierra sin mal), from Paraguay; and Aldo Garay and José Pedro Charlo’s Uruguayan festival favorite The Circle (El circulo), which found the filmmakers journeying into the personal and social madness inside the mind of a scientist tortured by the state.

Last year, the FICCO prize for Best Latin America Documentary went to Santa Fe Street (Calle Santa Fe), a very good Chilean feature examining the past and present history of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR).

Among the environmental projects, we can find many contenders.

The 2007 Peruvian film Tambo Grande: Mangos, Murder and Mining (Tambo Grande: Mangos, Muerte, Minería), examines, with the aesthetic of a television documentary, the circumstances in which people from an agricultural village began to disappear when gold was found on their land.

Produced in 2007, Jorge Gaggero and Roberto Barandalla’s Botnia is about a confrontation between Uruguay and Argentina over the eponymous paper factory, which polluted the river on which it was situated. In my opinion, this feature is very cinematic, offering a thorough investigation of this environmental conflict as well as the opinions of the native people living in the small town located downriver. And Pedro Urano’s Royal Road of Cachaça (Estrada Real da Cachaça), a Brazilian film, looks at the history of the nation’s sugarcane liquor through ecological and cultural lens.

Finally, we reach the third level. Another Brazilian film, Lightening (Illuminados), directed by Cristina Leal, explores the profession of cinematography, a subject Leal takes perhaps more seriously than most. Other examples of social or personal documentaries include Evaldo Morcatel’s Skin Feelings (Sentidos a Flor da Pele) and Hele Solberg’s The Enchanted Word (Palabras Encantadas).

From Argentina, we see a look at the life of Marcela Acuña, La Tigresa, the first female boxer to obtain professional standing in her country. It’s directed by another woman, Matilde Michaine.

To this we can add Arista Son, a look at the life of Colombian musician Aristarco Pera, who dedicated himself to Cuban rhythm; Everardo Gonzalez’ very Mexican The Old Thieves: The Legends from Artegio (Los ladrones viejos) and the Argentine-Uruguayan Master Coffee (El Cafe de los Maestros), directed by Miguel Koha, which interviews musicians and singers from Argentina’s golden age of Tango.

This classification of Latin America Documentary can be seen at FICCO, too; in the first category was Nestor Sampieri’s well-received Reform 18 (Reforma 18). In a classic style which tries to continue the approach of Ignacio Agüero in Agustin Diaries, the film levels powerful charges about the relationship between the press — specifically, the Mexican newspaper “Excelsior” — and political authorities and military forces. Sampieri offers many examples, making this a very good documentary.

In the second category, my pick for the best was 13 Pueblos, about the struggles of natives and farmers to keep their land out of the hands of outsiders who want to harvest it for its water. The environmental theme is similar to that of Tambo Grande.

And in the third section, undoubtedly the best entry was Miguel Calderón’s The Disciple of Speed (La Discípula del Velócimetro), which looks into the kitschy life of a popular artist with humor. We can also take note of Bernardo Loyola and Santiago Stelley’s Alarma!, which tags along with the journalists who take lurid photographs of corpses and crime scenes for the titular Mexican newspaper.

Jaime Rogel’s wrestling documentary Our Fight (Nuestra lucha) shows the performance of popular and comic street theatre; it’s a film Federico Fellini might have been enjoyed.

And finally, those who showed up at the central square called El Zocalo could enjoy a screening of Maradona By Kusturica, a look at the life of Argentina’s football idol through the eyes of filmmaker Emir Kusturica. As you can, Mexican directors aren’t the only ones who can make mistakes.