Latin American Competition

in 35th Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Teresa Vena

In a special competition, ten films from Latin American countries faced off during Argentina’s Mar del Plata International Film Festival. The titles provided an insight into the state of experimental cinema in Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina.

The concept of making no distinction between fiction films and documentaries and letting them compete against each other for a single prize has its weaknesses. Characteristics such as narrative rhythm, camerawork or editing are common to both genres, but the directing of actors, dialogue, set design or story originality are elements more important to fiction features. To separate fiction and documentary would avoid the compulsion in this unnatural balancing act of having to judge two independent genres by the same standards.

Apart from the mixture of documentary and fiction, the ten films in the competition showed a great variety of content and form. Many of the entries were interested in breaking away not only from classical narrative structures, but also from aesthetic concepts. Such gambits didn’t always succeed; in some cases filmmakers seemed only to be to want to do everything as differently as possible, without actually creating something independent and cohesive.

This principle was least followed in Red Screening (Al morir la matinée, 2020). With his second feature-length film, Uruguay’s Maximiliano Contenti pays homage to splatter and giallo films. The massacre takes place in the cinema. Not only on the screen, where a strange version of the Frankenstein motive is screened, but also in the audience, which is haunted by a taciturn but determined murderer. What he is most interested in are the eyes of his victims. Contenti’s greatest strength is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. This does not mean that he does not place value on sovereign camerawork, impressive effects or a circular dramaturgical narrative. He simply does not pretend that his film is about more than what it obviously is.

Two other films in the competition also revert to a more conventional, linear narrative form. Piola (2020), by Chile’s Luis Pérez, is a kind of mosaic film in the style of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, and  focuses on the emotional life of young people. It addresses identity, but also violence and rebellion. By essentially concentrating on a period of only a few days, the film creates a convincing unity of time and space. In his feature film debut, Pérez has engaged expressive actors and has already proven that he has the technical skills for making films. Now he needs to develop a personal signature.

By contrast, Mexican director Yulene Olaizola does not lack in independent style. With Tragic Jungle (Selva trágica, 2020), which already boasts an impressive festival trajectory, including Venice, San Sebastián, Busan and Vienna, Olaizola has created an extremely suggestive drama with fantastic elements. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the Mar del Plata Festival for, among other things, its striking portrayal of masculinity and its ability to use the jungle in so many different ways. The impenetrable jungle becomes a home for the protagonists, but it never fully accepts them. They are at its mercy—and it proves to be merciless. The jungle is personified by an equally enigmatic female figure who is just as merciless to the men.

Wilderness is also featured in the title of another film, La escuela del bosque (2020), from Gonzalo Castro. The Argentinean director has dealt with themes of identity, home and family. In poetic black-and-white images, Castro observes a young single mother searching for a place she can feel at home. Here, the titular forest seems to be a symbol for life in the city: the houses, but also the people around you, are the trees that sometimes block your path, sometimes also offer support and protection. In addition, the city could also be seen as a forest of civilisation, in which it is important not to get lost, to survive and to seek compromise regarding shared living space. Castro’s work is reminiscent of role models such as Korea’s Hong Sang-Soo, focusing on a reduction of formal means and thus bearing a documentary impact.

Masquerades (Mascarados, 2020), on the other hand, is a documentary film with a fictional character. Helmed by Brazil’s Henrique and Marcela Borela, this film unfolds with a quiet force that hits the viewer quite surprisingly. Accompanying the first images, the monotonous sound of a hammer hitting stones is audible. Grey stone slabs loosen under the steady blow, all different with numerous corners and edges, each one unique and perfect in its own way. In these first eight minutes, in which there is no dialogue, the authors already lay out the film’s particular poetry. When the protagonists, workers in a large Brazilian quarry, finally emerge from behind their caps and protective scarves, the viewer discovers intense faces that have been shaped in the same way as the stones by time and the environment. The film speaks of loneliness, willingness to make sacrifices, and indulgence. It tells about people who live in precarious conditions, who preserve their pride, but who are also powerless, at the mercy of the capitalist-dominated decisions of others, people who hold power over their existence. Masquerades gets by with very few words, explains nothing, and yet offers a universal view of human nature. There is no need to know more about the individual protagonists; in each one, it seems, you find a little of yourself reflected. The dignity of the individual lies in simple movements and ordinary activities, and out of them something sublime unfolds, without any need of artificial pathos.

The Latin American competition shows once again the wide range of different political and social realities throughout Latin America. At the same time, the films present a multitude of commonalities when it comes to conveying interpersonal values. Furthermore, the films at the festival have once again demonstrated the special skills of Latin American filmmakers and their high quality in an international context.

Teresa Vena
Edited by José Teodoro