Mar del Plata : A festival in the flux By Wolfgang Martin Hamdorf

in 21st Mar Del Plata International Film Festival

by Wolfgang Hamdorf

Dusk. A fresh breeze is blowing along the central beach promenade, grazing the red front of a casino built in the Neo-Classic style. Mar del Plata is not a place one would find enthralling on the first glance. It is, however, fascinating in its frank and open ugliness, devised during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, when the posh, little spa had to adapt to the mass tourism promoted by the social policy under Peron. In front of the auditorium, the town’s big theatre, a long queue has formed. But rather than a big banking crisis rearing its ugly head, the town is in the grip of a film festival. Right now, Werner Herzog’s new film The Wild Blue Yonder is being shown, and since the local audience love their festival, another queue is already forming. Even the more difficult films draw large audiences. Three elderly women are sitting in front of me, watching Herzog’s underwater shots with undivided curiosity. No one is leaving; occasional laughter erupts in the full ranks of the audience, while outside, again, a queue is forming for the next screening. It is this film craze that differentiates Mar del Plata from many other Latin American film festivals. Taxi drivers comment on films or the latest news of the festival’s rumour mills. Apart from the citizens, the visitors, and the numerous ordinary tourists, an actual festival tourism has developed. Most of the cineastes hail from 400-miles-away in Buenos Aires, with the total numbers of visitors having gone up by 15 percent.

Mar del Plata is a festival in the flux, a festival defining and re-defining its own identity over and over again by embracing sharp contrasts. Large productions like Terrence Malick’s The New World are screened next to small, very personal German or Portuguese author films, like Alice by Marcos Martins, the winner of the FIPRESCI Award. This diversity in topic and content is especially present in the side genres. Women’s films, for instance, feature productions as diverse as German director Jutta Brückner’s Hitlercantata (Die Hitlerkantate) or Play , the film of young Chilean director Alicia Sherson. The actual film plots are no less diverse, often telling episodes set between the Worlds. The German entries present themselves far from the common tropes or clichés: Werner Herzog’s “science fiction fantasy” was screened next to the omnibus Lost and found featuring, besides several short films by young Eastern European directors; Molly´s Way, a condense and sensitive film set in Poland and telling the story of a young Irishwoman looking for a young miner of whom she is expecting a baby. French Iranian director Emily Atef spent quite a few years in the USA before studying at the dffb, the Academy of German Film and Television in Berlin . As the director of a German film, produced in the English language and shot in Poland , she has no understanding for narrow conceptions of national identities: “This conception of “country”, of “my country” is the straight opposite of what the world of film, what the language of film is to me. We have to go on. More people have to produce films. More foreigners have to produce films like Gegen die Wand (Against the Wall), because this will strengthen the position of German films in general.”

Since its re-foundation in 1996, the Mar del Plata festival has become a symbol for the new Argentine film. Following military dictatorship and the cutbacks in film sponsorship during years of neo-liberal mismanagement, Argentine cinema very nearly ceased to exist in the beginning of the 90s. A smart policy regarding film as well as a new generation of committed low-budget directors made Argentine film well-known on a global stage, even in spite of the country’s economical crisis. It helped that these films were being intentionally produced as political comment and as a reaction to Argentine’s social reality.

Many events and discussions of the Mar del Plata revolve around remembering the 30th anniversary of the military coup d’etat on the 24th of March 1976. “La memoria”, remembering the past, is ever-present. For his last film Enlightened by the Fire (Illuminados por el fuego) about the Falklands conflict, the last war of the military junta, director Tristan Bauer was awarded with the honorary Astor during the festival’s opening gala. “Film works with images and is, therefore, can help visualise memories of the past,” says Tristan Bauer. Argentina has always been dealing with the past – not out of the need for self-castigation or nostalgic transfiguration of the past, but rather to facilitate social change.

Another contender for one of the Astors was the The Method (El Metodo) by Argentine director Marcelo Pineyro. Like many of his other films, The Method manages to present a political topic in an entertaining and suspenseful way: Six young men have applied for the same job. The final decision is coming to a close, while the streets are boiling with demonstrations against the World Bank. “Today, these conflicts are less open than they used to be in the 70s,” Marcelo Pinyero says. “Today, people seem to be more afraid of things being not the way they were said to be. People are afraid of hearing critical voices. Therefore, our stories are more sophisticated, more perverse, and less obvious. Everything looks peaceful, civilised, as if there were no more conflicts – but the truth is, that there are conflicts, and these conflicts are unbelievably severe.”

One of the sayings attributed to Glauber Rocher is that Latin America is always in “trance”, but never in “transito”. Content-wise, Mar del Plata might be a festival a-change. In terms of organisation, it is a construction site where a lot of talents, eager on improvising, neutralise but also enrich each other. But all the delays, the mishaps and break-downs just contribute to the special glamour of this late-summer festival in an austerely beautiful spa.