Martin Rejtman and "Copacabana" Freedom in the Face of The Other By Robert Koehler

in 4th Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

Since Martin Rejtman has been making a series of droll comedies that examine, among other matters, how people can’t manage to live together, the appearance of his first documentary, Copacabana, about how a community of Bolivians in Argentina actually do live — and thrive — together, is genuinely startling. The very idea of Rejtman, a gifted control freak if there ever were one, ceding some authority over what would play out in front of his camera and function as a serious documentary filmmaker is remarkable enough. But for him to convey the essence of a poor but vibrant group of Bolivian workers living in the dusty outskirts of Buenos Aires, and to inject a sense of cultural victory against considerable odds, represents an interesting case of a filmmaker capturing a sense of hope running counter to a trend in documentary cinema that indulges in depressive anthropological thinking.

For Rejtman to make such a film is the rough equivalent of Hong Sang-soo making a film about poor Filipino immigrant workers in South Korea or Eric Rohmer observing the existence of marginalized Arabs in Paris’s suburbs. Like these two masters of human comedies capturing sometimes droll and always highly sophisticated interactions between characters often at cross-purposes with one another, Rejtman’s cinema up to Copacabana is a highly devised internal world, operating by its own set of rules and logic. A Rejtman film, from his exquisite early short, Doli vuelve a casa (1986) to his most recent narrative feature and his richest expression of male-female and social dysfunction, The Magic Gloves (Los guantes mágicos, 2003) is almost a visual graph of the filmmaker’s obsessions and pet peeves, and bound to include the following: Meticulously arranged gags with unexpected but perfectly timed pay-offs; buzzing alarm clocks; characters pausing to study themselves in mirrors; strangers accidentally meeting each other and setting off an unplanned series of events; many exchanges over food, often in fast-food diners or roadside cafes; endless complications with mobile transport; women and men forging their own little gender camps; rock n’ roll; deadpan lines deliveries; tons of borrowed, traded and robbed items that circulate absurdly between characters. These hardly include all Rejtmanisms, but the full list is so numerous as to constitute as distinct a personal universe of operations as has been managed by a director since Aki Kaurismäki, another director for whom deadpan is as essential as oxygen.

All of these concerns are discarded in Copacabana, and it’s appropriate to speculate that Rejtman felt so taken with the completely realized social and cultural world of these Buenos Aires Bolivians that he simply gave himself over to them. This isn’t to say, though, that his filming, as a demonstrably European-influenced and highly successful Argentine artist, bears any mark of romance toward a people whose roots belong to Bolivia’s indigenous culture. First, the film is quite cleverly structured, both formally and temporally, beginning with two paired sets of left-to-right moving shots taking in the end of an edition of the annual Copacabana festival in Buenos Aires, and ever so subtly goes in reverse, observing several group rehearsals for the festival, to the point where the camera is on board the bus taken by new émigrés from the Bolivian side of the border.

Second, Rejtman’s camera, both as a matter of artistic instinct and as a perfectly proper aesthetic choice for a documentary (one that can be seen as closely associated with certain Austrian cineastes such as Nikolaus Geyrhalter), maintains a usually fixed and lengthy distance from the groups he’s filming — be they gaudily costumed marching and dancing groups in the festival parade, or young girls practicing their routines in a cramped café, or brass bands blowing away to their hearts’ content. The visual effect is to give each group a considerable sense of dignity by placing them inside their own proscenium created by the mise en scene; remarkably, Rejtman manages an even more precise relation between camera and bodies under these slightly uncontrolled circumstances than he has ever managed before under his precisely calibrated fictional ones.

Only once, this most verbal of filmmakers allows a chunk of conversation into the film (between a young woman and her distant family members on the other end of a public pay phone), and only twice — in two perfectly complimentary sections in which an off-screen voice describes Bolivia through an album of postcards, and another when the same voice describes another album of photos of past Copacabana festivals in his adopted city — does he practice his well-honed technique for the surprise cut. Otherwise, Rejtman frees himself from his past cinema to encounter something considerably outside of himself and the urban, generally middle-class surroundings he knows so well. In Copacabana, he launches into an adventure to face the Other—the marginalized, the minority, the groups classified as “exotic” or “tribal” or “foreign”, drawn to a better life far from their own land and finding inventive and sustainable ways to celebrate their lives and their essential cultural voices. Rejtman, in a personal triumph, has listened.