Movies From the Dimensions of Otherness

in 35th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Justo Planas

The validity of the Havana Film Festival, now in its 35th edition, goes beyond a simple list of figures. The movie theaters of Havana may be among the most deteriorated and technologically backward of the world, but they should also count among the most well-attended ones. During the 15 days of the festival, which is one of the most important Cuban annual events, the movie theaters and their surrounds throng with spectators who are eager to catch up with recent Latin American film productions.

Havana is the meeting point of film fans from other Cuban regions. They generally stay at a relative’s house, or they even remain a couple of days in Havana without a secure place to sleep. From the very beginning, Cuban movie enthusiasts start to suggest their favorite films; and within a few days, there’s a tacit list of the best and worst pictures according to the public. Then, some hours before the screening of an awaited title, a bunch of spectators arrive anxious to grab a seat. Many of them won’t succeed, although usherettes sometimes allow them to sit down on the theater’s floor.

The enthusiasm of the Cuban public is not the only evidence that the New Latin American Cinema (NLAC) and its festival still remain vital three decades on. The films in competition, despite their heterogeneous aesthetics and purposes, even if they come from disparate nations and movie industries all agree predominantly on the necessity of analyzing critically the society they belong to. In this case, there is a clearly distinguished continuing line that can be traced back to the different national film movements (such as Brazil’s Cinema Novo, Argentina’s New Cinema, Cuba’s Revolutionary Cinema) that caused and shaped the NLAC in the 60’s.

However, what is also noteworthy is the attention that the recent Latin American pictures pay to a refined filmmaking and about certain patterns of auteur and/or genre movies that were not present in the founding fathers’ sight. At that time, while the Cuban Julio García Espinosa defended the technically Imperfect Cinema, and Argentinean Pino Solanas, Octavio Getino y Gerado Vallejo called for the salience of a Third Cinema different to those of auteur and genre, Brazilian Glauber Rocha coincided with them all and promoted his Aesthetics Of Hunger.

In general, the films exhibited in this year’s edition of the festival take advantage of mainstream film patterns, although being a commercial success doesn’t seem to count as the main purpose. The most veritable goal is to bring the film’s social discourse closer to a wider audience, not only within the continent but also worldwide. For instance, in the case of Mexican ”Heli” by Amat Escalante, the 35th Grand Coral (First) Winner, violence doesn’t have the distinctive ludic sense of certain Hollywood works. Instead, it converts itself into a breath-taking testimony of “a” brutal reality in this country.

The undeniable presence of a sui generis postmodernism in Latin America transmuted the attraction of the NLAC’s founding fathers for social archetypes and undistinguished human mass. The pictures of the 35th Festival explore varied dimensions gathered in the meaning of Otherness as well as understanding filmmaking as a narration about unique human beings.

Take, for instance, Argentinian film ”La Paz” by Santiago Loza, which describes the re-entry process of a former patient from a psychiatric clinic back into society. Another Argentinian film, ”The German Doctor” (Wakolda) by Lucía Puenzo, examines the needs of social integration of a girl who is physically different than her peers. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio scrutinizes in ”Gloria” the pursuit of love and carnal pleasure during the elderly period of life. The exploration and revelation of anOther sexual identity by a little boy in a highly male chauvinist context comes into focus in Venezuelan film ”Bad Hair” (Pelo malo) by Mariana Rondón.

In this sense, ”Yvy Maraey” by Juan Carlos Valdivia of Bolivia offers a progressive portrait of indigenous Latin Americans. It is not the usual condescending and idealizing perspective onto these people’s lifestyle. The director, who doesn’t belong to that culture, incorporates himself as a film character. It’s a truthful decision that allows the viewer to identify him as a participating observer, and involves us in his quest to explore an aboriginal community still removed from Western civilization’s reach. The recurrent failure of his pursuit clarifies that indigenous people, despite what usually is shown in fiction movies, are also people of the 21st Century, and as such belong to a unique and ancestral culture, but are contaminated with the practices and beliefs of certain globalized civilizations.

Every individual whom the director-protagonist encounters has a particular way of understanding the aboriginal-white man relation, which draws a complex dialogue between civilizations, and keeps the film safe from any archetypal idealization. It is remarkable that this dialogue has a mainly rational dimension by means of very clever arguments set up as logic every culture has. It is especially remarkable because the movies about “non-civilized” peoples, predominantly from Hollywood, tend to show this non-Western Other as an emotional being with noble habits, but unable to understand or explain verbally the values of his/her own culture. Regarding this relation between aboriginals and white men, ”Yvy Maraey” does not portray either victimizers or victims, but just human beings.

The film includes in parallel sorts of director’s Juan Carlos Valdivia interior monologues where he —as an artist— calls into question the process per se of representing the Other in order to become clear that any of the paths he would choose in the film by implication discard the many others that inextricable human reality comprises. For that reason, while ”Yvy Maraey” resembles ”Apocalypse Now” structurally, the journey towards the savageness in Francis Ford Coppola’s film is turned upside-down in the Bolivian movie. Since ”Yvy Maraey” is a search for anOther civilization, the director-protagonist gradually frees himself of all the prejudice of his own culture as the only way to become immersed in an alien one.

As the narrative moves forward, it becomes more and more metaphorical and less documentary in form. This creeping increase of fantasy upholds the impossibility of accurately comprehending the Other in the dimension of reality, that is, to live in the flesh an alien experience. However, ”Yvy Maraey” also provides evidence of the human urgency to put oneself in the Other’s shoes in order to enrich our individual —and therefore limited— perception of life.

Both fictive and documentary, the device invented by the Lumière brothers has been, since the very beginning, an opportunity to get to know people from lands far away. The aforementioned movies of the 35th Havana Film Festival are more interested in this individual who is physically close and yet so distant because of his/her singularity. Maybe, as implied by ”Yvy Maraey”, to grasp the Other could be illusory. But this possibility that the cinema offers to live a life different than ours, creates a very real reverie through which we can encounter both the body and the mind of a Latin American character in the dimensions of Otherness.

Edited by Carmen Gray