New Roads for Documentaries By Jorge Jellinek

in 7th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Jorge Jellinek

Documentaries were the real stars at this edition of the Bafici. The decision taken by Fernando Peña, the festival’s new director, to open the International and Argentine Film Competition to documentaries for the first time, confirmed their growing importance in world cinema production. Their influence was also patent in many feature films that ventured onto the blurred boundaries between fiction and reality. Indeed, most of the main prizes given at the festival went to documentaries, including Mercedes Alvarez’s El cielo gira (The Sky Turns), an austere, personal and poetical portrait of the remaining fourteen inhabitants in an old Spanish village, in the desolate region of Soria, where the director was the last person to have been born there. The film not only won the Fipresci Prize, but was also voted as best film by the Official jury, the Signis jury and the popular jury. A surprising coincidence that reflects not only the quality of this masterly opera prima, but also the acceptance that documentaries can play a significant role on the same level as fiction.

In the Argentinean section, almost half of the films shown were documentaries, and one of them, the creative Los de Saladillo by the experienced Alberto Yaccelini, won an International Critics Prize, and also received a Special Mention by the Official jury. They also gave the Special Prize in this section to Vida en Falcon (Living in a Falcon) , by Jorge Gaggero, a funny and original approach to some homeless people that live in abandoned cars in the Buenos Aires suburbs. All this reaffirms the increasing relevance of documentaries all over the world, with quality works that escape the limits of the television format and are conquering new spaces not only in the festivals and art house circuit, but even at multiplexes, as titles like Fahrenheit 9/11, Supersize Me and even Mondovino or Capturing the Friedmans have recently demonstrated.

Two tendencies were present in the Argentinean documentaries shown at the Bafici. In the first place there were the testimonials directly related to the consequences of the economic crisis. In Espejo para cuando me pruebe el smoking (A mirror for when I try on my tuxedo), by Alejandro Fernández Mouján, the politically conscious sculptor Ricardo Longhini works with scrap materials, like bullets and stones, collected in the streets of Buenos Aires after the riots in December 2001, that led to the fall of President De la Rua. The film follows three years of the work in progress of this peculiar artist, who explicitly reflects in his sculptures the political conflicts of Argentinean society. Workers in conflict was also the theme of Fasinpat (The Bossless Factory), by Daniele Incalcaterra, who presents the experience of workers that took control of a ceramics factory in the southern province of Neuquen, in order to continue production, and preserve their jobs. Both films have strong issues, but at the moment of translating them into images they lack the necessary strength and conviction, presenting a more conventional form that reduces their impact.

A second group of much more personal and creative films, included the funny and original Opus by Mariano Donoso that could be described as an antidocumentary, in which the author tries to answer the question: What is this film all about? From a false documentary of the educational system in the poor province of San Juan to the controversial personality of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an historical figure of the XIX century that contributed to forging the country, with it’s offbeat humour the film constantly moves between testimony and parody, facts and fiction, and although a bit overlong and derivative, the result is as interesting as it is amusing. With a more direct touch of reality, but without excluding staged scenes, Vida en Falcon, presents day-to-day survival strategies of unemployed people that try to preserve their dignity while living in abandoned cars. With humour and a sensitive and respectful regard for it’s characters, the film avoids the temptation of exploiting poverty, while finding solidarity and essential values in the common people.

The work of another artist, the military painter Cándido López, is the excuse that José Luis García has to investigate the infamous war that in the 19th Century the allied forces of Argentine, Brazil and Uruguay led against Paraguay. The film Cándido López, los campos de batalla, presented in the International section, is much more than an historical documentary, and not only throws light on an obscure historical episode of the region, that had terrible consequences, but it’s also an intelligent and elaborate work that explores the always difficult relation between reality and art.