On Roots and Silences

in 54th Cartagena International Film Festival

by Carlos F. Heredero

A ghost is haunting Latin America. And it’s not violence, poverty, guerrilla warfare, or even the struggle of the humble people to salvage the dignity that the powerful forever wrest away from them, today as always. It’s the spectre of the void created by rootlessness, by the perplexity caused by looking at oneself and not really finding oneself; by the opacity of one’s own being. The same rootlessness is caused by the silence of inner emotions in a continent in which the slightest sign of political consolidation and economic development are still perceived as too fragile and vulnerable to last, as well as threatened by the persistent presence of the customs belonging squarely to the past.

It was with these unknown (or vanishing) roots and with this very opacity and silence that most of the Latin American films shown in the official competition of FICCI 2014 were dealing with. The roots, embodied by the figure of an absent father, were searched feverishly by a child: the main character in the Chilean Root (Raíz) by Matías Rojas, and by the teenagers at the center of both Chilean Natural Sciencies (Ciencias naturales) by Matías Luchessi, and Argentinian The Third Side of the River (La tercera orilla) by Celina Murga. Paternal absence is also suffered — sometimes in forced silence, other times by means of a revolt– by the teenagers that play the leads in the Mexican Club sandwich (by Fernando Eimbcke), Colombian Mateo (by María Gamboa) and Venezuelan Bad Hair (Pelo malo) by Mariana Rondón.

And while the teenagers look for their roots, their parents and ancestors plunge into opacity and silence, like the anguished father in the Chilean FIPRESCI prize-winner, To Kill a Man (Matar a un hombre) by Alejandro Fernández Almendras, the violent and chauvinistic grandfather in Colombian Dust on the Tongue (Tierra en la lengua) by Rubén Mendoza (Best Film winner according to the official jury), the mother in minimalistic Club sandwich and, particularly, the figure embodying the entire metaphor and incorporating both motifs: the main character in the Peruvian feature The Mute (El mudo) by Daniel and Diego Vega, a hieratic judge who loses his voice because of an accidental shot and lives on, obsessed by trying to find its perpetrator.

Impregnated with a deep distrust towards all kinds of explanatory dramaturgy, as well as steeped in radical behaviorism to which all psychology is simply adverse, the best among these films displayed the meticulous precision of style. The finest examples of that came in the minutely calculated minimalism and the refined staging of Club Sandwich (a film discovered at the San Sebastián Film Festival) and the persistent force that underlies some of the shots in the disturbing To Kill a Man — a film that opens a new chapter in reflecting upon the difficulties of carrying out a murder (which, at some points, takes us back to Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain).

Despite the unexpected disappointment brought on by the entries by the host country itself (Mateo belongs to a Catholic NGO, more than to a film festival, while Dust on the Tongue is as upsetting as it is unsuccessful), FICCI proved useful, first of all, in revealing the encouraging vitality that is living in Chilean cinema, and then to confirm two remarkable Argentinian filmmakers: Celina Murga (The Third Side of the River) and Natalia Smirnoff (who authored the very noteworthy Lock Charmer / El cerrajero). On the other scale of the balance, however, the festival served as warning against the danger of a repetitious pattern that seems to spread throughout the entire continent: that of films with minimal action, multiple silences, opaque main characters and static camera (a pattern that sometimes yields sincere and stimulating proposals, but in many other cases only generates productions that seem formatted with a template in order to please festival curators).

The energy transmitted by the active and fruitful moment of Colombian film institutions, however, was very strongly sensed during the lively and rich forum of ‘Encuentros Cartagena’, where workshops were held on the topic of criticism, film journalism, film festivals and documentary practice (as well as an international producers’ meeting). What was also remarkable, was the ability of the festival to invite the likes of Pawel Pawlikowski, John Sayles and Abbas Kiarostami (all three with a retrospective of their own and all three present in Cartagena), as well as to recover four full-length films shot in Colombia between 1981 and 1986, by the very interesting Chilean filmmaker Dunav Kuzmanich (who lived in Colombia in exile).

Edited by Michal Oleszczyk