The Latin American Presence at the 52nd IFFR

in 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Mónika Delgado

In this 52nd edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Latin American presence was concentrated in the parallel sections. Unfortunately, the official competition for the Tiger Award did not include any films from Latin American countries, which reveals not only an evident absence, but also a programming criteria that could be missing works that may have the attributes of the other works in competition.

The pandemic has significantly affected the rhythm of production in this part of the continent. However, three years after the beginning of this nefarious episode, this edition had more than thirty independent films, including short and feature films from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Peru and the Dominican Republic. I will comment on some of the films I saw in different sections.

La montaña by Mexican reporter, writer and filmmaker Diego Enrique Osorno is a documentary that records the journey of a group of seven Zapatista activists from the Atlantic coasts of Mexico to Portugal, the European entrance to a new territory. Presented in the Harbour section, this film follows the Zapatista militants – four women (including one transgender woman) and three men – who historically have been demanding legitimacy, vindication of the rights of indigenous communities and autonomy. They all travel and live together on a boat where the captain and sailors accompany them through the process, not as spectators but as participants in the social cause that merits the trip.

Although the film has a conventional documentary style with interviews as it follows the actions of the characters, it is interesting to see how the filmmaker approaches the idea of a family logbook, and also the unstable transit of the sea as a metaphor for a political, social and cultural search that requires responses from the State and civil society. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is shown through the sensitivity, desires, frustrations of these militants at sea, either as part of the beginning of an epic (seeking allies for their strategies in Europe), or as a human portrait of the people who make up this movement, from solidarity and community life.

At the other end of the spectrum, the hybrid film Mudos testigos (Silent Witnesses) by Colombians Luis Ospina and Jerónimo Atehortua Arteaga was also presented in the Harbour section of the festival. This is a project Ospina planned before his death, and which Atehortua recovers and puts into action. Using scenes from a dozen fiction films and newsreels from the silent period of Colombian cinema from between 1922 and 1937 (including some scenes or sequences of discarded footage), the filmmakers imagine a new love story, based on melodramatic codes. The film images, taken mainly from films from the 1920s, are revived from the same codes of silent cinema, although assigning the possibility of a catharsis-like ending to some work of experimental cinema.

In Mudos testigos, the archival material is revisited not only to elaborate a simple story of love encounters and misunderstandings, but also to account for the possibility of reinterpreting those images filmed by elites or businessmen who dreamed of a film industry and give them a new sense of liberation from the present. Hollywood storytelling modes are also activated from the present, as if there were no way of escaping from those alienating narratives, where there are still executioners, kidnapped lovers or frustrated lovers, although now outsiders. A montage film that invites us to think about the value of archives recovered in adverse contexts and about the question of authorship.

In the field of fiction was Croma Kid by Dominican filmmaker Pablo Chea The film was part of the Bright Future section and proposes a story from the point of view of a young man (told through voiceover) who recalls the end of his childhood in the early 1990s, based on his family’s activities as seen through an alternative television channel. Between family comedy, b-series and science fiction, and through very colorful photography and art direction, the filmmaker formulates a fantastic story of a boy who sends his family to another dimension through to the activation of an analog video system.

There are some passages in the film where the protagonist designs and elaborates analog videos that seem to be inspired by the psychedelic works of Nam June Paik (such as 1973’s Global Groove), and that not only adds to the character’s development in relation to the creative television work of his father and mother (both magicians on a show), but as a nostalgic vision of technological devices active in the transition to the digital, or the loss of another imaginary – that of celluloid. Additionally, Chea’s film also shows the growth and presence of Dominican cinema in various international spaces, and the governmental support for its development.

A short film of interest is Tito, a Haitian documentary by Kervens Jimenez and Taylor McIntosh. In its fourteen minutes we witness a descent, an immersion into a kind of hell, embodied in an overcrowded prison in Port-au-Prince. This entry into the prison world takes place through a hidden camera given to a prisoner called Jimenez, who records, interviews others and comments on the harsh conditions for prisoners who have not been sentences, some of whom have been there for twelve to fifteen years.

Tito won the award for Best Short Film of the festival, along with Mónica Lima‘s Portuguese film, Human Nature (Natureza Humana). There was, however, a small controversy during the Q&A for Tito because the protagonist Kervens had been murdered in prison and the images recorded called ethical questions about documentary filmmaking more broadly into question. While there was a sense of power, immediacy and a cry for justice in the film, others bordered on misery porn.

And to finish this report, we mention Cielo Abiertothe first feature film by Peruvian filmmaker Felipe Esparza Perez, which screened in the Bright Future program. This is a documentary work that proposes a conceptual reading around two types of matter: the physical, based on the use of a volcanic stone from southern Peru in colonial-style architectural and urban constructions, and the immaterial, based on technological development and the loss of contact between humans due to this supposed “progress”. A father who works as a stonecutter is confronted by the absence of his wife who died in an accident, and by the distance he maintains with his young son, whom he hardly ever sees.

Beyond the plot or theme, Cielo abierto is a film essay on the dialectic between these two states, where colonial ghosts haunt the characters. It includes careful sound design work, where the uneasiness or ghostly side of the characters is soothed by montage or sound design that in a way expands the visual experience.

Mónica Delgado
Edited by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas