The Mar del Plata Festival asked the FIPRESCI jury to judge not its main competition, nor the Latin American films (as was the case in the last edition), but to choose its winner from Argentinean films included in the festival’s three competitions — International, Latin American and National. The idea sounded unusual at the beginning, but it turned out to be a very interesting proposal. In recent years, many Argentinean films have traveled around the world on the festival circuit, and even playing as official selections in major festivals: Two films competed in Cannes this year. Names like Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso and Pablo Trapero are well known by international critics, along with many others: Adrián Caetano, Daniel Burman, Albertina Carri, Martín Rejtman, etc.
All the films by these filmmakers are financed in almost the same way. They start by requesting funds from the Incaa — the state agency for cinema — and then they get a European co-producer, so they apply to European cinema funds like the Fond Sud or the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund. This fund-raising system, which in certain cases reminds one of political campaigning, has become the standard procedure for producing high-end Argentinean films.
But there are more films made in Argentina, especially by young people for whom these techniques are almost completely alien — and they don’t get money from the State in their country. (It’s almost impossible for newcomers to do so.) As such, there is a yearly crop of productions in Argentina that have great difficulties getting noticed on the international circuit. These films are first or second features made with very low budgets, usually in a digital format, and produced with absolute freedom. Many of these new filmmakers are film students, or recent film-school graduates. Their output may be considered as a kind of “B production” in comparison to mainstream local standards, but in fact many of these films are good enough to be shown in festivals.
Since its foundation in 1999, Bafici (Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival) has been the primary showcase for this kind of films. People like Trapero, Alonso, Diego Lerman, Juan Villegas, Celina Murga and others started there during the first years of the festival. Their films premiered in Buenos Aires, then jumped to the foreign festivals. But in the last few years, due precisely to the work of these pioneers, international programmers started to look directly for the output of the known names and also for the newcomers with big productions behind them (Lucía Puenzo and her XXY, for example). But once Cannes and Berlin and Venice have had their pick of the cream of the annual crop, there are some films left at which very few people care to look; programmers seem to be interested mainly in what is already showing at big festivals, and even international reviewers don’t care much about films that are not part (for both aesthetic and production reasons) of the indie mainstream.
Usually, these films are shown at the Bafici, where in each edition something interesting emerges, but remains partially unnoticed for one reason or another — a lack of a 35mm print, perhaps, or an excess of originality. In the last edition of the Bafici, a remarkable film like Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories (Historias Extraordinarias) was not the only work to suffer such a fate. After not knowing very well how to handle new Argentinean films — almost everything was shown, suggesting a very weak selection process — Mar del Plata adopted for this edition of the Bafici a policy of selecting a dozen films and scatter them throughout the various competitions. And the FIPRESCI jury was asked to go after them.
It is a good idea to invite a group of critics to look at this very fresh output. In fact, 12 of the 14 films in our program were world premieres. The other two were first features which had already screened in festivals: Pablo Agüero’s Salamandra, which debuted at the Quinzaine in Cannes, and Mariano Cohn & Gastón Duprat’s The Artist (El Artista), which recently premiered in Rome. (Just six films had Incaa support, three of them documentaries.) Though we didn’t discover a hidden masterpiece, the quality of the whole selection was more than acceptable, and at least ten of the films where considered as possible contenders by the members of our jury. The winner, ultimately, was a typical B movie: La Tigra, Chaco is a modest yet very creative and well-done comedy made by people coming from a film school not well known for its output to date. Another film, the documentary Retiro Shelter (Parador Retiro), emerged from the same school (a grade course of the Buenos Aires University) and won the official Argentinean award.
But the moral of this story is that behind the well-known names and the usual co-productions, there is a collection of films that may seem fragile in terms of production value, but are very respectable as cinematic efforts — and those films should be considered by critics and festivals, as was the case here. This not only applies to Argentinean films, but may be also true for many other countries.