The Homeless Percentage By Ivonete Pinto
The current productions of the Argentinean cinema, as revealed in the 23rd edition of Mar del Plata International Film Festival, find a common concern permeating seven of the fourteen movies in the competition. Whether as the main or underlying theme, the issue of homelessness was noticeable in fully half of the Argentinean films showing in the International, Latin American and Argentinean competitions. These movies, which were the focus of attention for the FIPRESCI jury, reflect an economic crisis that reached its highest level during the government of President Fernando de la Rúa from 1999 to 2001. In the last months of this period, the country of the mythic Eva Perón faced the bankruptcy of private companies and banks, generating the inevitable consequence of a pauperized population. Many people found themselves jobless, without expectation for future employment or governmental aid, and found themselves living on the streets.
This “homeless percentage” in the festival program is not necessarily attached to historical recollections or the denunciation of a specific government, because some of the homeless belong to a marginalized stratum; in addition to poverty, they are mentally unbalanced and socially dysfunctional. At any rate, understanding the context of the Argentinean economy is fundamental. Argentina is a country which reached its financial zenith with agro-exportation at the turn of the 20th century. The imposing European-style architecture is a reminder of this apex; however, the sidewalks of these buildings are now filled with people wandering the city without a place to live.
Night Oversleepers (Los Pernoctantes) and Retiro Shelter (Parador Retiro) surely are the movies addressing this theme most visibly and in a direct fashion. In the first movie, four directors (Hernán Pablo Khourian, Sebastián Martínez, Diego Carabelli and Ángeles Casares) follow the trajectories of four characters living on the streets of Buenos Aires. Under the marquee of a theater, there is a woman, approximately 80 years of age, whose clothes and speech reveal her middle-class origins. Like her, the other characters portrayed in the film also share the profiles of people who were not “born on the streets”, but have ended up inhabiting the streets out of circumstance. The approach on the part of the directors, however, is not simply to tell sad stories; instead, they want to explore their subjects’ relationships with the objects they carry, and with the people (and dogs) with whom they share their space. The narration is declarative, not investigative.
On the other hand, Jorge Coles’ Retiro Shelter has an even less invasive process in relation to the camera: It portrays its characters in open plains, without betraying intimacies. Nevertheless, by virtue of the extensive footage captured, it was possible to shape the material by electing lines and gestures that let us understand a little of the background stories, and why the characters spend their nights in a shelter.
José Campusano’s Vile Romance (Vil Romance) follows a young gay man in search of a father, a husband and a home who ends up finding all of these together in an older man, though at a very high price. In this homeless scrap, it is worth pointing out that the central character has a mother and a sister with whom, it appears, he could live. But it’s not really an option, thanks to one sordid detail: The family home is a brothel, and the two of them work there as prostitutes.
Pablo Agüero’s Salamander (Salamandra) is a fictional work based on the director’s own childhood. Set in the 1980s, the story finds the main character’s mother, just out of prison, abducting her own son — who had been living with his grandmother — and taking him to live in a hippie community on the borders of Patagonia called El Bolsón. Surrounded by addicts and filth, the boy survives in a delicate manner recalling Truffaut’s young heroes. He never complains, even when his mother finally gets out of this place and rents a tiny house which is so tremendously awful that makes a slum resemble a luxury hotel. The search for a place to call home goes on.
Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, the directors of The Artist (El Artista), do not focus directly on the homeless; instead, their film looks at a seniors’ residence, home to a gifted painter whose works are signed and sold by a nurse without his knowledge. The metaphoric power in this film has the higher voice and we are led to understand that the house of the hospitalized man is his own creative mind, communicating only through abstract drawings.
In The Assembly (La Assemblea), the homeless theme is also obliquely present. The scenario of this documentary, directed by Galel Maidana, is a psychiatric hospital where the issue under discussion is the removal of the patients from asylums and placement back at home with their families, where they might be treated in a more beneficial environment.
It is in Back to Fortín Olmos (Regreso a Fortín Olmos) that the homeless get closer to realizing the dream of having homes of their own. Patricio Coll and Jorge Goldenberg’s documentary reflects upon an ill-conceived experiment in co-operativism, which took place in Argentina in the 1960s on the lands of a lumber dealer. Forty years later, the directors interview those who survived this experience and learn that the homeless countrymen of that time never could imagine they would become landowners. Their co-operativism and self-management indeed provided the opportunity for this dream to come true. Notwithstanding, the images of abandonment seen today do not leave any doubt that the experience of Fortín Olmos was nothing more than utopia. The heirs of these countrymen form the lines of homeless and landless people in movements that are growing more and more in Latin America.
Perhaps this thematic axis was not one consciously processed by the festival programmer. But there is no doubt that the subject points to a significant social concern. The dispossessed street society we used to imagine being confined to the slums of India is now a global reality. And judging by the origins of the current North American financial crisis, with banks foreclosing on defaulted mortgages, such a situation is no longer the “privilege” of poor nations. More movies about the homeless percentage will be coming.