The Hubert Bals Fund and the Promotion of Latin American Cinema By Daniel Steinhart
in 35th Rotterdam International Film Festival
The International Film Festival Rotterdam’s founding director Hubert Bals once said, “The future of cinematography is not to be expected from Europe or the United States, but all the more from lesser known film cultures.” Attending any recent edition of the IFFR, you can’t help but agree with Bals. While this year’s program offered strong work from Europe, the US, and always-vibrant East Asia, some of the most exciting films came from unsung places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Uruguay. The IFFR has not only created its distinct identity in the festival world by showcasing this kind of undiscovered work, but also by financing it. The festival’s Hubert Bals Fund has been a quiet but vital force in fostering filmmaking in these emerging film cultures.
Initiated in 1988, the Hubert Bals Fund provides grants for projects from developing countries in order to support script development and post-production. The fund also assists with the distribution of the projects both in their country of production and abroad. Rather than rewarding Hollywood copycats or films that pander to the world market by overstuffing themselves with global themes and styles, the fund’s committee chooses work steeped in local flavor. Artistic quality is the most important criterion for selecting projects, believes fund coordinator Marianne Bhalotra. In addition, she explains, “A project should be rooted in its country. For us, it’s important for a film to have a personal voice from the country where it’s made.” Ironically, it’s precisely this kind of regionalism that achieves universal appeal. A number of Latin American films showcased in this year’s festival, and supported by the Hubert Bals Fund, are exemplary of work that feels fixed in its time and place.
Co-winner of the Tiger Award, Manuel Nieto Zas’ La perrera is a film so entrenched in its locale’s sleepy moods and rhythms that it makes its protagonist a prisoner of it. This Uruguayan film unfolds slowly, but never monotonously, as David, a 25-year-old underachiever, wiles away the late summer days in a resort town devoid of women by smoking pot and sleeping. When his stern old man returns from holiday, David is forced into the almost Sisyphean task of building his own house with few supplies, little experience, and not enough money to pay his co-workers. The film’s careful interest in the labor of the house’s shambolic construction suggests that David will achieve some sense of personal accomplishment by its completion. However, the film’s project is more fatalistic; the raising of the house secures David’s bonds to a place he won’t be able to escape from. Actor Pablo Riera’s wild physical transformation, which is nicely balanced by his underplayed performance, betrays the inner turmoil that his character experiences.
The Tiger competition’s other South American slacker film, Glue , came from Argentina’s Alexis Dos Santos. Whereas La perrera’s protagonist becomes trapped by his unforgiving environment, the aimless lead of Glue defies his dead-end Patagonian town by finding freedom in a freewheeling existence. 15-year-old Lucas sings in a crappy garage band, writing hilariously nonsensical lyrics. He breaks into his father’s apartment and huffs Dad’s model glue. At the apex of pubescent sexual discovery, he has a drunken three-way with his pal Nacho and their mousy friend Andrea. These episodic scenes would have little impact were it not for the actors’ brave performances and the film’s casual aesthetic, which mixes Super 8 and video. The film also creates an amusing depiction of Lucas’ fractured family. The sensitive handling of their physical intimacy recalls the cozy family portraits of Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, another Hubert Bals beneficiary.
In the Cinema of the Future: Sturm und Drang program, two Mexican films, Batalla en el cielo and Sangre, aimed for provocation and transcendence. The screening of Batalla en el cielo was something of a homecoming for its director Carlos Reygadas, who made the world cinema scene at the 2002 IFFR with his Hubert Bals-funded debut Japón. If Japón is a tribute to the quiet, rugged beauty of Mexico’s mountainous landscape then Reygadas’ follow-up is a celebration of the savage jungle of Mexico City. With an Arbus-like fascination in the uncanny nature of the commonplace, the film follows the guilt-ridden wanderings of Marcos, a chauffer whose botched kidnapping scheme leads him to confess his crime to his boss’ prostitute daughter. The exploration of Catholic guilt and class discourse through enigmatic imagery makes the film’s morality feel equivocal. However, Reygadas is more assured in his stylistic flourishes. His use of shifting subjectivities, elaborate camera movements, and rich soundscapes gives the film its compelling power.
Amat Escalante’s Sangre, on the other hand, plays out with more restraint. Shot in static, widescreen long-takes, the film captures the quotidian life of a middle-aged doorman and his wife. Living in a culture that encourages routine, the characters carry out sex, work, and eating with perfunctory effort. Like Reygadas, Escalante, who served as an assistant director on Batalla en el cielo , is interested in the existential crisis of the common man. And like Reygadas, Escalante allows his leading character redemption even after the most barbaric of acts. In Sangre , this moment of transcendence would be unwarranted had it not transpired in such a surprising and modest way.
Escalante’s next film, Los Bastardos, was one of the most sought-after projects at this year’s CineMart. Escalante, like the aforementioned directors, are heralding a vibrant new wave of film activity from Latin America, thanks in part to support from foreign investments like the Hubert Bals Fund. These formally and thematically bold movies, with a strong sense of local identity, suggest that we pay close attention to the future of filmmaking in these Spanish-speaking nations.