The River of Images, the Ocean of Stories By Eduardo Russo

in 10th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Eduardo Russo

Each season, the BAFICI offers along with its huge amount of films a considerable number of surprises and questions. The boundaries between genres and conventions are frequently blurred, and the immersion in one of its multiple darkened rooms brings us to confront the unexpected. Our questions arise, especially this one: What is cinema?

The (River) Bank that Becomes Abysmal (La orilla que se abisma) is a documentary directed by Gustavo Fontán from an essay by Juan L. Ortiz (1896-1978). Ortize, sometimes simply evoked by his familiar surname, “Juanele”, was a recondite poet whose work evokes superbly life in the Argentinean province of Entre Ríos. Appropriately named, Entre Ríos (“Between Rivers”) is a region marked by nature, especially fluvial landscapes, in different ways. Ortiz wrote largely of those landscapes and managed to make them seem like a part of his soul. Fontán does the same through a panoply of astonishing cinematic resources.

The nature of cinema is questioned in this film by Fontán’s facility in other artistic disciplines; the director is also a poet and essayist. Among his previous screen credits is The Tree (El árbol), filmed in the house where Fontán was born, with his own family as principal character. That film was a beautiful example of independent filmmaking in its purest form. Silently, meticulously, The Tree prepared its audience for the more radical excursion of The (River) Bank that Becomes Abysmal.

For Juan L. Ortiz, as for Fontán, poetry and life are one, the same thing. The film is an intense, non-narrative experience that avoids all the expected conventions of documentaries about poets and poetry to submerge the viewer in a close, almost tactile connection with Ortiz’ world. Precious few words are written or spoken in the film; the last of them are spoken by the dead poet himself, via some documentary footage shot in the 1970s. Beyond that, the film is a beautiful voyage through the representation of landscapes from 20th century paintings, reinterpreted as cinema. Some passages are audacious incursions into impressionism, working with the simplest of cinematic materials — light and shadow, sound and silence. The film is simultaneously complex and transparent, a luminous experience that purifies our way of seeing. After seeing this film at the BAFICI, one could meditate upon it for days, or simply watch it and, later, describe that experience with the title of another of Ortiz’ poems: “Fui al río. I Went to the River.”

If The (River) Bank That Becomes Abysmal is a sheer (although subtle) gem, Mariano Llinás’ Extraordinary Stories (Historias Extraordinarias) was the big word-of-mouth hit in the BAFICI’s final days. Screened a few times between Friday and Sunday, the film’s four-hour length and trifurcated structure offers a hypernarrative proposal. The ocean of stories flows in Llinas’ film with an almost unstoppable drive, relating the events experienced by three main characters named X, Z and H with manifold and surprising derivations into other stories.

The narrative of Extraordinary Stories evokes the incredible tales of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, or the films of Raoul Ruiz. An omniscient voice-over discusses what we see on the screen, a subtle and clever device that plays with the image in a permanent recreated connection.

The city of Buenos Aires, with its plains, rivers and townships, is transformed in the film into a mythical and poetic territory, avoiding the realistic conventions in favor of a sense of mystery and adventure. The film glides from one genre to another, from one story to another, in an indefinably joyful and slippery manner. As the ending of the film says: “Always on the Road”.

Produced on an extremely low budget, this work defies both the establishment sensibility and the codes of independent filmmaking. As a proud vindication of the marginal, its freedom is accompanied by an unusual and exciting vitality. Extraordinary Stories may not mark the birth of a new type of filmmaking — as someone has said, it’s something of an anomaly. But it’s a splendid, hopefully infectious one.

With this atypical, excessive and masterful film, Llinás redefines the limits of narration — and, indeed, what is narratable — in the Argentine cinema. Perhaps it also indicates a change in the national mood about the state of content on local screens. Simultaneously, with redoubled happiness, it affirms the pleasure of making films and the pleasure of seeing movies. And this is no small issue in this particular time and place.