Encountering Foreign Accents

in 34th Rencontres de Toulouse - CinéLatino

by Rita Boronyák

Cinélatino is a festival of discovery: for 34 years, the friendly and free spirit of Toulouse has attracted creative Latin American talents seeking a European audience. The filmmakers in this year’s competition primarily used auteur filmmaking to portray the pressing problems of their disparate countries.

The symbol of the event could be the cantina: wobbling tables in a Hundertwasser-like setting, with first-rate dishes made by volunteers. The tent is decorated with colourful, beautiful posters from previous festivals (courtesy of Ronald Curchod). There are no extra venues: the festival director and jury watch films with the audience and party together in the courtyard of the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. This is a professional international competition festival held within the loose confines of a university film club. It preserves the democratic approach of its founders in ’68, creating a close, almost fraternal relationship between film professionals and audiences, while making it its mission to present the annual output of a continent. Cinélatino rejects the glamour and hierarchy of the red carpet, even avoiding the term festival, preferring instead to call itself an encounter—but the acquaintances and awards can launch careers. The best example: it was here that Damián Szifron won the French Critics’ New Discovery Award in 2003 for his debut feature El fondo del mar; he went on to win a string of major awards with Wild Tales, which since 2014 has been the biggest box office success in Argentine film history.

This year’s Encounters opened with a restored Bolivia (Israel Adrián Caetano, 2001), and closed with Domingo (Raúl López Echeverria, 2020). Two endpoints; a turn-of-the-millennium Latin American emigration socio-drama and a feel-good comedy about the middle-aged Domingo (Eduardo Covarrubias) in the suburbs of Guadalajara, who finds new meaning in his life as a football commentator. Bolivia celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Cinéma en Construction section, for which it was the prototype. In 1999, the 25-year-old Argentine producer Matías Mosteirín asked his friends in Toulouse for help with a single, poor-quality VHS copy of an unfinished film. One of the founders of the festival, Esther Saint-Dizier, invited the film professionals present to an impromptu screening… and the rest is history. In 2001, the director was awarded the Best Film prize by the Young Critics at Cannes, followed by the FIPRESCI prize, the San Sebastián prize for Best Latin American Film, and numerous other honours. Mosteirín went on to produce films such as the aforementioned Wild Tales, followed by major international co-productions such as The Revenant and The Two Popes.

The episode also marked a turning point in the history of Cinélatino, which subsequently invited an average of six Latin American projects to be developed each year. José María Riba has established a partnership with the Category A San Sebastián Festival; 226 films were made in Latin American- European co-productions so far, of which 22 were selected for competition at Cannes and 19 at the Berlinale.

Prestigious awards denote a strong endorsement by the founders, although for them they are more proof that what is important to them is also valuable to others. And why Toulouse? In the 1970s and 1980s, many Latin American political refugees, mainly Chilean, found a home in the region, as a wave of Spanish-speaking refugees, including the families of founders Esther and Francis Saint-Dizier, had settled there since the Spanish Civil War.

Toulouse Encounters, which has grown organically from Latin clubs and mini-festivals, has become a common space for these cultures, providing a sort of home. The awards have been handed out since the 10th Cinélatino, by which time it was accepted that the film industry is not democratic at all and that awards help artists’ careers.

Packed screenings, applause, a lot of questions during Q&As: the atmosphere is that of exam screenings, with debutants introduced in the cheering presence of their ersatz family. The filmmakers in this year’s competition exude first-rate technique: their editing, sound editing and production skills are as impressive as their cinematography.

Developed in Toulouse, the Argentina’s La Calma (The Calm), Mariano Cócolo’s black-and-white film of desolate landscapes and narrow interiors, won the French Film Critics’ Association (SFCC) award. The film follows the journey of Nancy (Tania Casciani), a law student forced by her father’s illness to return home to their farm in the Andes. She is obliged to fight without allies for her land, which the lord of the region has his eye on. The petite woman is portrayed as a superhero: not only can she manage to look after the big sheep, but she also has to run a household, care for her father, who is bedridden. La Calma marked an encouraging opening opus.  

The Bolivian Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama also takes us to barren mountainous terrain. The daily lives of an elderly Kechua couple raising majestic llamas are made difficult by the husband’s inability to perform his duties. Their grandson wants them to move to the city, and the stubborn old man instructs the boy with a protesting parable: “What does a condor do when he feels his time has come? He flies high over the cliffs, folds his wings and smashes himself to death.” Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, the film is also a Toulouse development.

Mari Alessandrini’s Zahori, a Swiss-Argentine-Chilean-French co-production, is also grounded in the relationship between landscape and man in the mountains, with a silky white horse in the title role. Thirteen-year-old Mora fights a two-front battle for freedom against the discipline of school and the strictness of his parents. The stakes of the story, which combines elements of western and even burlesque, are to do with whether the girl can retain her natural unbridled temper. The understanding support of an elderly Mapuche, Nazareno, helps her to do so.

In Chile’s Mis hermanos sueñan despiertos (My Brothers Sleep With Their Eyes Open), Claudia Huaiqumilla’s images capture the microcosm of a prison that is a torture ground in a juvenile detention centre. Friendship and love are both concealed because they provide a platform for torment. Only one teacher takes her job seriously, inspiring the joy of learning and the hope of breaking out. Huaiqumilla makes her mark with a stunning film: her ability to create atmosphere and tension makes up for the minor dramaturgical flaws. She was awarded two prizes, including the festival’s Grand Prix.

The central character of the FIPRESCI-winning Brazilian Rio Doce, directed by Fellipe Fernandes, is Tiago (Okado do Canal), a teddy bear who lives in a slum in Recife, is in debt, and can only work with pain due to his spinal problems. When he discovers that his father, whom he has never met, was wealthy and included him in his will, his inner balance is enough to hide his embarrassment from his newfound, scornful relatives. It is much harder for him to redefine who he is.

Chilean Francisca Alegría co-produced La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro (The Cow Who Sang for the Future), a Sundance-winning film from France, USA and Germany. Using elements of magical realism—singing fish, cows, a beautiful mother resurrected from a stream—she combines the inheritance of family traditions and the importance of environmental protection in the motif of water. Alfredo Castro, one of the greatest actors in Chilean cinema, plays the patriarch, the source of all the troubles. He also stars in Nicolás Postiglione’s Inmersio (The Immersion), the most fictional auteur film in the competition. Ricardo (Castro) and his daughters’ cruise is interrupted by a distress call from three fishermen whose boat is sinking. The father, suspecting a trap, pretends not to have seen that one of the fishermen has sunk. His daughters force him to rescue the distressed. It is not only the rich who distrust the poor; it is also true the other way round, argues Postiglione with shifting tensions that recall Knife in the Water. The film has everything from excellent casting to brilliant cinematography, so it’s a pity that its lesson is too direct: the one who pays for prejudices is usually the one who shares them least.

The dramaturgy of El árbol rojo (The Red Tree), developed in San Sebastian, tries to deal with its over-abundance of themes by simplifying them. In Colombia, Joan Gómez Endara’s protagonist, Eliécer, a lonely, middle-aged fisherman, receives an unexpected gift from his father: Esperanza (Spanish for Hope), a strange little girl. His first reaction is anger: his musician father abandoned him and his mother when he was very young. That’s why he resigned from playing music, despite his great talent. He sets out to find the child’s mother in Bogotá, and as expected, they are deceived and helped, meeting self- indulgent soldiers as well as generous gas station attendants. Not surprisingly, the little girl’s mother didn’t abandon her child because she was so attached to her…

Brazilian Gabriel Martins’ Marte Um (Mars 1), which debuted at Sundance and was selected by Tribeca, has similar problems. The film’s young boy hero is fascinated by physics and lives in anticipation of the Mars expedition, due in 2050. His macho father wants him to follow his progenitor’s dreams and become a professional football player. His sister falls in love with a rich girl, a narrative thread that is also meant to show the difference between the up-to-date thinking of the elite and the prejudices of the penny-pinching poor Blacks. Their mother, who is all practicality and life itself, has gone completely off the rails, suffering from anxiety neurosis since a fake TNT was blown up next to her. In the background, Bolsonaro and his supporters are celebrating, and political clichés contradict the accurate setting and characterization, as does the film’s optimistic ending.

In the history of Cinélatino, there is a slow generational change. The festival organizers are calm: they have not only had created an audience, but also a community, and they see continuity as assured.

Rita Boronyák
Edited by José Teodoro