What Is It You're Really Offering Me?: Foreign "Help" In The Films Of The 34th Havana Film Festival

in 34th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Carmen Gray

In Cuba – a nation politically skeptical and guarded against foreign influence, but where embargoes have crippled the economy and tourism dollars are relentlessly hustled for – attitudes toward the perceived financial privilege of the west are inevitably complicated. Of the 21 Latin American films in the main competition of the 34th Havana Film Festival, a number of them reflected this uneasy relationship, ranging from stereotypes of marauding colonisers to multi-layered musings on financial oppression, desperation and the questionable motives of charity.  

La Pelicula de Ana, directed by Daniel Diaz Torres, could well be a wry jab at Austrian director Michael Glawogger’s recent festival-hit documentary Whore’s Glory, which was voyeuristically shot in brothels in various developing nations. The Cuban comedy sees a down-on-her-luck soap actress (Laura de la Uz) desperate for a high-paying role opportunistically grab her chance when an Austrian film crew roll into town. Learning they’re determined to shoot the raw reality of underworld Havana for a documentary, she signs up for the project, having dressed up as a prostitute to dupe them. Her ruse becomes by necessity more elaborate as the crew demands increasing access into her invented life, drawing in her husband (himself an aspiring, but penniless, director), friends and neighbours – all of whom lose any misgivings as soon as the whopping sum they can expect for participation is mentioned. The rollickingly vibrant if broad-humoured film has moments of real appeal, but fails to transcend stereotype in its depiction of the Austrians, who are by turns naive and sexually predatory, the film’s take on colonial exoticisation and exploitation too heavy-handed to genuinely challenge.

Though at times feeling overly constructed, Las Cosas Como Son from Chilean director Fernando Lavanderos Montero offers more thrillingly ambiguous, relevant and engaging thematic meat. It charts the shifting ties between three characters in a house in Santiago: young, anti-social house-owner Jeronimo (Cristobal Palma), his new tenant Sanna (a Norwegian actress newly arrived in Chile to assist with a theatre workshop for troubled youths, played by Ragni Orsal Skogsrod), and Milton (Isaac Arriagada), the teenager she hides away in need of a safe haven from the gang problems he’s embroiled in. Jeronimo reluctantly agrees to this third guest due to his budding sexual relationship with Sanna, warning her anything that occurs as a result is her responsibility. Tension comes to a head between Jeronimo’s guarded mistrust (construed as symptomatic of Chile’s repressed post-dictatorship society) and Sanna’s naive, impulsive invitation of help, which as Jeronimo points out could promote an unhealthy dependency she can’t follow through on – and may ultimately just spring from a desire to make herself feel good. With his crush on her bordering on obsession, Jeronimo’s secret snooping in her bedroom problematises any ethical high-ground we may have instinctively wanted to grant his position. As for Milton’s own agenda, this is also left tantalisingly ambiguous.

Verging on documentary, authentically moving Aqui y Alla from Mexican director Antonio Mendez Esparza also examines complex exchanges between Latin America and the west, through the lens of a father (Pedro de los Santos) who has returned to his small mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico, after a long absence working in the US to earn money to support his family. While his relationships with his wife and daughters slowly solidify again through shared daily experience, their economic situation becomes increasingly precarious due to health-related events out of their control and a shortage of local work. With an ending that comes as inevitably as it does sadly, the pressure monetary demands can place on family life in Mexico are underscored. The disillusioning, tough realities of a life of illegal work in the US (never shown on screen, but ever-present as a mythical intangibility and symbol of absence) lie in uneasy balance here with the inexorable pull of its material possibilities in times of desperation.   

Foreign “help” always has its allure, these films suggest – and its price.

Carmen Gray