Youth Culture Films at Cinelatino

in 29th CinéLatino – 29th Rencontres Cinémas d'Amérique Latine

by Renata Habets

Latin American cinema has been blooming in the last couple of years. For its 2017 edition, the programmers of Cinelatino had to watch over 300 fiction features, 350 documentaries and over 800 shorts. Its Cinema in Construction initiative received applications from 204 works in progress. This abundance of cinema comes from all over the region, from Colombia to Mexico, Chile, Cuba and Argentina. Distribution for these films is difficult, not only in Europe but in Latin America itself. The majority of titles tend to premiere at international film festivals. Cinelatino aims to improve the distribution of Latin American cinema and to spread its cultural diversity. It is the oldest European festival dedicated to Latin American films, creating a bridge between continents. At a moment like this, it is imperative to oppose the culture of walls and protectionism of the Trump government, which will only reinforce the hegemony of Hollywood cinema around the world.

Many recent films from Latin America, such as Colombia’s The Nobodies (Los nadie) and The Mushrooms (Los hongos), Mexico’s I Promise You Anarchy (Te prometo anarquía) and Chile’s Jesus, chronicle the lives of Spanish-speaking millennials who float around unmoored in largely eventless lives. Sex is often a matter of personal gratification rather than an expression of love or mutual desire, and the youngsters’ moral compasses (if they are even present) seem to need readjustment. What is clear is that these (fictional) adolescents will only learn from mistakes they make themselves. But their uncaring attitude and lack of boundaries often results in mistakes crossing the line from simple blunder (The Nobodies) to criminal offence (Jesus).

I want to review two of my favourite features in competition at Cinelatino, Jesús and The Nobodies. Jesús is the second feature by Chilean director Fernando Guzzoni, appearing at San Sebastian and in Toronto’s Discovery section. It is inspired by a true story and features naturalistic, credibly lived-in performances, shot in semi-documentary style. These days, harsh youth culture films are a genre unto themselves. There are moments in this film when you think you’ve seen it all before – in, for instance, the films of Larry Clark. But this look at the vacant world of a teenage boy and his pals takes a turn into something completely different. It becomes a study of a father-son relationship fraught with painful issues of moral responsibility.

The film’s title, and the protagonist’s name, common though it is in Latino countries, is presumably meant to strike an ironic chord. This particular 18-year-old is no messiah, just a very naughty and certainly very confused boy. Jesús is a kid from Santiago, a member of an amateur boy-band dance group. Most of the time he hangs out with friends, has casual sex in parks and cultivates a sexually ambivalent pop-star image, to the despair of his often-absent father Hector.

The first half of Jesús, low on narrative, depicts the repetitive, aimless days of a kid going nowhere, just passing time by watching online footage of narco-executions or by having a casual encounter with a young woman. (One sex scene in which Jesús gets together with a male friend does result in a rare moment of genuine tenderness). Throughout it all, Jesús seems out of it, disconnected from the world. In fact, he is a detached bystander in a nasty episode instigated by his friend, alpha male Beto. One night, a drunken boy is brutalized by three of his friends and Jesús seems to be the only one whose conscience is affected. When the episode hits the daily news and the boy dies, the film shifts towards a clearer narrative. Jesús wants to come clean and this is where his father comes in as a caring, responsible parent. He briefly becomes the focus of the story, helping Jesús hide from the police. But the final scene truly takes a surprise turn, as his father chooses a very difficult form of tough love. Thematically the film seems downbeat, if not despairing, in its depiction of a world of empty hedonism and second-hand culture. But a brief snatch of radio news about student militancy reassures us that Guzzoni isn’t suggesting we give up on an entire generation. Not just yet.

The Nobodies is the debut of Colombian director Juan Sebastián Mesa, winning Venice’s Critics’ Week prize, chosen by the audience, and having its world premiere at opening night of the Cartagena International Film Festival. The film was shot in just seven days with a reported budget of $2000. It is a black-and-white tale of fraternal love, hate and broken promises between five friends, anarcho-punk street artists. These five friends live a non-conformist life, going through that blended trance of intense astonishment, unrest, contained tenderness and rage which marks the end of adolescence. They survive at the edges of Medellin, the city notorious for drug baron Pablo Escobar.

The friends are simultaneously attracted and excluded by the city, which lures them with promises but rejects them with hostility. Nevertheless, they want to embrace the city and fight against its logic of fear. Their punkish lifestyle is at the same time a protest and a renewed discourse addressing and resisting the cultural limitations of their time. Music, street art and friendship are their weapons of resistance, as they hope for a rite of passage which could transform them into someone else. The Nobodies is an affectionate portrait of a generation which doesn’t know what to do with itself, although the biggest revelation of the film turns out to be no revelation at all. For the most part, these marginalized or largely invisible people seem to think and act just like kids anywhere.

Director Mesa has explained that his anarcho-punk characters belong to “one of the most enigmatic and radical movements of our time”. Only 27 years old, he wrote, in a statement, that “the film speaks about a generation of disenchanted dreamers that feel the need to embrace the unknown and to explore the world by themselves.”

Edited by Lesley Chow