by Julianne Burton
Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 33-35
When Lino Micciché, in his low-keyed opening remarks at the first evening film session, announced that this the 11th Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema might well be the last, there was hardly a stir from the auditorium filled to capacity with visiting journalists and local public. As the major forum for both feature and documentary films of an experimental and invariably political nature, and as an alternative to the “First-world,” established cinema of Hollywood and Western Europe, the Pesaro festival has played a major role since its inception in 1964. Its support for alternative film movements—bringing films and filmmakers together in a format which substitutes roundtable discussion for juries and competition, while still providing broad international exposure—has made a significant contribution to the survival of those movements. Films from Eastern Europe, Japan, Africa and the Arab countries have been consistently featured, but perhaps it is the Latin American filmmakers and their movements followers who have been the greatest beneficiaries of the Mostra.
Though early independent activities in Brazil and Argentina pre-date the festival’s founding, for the most part the lifespan of the militant New Latin American Cinema movement coincides with that of the Mostra. Virtually all the key films—several of which are still not available in the United States (1)—had their first screening in that Italian seacoast town: Argentina’s HOUR OF THE FURNACES*, Bolivia’s BLOOD OF THE CONDOR* and THE COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE*, the films produced in socialist Chile and in the heyday of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, and Cuban masterpieces such as MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT*, LUCIA*, and DAYS OF WATER. Who can predict the impact that the possible closing of the Mostra—coming as it does at a time of reactionary ascendancy in so many Latin American countries—may have on the survival of the New Latin American Cinema?
From the festival director’s opening address, a subdued air, a sense of decline, characterized this traditionally controversial and often explosive festival. The audience remained an amorphous passive receptor throughout, failing to generate any real political exchange—either between the members of the audience themselves or, in those rare opportunities where the directors were present, between the audience and the filmmakers.
The Mostra was declared to be in a state of financial crisis of such dimensions as to jeopardize its survival. What was not stressed (because it was obvious?) was the political dimension of this economic bind. Pesaro is a communist-controlled Italian town in a Christian Democratic region, and the latter party is increasingly reluctant to legislate the funds formerly channeled into the festival. The most optimistic alternative, never fully elaborated, seems to be to relocate the festival on the opposite coast, at Livorno.
The new austerity had a direct impact on the social and consequently the political relations during the eight-day festival. In previous years, all invited guests—both filmmakers and journalists—were given free room and board at a central hotel. Casual encounters abounded in lobbies and elevators, and the dining room became the set for social interaction and lengthy political debate. Participants apparently had a sense of each other and—however temporary—a sense of themselves as a group, which was never generated this year. A second product of the new economic constraints was the absence of simultaneous translation into anything but Italian, and occasionally French. In the past, Spanish and English were available as well. Since this year’s films, with very few exceptions, were in Portuguese and Spanish, aural comprehension was difficult for many viewers. Lack of simultaneous translation also seemed to restrain discussion after specific presentations.
The political content of the festival itself, apart from what was manifest or to be construed on an individual basis from the specific films, was generally reduced to the formal reading of declarations—against the fascist policies of the Chilean junta and specifically the incarceration of several film people, for example, or against the current state of siege in Argentina and the government’s mounting repression against all cultural workers on the left, especially those involved in filmmaking. Outside the theater, the political presence was considerably greater, as more and more Italian left groups set up displays of newspapers, literature, posters and records. One group appropriated the central arcade for a series of bulletin boards which graphically detailed the plight of Latin American workers and peasants under the current repressive regimes.
Some of the more seasoned and cynical journalists at the festival speculated that even the film selection was dictated by economic necessity. Specifically, they indicated that the two simultaneous program cycles offered—a retrospective of Brazilian Cinema Novo and of Italian filmmaking under fascism—were determined in large part on the basis of the modest financial outlay they required. The Chilean exile production of the past year, the new Cuban and Argentine output, and the less numerous films from other Latin American countries were interspersed among thirty-five from a movement which—as the films themselves demonstrated—has now come full circle. It has moved from banality through genius to the current powerlessness in the face of governmental suppression.
But the programming ran the risk of mistakenly attributing the past-glories-reduced-to-naught syndrome to all of Latin American cinema. First world critics have a fascination with the Brazilian Cinema Novo. In both Europe and the U.S., the amount of critical material available on the Brazilian film cycle rivals that can be found on all other Latin American national film movements combined). But now it must be recognized that one approaches Cinema Novo today as an essentially historical phenomenon. Despite counterrevolutionary coups, political repression, exile, and increased difficulties in both production and distribution, the same cannot and should not be said (yet) for filmmaking in Argentina, Bolivia, or even Chile, and certainly not for Cuba nor, for that matter, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela, where film production is on the rise.
CINEMA NOVO REVISITED
While underlining the historical nature of current interest in the Cinema Novo, I don't mean to undercut the importance of that interest. The Pesaro retrospective offered a unique opportunity to see the entire spectrum of Cinema Novo production, ranging from the late fifties to recent efforts to resuscitate a defunct movement. The work of Cinema Novo’s major directors—Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Ruy Guerra, Leon Hirszman, Carlos Diegues, Glauber Roche—was shown in its virtual entirety. Unfortunately, random ordering of films and the absence of an introduction or discussion which would set the idiosyncratic Brazilian film product in a context intelligible to non-specialists somewhat reduced the possibility of appreciating the movement in its full significance.
Because Pereira dos Santos’ first feature, RIO, QUARENTA GRAUS (RIO, FORTY DEGREES, 1955), was inexplicably absent, the survey of his work began with the second and last of his unfinished trilogy in Rio de Janeiro, RIO, ZONA NORTE (RIO, NORTH ZONE, 1957). Despite expectations generated by his masterpiece VIDAS SECAS* (BARREN LIVES, 1963, McGraw-Hill Contemporary Films), nothing in his subsequent and (for a third world filmmaker) prolific output measured up to that unrelenting portrayal of the vicious circle of survival for a migrant family in Brazil’s barren northeast. Among his recent films characterized by obscure politics and indiscriminate violence and populated by mod and post-adolescents with mystical trappings (FOME DE AMOR—HUNGER FOR LOVE, 1968; QUEM E BETA?—WHO IS BETA?, 1973), only COME ERA GOSTOSO O MEU FRANCES* (HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN, 1970, New Yorker) stands out as non-derivative. The film is a serious reconstruction of Brazil’s Tupinamba Indians in the 16 th century and succeeds remarkably well in shedding the European heritage of cultural ethnocentricity as it portrays, in measured style and dazzling setting, one Frenchman’s assimilation to “paradise” and his eventual sacrifice according to plan (no hard feelings, n'est-ce pas?).
Ruy Guerra has the flashiest of the generally flamboyant Brazilian cinematography. His early OS CAFAJESTES (THE DELINQUENTS, 1962), an Antonioniesque study of alienation, debasement and petty anti-social rebellion on Zabriskie-like beaches, boasts a magnificent ten-minute circular pan which, ranging from long shot to close up, gradually closes in on its naked target. The alienation of OS DEUSES E OS MORTOS* (THE GODS AND THE DEAD, 1970) is of a different sort, deserting Antonioni for Godard. This is quintessential Cinema Novo (decadent period) in its allegorical bent, its hyperbolic and interminable bloodshed, and its political obscurantism where symbol masquerades as analysis. Mysteriously, OS FUZIS* (THE GUNS, 1963), reputed to be Guerra’s best, was not screened at the Mostra.
Leon Hirszman’s films pursue the subtle and the psychological searching for the contradictions of character. A FALECIDA (THE DECEASED WOMAN, 1965) wills her own death in anticipation of her opulent funeral. Her husband, following her instructions, discovers her rich and corrupt former lover and uncovers a passionate and abandoned side of the woman who, with him, had always been neurotic, repressed and obsessive. SAO BERNARDO (1971) traces the rise of a self-made fazendeiro as he conquers Sao Bernardo, the ranch (fazenda) of his dreams, and a refined wife to go with it. This is a tale of self realization in a double sense. In the process of achieving his material goals, the protagonist is confronted with his own egotism, suspicion and exploitiveness —the same traits which drive his wife to suicide.
The films of Carlos Diegues constitute a kind of capsule thematic recapitulation of Cinema Novo. GANGA ZUMBA* (1964), like many early Cinema Novo works, finds its inspiration in a regionalist novel of the sugar-bearing northeastern coast. With its predominantly black cast, the film attempts to present the slaves’ view of life on the plantation and the liberating alternative of Palmares, the most famous and enduring of the runaway slave communities. Diegues’ rendering remains an essentially liberal, idealized one. The film prefers to focus on oppression and the process of escape rather than on the complexities of autonomous social organization and constant guerrilla warfare implicit in any first-hand view of the rebel society. In the film’s context, rather than the historical actuality it was, Palmares becomes a folk myth. A GRANDE CIUDADS* (THE BIG CITY, 1966) represents the next step of the Cinema Novo’s geographic-thematic progression. It is the over-sentimentalized story of a young woman who migrates from the Northeast to Rio in search of her boyfriend. He, of course, has turned into a criminal who wants to reform. Its clearly too late and their love for one another can only lead to a tragic end, etc., etc..
With OS HEREDEIROS* (THE INHERITORS, 1969), Diegues, like his fellow directors of the same period, moves from the sentimentalized depiction of class-linked oppression to an attempted analysis of the class responsible for it, their own. They depicted the Brazilian haute-bourgeoisie whom the 1964 coup and subsequent decades of miraculous economic growth under the wing of the U.S. imperial eagle have so directly benefited. Rocha in TERRA EM TRANSE* (LAND IN ANGUISH, 1967) and Gustavo Dahl in O BRAVO GUERREIRO* (THE BRAVE WARRIOR, 1968) undertake a similar analysis. Diegues’ film is the broadest in scope, encompassing the realms of r1e young urban liberal, the traditional landed gentry, and the major national power-brokers who control government and the media, and ranging in time from the 1930s to the mid-sixties.
Diegues’ most recent film, QUANDO O CARNAVAL CHEGAR (WHEN CARNIVAL COMES, 1974), is a self-conscious throwback to pre-Cinema Novo banality. Ostensibly a spoof on the chanchada (a kind of superficial musical comedy), this film is more chanchada than spoof. Despite the unceasing schemes of their zany agent, this band of itinerant musicians—which includes Chico Buarque de Holanda, the most famous of the young Brazilian singers—never consents to perform for “the king.” Cinema Novo is here reduced to an entertainment film, free of a subversive self-critical dimension on either the verbal or the visual level. Social protest is reduced to passive resistance.
Glauber Rocha, most internationally renowned of the Cinema Novo filmmakers, and the only one to go into permanent political exile, put in a brief appearance at the festival but disappeared before his rumored press conference. The practice of excluding films made outside Brazil or not completely Brazilian in theme prevented the showing of his more recent works (DER LEONE HAPT SEPT CABEZAS*—THE LION HAS SEVEN HEADS, 1970; CABEZAS CORTADAS—SEVERED HEADS, 1971; and TATU BOLA, 1972). The major films of the pre-exile period were all shown at the festival, though many were relegated to the second program cycle, presumably because of the generous exposure they have received in the past. These include the early collaboration on BARRAVENTO* (1962), saga of love, superstition and political awakening in a black fishing village; TERRA EM TRANSE* (LAND IN ANGUISH. 1967); and the famous DEUS E O DIABLO NA TERRA DO SOL* (BLACK GOD, WHITE DEVIL, 1963, Hurlock Cine World) and O DRAGAO DA MALADE CONTRA O SANTO GUERREIRO* (ANTONIO DAS MORTES, 1968, Hurlock Cine World).
HISTORIA DO BRASIL, Rocha’s most recent film, which has been three years in the making, received a mixed response. Faced with the same problem as the exiled Chileans, the inaccessibility of original footage, Rocha and his collaborator Marcos Medeiros raid the film archives and produce a pastiche of “highlights” from the Cinema Novo, sprinkled with Cuban newsreel footage, excerpts from Hollywood heart-warmers, and other assorted borrowings. Five centuries of Brazilian history are ‘covered’ in some two hours—the last century virtually on a year-by-year basis.
Such breadth of scope precludes any depth of analysis. A traditional and elitist historical concept predominates which defines history as the enumeration of events in the lives of rich and powerful men. Two women are cited in the course of the film, though their particular significance is never made clear. There is no attempt to provide an in-depth analysis, to ferret out the larger historical currents, to give a sense of dialectical process. The more generous-minded viewers perceived a potential dialectic—or at least a self-conscious artistic intention—in the persistent disjunction between visual image and narration. But pointing to an absence of artistic and intellectual control are the indiscriminate randomness of much of the material, sloppiness of assembly (split still photographs improperly lined up, at least one image photographed backwards), and total lack of restraint. (Why include the entire credits of SAO PAULO SOCIEDADE ANONIMA—SAO PAULO, INC.—without tying it in any way to the rest of the film?) Cinematically pedestrian, the film failed to make creative use of image or sound (music was kept to a minimum) and failed to mold diverse and autonomous elements into a unified whole.
The film was not lacking in unconscious irony, however. The following headline was shown, accompanied a still of a well-known Brazilian novelist: “During his entire life, Jose Lins do Rego fought against the assertion that his work lacked inventiveness and was only a collection of photographs.” If the names were changed, this might stand as an epigram for Medeiros’ and Rocha’s film. In the context of a festival dedicated to a retrospective of Ciema Novo, in this poorly assembled filmic scrapbook, the movement becomes at best a sort of guessing game for initiates. (Who can identify the source of the footage first?) For those not in a playful mood, it is a tedious experience, more mystifying than demystifying, and saddening above all.
One of the most original and memorable new films screened at the festival was also Brazilian. However—perhaps in large part due to the collaboation of Wolf Gauer and Stopfilm—it revealed no debts to Cinema Novo. Jorge Bodanzky’s IRACEMA, described as an “interpretative” or “fictional” documentary. In it, a small cast of non-professional actors (with one exception) improvise the action against a background of real people in real situations, filmed in direct cinema style. Iracema, a 15-year-old Amazonian of pure indian blood, deserts her family’s boat and subsistence existence for the glittering baubles of Belem on festival day. She is picked up by Tiao Brasil Grande, who takes her with him on a run to haul virgin timber from the interior. He promises her broad horizons—Rio, Sao Paulo—but on the return trip he dumps her at a raunchy all-night bar. Faced with the chance to make an “honest living,” Iracema prefers “wandering around” to the backbreaking and blinding option of embroidering twelve hours a day. She is taken advantage of, deceived, abused. Her most violent abduction, significantly, is at the hands of a group of soldiers. The film refrains from voyeurism and titillation by focusing on the prelude and the results rather than on the actual experience of her degradation. Interconnected sequences of stripping and burning entire forests, of highway construction, of selling indentured workers wholesale, put Iracema’s (an anagram of “America”) experience in a larger perspective without belaboring the point.
As the film ends, Tiao Brasil Grande runs into Iracema once again. He fails to recognize her, poorly dressed now, missing a tooth, and in the company of derelict and drunken prostitutes. He rejects her approach and then refuses her request for five cruzeiros. In the last shot his new red truck vanishes down the dirt road, leaving Iracema behind, broke and stranded, “Filho de puta” (son of a whore) she yells after him, her only revenge a self-deprecating insult.
The parallels between the colony-metropolis relationship and that of the dominant male-dependent female are well taken. Tiao moves on once Iracema has been “exhausted,” just as the neo-colonialists freely abandon exploited territory for the virgin region further on Tiao is always in the driver’s seat. He calls the shots and Iracema goes along for the ride, convinced that she is finally going somewhere when in fact she is only being “taken” to her own destruction.
OTHER LATIN AMERICAN COUNTRIES
Last year, on the first anniversary of the fascist coup d'etat, the Pesaro festival featured the films of the two major Chilean directors, Miguel Littin (THE JACKAL OF NAHUELTORO*, COMPAÑERO PRESIDENTE*, THE PROMISED LAND*) and Raul Ruiz (THREE SAD TIGERS, QUE HACER?*—with the U.S. director Saul Landau, NO ONE SAID A THING, etc.). This year there was a continuing emphasis on Chilean cinema and an opportunity to seriously consider the options and prospects of an exiled film movement.
The Chilean film movement, which developed under the Popular Unity government, lives on in Sweden, East and-West Germany, France, Cuba. As Alvaro Ramirez, one of the Chilean filmmakers present at the festival, asserted, there is no filmmaking in Pinochet’s Chile. The junta did commission one film, LOS MIL DIAS (THE THOUSAND DAYS), to give their revised version of Chile’s three years under socialism. But they were forced to ban their own film because no amount of narrative obfuscation could obscure the truth of the documentary images.
Of the eight films by Chileans and/or on Chile, five used pre-coup footage or material shot at the time of the coup and subsequently smuggled out. Two (Sergio Castilla’s QUISIERA TENER UN HIJO—I WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A CHILD, and Beatriz Gonzalez’ DULCE PATRIA—SWEET HOMELAND) used childrens’ drawings as one imaginative solution to the lack of new material. Only one film, by the intrepid East German film journalists Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann, was shot in fascist Chile. The same abandoned northern mines whose militant labor history drew the filmmakers to them in the summer of 1973, before the coup of September 11th, were repopulated when they returned in 1974. No longer commercially viable, their desolate location and derelict buildings now provide the junta with made-to-order concentration camps. By a combination of ingenuity (the filmmakers’) and incompetence (the military officals’), which the film explains in detail, Heynowski and Scheumann gained unrestricted access to two major concentration camps, Chacabuco and Pisagua, including the one privilege which Pinochet’s attaché had expressly forbidden: the opportunity to photograph and interview detainees. According to the filmmakers’ own account:
The resulting film, ICH WAR, ICH BIN, ICR WERDE SEIN (I WAS, I AM, I WILL BE), juxtaposes this testimonial footage of silent struggle to reminiscences of the miners who slaved and fought a different but interconnected struggle on the same site. The filmmakers interview Pinochet and Gonzalez Videla (the anti-communist dictator of the forties who drove Neruda underground and into exile), the military officer in charge of Chacabuco and the one in charge of the temporary camp for detainees in the National Stadium. Though not yet available in the United States, the film has been shown in thirty-five countries to date. This past September, on the second anniversary of the coup, it was televised via Eurovision to millions of Europeans.
CON LOS PUÑOS FRENTE AL CAÑON (FISTS AGAINST THE CANONS), produced in West Berlin by the Grupo Lautauro, is a polished and brilliantly documented historical reconstruction of the rise of the Chilean workers’ movement. Begun in the euphoria of the UP victory, the film originally intended to trace Chilean proletarian militancy from its origins through its peak and subsequent suppression by a bourgeois counterrevolution in the 30s and 40s to its final victory in the 1970s. Before the film could be completed, however, a second and much bloodier counterrevolution was unleashed. The film became instead a meditation on history’s “nightmarish repetitions.”
Alvaro Ramirez’ LA HISTORIA ES NUESTRA Y LA HACEN LOS PUEBLOS (HISTORY IS OURS AND IT IS THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE IT), conceived as an exploration of the problem of food shortages and the black market, was in the final editing stages when the coup occurred. The footage was smuggled out of Chile and reedited in East Berlin to include a broader thematic construct of the continuing clandestine struggle and the inevitable victory over the forces of repression, as the title—from a speech by Salvador Allende—suggests.
Continuing ties established during the Allende years, two Chilean films have recently been completed in Cuba. Patricia Castilla’s film NOMBRE DE GUERRA: MIGUEL ENRIQUEZ (NOM DE GUERRE: MIGUEL ENRIQUEZ) is a short film-tribute, with a stylistic debt to the Cuban documentarist Santiago Alvarez, to the life and political career of a founder and leader of the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left).
LA BATALLA DE CHILE: LA LUCHA DE UN PUEBLO SIN ARMAS (THE BATTLE OF CHILE: THE STRUGGLE OF A PEOPLE WITHOUT ARMS) is a projected four-and-a-half hour documentary in three parts: Part I, LA INSURRECCION DE LA BURGUESIA (THE INSURRECTION OF THE BOURGEOISIE) was shown at Pesaro and several other recent European festivals; Part II, EL GOLPE DE ESTADO (THE COUP D'ETAT) has just been completed but is not yet in distribution; and Part III, LOS PODERES DEL PUEBLO (THE POWERS OF THE PEOPLE), now in production, will deal with the popular resistance.
The list of those who collaborated on the film is impressive. The Equipo Tercer Año consists of six filmmakers who worked together throughout the UP period under the direction of Patricio Guzman. Pedro Chaskel, head of UCAL (Latin American Union of Film Societies), is credited with the editing, and Jorge Muller, abducted and held as an “unacknowledged prisoner” by the secret police since November 29, 1974,(2) was director of photography on this as well as many other award-winning Chilean films. Militant French filmmaker Chris Marker helped get the footage out of Chile and collaborated in its final shaping. Marta Harnecker, former editor of the magazine Chile Hoy and co-author of the famous Cuadernos de Educacion Popular (popular pamphlets offering a Marxist social analysis), and Cuban filmmaker and film theorist Julio Garcia Espinosa served as special advisors.
The most effectively analytical of all the Chilean documentaries at the Mostra, this film divides the “bourgeois insurrection” into five parts: commodity shortages, black markets and popular antidotes; Parliamentary maneuvers; student politics; strikes by managerial unions; and the strike of the El Teniente copper miners. As the film opens, a mosaic of brusque mini-interviews on the occasion of the interim national elections of March 1973 conveys the level of frenetic political passion on both left and right. The final footage, shot during the first (unsuccessful) coup attempt on the 29th of June, is overpowering in its abrupt finality. As history, as first-hand testimony, and above all as cogent analysis, this film is an impressive achievement which deserves the widest exposure.
Argentina was represented at the Mostra by five films: two black and white documentaries and three feature films, in color, which rival first world productions in visual style and level of technical competence. The most visually striking of the three was, in fact, a directorial debut. Bebe Kamin, a young engineer with a psychological bent, active in film societies and related activities for the past nine years, calls EL BUHO ( THE OWL) an “apprentice film” because of the range of its techniques. A fiction film of often understated dramatic intensity, it also contains surrealistic fantasy sequences, documentary reconstructions, an animated section, and a comic spoof on the production of a telenovela (soap opera). It is the most sensitive portrayal I have seen of female experience by a male director—of the alienation of work and personal life, the resulting detachment, inner-directed eroticism and vindicatory fantasies of a young factory worker. Psychological rather than fully political, the film seems to drift off into an abstract, existential stance which the director himself acknowledges as potentially escapist in the contemporary Argentine context. The film is politically constructive, however, to the extent that it persistently lays bare the disjunction between personal experience and the “official” version of reality, de-constructing the alienating effect of modern mass communication. Raymundo Gleyzer’s beautifully fluid camera, the masterful editing and sound work, and the accuracy and openness with which the director assesses the merits and shortcomings of his own film make Bebe Kamin a director to watch.
Ricardo Wulicher’s QUEBRACHO (1974) is more ambitious in scope and more explicitly political in theme. Like the Cuban film LUCIA*, QUEBRACHO consists of three autonomous fictional segments which portray a specific historical and economic process at three different moments. During the major part of this century an essential element in the leather tanning process was extracted from the quebracho tree, indigenous to Argentina. Wulicher uses this industry as a paradigm of neo-colonialist operations, exposing the alternatively reinforcing growth of militancy on the part of the workers and the escalation of repressive tactics on the rest of the industrialists. In the end the neo-colonialists see fit to use their ultimate weapon. They shut down the factories and move on to the African mimosa groves which they themselves, with great foresight, had planted sixty years earlier.
Lautauro Murda, one of the lead actors in QUEBRACHO, directed the third Argentine feature, LA RAULITO (1974). This measured and moving portrait of a social outcast is based on the real-life case of a woman whom the state continues to confine on grounds of insanity. La Raulito lives among the street urchins and passes herself off as male. (“It’s not that I want to be a man; I just don't want to be a woman.’) Unaided in any lasting way by either the ineffectual pity of the “liberal” doctor or the fatherly generosity of the middle-aged newspaper vendor who eventually begins making sexual advances, La Raulito is forced to hang out among the very young. Fiercely independent and determined, she escapes her captors time and time again. The film is a heart-warmer and a tear-jerker, and Marilina Ross gives a brilliant performance. In light of its lack of social analysis, the film does not seem sufficiently potent politically to explain why both director and star have received death threats from right-wing terrorist groups. (An attack on his home prevented Murda from attending the Pesaro festival.)
Despite periodic lapses into “liberalization” over the past decade, the level of repression of workers and militants has been consistently high in Argentina. Before Peron’s return several filmmakers—most notably Fernando Solanas and Octavia Getino, directors of LA HORA DE LOS HORNOS* (THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES, 1967)—had to work clandestinely. Currently, however, all cultural workers on the left are under serious threat of exile, imprisonment and death, as representatives from the Grupo Cine de la Base urgently stressed at the festival. The contrast between this collective’s first effort—LOS TRAIDORES* (THE TRAITORS, 1973), a color feature which traces the progressive corruption and final betrayal of a Peronist labor leader. Their recent black and white short, ME MATAN SI NO TRABAJO, Y SI TRABAJO ME MATAN* (THEY KILL ME IF I DON'T WORK AND IF I WORK THEY KILL ME), is eloquent testimony to the adverse conditions now facing Argentine filmmakers. Though also made clandestinely and distributed outside established circuits, THE TRAITORS brought an ambitious script and large cast together in a comparatively polished effort.
ME MATAN SI NO TRABAJO, on the other hand, lacks internal cohesion and is so “imperfect,” to use Julio Garcia Espinosa’s term, as to seem more a set of film notes than a finished product. It is the only film to be completed in Argentina since the promulgation of a new law which prescribes eight years in prison for anyone engaged in producing material which might foment “terrorism.” Thus this film is an extreme example of the contradiction—not to say the absurdity—of applying universal first world critical canons to film produced in and destined for such hostile environments. Like all Latin American cinema, this film especially must be viewed in the context of its mode of production and the circumstances surrounding and determining that process. In order to continue producing cinema under such threatening conditions, the Cine de la Base group developed what they call the Vietnamese system” of film production: endless ingenuity and constant reliance on the masses.
An audience who did not participate in the events recapitulated in this film is in a sense superfluous to it. Extremely taxing working conditions, combined with the sudden and premature deaths of two fellow workers, prompt a strike in a factory in the Matanza area of Buenos Aires. In cases where the factory physician had recommended aspirin and the therapy of getting back to work, independent physicians diagnosed severe lead poisoning affecting seventy-nine out of eighty-one workers examined. Only through the combination of all available tactics were the striking workers able to convince the company to meet their demands. Tactics included work stoppages, soup kitchens, Parliamentary channels, mass demonstrations, and the intervention of the ERP (Popular Revolutionary Army) guerrillas.
The final Argentine offering, added at the last minute, was as pointless, manipulative and offensively anti-popular as the Cine de la Base piece was urgent, direct, and committed to the popular struggle. To film CEREMONIAS (CEREMONIES), Carlos Cytrynowsky and his collaborators contracted a dozen down-and-out middle-aged men and women to spend a week living together in close quarters, allowing themselves to be filmed at any and all moments, in exchange for free room, board and liquor. Using a direct cinema technique, Wiseman-like in style with echoes of Buñuel’s VIRIDIANA and Cassavetes at his most impious, the camera closely tracks the action. It soon becomes apparent, however, that any action is artificially provoked by the camera itself and by the presence of bizarre “props” furnished by the filmmakers (huge stuffed teddy bears, straw hats which read “Los intocables”—the untouchables). The camera shows no pity; it is brutally and increasingly intrusive, focusing or people snoring, urinating, on a man powdering his genital area against lice, and turning an alternately shy and defiant woman into a bizarre odalisque of lovely, full breasts and aged, toothless grin. The sound (by Bebe Kamin, director of EL BUHO) is also artificial and distorting. Almost always nonsynchronous, it further dehumanizes the film’s “subjects” by eliminating their verbal responses to the ordeal they are undergoing. The level of intrusiveness, voyeurism and manipulation is such that the viewer begins desperately to hope that these specimens under microscopic lens will seize the camera and turn it on their tormentors. Unfortunately, they never do in this unredeeming and unredeemable, film.
Finally, two Cuban features, a full-length Cuban documentary on Puerto Rico, and the first Haitian documentary—also feature-length—constitutes a major Caribbean contribution, which round out the Latin American offerings at the festival. Both Puerto Rican and the Haitian documentaries are of major political importance. The latter, directed by Arnold Antonin in collaboration with the 18th of May Organization, traces popular resistance from the indigenous Taino population of pre-Colombian times through the revolution against the French and up to the iron-fisted regimes of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, self-appointed “president for life,” and his succesor, Baby Doc, who is literally selling the blood of his people on the international market. The rough-edged and somewhat belabored aspects of this first film effort are offset by the urgency and import of its content.
PUERTO RICO*, by Fernando Perez and Jesus Diaz, is a compilation documentary based on archive material and borrowed footage from several other films on Puerto Rico currently in distribution. Conceived in support of the struggle for independence, the film focuses on the Puerto Rican situation from the fifties to the present. Rising consciousness of Puerto Rico’s neocolonial subordination to the economic interests of the United States makes such a film particularly timely. But the unevenness and dated or repetitive nature of some of the material limits the film’s potential political impact on the current situation. (3)
The two Cuban features were both original and provocative, as one has come to expect from this revolutionary film industry. EL OTRO FRANCISCO (THE OTHER FRANCISCO), based on a 19th century abolitionist novel, offers an entirely new approach to the process of cinematic adaptation of literary “classics.” Neither a “faithful adaptation” nor a “new interpretation” of the original, Sergio Giral’s film carries out a critical operation on its own literary inspiration, questioning the novel’s characterization, its psychological, sociological and historical accuracy, and its underlying political motivation. A dynamic tension is created between the artificial melodrama of the novelistic sequences and the brutal immediacy of a more realistic view of events. Francisco, the docile and refined house slave who is turned out to the fields in punishment for his love of a mulatto maid, passively accepts the sadistic abuse of his master and the slave captain until he is driven to suicide. Critical of this version of events, the film analyzes this passivity and abnegation as projections of Anselmo Suarez Romero, the genteel habanero who wrote the novel. Against Francisco’s resignation, the filmmakers juxtapose the rebel determination, which they view as a more accurate and more constructive response to the conditions of slavery.
DE CIERTA MANERA (IN A CERTAIN WAY) is an even more unusual film. The first Cuban feature made by a woman, it is also something of an anomaly because of its contemporary setting since most Cuban film projects seem to require the perspective provided by historical distance. Sara Gomez’ film focuses on the problems of sex and ethnic culture in a society which has tried to downplay the existence of both racism and sexism while working toward their elimination. It deals with the persistence of atavistic traditionalism in a society which has undergone fifteen years of revolutionary transformation; with the persistence of class differences in a society which aspires to be classless; with social sectors still not fully integrated into the revolutionary process.
The attempt to integrate or hybridize the traditionally separate modalities of documentary and fiction film has characterized the revolutionary Cuban film industry. (MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT* is a particularly striking example of the dialectical interaction between personal life (the fictional line) and historical circumstances (the documentary context); GIRON* (BAY OF PIGS) uses different techniques to achieve a similar effect.) Sara Gomez here develops yet another approach, using “real people” whose names are listed in the credits along with the professional actors. The anecdotal core of the film is a love story between Mario, a mulatto factory worker with traditional ideas and a devotion to the mystical (and macho) Cuban cult of Abacua, and Yolanda, a divorced school teacher from a more comfortable milieu who is committed to sexual emancipation but whose teaching and pedagogical methods are less advanced. They interact against a backdrop of real-life people with real-life problems. As in LUCIA*, the other Cuban production which focuses on sexual politics, the questions remain to a large extent unanswered; it is the process of asking them which gives the film its meaning.
Both these films share a certain didacticism revealed, for example, in their frequent use of voice-over narration. Both disrupt the immersion-in-the movie syndrome using a variety of methods, including the technique of presenting the key scene (Francisco’s suicide, Mario’s denouncing his friend’s absenteeism and deception to the factory assembly) before the opening credits as a sort of intro to the film. Suspense is thus eliminated in favor of a critical examination of the process. Believing that all human experience educates, and should be so recognized, Cuban cinema rejects the artificial split between the “educational” and the “entertainment” film. The risk is, of course, that in the emphasis on such explicit didacticism, more subtle levels of meaning are sacrificed. To the degree that the presence of the narrator works to circumscribe the questions asked, the films run a certain risk of condescending to rather than enhancing the critical faculties of the audience.
As Julio Garcia Espinosa defined it in his famous essay “Towards an Imperfect Cinema,” Cuban cinema seeks the demise of the directorial “star system” and the elimination of the split between the artist-agent and the audience-object. It seeks to place the means of artistic production, too long concentrated in the hands of a privileged minority, into the hands of the masses. Until such a time as its creators and its audience are one and the same, Cuban cinema rejects “perfect” cinema and those who support it and seeks its audience, theme and the embryonic aesthetics of a genuinely popular art in the ongoing struggle to transform material existence. Despite their shortcomings, EL OTRO FRANCISCO and especially DE CIERTA MANERA take new and significant steps in the desired direction.
Because the contrast between the content and the setting of the festival was substantial and often disconcerting, this attempt to order and evaluate the Pesaro experience seems somehow incomplete without mention of the world outside the theater: the gentle beaches lined with umbrellas and bathers even in September; the midday fritto misto di pesce (deep-fried shrimp and squid) and 2:00 a.m. pizza at a sidewalk cafe; the diminutive band playing brassily in the seaside park as the nocturnal fog winds itself like a feather boa around musicians, spectators and streetlights—looking for all the world like a scene out of AMARCORD. Less nostalgic aspects of the festival also come to mind—the difficulty of trying to set up genuine lines of communication in four languages, the constraint of being the only gringa in the crowd and fully cognizant of the valid basis for suspicion of those who assumed you to be an itinerant film critic for the CIA. And, of course, the combined disappointment at the subdued character of this, my first experience at Pesaro, and the regret that it may be the last.
1. An asterisk designates films which are currently being distributed in the United States. New Yorker is the major distributor of Brazilian films, Tricontinental Film Center of the major films from Spanish-speaking countries. In other cases, the distributor will be noted in parentheses.
2. The Emergency Committee to Defend Latin American Filmmakers has recently been formed to coordinate efforts in this country in defense of the growing number of Latin American actors and filmmakers imprisoned by hostile regimes. They have begun with a campaign to free Jorge Muller and Chilean actress Carmen Bueno (THE PROMISED LAND). For further information, contact the Committee at: 333 Ave. of the Americas, NY NY 10014.
3. Because of space considerations, I have omitted five Latin American films from my account: the marvelous Uruguayan cartoon IN THE JUNGLE THERE IS LOTS TO DO because it has been in U.S. distribution for some time; the Peruvian Luis Figueroa’s ethnographic documentary CHIERAQUE BATALLA RITUAL, as well as three Mexican offerings (Eduardo Maldonado’s ATENCINGO, 1973, and UNA Y OTRA VEZ—TIME AND AGAIN, 1975; and Felipe Cazals’ LOS QUE VIVEN DONDE SOPLA EL VIENTO SUAVE) because none indicates any significant deviation from the narrowly defined and essentially static cinematic norms of their respective countries.