Cinematographic Shots without Visas
The humiliation is repeated: after a 12-hour flight, the South American arrives at the passport control area and must have all documents ready for the inevitable interrogation, the heterogeneous papers necessary to explain the reasons for the trip and its duration. Border guards can be more or less friendly, but all follow the same guidelines and are living extensions of a particular culture. They manage things within the order to which they belong – it’s an ethos, a way of life. That is why it’s not sufficient to have a return ticket and a hotel reservation, or the exact address of a rented house, as well as (for example) a letter of invitation from a festival. When in doubt, or perhaps driven by an unbridled love of the law, the official might call whomever the visitor has listed as a contact in that country. They have no scruples: once an officer has stamped a visitor’s passport and so allowed him to enter the country, he may still decide, unbeknownst to the visitor, to call his contact in order to warn of the potential danger he may bring. The cowardly officer might inform this fellow citizen – say, a German filmmaker – that “these types of people run out of money and end up selling drugs on the streets.” I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this example is not a literary invention of mine.
The humiliation of the border crossing described here is not so dissimilar to what happens to certain kinds of films – films that also must present their credentials in order to meet a festival’s requirements for entry. The international film commissioners, meaning the European curators, have established a model for Latin American cinema, and the filmmakers of the continent (also responsible, though to a lesser extent) play their part by subordinating themselves to the variables of this model – sometimes, exhibiting a servility that recalls old colonial gestures, sometimes perfecting in themselves a cunning cynicism analogous to the way in which the middle and upper classes of the so-called ‘peripheral’ nations have customarily adapted their interests in line with civilisation’s owners. It’s nothing more than the manifestation of a broad cultural practice in a particular domain, that of global cinema.
It’s nothing more than the standardisation of an aesthetic and a policy, as supported by the collusion between a diffuse, unofficial group of festival power brokers and a hundred-odd filmmakers from a Latin America who are moulding themselves to fit within the dominant system. See how quickly these filmmakers are put through film festival labs and pitch sessions, before they set off to write their next film in some unlikely location: looking out at the Swiss Alps or maybe a sunset in the south of France from the window of their residency, the creator prepares to conceive a drama about the fate of three young men from Medellín who opt for weapons and the sale of drugs in their troubled city. The Latin American cinema of the 21st century has only a handful of rhetorical figures and associated poetics. Over the course of the last three decades, an invisible manual has been written – it is not published, but learned by heart.
In the breviary of Latin American cinema, an inescapable figure shines: a conceptual character of the past; of European philosophies of the 18th century, and an indelible fantasy still in use. In the cinema of the continent, the savage is a state of the soul unknown to History. It has two, antithetical representations.
In the first version, the savage is presented as a mute and serene creature. The good savage is one who walks through the jungle, the countryside, or the mountains. They can walk without saying a word for several minutes since a lack of language is proof of the pre-rational virtue that makes them one with the surrounding world. Onto this figure a delirious longing is projected, a fantasy of presumed civilised people with no memory of their own origins. In that man or woman without Logos, they glimpse a non-alienated subject – one who is perhaps free, who belongs to nature; one in whom the division between nature and culture has not yet occurred. How many movies have been made using this conceptual framework? Do I need to name them? There are Chilean films, Argentine films, Colombian, Brazilian, Mexican, Peruvian, and so on.
The logical counterpart of the noble savage is its dialectical inversion, to which violence and rancour are attributed. This other savage left nature centuries ago and now inhabits another kind of ‘jungle’, one that has concrete in place of flora, in which ‘diversity of species’ correlates with a proliferation of merchandise. In the disordered urbanism characteristic of Latin American cities, credited with an almost structural inability to implement forms of organisation – there, in those cities without limits, gangs and misfits nest, capable of assault, kidnapping, torture and murder. Contemporary Latin American cinema reached the apotheosis of a sordid aesthetic that could be collated under the banner of ‘dirty realism’ (contra the ‘poetic’ mode associated with the above), concerned with the painstaking depiction of the cruelty of savages. I recall how in Heli (Amat Escalante, 2013), the burning of male genitals was shot as if it were a metaphysical sequence in which Evil itself had designed the torture’s meticulous choreography. There was no shortage of those who glimpsed traces of Andrei Tarkovsky in the formal sophistication of that cruel feat. But again I ask: is it really necessary for me to list the titles in which the savages of Latin America have been paraded?
The festivals’ other favourite topic is dictatorships on the continent, particularly as seen through a historical revisionist lens. There’s never a lack of films about the sinister years of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and, whenever possible, Paraguay too – or Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru. In most cases, films in the dictatorship genre tend to focus on the endogenous violence of the nation state in question, as if dictatorships were a beastly phenomenon indigenous to Latin America and not in fact chained to the foreign policy of the Occident.
It’s also necessary to point out a new curatorial preference that isn’t a requirement for Latin Americans as such, but rather a safe bet for filmmakers all over the world: the coming-of-age story. Gender has been made a prominent issue everywhere in response to the advocacy of those who identify as being outside the binary and the world of young people is a universal subject that is perennially ‘of interest’. Films like 25 Watts (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2001), Tilva Roš (Nikola Ležaić, 2010), and El auge del humano (The Human Surge, Eduardo Williams, 2016) depict a time of life associated with perpetual escape and no particular direction; a time without a political project. The members of this generation are also the audience members of the future, and festivals need them.
All of this is not complete without some cinematic grammar already processed as virtuous and authorial: in terms of cinematography, preferably elaborated sequence shots or long, sustained shots that accentuate time; in terms of the acting, it’s best to go for dramatic candour or enigmatic hieratism, although the visceral is also rewarded. One could continue with other observations, some of them surprising: Why is it that, for more than 20 years now, the sounds of the Latin American jungle onscreen seem to imitate the natural musicality of the jungles of Thailand?
In 2022, the most significant and radical Brazilian film of this century premiered at the Berlinale. Mato seco em chamas (Dry Ground Burning), by Adirley Queirós and Joana Pimenta, tells a story about a group of women who traffic the gasoline they’ve discovered is being pumped beneath the land on which they live. The film appropriates foreign genres and invests them with what the filmmakers call “sensory ethnography”. When it was shown in the Berlinale’s Forum strand, it didn’t go unnoticed, nor did it receive the attention it deserved. Shouldn’t it have been in the official competition? Or, failing that, in the Encounters program (which really would’ve been the ideal section, being that it’s designed for films that take risks, that push against and perhaps beyond both recent films by modern cinema’s old masters and those by the today’s filmmaking establishment)? I dare say that if Glauber Rocha were making his films today, what happened to Queirós and Pimenta’s film would have happened to any one of his masterpieces too. In Rocha’s time, however, there were no such strict requirements (the festival version of ‘customs’, perhaps) for Latin American cinema. In the 60s and 70s – a period as tumultuous as it was critical; as experimental as it was political – openness dominated and curiosity was a virtue.
If we’re to look towards repeating that libertarian gesture – towards opening up the system, rupturing its certainties and so shaking up Europe’s (restricted, domesticated) conception of Latin American cinema – what is needed are intercessors and translators; people capable of speaking the Old Continent-approved language of aesthetics who can steer programmers towards an understanding that Latin American cinema is not monolithic: it contains a multitude of aesthetics and themes, deployed in the expression of a multitude of ideas. There must be a way to bridge the gap between those who call the programming shots and the filmmaker working outside the aesthetic matrix that Europe chooses to recognise and legitimise in Latin American cinema. What festival of the greats (and not-so-greats) would today program in its competition Este es el romance del Aniceto y la Francisca, de cómo quedó trunco, comenzó la tristeza y unas pocas cosas más… (Leonardo Favio, 1967), Tres tristes tigres (Three Sad Tigers, Raúl Ruiz, 1968), or Serras da desordem (Andrea Tonacci, 2006)? How is it possible that no film by Raúl Perrone, Ignacio Agüero, Helena Ignez, Rigoberto Perezcano or Gustavo Fontán has ever been the centrepiece of a ‘prestigious’ festival?
In the current order, in much the same way that people required to present a visa and an explanation in order to cross into a country, the cinematographic shots require a conceptual justification to circulate on the screens of Berlin, Venice or Cannes. Meanwhile, the Locarno Film Festival announces a tribute to the Mexican cinema of the classic era, the selection entrusted to a leading German cinephile and an Italian colleague. Putting aside their unquestionable competence, the Eurocentrism here is evident – and this glossing over of other perspectives is mirrored in the selection committees of other festivals. Aesthetic monolingualism struts around without shame or even self-awareness, and the learning of other (aesthetic) languages remains pending. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover an online aesthetic translator, a DeepL for the cinematic languages of other people.
Roger Koza (1968): Film critic (Revista Ñ, La Voz del Interior; Con los ojos abiertos), programmer (Viennale; Filmfest Hamburg) and artistic director (Doc Buenos Aires; FICIC).