Since my college days I’ve loved independent film, and in the last year I’ve become an enormous fan of Argentine películas. I like to joke sometimes that I’ll watch paint dry if it was filmed by an Argentine; this is not quite true, but I’ve never liked the “action” genre, with its car chases, violence, and adolescent humor. Although not all independent film is more cerebral, much of it has a slower pace and a point of view to the left of the mainstream.
My interest in Argentine and Uruguayan movies began as language practice and cultural curiosity, but I quickly realized that all those film schools in Buenos Aires turn out talented graduates with lively minds, and the federal government financially supports this art and national industry. Thanks to the web, I’ve been able to watch dozens and dozens of contemporary movies from that part of South America, and order DVDs of those unavailable online. An Argentine website, Comunidad Zoom, offered a 10-day online film festival at the end of last November; I planned my evening and weekend schedule around it and was ready to call the chiropractor after a week and a half of sitting with my neck bowed to my laptop. After viewing about 20 feature-length documentaries and fiction films and 10 shorts, I was hooked, and my Spanish was better than it had ever been, after 34 years of sporadic study.
I love the immersion that film festivals offer. While some people shudder at the thought of spending hours on end sitting in a dark room without speaking, my response is, “I get to watch 30 movies in 2 weeks?! Where do I buy tickets?” More than a decade ago when I moved back to my hometown, Rochester, New York, I had a seasonal job for a couple of years selling advertising for ImageOut, the annual 10-day gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender film festival. I took part of my stipend in the form of a fest pass, and spent so much time in the local “art house” theater and its adjoining café, I joked that I should move a cot in. I enjoyed nearly all the films, regardless of which part of the queer alphabet soup to which the directors were trying to appeal. (Hey, I’m versatile.)
Plenty of my friends and acquaintances have heard about the silly 1990s Argentine TV serial I watched all last spring and summer to improve my Spanish comprehension – all 170 episodes that were available online. The usual question: “Do these things have subtitles?” The answer is no 95% of the time – it’s straight-up rioplatense Spanish, with its Italian inflection, lunfardo slang, rapid-fire delivery, and, with most films from the capital, where a third of the country’s population lives, porteño accent. In fact, I was shocked at the start of my March vacation when I sat down in the lovely Cine Cairo, one of the government-funded theaters in Rosario, and Santiago Mitre’s El estudiante began rolling: it had English subtitles! I was glad, as sometimes the characters mumbled, and I’m sure the subtleties of their political machinations at the UBA, University of Buenos Aires, would’ve been lost on me.
After returning from my second trip to Buenos Aires a year ago, I “liked” Argentina’s government-run station, TV Pública, on Facebook, and was able to watch all the daily headlines on FB or YouTube. At least once a week, the entertainment reporters showed clips of the latest domestic releases, including El estudiante and a raft of other movies I longed to see. More recently, I’ve found more obscure indie offerings on Comunidad Zoom and MUBI, and I finally broke down and joined Netflix. The latter’s streaming video options from Argentina and Uruguay fit into a thimble, but I refuse to shell out another $7.99 a month to rent Netflix DVDs – for that price, I can order a film a month and own the DVDs myself.
The film goddesses were with me this spring on my latest trip to Argentina. I’d planned my vacation at this particular time solely because it was the only 3-week gap I could find in my work schedule before the summer. But I whined that I was missing by only one week the opening of BACIFI, the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente. This annual extravaganza offers nearly two weeks of a total of 450 films from five continents, screened in 23 theaters in 11 locations in the city. My idea of heaven, and I was missing it simply because I had a job in the United States I needed to keep. How unfair!
But the city seems to host a film festival every second or third week in the South American fall, and I had subscribed to Vuenosaires, an entertainment website and email listserv that gives the low-down on cultural happenings in the capital. I checked my email before leaving Córdoba on the overnight bus for Buenos Aires: lo and behold, a film fest! And one that, as my mother used to say, was right up my alley: the Festival Internacional de Cine Político, or FICiP. I missed the first few days and one feature, about the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, I’d been dying for months to see, but I still managed to cram nine films into the remaining four days. I saw only two non-Argentine movies – one documentary each from Italy and Mexico that fit into my weekday schedule after morning Spanish classes. I knew it wouldn’t be too difficult to later find some of the offerings from India, other Latin American countries, and obviously the U.S., so I didn’t bother with those. But Argentine documentaries are scarcer than hen’s teeth back home, and most features aren’t easy to find unless they’re comedies or have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
This festival was, as the hispanohablantes say, muy fuerte. It would’ve been possible to put together an upbeat program, but that’s not what grabs me. I’ve been an activist writer and a student of anti-oppression struggles since I was about 12 years old, and I have a fascination with Argentine history and how artists use their work to deal with dictatorship and trauma.
The lightest film I saw was Las muchachas (The Girls), Alejandra Marino’s documentary about the 23 young women (one for each province) Eva Perón selected in the mid-1940s to travel throughout the country conducting a census of women and helping to create the Partido Peronista Femenino (Female Peronist Party or Peronist Feminist Party) before Perón gave women the vote in 1947. Although not billed as a feminist film, Las muchachas was a paean not only to Peronism, but also to female empowerment in a country that tends to be Catholic and traditional regarding women’s roles. It seemed to me these young women were offered an opportunity to travel and do something outside the expected move from their nuclear families to marriage and having their own children – and an unprecedented chance to participate in politics.
I failed the castellano comprehension test with this movie. I’m used to a contemporary Buenos Aires accent and slang, and a good bit of Marino’s interviews with these women from various provinces, now in their 70s and 80s, was lost on me. I loved what I did get, though, and imagined an audience of feminist fans in the English-speaking world if this film ever gets subtitled in my native language. For those who understand Spanish, here are a couple of links to news reports about Las muchachas:
In the coming days I learned that my listening abilities fluctuated wildly depending upon how well-fed and well-rested I was. Most matinees were a challenge because my body wanted to be taking a siesta, and I began relying on cola to keep me awake, as I no longer needed it to settle my stomach. I also had comprehension problems with Escuchando al Juez Garzón (Listening to Judge Garzón) – not a surprise, but a huge disappointment.
This 2011 film gave new meaning to “talking heads”: writer/director/actor Manuel Rivas interviews Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish federal judge known for his human rights work from the bench. Garzón’s most famous act was issuing an arrest warrant in 1998 for Chilean general Augusto Pinochet for torturing and killing Spanish citizens and for crimes against humanity during the 1973-98 dictatorship. Garzón also opened the possibility of perpetrators being charged with genocide for crimes against Spanish citizens in Argentina during that country’s dictatorship; in 2005 retired Argentine navy pilot Adolfo Scilingo was sentenced by a Spanish court to 604 years for crimes against humanity for participating in the “death flights,” in which drugged prisoners were dropped alive from military airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean (the sentence was later reduced to a year).
Garzón is a hero of mine for being among the judges who have tried to open investigations of Nixon administration Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for crimes against humanity for his support of Operation Condor. Plan Cóndor, as it was also known, was the 1970s international program of state terror in which the military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay – and at times Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela – with the support of the CIA, shared so-called intelligence and extradited political prisoners. The judge ran into trouble with the Spanish far-right wing when he began to investigate crimes perpetrated in his homeland during the Franco dictatorship, and in February the Spanish Supreme Court suspended him from the judiciary for 11 years.
This is the only film I saw that offered no visual contextual clues and had some of the most interesting content, so watching it turned out to be an exercise in frustration. (If any readers know where I might obtain a copy with English subtitles, please post a comment.)
Other films dealing with the Argentine dictatorship included Insomnio de una noche de verano (A Midsummer Night’s Insomnia), an interesting hybrid of fiction, theater, and documentary about a family in which the older siblings, a college-age brother and sister, are disappeared. Some 30 years later, the remaining son arrives at his mother’s apartment in the middle of a sweltering night and they finally discuss what happened in the family when he was a young boy.
After viewing this powerful movie, I found it odd that I’d never thought about this particular topic. I’d met a few people who’d had a sibling roughly their age who was disappeared, or who had themselves been imprisoned and tortured, and I’d read reams of material by and about former prisoners, parents of desaparecidos, grandmothers whose grandchildren had been kidnapped and illegally adopted, and grandchildren who have been “recovered” and introduced to their biological families. But I’d never wondered what it had been like to be a child old enough to know that his or her siblings were suddenly gone, but not understand why no one was openly discussing why, or what exactly their parents were going through.
On the FICiP’s last evening I saw Dixit, a documentary that artfully combined media propaganda during the dictatorship with contemporary interviews with survivors of the clandestine detention centers, more accurately called concentration camps. For better or worse, I understood nearly all the castellano quite well. I had planned to see another film or two that night, but decided that two hours of description of physical and psychological torture was more than enough, and it was time to call it a night with the International Festival of Political Cinema.
Dixit wasn’t the film that hit me hardest, though. Nicaragua… el sueño de una generación (Nicaragua… The Dream of a Generation) was the most difficult for me to watch because of my own history with that small, impoverished nation. When I was 23, I volunteered in a month-long reforestation brigade in rural northwestern Nicaragua with a group of about 35 other USians. We were among tens of thousands of people from other nations who helped rebuild the country after the Sandinista overthrow of the U.S.-supported, 43-year Somoza family dictatorship. It was my first trip outside North America and my first encounter with extreme poverty, and it was a life-changing experience in many ways. For the first time I was able to move beyond my national perspective and feel viscerally what the U.S. government did to the people of other nations who dared challenge its hegemony.
In viewing El sueño, I was able to see for the first time the experiences of the Argentines who’d taken part in this creation of the “New Nicaragua” and imagine how it must have felt to be simultaneously fleeing a brutal dictatorship and creating Latin American solidarity by helping to build a new society in the aftermath of another dictatorship that had been overthrown by the people. By the end of the film, I felt devastated. It was extremely difficult to see that the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas has turned into a land with the same ugly malls and horrid U.S. junk food chains that the rest of Latin America has; I felt again the culpability of a citizen of an empire that crushes its neighbor nations in order to give free rein to corporations. Not only did I relive the horror of the U.S.-financed contra war that killed approximately 30,000 Nicaraguans, but I was simultaneously confronted with my government’s support of the dictatorship that had killed the same number of Argentines. The next day in my Spanish class, my teacher asked why the documentary had been so hard to watch, and I could barely enumerate my emotions to myself in English, never mind to her in Spanish. I was overwhelmed by the senseless killing of so many people, most of whom were trying to end imperialism, or simply participate in an agricultural cooperative to feed their families and neighbors.
Comunidad Zoom: Independent film from Argentina, the U.S., and other countries: