15 December 2011

Cinema and Social Change in Latin America

There are number of important book length studies in Latin American Cinema: one thinks of Carlos Mora's Mexican Cinema (University of California Press, 1982), Michael Chanan's Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema (British Film Institute, 1983) and The Cuban Image (BFI/Indiana University Press, 1985), Randal Johnson's Cinema Novo X 5 (University of Texas Press, 1984) and The Film Industry in Brazil (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), Gaizka de Usabel's The High Noon of Latin American Films in Latin America (UMI Research Press, 1982), and Randal Johnson and Robert Stam's Brazilian Cinema (Associated University Press, 1995). Julianne Burton's Cinema and Social Change in Latin America (1986) is another important addition to this field. Consisting of 20 interviews with key directors, actors, critics, and media activists from Latin America, the book indirectly offers a historical overview of three decades of socially-conscious filmmaking as practiced in a wide diversity of countries.

The opening essay orients the reader by providing a succinct survey of the evolving conditions of Latin American filmmaking. Cinema in Latin America, Burton argues, is a 'politicized zone,' deeply immersed in historical process. The New Latin American Cinema forms an integral part of a post-war era of increasing militancy and nationalism. This introduction sketches the broad features of this cinema: its passionate rejection of the compartmentalized, hierarchical Hollywood production system, the search for a new kind of interaction between film and audience, the theorization of an alternative anti-colonial thematic and aesthetic. She also outlines the changing political circumstances which conditioned production: the general democratization of the immediate postwar period, the tendency toward coup d'etats and repression beginning in the sixties and culminating in the seventies, giving way, finally, to a redemocratization in the eighties which breathed new life into film culture, especially in Argentina.


Cinema and Social Change in Latin America is divided into three sections: 'The Documentary Impulse: The Drama of Reality,' 'Fictional Filmmaking: The Reality of Drama,' and 'Behind the Scenes.' The first two sections classify the filmmakers interviewed according to whether their work has been primarily fictional or documentary, but as the subtitles - the 'drama of reality' and the 'reality of drama' - suggest, one of the most provocative contributions of New Latin American Cinema has been precisely the fusion of these two modes. New Latin American Cinemas has also demonstrated an exuberant diversity of styles, ranging from the grittiest kind of documentary realism to the most fantastic allegory and 'quotidian surrealism,' the common denominator being a rejection of 'entertainment as usual.' The interviews feature proponents of a wide spectrum of approaches, from relatively 'straight' documentaries (Fernando Birri, Helena Solberg-Ladd), through mixed documentary-fiction modes (Nelson Pereira dos Santos), to tropical allegory (Glauber Rocha), and absurdist reflexivity (Raul Ruiz).

The third section supplements the comments by filmmakers with details of work 'behind the scenes,' i.e., the labors of film-related professionals such as actors, distributors, publicists, critics. In this sense the book transcends auteurism - an approach that would have been preoccupied only with adding a few third world cineastes to a preexisting first world 'pantheon' - by putting the centrality of the author-director in context and establishing the relationship of the director of other film workers. In this section we observe Latin American Cinema from the perspective of the actor (Nelson Villagra), the politically-aware distributor (Walter Achugar), the filmmaker-theorist-bureaucrat (Julio Garcia Espinosa), the historian-teacher-activist (Alfonso Gumucio Dagron), and the television critic (Enrique Colina). Nelson Villagra explains the theory of acting - a synthesis of Stanislavski and Brecht - that undergirds his performances in such films as 'Jackal of Nahueltoro' (1969) and 'The Last Supper' (1976) and expands on his opposition to what he considers the overly rhetorical and declamatory style employed in many Latin American films. Uruguayan Walter Achuga speaks of his role in promoting Latin American cultural collaboration as head of the Third World Cinematheque. Enrique Colina details his efforts as TV film critic on a show called '24 Times/Second' - a kind of radical Cuban version of 'At the Movies' - where he tries to provide Cuban audiences with the tools for 'decoding' the popular entertainment films currently being screened.


Julio Garcia Espinosa, a founding member of ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute), cultural activist, and government official relates his provocative experiments in popular culture, most notably his attempt to revitalize and 'dialecticize' the Cuban cabaret tradition degraded by commercialism and the Mafia. These popular forms, Espinosa argues, have utopian potential. People don't really want to be cooped up watching television: 'They have an organic need to go out, to participate, to communicate with one another not through packaged images but through live activities.' (Anyone who has been to Cuba knows just how good Cubans are at the 'live activities.') Espinosa speaks as well of the profound musical culture of the Cuban people and of his attempts to subvert the compartmentalization of tastes and genres. (One such experiment, a program entitled 'Concert in B Major,' grouped composers such as Bach, the Beatles, Benny More, and Leo Brouwer solely on the basis of the initial letters of their names.) Given the centrality of music Cuban culture, Espinosa argues, every Cuban filmmaker should be required to do at leas one musical just as every Hollywood hack was required to do the obligatory western.

Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, finally, speaks of the travails of an itinerant media activist from Bolivia. Dagron managed to reconstruct the buried history of Bolivian cinema by searching, without the help of index cards or microfilm, through all the newspapers published in Bolivia since the turn of the century. Given the absence of photocopying machines, Dagron had to photograph al the items, one by one, to create what he calls a 'monstrous archive.' Burton's interview with Dagron provides a glimpse not only of the tremendous obstacles confronting a Latin American media-activist, but also of the crucial need for such work, insofar as films in Latin America, as everywhere, are dependent on a kind of discursive ecology, a support-system furnished by history, criticism, and cultural promotion.


Cinema and Social Change is worth reading for the anecdotes alone. Fernando Birri describes working in flooded areas of Argentina, with heavy equipment sinking the filmmakers in mud up to their knees. Jorge Sanjines speaks of the subtle problems involved in winning the confidence of Quechua Indians who had every reason to be suspicious of the white 'gringos' from the cities. (The situation was eased when the filmmakers submitted to the authority of a 'yatiri' who read the coca leaves to discern the quality of their intentions.) Patricio Guzman tells of the brutal repression unleashed in Chile by Pinochet, resulting in the presumed death of two of his collaborators on 'Battle of Chile.' We virtually hear the gunfire as we accompany the Sandinista guerillas on their Naranjo offensive along with filmmakers Emilio Rodriguez Vazquez and Carlos Vicente Ibarra. Raul Ruiz explains how three of the major films of the Allende period were made at the same time and with the same camera. (Ruiz would finish work on 'Tres Tristes Tigres' in the morning, Aldo Francia would pick up the camera to make 'Valparaiso Mi Amor,' after which Miguel Littin would pick it up for the 'Jackal of Nahueltoro'.) But their anecdotes are not usually whimsical or self-serving. Rather, they make a point or underscore a theme: the unfavorable circumstances of third world filmmaking, the realities of political repression and exile, the dangers of paternalism, the need to collaborate with the 'people' whom on claims to serve.

Another leitmotif that emerges from the interviews is the theme of cultural difference within unity - i.e., each Latin American country has a specific cultural personality, yet feels itself to participate in a large collectivity of 'Latin Americanness.' Mario Handler speaks of the Uruguayan tendency to 'hypercultivation' in the arts. Sanjines emphasizes the strong amerindian strain in Bolivian culture. Espinosa stresses the centrality of dance, of conga and rumba, in Cuban life, while Pereira lauds the contribution of Afro-Brazilian religion to Brazil's cultural mix. Yet all these diversely formed peoples identify with the larger Latin American entity. As Ruiz puts it, 'The Latin American experience is of being outside (or inside) European culture in general, whereas the European is within one specific culture or another.' The interviews also highlight the cultural differences (and parallels) between Latin America and the United States. Tomas Gutierrez Alea mocks the inability of critics such as Andrew Sarris to understand revolutionary films like Memories of Underdevelopment, given the visceral anticommunism and the tendency to identify completely with alienated intellectual 'heroes' on the part of these critics. Helena Solberg-Ladd argues that Latin Americans are more accustomed to metaphorical language which allows for 'more permeable boundaries between the imaginary and the real.' The Latin American documentarian working in the United States, she complains, must always 'start from scratch,' without assuming 'any knowledge on the part of the viewer.' Still, she appreciates the opportunity of being a cultural mediator, able to present an 'insider's view' to North American audiences.


Burton has been ambitious in attempting to survey three decades of Latin American filmmaking theory and practice, including that in most of the major filmmaking countries, but privileging Cuba and Brazil at the expense of Mexico and Argentina. (One laments, for instance, the absence of certain key figures such as Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, the seminal theorists of 'third cinema.') Within diversity, however, Burton has managed to maintain an overall unity based on thematic continuities: the Multi-fronted struggle against colonialism, the search for an alternative aesthetic, the attempt to transform the modes of production, distribution and exhibition.

The personal histories of the interviewees also reveal certain commonalities of experience. Most of the filmmakers were middle-class people who only gradually identified with the oppressed classes and national struggle. Most travelled to Europe only to discover themselves, paradoxically, as Latin Americans. Most experienced political repression. What is striking, in the main, is their political coherence and dedication, as well as their intellectual sophistication. (How many Hollywood directors, one wonders, would sprinkle their conversation with references to Hegel, Brecht, Gramsci?)

A reading of Cinema and Social Change in Latin America ends with a feeling of gratitude, both to the editor of the volume and to the figures interviewed. In a field which too often resorts to recycling the same cliches, this book constitutes a substantial and welcome contribution.

[This is a slightly edited version of a review by Robert Stam, originally published in the film and video monthly journal The Independent, Vol. 10, No. 9, November 1987, pp. 30-31. Stam is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is the coauthor of Brazilian Cinema (1995) and the author of Reflexivity in Film and Literature (1992), and coauthor of A Companion to Film Theory (2004).]

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