So, after twelve days, over 400 films, hundreds of thousands of cinema tickets sold, a whole bunch of awards, and enough free cocktails to fill the Rio de la Plata estuary on which Buenos Aires stands, the city’s film festival, the biggest in Argentina and one of the most important in Latin America, came to an end. It brought a wonderfully eclectic and encompassing range of global cinema to the Argentinean capital, cramming in everything from the most talented emerging directors in the Spanish-speaking world to lost art-house masterpieces from the 1960s, via British noir, Japanese sci-fi, a century’s worth of films related to the First World War, and a series of well-deserved retrospectives on several renowned directors such as Cao Guimares, Rita Azevedo Gomes and Carlos Schlieper. If you weren’t familiar with some of these names prior to BAFICI, this was a real eye-opener to discovering some major figures in independent filmmaking, although, to be honest, the festival content was so vast that it’s just as probable that you would have left the festival for the final time none the wiser to any of these names. You would, however, have undoubtedly found something that puzzled you in some ways, allured you in others, or something that perhaps repelled you cinematographically, and another that had you in raptures. This was the nature of the festival beast.
It was brilliant, if exhausting at times. You seemed to spend as much time with head buried in the BAFICI brochure trying to work out which films to watch and when as you did actually watching them. The sheer volume of films meant that even seeing a small proportion of those that most interested you was an achievement. But, in the end, this added to the overall allure, the sense that you had merely dabbed your finger into the bag of 2014’s independent cinema, and that the urge to consume more was going to stay with you well after the final curtain had come down. This was contemporary, global art-house filmmaking letting you stroke its leg and cop a feel, before it snatched itself away, did its jacket up tight and headed off to the hills, leaving your mind a blur, knowing you’d had something fantastic but it wasn’t enough, nor would it ever be enough, you needed more, much more, right now. But it was gone.
Then, you passed the same cinema the very next day and saw that the source of your happiness had been replaced by Captain America 2. And it made you laugh, but it also made you depressed. BAFICI was gone, not forever, but it would be a long time until it came back, and all those films that had captivated you, or confused you, or enraged you, were consigned to the back history of future film festivals in far off places and late night internet hunts. The semi-constant buzz of hundreds of overlapping conversations between cineastes from all over had fallen silent, and you realized that, after listening for the umpteenth time to someone tell you about the exciting project they were working on, they had all left, like bees from the hive, flying off in every possible direction.
The Recoleta Cultural Centre no longer resembled some kind of indie-film mothership and had reverted back to more sedate fare such as paintings and photography exhibits. Floors had been taken out and walls pushed back, and you drew a quick breath as you noted that this art gallery stood where once a press pack had worked alongside one another, with heads down and in silence, or where you had happily indulged in the generosity of an important film company from Brazil or the French Embassy. Again, the absence of the festival was keenly felt.
Watching a film is an inherently private event, even though it is one that is shared with many other people. It is in the anonymity of the cinema that a film rises or falls, as its strength or lack of is reflected in your consciousness of the several shadowy figures which surround you. At BAFICI, many films were seen in an absolute state of obliviousness to your unnamed companions, so rich was the art onscreen, while others only succeeded in emphasising that you were one of many, constantly primed to the actions of other filmgoers, as they talked or laughed or walked out in disgust at what they were being asked to observe. You may have even left halfway through on occasion, the shame in not seeing the job through tempered by the fact that your brain and eyes hurt in equal measure as this was your fourth film in a row and you should probably get a glass of water from somewhere.
Amid the throb of constant activity, it was easy to forget that BAFICI is a competition, a battle, a knockout bout to find and to praise the best. This, of course, is objective. And the issue of ‘the best’ probably only had major relevance to the representatives of the industry in attendance, the promoters, the distributors, the programmers, the directors and their ilk. For the many people who were at BAFICI simply because they like watching films, this is as important as the colour of the sky in another city, one which you have no plans to visit. BAFICI was about watching films and reacting to them, whether positively or negatively, and leaving the cinema still thinking about what you had just seen. In that it undoubtedly succeeded. And then it was gone.
You can find the full list of winners at BAFICI 2014 here. We’ll be back next year.
The BAFICI program refers to Fernando Bacilio, star of Daniel and Diego Vega’s El Mudo (The Mute), as a ‘Peruvian Buster Keaton’, which I feel is a fair comparison having watched the film. For the majority of this modern-day tragicomedy, Bacilio owns the screen with a performance of melancholia and sensitivity that is also somehow very funny. The humour comes in the way he sashays around in a state of turbulent agitation, his mouth shaped in a downward crescent of Judge Dredd proportions, deeply aggrieved by the circumstances to have befallen him. The one time his expression falters provides one of the film’s best moments, as his daughter reveals that she won’t be following in his professional footsteps after all and knocks her old man for six.
Bacilio plays Constantino Zegarra, a Lima judge whose lack of empathy with the plight of the needy brings him the ire of the majority of those he encounters. He also cheats on his wife. Forced out of his job by antagonised colleagues, things take a drastic turn for the worse when he is shot and left unable to speak. While the police seek to convince him that he was just an unlucky random bystander, Constantino has no doubt that he was deliberately targeted and sets out to hunt down his attacker. This is easier said than done, as his list of 800 clients means there are, oh, about 800 potential suspects. He is not a popular guy.
There is a strong element of farce as Constantino attempts to recruit police assistance. This will be a difficult case for the police to work on, explains the chief, as officers have to pay for their own petrol and the second-in-command needs the computer for his daughter’s homework. Another great scene is set in the nightmarish realm of high society soiree, in which the recuperating Constantino is enthusiastically greeted by his fellow revellers, whose thrusting arms and crazed facial expressions take on a monstrous representation of the very beauracratic state he used to be part of and which now sets obstacles every way he turns.
There is a clever simplicity to El Mudo which allows the Vega brothers to depict an inefficient system which fails those who most depend upon it. It is only by being forced onto the other side that Constantino becomes aware of his role in this. With Lidia Rodriguez and Norka Ramirez providing a foil as his loving wife and daughter, far more dedicated than Constantino probably deserves, El Mudo is founded on Bacilio’s droll charisma as he seeks to unravel the mystery. It is a highly enjoyable example of physical acting, and one which has helped El Mudo shout loud at this year’s festival.
Argentinean hammer-style horror was a genre I had not seen before, nor indeed was I even aware of its existence. And hopefully I never come across it again, because Necrofobia is utterly terrible, appallingly directed and pathetically acted. My initial tedium soon evolved into fidgety irritation before reaching a state of unremitting fury which caused me to… well, sit in my seat and do nothing until the credits rolled, at which point I got up and politely exited the auditorium. What’s worse, I watched Necrofobia in 3D, a format fine for exploding planets and swooping pterodactyls, but when badly applied to this sort of fetid feculence posing as cinema, in which nothing visually interesting occurs on screen (unless you have a thing for clocks and mannequins), it really does seem pointless. Which would be keeping with the rest of the film at least.
The fact that the film is quite clearly tongue in cheek does nothing to pardon its awfulness. Using every 70s horror film convention in the toolbox (unseen figures, doors swinging shut of their own accord, pigeons taking off in front of a church), the film references the likes of 1971’s Twins of Evil. There is some sort of incoherent, rambling narrative in which a clockmaker mourns his dead brother, only to be relentlessly pursued by apparent supernatural forces as those around him meet a grisly end at the hands of an unseen knifewielding killer. These are possibly the least convincing murder scenes ever filmed in professional cinema, as the knife is brought down with all the force of an eyelash landing in your cup of tea.
Argentinean actor Luis Machín hams it up in the role of both brothers, and is matched in the awful acting stakes by the numerous secondary performances around him. I realise that horror has a lot of crossover possibility with slapstick comedy, and a lot of the film is based around physical activity. It obviously doesn’t take itself seriously. But if I am missing the point of Daniel de la Vega’s film, I don’t care. It needs to be locked in a coffin and buried deep, deep down.
Cinema is becoming an ever more important point of reference in my life for discovering new music. It’s probably because I watch a wider variation of films, and also listen to a wider variation of sounds, than I used to, but I can’t deny that film soundtracks nowadays regularly turn me on to new things. There’s the well-known examples, like the classic soundtracks on Amores Perrosand City of God, but plenty of other films have also featured some exquisite music. Peru’s The Milk of Sorrow was another regional success with a beautiful signature tune. I could put that 1:37 minute melody on a loop and just let it go for several days before I even noticed its velvety effervescence seeping into my consciousness.
At BAFICI, there’s been some fantastic music. Writing previously about Ecuadorean documentary Carlitos, I mentioned the achingly mournful ‘La Lluvia, El Niño y La Flor’ by Natalia Guayasamín. I normally avoid anything with pianos like I avoid getting peppersprayed in the eyes, but there can be no denying the beauty of that song. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online so if anyone knows what I’m talking about, please post the link. The trailer for Carlitos features some pretty bonkers afrocumbia grind, which doesn’t actually appear and seems pretty far removed from the reflective tone of José Antonio Guayasamín’s film. But there’s a time and a place for everything and, yes, that trailer tune is a real bum-juggler.
Chile’s Protistas play out Matías Rojas’ award-winning (at the Valdivia Film Fest) Raíz, which I reviewed here, even if they are overshadowed by the banging collision between the untitled trip hop tune and the southern valley which directly preceded their big moment. Nice song though, showing that Chilean indie can spring a surprise every now and again.
What about this one then? Some insipid, waffly guitar gurners head to Peru on a quest for the mystical properties of ayahuasca and the galaxy’s greatest psychedelic cumbia in Planta Madre, directed by Gianfranco Quattrini. Imagine if Joseph Conrad and Jimi Hendrix had ever written a screenplay together. It would be nothing like this, but it’s an intriguing idea.
The next one is not strictly South American (OK, it’s not at all South American) but Luís Lopez Carrasco’s El Futuro, a visual ode to eighties hipsters partying in Madrid, drinking, pouting and sucking each other’s nipples, was a real musical treat, opening my eyes to la crema de la crema of the era’s Spanish punk and electro from bands like Última Emoción, Ataque de Kaspa and the tremendous Flácidos Lunes. Online mag Numerocero put in the legwork with this excellent article on the film’s soundtrack. Gracias, amigos.
Brazilian representation comes through the story of Dominguinhos in the film, erm, Dominguinhos. The musician, who died last year, played with most of the greats and merged styles seamlessly through bossa nova, jazz and pop, always laced with his signature sound of baião. It’s a nice film and he’s a real character, difficult to not smile at the wealth of onscreen music and happiness.
Argentinean documentary Buenos Aires Rap is about grunge in São Paulo. Haha, just joking. The film looks at hip hop’s roots in Argentina, its ability to bridge social divides and how the scene has developed since first emerging in Buenos Aires in the early 90s. As an overview of one of Latin America’s lesser-known subcultures, it makes some mothereffin’ noise with contributions from regional rap titans such as Dante Spinetta, Jazzy Mel (from Uruguay) and Actitud María Marta. Swap hip hop for electronic music and you have another Argentinean documentary, Conexion Sur, directed by Dolores Lagrange.
Now, I know that the need to learn more about the Chilean rockabilly scene is something that’s been clawing away at your insides recently, so it’s a good thing that director Matías Pinochet made Los Rockers: Rebelde Rock’n’Roll. After pianos, I make sure I keep my distance from anything that takes Elvis as a reference. But, again, it’s an interesting portal into a distinctive regional music scene.
There were also films about some nobodies called the Arctic Roses and the Stone Monkeys, but I couldn’t find anything about them online. Feel free to enlighten me.
Most films at BAFICI have played to a full house, but when I went to see Santos: 100 Years of Football Art, I found myself to be one of only a handful of people in the auditorium. Whoever whould have thought that a film about Brazil’s most popular football club wouldn’t appeal to Argentinean audiences? When you consider that Santos is most famous for being the club of Pele, the direct rival to Buenos Aires’ beloved Diego Maradona for the crown of ‘greatest of all time,’ it is even more baffling.
The fifteen or so of us in attendance saw a film celebrating the 100th anniversary of the club. It is an utterly partizan view of Santos, drawing only on their glorious victories over the last century, a totalitarian sporting documentary which whitewashes any failure from history. Speaking to fans and ex-players, the film paints the football club as the apex not just of sport, or even life, but of simply being. Put simply, there is Santos and there is nothing. It’s fair to say that director Lina Chamie is probably a fan.
Alongside the many talking heads, there is archive footage going right back to the early days of oiled hair and pencil moustaches. But it is only really once Pele is on the scene that there seems to be a relative bounty of surviving video. It’s fun to watch the circus around his 1000th career goal as the great man keeps his cool to tidily slot a penalty into the corner after several minutes of palava.
It moves on through the ages, right up to the 2011 Copa Libertadores, as Santos won South America’s most important football tournament the year before their centenary. During those 100 years, countless twinkly-toed footballers have dazzled the various fan factions, who for their part seem to have been reliably bonkers throughout this illustrious history. The remarkable scene prior to the 2011 final against Uruguay’s Peñarol sees thousands of flares lit in the stands, shrouding the pitch in thick smoke against a cacophonous wall of sheer din. The Emirates Stadium this is not.
We learn as well that it is not only observers who find Neymar annoying, as scores of opposition players regularly tried to maim him on the pitch in his time at Santos. As a piece of nostalgic romance, this film has merit, but as a piece of cinema it will probably only appeal to a select group. And it’s unlikely to be those who think Maradona was the greatest.
No sooner had I finished writing about Matías Luchessi’s Ciencias Naturales, detouring for just a couple of quick cocktails at the French Embassy function next door to the BAFICI press room, when what do I behold? Another film which virtually replicates the Ciencias Naturales storyline, a young child looking for their father and helped by a concerned non-relative. The film this time is Raíz (Root), in which events take place in Southern Chile. Amalia lives in Santiago but is back in her home town following the death of an employee of her mother and takes the dead woman’s young son Cristóbal under her wing. Amalia’s mother is in poor health and in no condition to take responsibility for the child, while Cristóbal’s only known relative is a sour-faced aunt who has no interest in her nephew. The two set off in search of his dad, with little information to go on other than that he lives “in the country.”
In addition to following a highly similar narrative path to Ciencias Naturales, Matías Rojas Valencia’s film is also similar in that it makes tremendous use of natural landscapes, as Southern Chile’s immense volcanoes and eerily misty lakes evocatively reflect the sense of foreboding isolation faced by Cristóbal. Unlike the Argentinean film, it is the character of Amalia, played by Mercedes Mujica, rather than the child who is at the film’s centre. Attempting to establish herself in Santiago has not been easy, particularly considering her mother’s condition, and Cristóbal’s situation provides her with purpose and escape from her own struggles. Unlike the impulsive and fearless Lila in Ciencias Naturales, Cristóbal is a withdrawn and sullen child, retreating further into his shell following the death of his mother. It is another impressive performance from a young actor, Cristóbal Ruiz, albeit one which doesn’t quite warrant the screen-scaling heights of Paula Hertzog as Lila.
I also enjoyed Raíz‘s closing credits, which are preceded by a panoramic sweep through a intensely-green valley soundtracked to some blistering trip hop. In October, the film won the award for best Chilean film at the Valdivia Film Festival, the most important in the country. It’s an easy decision to understand.
My favourite acting performance so far at BAFICI is undoubtedly that of 11-year old Paula Hertzog in Argentinean film Ciencias Naturales, a Córdoba-set tale of a young girl’s search for the biological father she has never met and of whom she knows nothing. Her bad-tempered mum refuses to reveal anything, leaving Lila to take matters into her own hands. On the point of setting out on horseback into the sub-zero wilderness, she is discovered by Paola Barrientos’ kindly teacher who subsequently becomes concerned by the young girl’s relentless urge to find her dad. When Lila tries to take the school head’s car, the teacher decides to help in her quest, largely to protect the girl from herself. It is a simple story which addresses common themes and is built on the charming rapport between the two main characters. As they embark on a road trip, teacher takes on the role of maternal figure which is lacking in Lila’s home life.
Young Hertzog, as well as having a great cinematic name, is also the owner of an incredible face, with a deadpan expression that would make Bill Murray proud. Throughout the film, she wears a look of resignation at the tedious adult stupidity she is obliged to endure. A natural in the role, she is complemented very nicely by Barrientos’ exasperated attempts to rein in this impulsive child. The male actors in the film don’t come close to emulating the ability or empathy of their female counterparts but these are very much in secondary roles. Ciencias Naturales is a highly enjoyable film, very digestable at only 71 minutes long, and set against the expansive portrait of the Cordobese landscape. It is the first feature film from local director Matías Luchessi, who, like his lead actor, appears to have a promising future in Latin American filmmaking.
It’s an eclectic old bag at BAFICI, with a programme offering everything from analytical deliberations on contemporary Latin American society to 80s B-movie shlockers like Maniac Cop and FrankenHooker. In the opening two days of the festival, I’ve stuck resolutely to the former, mindful of my reporting duties and keen to check out what’s happening in South American filmmaking. But it’s now Friday, a time tradionally reserved for late night cinematic extremities so, having spent the last couple of days digesting some of the more artistic and reflective festival content, tonight it’s time for a slasher. In addtion to Maniac Cop, I’m intrigued by the premise for Escape from Tomorrow, filmed guerrilla-style in that most nightmarish realm of pure evil: Disneyland. Brr, I get chills just thinking about it.
On to topics with more South American relevance, and Chilean director Dominga Sotomayor, whose Thursday to Sunday made an international splash last year, is back with a short film made in tandem with Polish filmmaker Katarzyna Klimkiewicz. As with Thursday to Sunday and several other recent Chilean films, La Isla uses the country’s natural aesthetic to build a sense of escapist poetry, set around the loose narrative of a family vacationing on a southern island. Some of the cinematography is superb, never more so than on the incredible stillness of a lake in the early morning.
I wrote about Carlitos yesterday, the Ecuadorean documentary from José Antonio Guayasamín about a young disabled man who struggles to communicate with those around him. The film, which is competing in the Best International Film category, drifts in and out of Carlitos’ daily existence, as he attends speech therapy, plays with his family, and works in a grim-looking frankfurter factory. In spite of the obvious challenges he faces in life, he is not slow to crack a grin, probably due to the spirit of his devoted mother Noemí, who not only has Carlitos to contend with but also another, younger, son and an elderly father who seems to be permanently teetering on the edge. It is a touching film, and in Natalia Guayasamín’s (who may or may not be related to the director) closing song ‘La Lluvia, El Niño y La Flor’, it features one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time.
Whereas some films regale in their simplicity, others create some pretty far-out notions, as is the case with La Última Película. Spanish in title but North American in concept and production, this is part fictional narrative, part documentary, part surrealist painting, and part holiday home movie, all colliding headfirst around the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. The film seeks to draw a line between the earthly apocalypse and the cinematic one, as the celluloid world is obliterated in parallel to that of the Mayans. I’ll be surprised if there are many more slappable faces in film this year than Alex Ross Perry’s central character who is making the fictional film which exists within the actual film. Fortunately, there is a strong sense of irony involved and it is pretty funny as he walks round the Mayan ruins on the end of days expressing his hatred for the many ridiculous ‘earth-children’ hippies who have descended on the area.
Apart from the Hitherto lack of late-night celluloid bloodshed, it’s been an excellent festival so far.
It’s 4am on the dark, deserted streets of downtown Buenos Aires and I’ve just been turned away from about the tenth door I’ve knocked on. The bag on my back contains laptop, camera, passport, phone, two weeks’ worth of living expenses in hard currency and, equally valuable, to me at least, a battered copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Having read through well over half of the novel’s 1000 pages, there’s no way I’m letting that go without a fight. The silence of the city is most foreboding, the darkness punctuated by the neon glow of strip joints which creates shadowy figures on street corners. It’s enough to make anyone feel a tad jittery. The next time my flight gets in after midnight, I’m booking accommodation ahead.
Finally, I find a hostel that can squeeze me into one of its shared dorms until morning. Relieved and revived, I order a beer while the hostel receptionist does her best to keep my chit chat at arm’s length. Now that I’m housed, even if it is with a group of drunken French backpackers ten years my junior, it feels fantastic to be back in the city. There are few capitals as alluring as Buenos Aires with its blend of urbane sophistication and chaotic disorder, the distinctive barrios, the parrillada restaurants, those old wooden bars which serve coffee that makes you buzz like you’ve just emerged from a London nightclub toilet cubicle.
It feels particularly exciting to be in town this time though as the day after I arrive is the inauguration of the Buenos Aires Festival of International Independent Cinema, or BAFICI to apply its widely-used Spanish abbreviation, one of the biggest film fests in Latin America. This year there are over 400 films in the official programme. If I watch six films a day (which is never going to happen, no matter how much I’d like it to) across the festival’s eleven-day duration, I’ll still only see a small sample of what’s on offer. It is therefore important to employ some sort of selection criteria. As I’m covering the festival for a magazine focused on South American culture, I suppose South American films are a good place to start (even if I am quietly hoping to sneak off to catch the Nick Cave film at some point).
So, let’s look at some of the specifics of this year’s BAFICI. Amid the many sections, retrospectives, focuses and categories which provide the festival content, there are two competitions which are at the centre of it all: those for the best international and best Argentinean films, both of which feature some very interesting choices. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the national section but, for now, here’s an overview of the Latin American films competing in the international competition. Bear in mind I have yet to see these films, so what I’ve written below goes largely on gossip, rumour and hearsay:
Algunas Chicas (Some Girls) – Santiago Palavecino, Argentina
Based on the 1949 novel Women on Their Own, by Italian author Cesare Pavese, this genre-bending film, featuring elements of horror and melodrama, offers up the classically foreboding setting of an isolated country house, where a group of young women are staying long-term. There are some pretty nice river views.
La Salada – Juan Martín Hsu, Argentina
La Salada was a popular Argentinean resort built in the 1940s where holidaymakers enjoyed the lagoon and swimming pools. These days, La Salada experiences a different kind of influx, in the arrival of several immigrant communities and the establishment of a sprawling textile market. Director Hsu, who draws on his own Argentinean/Chinese background in order to examine various aspects of modern multiculturalism.
Mauro – Hernán Rosselli, Argentina
The title character is a hustler with a counterfeit money scam and a pregnant girlfriend. There is a minimal tone to this realist portrayal of the Buenos Aires underbelly.
Joao Carlos lives with his mum in their cramped apartment by day and by night is an onstage drag queen. The characters are real people, while the film addresses themes of homosexuality, tolerance and self-expression.
Naomi Campbel: No Es Fácil Convertirse en Otra Persona (Naomi Campbel: It’s Not Easy to Become a Different Person) – Nicolás Videla & Camila Donoso, Chile
Bizarrely-titled film looking at the friendship between a young transsexual and a woman obsessed with physically transforming herself into supermodel Naomi Campbell (why there is only one L in her name in the title is not clear). Touching on similar topics to Castanha, and also involving real people, it is built around a narrative looking at the right to construct our own identity.
A film which addresses the Chilean class divide, Volantín Cortao brings together two youngsters from Santiago, Paulina and Manuel, in the confines of a reintegration centre. Their contrasting backgrounds come to the fore in the development of their relationship.
Carlitos is a young disabled man who works in a sausage factory and spends his free time at the swimming pool and with his family. The director Guayasamín followed his subject for three years, allowing events to play out naturally while building a sympathetic narrative.
El Mudo (The Mute) – Daniel & Diego Vega, Peru/Mexico/France
A lawyer loses all power of speech after being ‘accidentally’ shot and then sets out to prove that this was no random event. Loaded with black humour, it follows the quest to get to the bottom of things, while its star Fernando Bacilio is, according to the BAFICI blurb, “a Peruvian Buster Keaton of sorts.”
Other films in the international section:
Ice Poison – Midi Z, Myanmar/Taiwan
Sarah Prefers to Run – Chloé Robichaud, Canada
El Futuro (The Future) – Luis López Carrasco, Spain
Fifi Howls from Happiness – Mitra Farahani, USA/France
The Wait – M. Blash, USA
Grand Central – Rebecca Zlotowski, France/Austria
Iranian – Mehran Tamodon, France/Switzerland
A Castle in Italy – Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, France
20,000 Days on Earth – Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, UK
Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy – Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Thailand