Transforming Argentina

Danni Zuvela

This year's Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) continued the event's interest in Argentinian cinema with a set of features and documentaries illustrating the extent to which the nation's turbulent political history has had an overwhelming impact on its filmmaking. This can be seen in both a recurring thematic backdrop of economic chaos and in the direct, murderous oppression of dissident filmmakers.

Billed as comedies, the feature films The Magic Gloves (director Martin Rejtman) and Buena Vida Delivery (Leonardo di Cesare) deal with escalating social situations resulting from chance encounters. In The Magic Gloves, taxi driver Alejandro endures a series of humiliations after being drawn by an entrepreneurial former school friend into an unwise investment. Buena Vida Delivery centres on the trials of Hernan: the family of his new housemate move their biscuit-making operation into his home and eventually have to be removed by force. In both these films, the backdrop of Argentina's successive economic disasters looms large. The famed Argentine magic realism is replaced by heavy-handed metaphor and screwball situation comedy as protagonists struggle with disappointment and betrayal by those in whom they place their trust.

Raymundo is more explicitly concerned with Argentina's history, detailing the life and work of political filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer. Using archival footage, extensive interviews, diary extracts, home Super 8 and Gleyzer's own films, this documentary builds a picture of a filmmaker whose commitment to the struggle for social and economic justice for the people of Latin America ultimately cost him his life. The filmmakers say they “don't intend to mystify Raymundo's figure, nor to enclose him in a time capsule, but to act as a bridge for others to continue the struggle. That's why this re-discovery is so important for the continuation of this kind of cinema.”

Raymundo charts Gleyzer's life against Argentina's continual political upheaval, starting with his emergence amidst the revolutionary spirit of the Free Cinema movement of the 1960s, through extensive work with idealistic documentary collectives, to his first, and last, dramatic film. Gleyzer's son, Diego, narrates much of the story, reading his father's diary extracts. Diego's image is revealed only late in the documentary, leaving the audience, by now familiar with Gleyzer's visage, to gasp at the incredible likeness-a tribute to the power of intelligent, thoughtful editing. By the time Gleyzer's inevitable capture and torture is revealed after the completion of his film The Traitors, a barely fictionalised account of treachery by union leaders, the documentary had gathered so much emotional momentum that there were few dry eyes in the cinema. From an overwhelming amount of material, makers Virna Molina and Ernesto Ardito have assembled an arresting masterwork.

After the documentary, a screening of The Traitors was made all the more poignant by learning that Raymundo Gleyzer toured the film in Australia shortly before his murder. Based on actual people and events, The Traitors traces the deterioration of a unionist's principles as he initially fights for workers' rights, is co-opted and bought by the system, and finally ends up one of those against whom he once fought. Twin narratives, 20 years apart, are intercut to contrast the story of the young idealist (the lover) and the cynical incumbent (the killer). The collocation of the screenings greatly enhanced the viewing of The Traitors and created a reflexive climate; the documentary establishes the film's tragic significance in Raymundo's oeuvre, and includes footage from the production process shot by Raymundo and the radical documentary group Grupo de Cine.

Further intensifying the retrospective's reflection on Argentine filmmaking was the inclusion of Fernando 'Pino' Solanas' latest film, Memoria de Saqueo, translated as A Social Genocide, though History of a Plundering is closer. The film takes the 2001 freezing of all bank accounts and subsequent popular revolt as the starting point for its investigation of Argentina's current situation. The pillaging of Argentina parallels that of many Latin American countries, exploited first by Spain and Europe and then by the USA and multinational business interests. It is against these ongoing forms of colonisation that Memoria de Saqueo remonstrates so forcefully. The documentary is an example of “Third Cinema”-neither Hollywood nor arthouse-which, in the famous manifesto, Solanas declared “a cinema of decolonisation.”

Solanas updates the metaphor and literary allusions of his incendiary 1969 experimental polemic La Hora De Los Hornos with a deeply cinematic video essay that places the blame for Argentina's continuing economic crises on the treachery of governments, banks and other institutions. Los Hornos' powerful intercutting between workers and slaughtered livestock is reworked in Memoria de Saqueo through sweeping tracking shots of gleaming mahogany boardrooms counterposed with graphic images of poverty, scavenging children and an unforgettable image of a starving baby. The film's nationalist agenda is central to Solanas' theory, as “Third Cinema is also aligned with national culture…that of the ensemble of the popular classes.”

Memoria de Saqueo, together with Raymundo and The Traitors, constitute a body of contemporary Third Cinema works galvanised by injustice and shot through with common themes of treachery and betrayal. At a time when political documentary filmmaking inhabits a position of public visibility, popularity and participation like never before, the power and beauty of the Argentine focus at BIFF is highly significant. Argentina's future remains uncertain and despite the inordinate difficulties and the penurious climate for filmmaking, agitational works remain as important as ever. In Raymundo Gleyzer's words: “Filmmakers who work towards a revolutionary cinema in South America must not limit themselves to denouncing, or to the appeal for reflection; it must be a summons for action. It must appeal to our people's capacity for tears and anger, enthusiasm and faith…We must therefore serve as the stone which breaks silence, or the bullet which starts the battle. Poetry is not a goal in itself. Among us, poetry is a tool to transform the world.”

Argentinian Spotlight, 13th Brisbane International Film Festival, Regent Cinemas, July 27-August 8

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg.

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004