Arriving in Atlántida, the location for Uruguay’s documentary festival Atlantidoc, gave me a very strange sensation. A sleepy coastal town near Montevideo, I had the feeling that I’d been here before, or somewhere very much like it. Searched my memory for other seaside towns in Latin America visited over the years, but none quite fitted the bill. Later I realised. It wasn’t a place but a film I was thinking of: a Argentine documentary from a few years ago by Mariano Llinás appropriately entitled Balnearios (‘Bathing Resorts’). For the next few days I feel like Kafka’s butterfly dreaming he was a man who couldn’t decide if he was really a man dreaming he was a butterfly.
I’m here to deliver a workshop in directing documentary, more advanced than the last one I did in Spain a few weeks ago (see the post for 25 October, Curtocircuito). Here the participants are already active film-makers, sometimes with several credits, and the projects they’re presenting are already in an advanced stage of preparation. They even have budgets attached, and some of them have already raised a little money. In several cases they’ve already been out there shooting. All told, about a dozen projects from several countries: Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
This makes for an exciting and intense few days, with small groups in the mornings and everyone together in the afternoons. Whatever they might be learning from me, I am learning a great deal from them: because we’re talking documentary, I’m getting glimpses of the way things are around Latin America, on ground level, so to speak. It strikes me that every one of these projects has a strong social dimension, whether the stories they investigate, they subjects they present, are individual or collective. They’re not much interested in the psychological, much more in collective experience, even when looking at individuals.
Some are about social memory. A Chilean project investigates the role of the church after the Pinochet coup in 1973, which they initially supported and then lamented, through the photographic documentation of the disappeared undertaken by a church-sponsored human rights group. An Argentinian film-maker is making a film in Cuba, to celebrate the work of Santiago Alvarez, who for thirty years was in charge of Cuba’s weekly newsreel. Three generations of Cuban film directors learnt their trade by working under his aegis. But this is not to be a hagiography: the film will ask what significance the newsreels have for today’s youth. A great way of trying to find out how they see the Revolution itself.
Others are about identity. An Argentinean project proposes to accompany a thirty-year-old son of a European mother and a Mapuche father on a trip to Patagonia in search of his indigenous roots. A Bolivian film-maker intends to investigate the life of his Aymara grandfather (a language he himself does not speak) through the memories of his three sons, one of whom is his father.
There are two projects about communities. One comes from Argentina, and focuses on a small company town where a backward teenager has been the victim of a vicious attack by a group of youngsters. Since everyone knows everyone else, this reminds me strongly of one of the most interesting genres in Latin American cinema, the small-town movie, of which there are both tragic and comic varieties. Will the film-maker have recourse to reconstructions? The other is from Colombia and has an urban setting, where inhabitants of a poor neighbourhood in Medellin belong to a scheme that allows them to pay for a local cable television service by collecting rubbish for recycling. The question hanging over this film is whether another kind of television is possible.
The ecological theme is shared by a project by another Argentine film-maker in the form of an ethnomusical and anthropological trip along the Rio Paraguay by the Orquesta Rio Infinito (Infinite River Orchestra), a group of itinerant musicians from several countries who take their boat along the rivers of Latin America, stopping to work with local musicians and in local schools, and giving concerts. The confluence of rivers and music, which both flow across borders. There’s a great video of their trip through Central America up on YouTube:
YouTube – Orquesta del Río Infinito – Documental
Another thing that strikes me is that all these projects are rooted in local realities but their social projection is outwards. The concerns they address are immediately recognisable everywhere south of the Rio Grande, despite the huge diversity of the twenty-something countries that make up the region. It’s as if, despite the ethnic and cultural differences, it is possible in every Latin American country, to see the circumstances of any other as if they’re watching an actual—or possible—version of their own. If documentary in Latin America has ever been thus, the main difference from forty years ago—apart from the new aesthetics of digital video—is a political shift. The militant mode of the 60s and 70s pioneered in Argentina and Cuba has given way to a more questioning sense, more like the Brazilian model. And the subject matter has shifted to questions of memory, human rights, and the concerns of ecology. Anyway, I came away strongly hoping that every one of these films gets made, and quite sure the film-makers will do their subjects justice.