Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 23, 2009 — The scene: A middle-aged man steps into a row of a fading, empty movie theater. He sits down, pauses for a moment then gets up and moves one seat to his right. He does the same thing again before settling on a spot. As it turns out, he’s not about to watch a movie, but rather testing and repairing the chairs. He runs a fading cinematheque.
Still in production on “La vida útil,” filmmaker Federico Veiroj presented just a few minutes of footage from the new film and talked about it a bit on Friday afternoon in Montevideo, Uruguay. The black-and-white project is Veiroj’s second feature, a follow-up to last year’s “Acné,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and later won a number of fest prizes. It remains without U.S. distribution of any kind, so after I chatted with the filmmaker at the Teatro Solis in downtown Montevideo last week, he handed me a DVD.
A local Uruguayan film critic stars as Jorge, the cinematheque owner in “La vida útil” whose life has been defined by his cinephilia. With his film archive in crisis, it’s an understatement to say that he’s facing a dramatic transition as the structures of his existence crumble.
Making the movie with Fuji film stock he won at AFI Fest, Veiroj underscored some of the timely parallels between his new movie and the state of film today. He’s making a sixty seven minute project that he hopes will first find it’s way to movie lovers via festivals next year, but has realistic expectations about its prospects for distribution in this current climate. Unwilling to compromise core elements of his movie to satisfy distributors, though, Veiroj calmly reiterated that he’ll finish the movie his way and then take on distribution himself if necessary to get it in front of its intended audience.
I joined a small group of U.S. film folks for a few days in Uruguay last week for MIFF Abroad, the Miami International Film Festival’s annual touring program of seminars and meetings that this year connected industry, filmmakers, students and others in Montevideo. IFC’s Ryan Werner, Efe Cakarel from The Auteurs, Cinetic’s Matt Dentler, Gigantic Releasing’s Mark Lipsky, and programmer Monika Wagenberg from Cinema Tropical were among those in Uruguay for the three days of meetings and mixers.
There’s a small but apprently quite tight film community in the coastal city, situated a short trip across the Rio de La Plata from Buenos Aires. We chatted with them over meals and at bars like La Ronda, a popular local watering hole for film folks downtown. Fans of international film have embraced a number of Uruguayan films (most are co-productions) in recent years, including Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll’s “Whisky” (2003) and “25 Watts” (2001), Veiroj’s “Acné”, Adrián Biniez’ “Gigante,” an award winner in Berlin. Upcoming are Pablo Stoll’s “Hiroshima” in Toronto and Enrique Buchichio’s “El Cuarto de Leo” in San Sebastian.
Relating news of uncertainty and fear in the U.S. film business, the group exported reports that were quite bleak for the locals. “In just a few years, the previous structures will not be the same,” Wagenberg said of the industry, in Spanish, at the start of a two-day conference. In short, the Americans spoke of dwindling opportunities for either art or commerce in the U.S. Yet, also debated digital models that might offer some relief, if not large revenues.
“Nadie sabe nada,”” I offered at one point during a panel discussion, evoking William Goldman’s infamous statement that “Nobody knows anything,” as a way of trying to say that as smart and seasoned as the U.S. guests are, so much seems to be in flux back home that it’s too soon to know how it will all shake out. Now is a time of tremendous experimentation and opportunity.
“We are losing cinephilia,” underscored Efe Cakarel, the MIT and Goldman Sachs insider who is developing quite a passion for cinema as the founder and head of online cinematheque The Auteurs. His comment about the state of cinema was quite evident during an engaging Friday morning breakfast session with dozens of local film school students. The cost of living is too high to allow many visits to a multiplex, one student told me frankly.
At the local Casablanca Cinema in Montevideo I noticed that the comfortable multiplex was offering Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” and Claude Chabrol’s “Bellamy” (with Pedro Almodovar’s “Abrazos Rotos” on the way). But, the smart student — a violinist and writer with a filmmaker brother who is eyeing further study in New York City — said that most people would rather spend hours downloading a crappy bootleg copy of a new film than wastefully pay to watch it. Not surprisingly, then, the idea of an iTunes movie store where folks would pay for online access to a movie in Uruguay seemed an extremely foreign (and even stupid) concept to her. Idealistically, I challenged her to come up with an online model that might marry local attitudes about free access to films with a structure that could bring some revenue to the filmmakers and produers.
The Auteurs’ Cakarel said the other day in Uruguay that he doesn’t want his burgeoning site to replace theatrical distribution, but instead offer wider access to cinephiles (and potential cinephiles) around the world. In Uruguay, he may have to flip that approach if film students won’t go to the theater to see a movie. To that extent, after the meeting with the students on Friday he immediately decided to lower the cost of watching a film on The Auteurs in Uruguay to USD $1 and he agreed to give them credit to start streaming films from his site.
I’m visiting friends in Brazil now as I write this on a Sunday morning, thinking about my experiences last week in Uruguay. I’m looking forward to popping in the DVD of Federico Veiroj’s “Acné” and then catching “Gigante” and “Hiroshima” at U.S. fests next month. I’m also wondering, again a bit idealistically, if there might be a way to find a way to bring more Latin American movies to the U.S., which has some 45 million Latinos.
“There are tens of millions of Spanish speaking people in the U.S.,” Gigantic’s Mark Lipsky, a veteran of Stateside film distribution, told the filmmakers and students in Uruguay the other day. “The problem is they don’t go to the movies,” Lipsky added, echoing conventional wisdom but then offering a challenge.
“We need to work very hard on your behalf and our own behalves, to try to fix that,” he added.