It’s hard to name a specific year as the launching-point of the renaissance that Latin American cinema has experienced over the past decade. What is hardly debatable, however, is the significant increase in exposure and presence that the cinema from that region has accomplished in such a time-span. The last ten years have proved to be tremendously influential for Latin American films and the people who make them, providing opportunities that were unimaginable a generation before. Previously hindered by an imposing multitude of production difficulties, the films that were able to get made would face the near impossible task of finding screens at home and abroad. This is hardly the case today, and New York’s status as an important global hub for Latin American cinema continues to grow.
The Latino population in the United States increased by 43% over the last decade, making up 16.3% of the population according to the 2010 U.S. Census. In all likelihood, the numbers provided by the Census report are conservative. This spike in population, however, doesn’t account for Latin American cinema’s newfound role in the United States. Facing strong competition from Hollywood and other foreign productions, countries in Latin America have found it historically difficult to foster and maintain a film culture that supports domestic and regional productions. That’s the impetus that led two New York University graduate students, Carlos A. Gutiérrez and Monika Wagenberg, to enroll in a Brazilian cinema course taught by the influential film scholar Robert Stam in the late ’90s. “Both Monika and I were surprised by how little we knew about the general overview of Latin American cinema,” said Gutiérrez. “That was 1997 and there was practically no Latin American cinema in the city.”
Together they created Cinema Tropical, a cultural institution that has had a central role in helping Latin American films find a forum in New York City’s thriving film scene and across the country. Their influence has helped transform Latin American cinema’s cultural standing in the United States. “New York has become the capital of Latin American cinema in the Americas,” Gutiérrez noted proudly. He isn’t mistaken: the organization’s weekly newsletter keeps up with all the different Latin American films playing in the city. In the last month alone, the newsletter featured links to over 50 different films screening in New York, with venues ranging from cultural centers to film festivals.
“We started as programmers, doing a mini cine club every Wednesday,” added Gutiérrez of the organization’s early days at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village. After building a core following, the pair began receiving requests to program in theaters across the U.S., naturally segueing into becoming non-theatrical distributors for these underrepresented films. “After that, it became pretty much natural for us to become traditional distributors since we had built contact with the theaters, filmmakers and audience. The irony is that despite our limited budget, we became the biggest distributors of Latin American cinema in the last ten years.”
There is still a way to go despite the success achieved. “For the volume and the quality of films, Latin American films are still very underrepresented,” Gutiérrez explained. It’s difficult to disagree. While the scene has produced household names, Latin American cinema cannot be reduced to a sampling of Gael García Bernal movies – no matter how much swooning fans may enjoy looking into those light green eyes. Part of Cinema Tropical’s mission is to prevent Latin American fair from falling into a cultural niche, an effort that involves a restructuring of how audiences view these films.
“It comes down to education,” Gutiérrez said. “The way ‘other’ cinemas are taught is still very fragmented. It’s a very Eurocentric world where foreign cinema here is dominated by Western European films. Latin American cinema gets relegated to a second tier. In general, critics, academics, and film professionals still don’t know how to deal with Latin American cinema. I think we need to create a better context to understand these productions.”
The presence of a new Latin American film culture by no means guarantees an audience. “The Latino market here is tricky, it’s a very fragmented audience. It doesn’t help that any feature film in a foreign language in the United States is automatically an art-house film,” noted Gutiérrez. That is especially relevant when it comes to comedies or other popular genres. Today’s films from the region don’t present a uniform aesthetic, making them difficult to categorize for some programmers. The importance of finding a place for these films, however, is more important than mere exposure. “Ultimately, New York has a big say in what gets programmed and distributed internationally. The fact that some of these films get shown in New York does have an effect in what eventually gets seen in Latin America.”
To celebrate their tenth year, Cinema Tropical is presenting a series of eleven films to screen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from May 4 – 16. The films are a collection of work by key directors of the Latin American film scene from the past decade whose influential films have helped mold and develop the rise of the region’s cinema. The series features a diverse array of work from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay with a number of filmmakers attending to present and discuss their films at screenings. The series begins Wednesday, May 4 with Mario Llinás’ “Extraordinary Stories,” named a New York Times Critic’s Pick. The full slate, along with synopses (courtesy of MoMA), are included below. For more information on MoMA’s In Focus: Cinema Tropical, click here.
“Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories) 2008. Argentina. Directed by Mariano Llinás. With Walter Jakob, Agustín Mendilaharzu, Llinás.
Three unconnected tales featuring main characters known only as X, Z, and H, respectively, branch out into a labyrinth of plots and subplots in a vast narrative that moves from a small town in Argentina to Africa and back. Llinás’s four-hour film is the single most accomplished work in recent Argentine cinema, an audacious celebration of the art of storytelling in cinema. In Spanish; English subtitles. 245 min.
“Turistas” 2009. Chile. Written and directed by Alicia Scherson. With Aline Kuppenheim, Marcelo Alonso, Diego Noguera.
After a heated argument on their way to vacation, Carla, a woman in her mid-30s, is ditched by her husband, so she decides to continue the trip by
herself. She arrives at a lush National Park, where a series of incidents and encounters send on a personal adventure. Scherson’s enticingly fresh take on the road movie is a resonant meditation on emotion. In Spanish; English subtitles. 105 min.
“Trópico de Cáncer (Tropic of Cancer)” 2004. Mexico. Directed by Eugenio Polgovsky.
The powerful documentary Trópico de Cáncer is a meticulous account of the perilous conditions faced by a group of families living in the arid desert. In their quest for survival, they hunt animals to sell on the highway. Visually astonishing and with a surprising narrative drive, Polgovsky’s documentary debut—along with his follow-up film “The Inheritors”—has established him as one of Mexico’s most promising documentarians. In Spanish; English subtitles. 52 min.
“Copacabana” 2007. Argentina. Directed by Martín Rejtman.
Taking the annual celebration of the Virgin of Copacabana in a Bolivian neighborhood in Buenos Aires as its point of departure, Rejtman’s first incursion into nonfiction filmmaking is a sober, meticulous portrait of Argentina’s Bolivian community. Featuring minutely detailed mise-en-scène and minimal dialogue, Rejtman’s work is playfully structured in reverse, as the film begins with the festivities, follows with the rehearsals, and ends with the immigrants’ original journey from Bolivia. In Spanish; English subtitles. 56 min.
“Entrenamiento elemental para actores (Elementary Training for Actors)” 2009. Argentina. Written and directed by Martín Rejtman, Federico León. With Fabián Arenillas, Ulises Bercovich, Luca Damperat.
Rejtman, a longtime Cinema Tropical favorite (the organization released his films “Silvia Prieto” and “The Magic Gloves”), is often referred to as the father of New Argentinean Cinema. In this sharp, witty featurette about a theater workshop for children lead by a fervent professor, Rejtman remains true to the deadpan minimalist humor that distinguishes his earlier work. In Spanish; English subtitles. 52 min.
“Toro negro” 2005. Mexico. Directed by Pedro González-Rubio, Carlos Armella.
“Toro Negro” delves deep into the life of Fernando Pacheco, a hapless young bullfighter who fights not in big arenas but at parties in small Mayan communities in the Yucatán Peninsula. Fernando is heartwarming and honest, but he’s also an alcoholic, prone to violent outbursts and impulsive behavior. González-Rubio (director of the acclaimed Alamar) and Armella show Fernando’s raw human passion and conflicts from a disturbingly intimate distance. In Spanish; English subtitles. 87 min.
“25 Watts” 2001. Uruguay. Written and directed by Pablo Stoll, Juan Pablo Rebella. With Daniel Hendler, Jorge Temponi, Alfonso Tort.
2011 marks the 10th anniversary of 25 Watts, Stoll and the late Rebella’s debut, which consolidated Uruguay’s influential role in the recent revitalization of Latin American cinema. A wry, fresh, and funny slacker comedy shot in black and white in Montevideo, “25 Watts” launched Control Z Films, the production company created by Stoll, Rebella, and Fernando Epstein that initiated a prolific and exciting period for young Uruguayan filmmakers. In Spanish; English subtitles. 94 min.
“Santiago” 2006. Brazil. Directed by João Moreira Salles.
The filmmaker interviews his family’s remarkable Brazilian butler, a complex, cultured man adept in diplomatic missions and scholarly research. Presented in collaboration with Cinema Tropical. In English, Portuguese; English subtitles. 80 min.
“Una semana solos (A Week Alone)” 2008. Argentina. Directed by Celina Murga. With Natalia Gómez Alarcón, Manuel Aparicio, Mateo Braun.
Murga’s follow-up to her acclaimed “Ana and the Others” follows a group of kids in a gated community in suburban Buenos Aires who are left alone while their parents are on holiday. Murga’s film is a subtle exploration of class and childhood. In Spanish; English subtitles. 110 min.
“El vuelco del cangrejo (Crab Trap)” 2009. Colombia. Written and directed by Oscar Ruiz Navia. With Rodrigo Vélez, Arnobio Salazar Rivas, Jaime Andrés Castaño.
Daniel, a mysterious man from the city, arrives in an isolated village on Colombia’s Pacific coast and gets a temporary job to raise enough money to move on. During his stay, he encounters the local Afro-Colombian traditions and sees how they’re challenged by recently arrived neighbors. Featuring stunningly beautiful cinematography, Navia’s debut feature exemplifies the best of the up-and-coming Colombian cinema movement. In Spanish; English subtitles. 95 min.
“O ceu de Suely (Love for Sale/Suely in the Sky)” 2006. Brazil. Written and directed by Karim Aïnouz. With Hermila Guedes, Maria Menezes, Georgina Castro.
Aïnouz, one of the filmmakers at the forefront of contemporary Brazilian cinema, follows his internationally successful debut “Madame Satã” with a very different portrait of an indomitable survivor. Returning to her hometown in poverty-stricken northeastern Brazil, Hermila (Guedes) awaits the arrival of her boyfriend, but her spunk and zest for life take on an increasingly desperate edge when it becomes clear that he will not be coming. The director’s major achievement is making the soulful decency of the townspeople and the rich colors of the empty landscape an integral part of the characterization of Hermila, who remains likeable despite even her most
desperately miscalculated actions. In Portuguese; English subtitles. 88 min.