ND/NF: Argentine Indies, Reinvented and Revived
by Vinicius Navarro
(indieWIRE/4.3.2000) -- There is little in common between "Hidden River" ("Rio Escondido") and "Crane World" ("Mundo Grua"), the two Argentine movies at this year's New Directors/New Films. Both are first features by filmmakers who started making movies in the last decade, but the similarities stop here.
"Hidden River" follows a young woman from Buenos Aires in a journey of self-discovery through the Argentine countryside; "Crane World" examines the troubles of a middle-aged man who runs out of luck as he tries to find a job as a construction worker. The former employs road movie conventions that combine a woman's sensibility with the spectacular landscape of the Andes, while the latter is a neo-realist chronicle of working class life shot in grainy black and white. One is austere and detached; the other is personal and elegant. Together, they show the diversity, both in theme and style, of contemporary Argentine cinema.
Like several other Latin American countries, Argentina spent most of the 1970s under authoritarian military regimes. Lack of political freedom, terror, and censorship cut down film production and forced filmmakers into exile. Musicals and "inoffensive comedies," as film historian John King recalls, became the norm for the decade. This gloomy scenario persisted until the early eighties when the military, after a disastrous war against Britain, stepped out of the government. Following the restoration of political freedom, a cultural renaissance sparked new interest in filmmaking, and some of the most provocative Latin American films made in this period came from Argentina -- Luis Puenzo's Oscar winner "The Official Story" (1985), Hector Olivera's "A Funny Dirty Little War" (1983) and Miguel Pereira's "Veronico Cruz" (1987), among others.
Although the spirit that reigned over the early eighties is long gone, the decade paved the way for a new generation of Argentine filmmakers. Director Mercedes Garcia Guevara, for example, who wrote and directed "Hidden River," started working in the film industry thanks to Maria Luisa Bemberg, who is known in the US mainly through her 1984 film "Camila," the first Argentine feature to be nominated for an Academy Award.
"I don't think there is one single element that defines contemporary Argentine cinema," says Garcia Guevara. "What brings us filmmakers together is the fact that we don't have a lot of money and we are all trying to say something." Argentina produces approximately 40 feature-length films annually. Other notable pictures in the last couple years have included newcomers such as Eduardo Calcagno's Havana winner "Yepeto," Fernando Spiner's sci-fi film "La Sonambula," and Martin Reitman's minimalist comedy "Silvio Prieto" as well as veterans' efforts like Fernando Solanas' 1998 Venice winner "La Nuba" and Eduardo Mignogna's festival favorite "El Faro del Sur" (a. k. a. "The Lighthouse").
With limited resources from private investors, most directors depend on the Instituto Nacional de Cinematografia, a state-owned agency that provides subsidies for filmmaking. Under current regulations, the institute protects both independent and mainstream producers, a distinction that is not always clear in struggling film industries throughout Latin America. When the industry itself is small, everyone can claim to be, in one way or another, an independent filmmaker.
Like Maria Luisa Bemberg, Garcia Guevara is interested in confronting patriarchal rules by placing female characters in territories conventionally occupied by men. Ana, the protagonist in "Hidden River," is a married woman from Buenos Aires who accidentally finds a mysterious letter addressed to her husband. The letter mentions a child who lives in Rio Escondido, a small town in western Argentina. Suspicious that her husband might have kept a second family in secret, Ana decides to visit the woman who wrote the letter. "Ana has nothing to worry about," explains Garcia Guevara, "until one day she finds out that there are different people, living in a different way."
What we see then is a narrative that closely follows the classical road movie tradition: Ana's trip becomes a journey of self-discovery. But Garcia Guevara cleverly reinterprets the conventions of the road movie from a genre traditionally dominated by male existential heroes into a distinctly female experience.
The film, then, is both predictable and unusual: the road fulfills the promise of freedom as Ana's adventure leads to the break up of her marriage and the possible creation of a new couple. But in the end, "Hidden River" turns out to be less conventional than it seems. Rather than mere sexual liberation, what the road promises is an alternative form of domestic life -- one that is created outside of the traditional male-centered family.
The road is also present in Pablo Trapero's "Crane World," although there is hardly any room for positive change here. Sober without being pessimistic, the film offers a loosely structured narrative about Rulo, a man in his fifties who tries to find work on a Buenos Aires construction site. A former musician, Rulo now hopes to become a crane operator. The job, unfortunately, is given to a younger candidate after an insurance company rejects his medical records. With an elderly mother and an unemployed son, Rulo has no choice but to accept a job offer in a distant and less than hospitable part of the country.
After he travels to the south of Argentina, his luck turns sour again and Rulo finds himself out of work. The road that takes him back to Buenos Aires is the same he knew before, although now his future seems more uncertain. Hardly a metaphor for change, the road merely reproduces the somewhat unpredictable movement of everyday life.
It is indeed in the ordinary aspects of everyday life that "Crane World" finds the substance for its narrative. Its subtlety has lead to awards at film festivals in Rotterdam (FIPRESCI and Tiger), Havana (Special Jury Prize) and Buenos Aires (Best Director and Best Actor) as well as a recent U.S. distribution deal from Cowboy Booking International, which opens the film at New York's Screening Room on April 7. With a cast of non-professional actors, the film revolves around a series of small events. Family, friendship, and romance are all less than dramatic elements in a story that remains deliberately inconclusive. The fragmentary, often disorderly, texture of the everyday overshadows any possibility of narrative resolution. Not surprisingly, the film has often been compared to the Italian neo-realist cinema of the fifties
The analogy is obvious, but it is also flawed. For despite the austerity of its realist aesthetics, "Crane World" depends heavily on a stylish and elaborate cinematography. Pablo Trapero, who had not yet arrived in New York when this article went to press, self-consciously darkens what is already a harsh and somber reality. Like Mercedes Garcia Guevara, he is able to recycle past cinematic traditions in a way that is innovative and respectful at the same time. This may not be radically original, but it is often the way cinema, Argentine or not, manages to reinvent itself.
[Vinicius Navarro is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema Studies at NYU.]