WORLD CINEMA REPORT: "Bolivia" and Beyond; Ibero-American Heat Hits U.S.
by Anthony Kaufman
Another Latin invasion is steadily building steam. In an unprecedented moment for Oscar, two of this year's Academy nominees for best screenplay went to Spanish-language scripts; Pedro Almodovar became the first Spaniard to garner a best director nomination; and Salma Hayek became the first Mexican to nab a best actress nod. A third Spanish-lingo film, "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" secured one of the coveted best foreign film nominations, and along with films like "Empire," and "Real Women Have Curves," Spanish accented pictures proved to be among the most financially successful independents of the year.
With the U.S. market now seemingly more receptive, a new group of Ibero-American (Spanish and Portuguese language) films -- from critics favorites to popular hits -- are poised to follow in their footsteps. Just this past weekend in Miami, seven esteemed emerging filmmakers -- including Argentine New Wavers Lucrecia Martel ("La Cienaga") and Pablo Trapero ("Crane World") -- gathered at the Miami International Film Festival for Miami Encuentros, an inaugural program devoted to raising awareness (and possibly) financing for their latest films. And today in New York, fledgling non-profit organization Cinema Tropical opens its first theatrical release "Bolivia," the much-celebrated second feature from Uruguay-born Adrian Caetano, at the Film Forum. (After a distinguished festival trip from Cannes to Sundance, Caetano's most recent film "El Oso Rojo" will also premiere in New York as part of the New Directors/New Films series next month).
"'Amores Perros,' 'Y Tu Mama' and 'Padre Amaro' show there's a thirst for Latin American movies," says Cinema Tropical's Monika Wagenberg. "It's now okay to enjoy films in Spanish." Further proving their market penetration, Wagenberg notes that some of the films even kept their names in Spanish for U.S. release.
Originally set up to show Latin American cinema exclusively in New York, Cinema Tropical is now planning to take "Bolivia" to eight cities around the country. "We're becoming an alternative way to distribute films," she explains. "We don't have money to pay rights for films, but we are giving them more exposure in non-theatrical venues and festivals around the country." With offers pouring in to make Cinema Tropical more than just a facilitator for exhibition, the micro-company finds itself riding the latest Latin wave: it is now bound either to find a permanent exhibition space in New York or evolve into a full-fledged distributor.
While Wagenberg says she isn't rushing to expand, other companies aren't wasting any time. Miami-based Venevision International, an Ibero-American television giant, has recently begun pushing Spanish-language product in North America. Just two weeks ago, they released Francisco Lombardi's "Pantaleon y las visitadoras" (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service), a Peruvian military farce based on a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, in 15 theaters across the New York area. And in April, they will release Jorge Ali Triana's "Bolivar Soy Yo," a big winner at last year's financially strapped Mar del Plata film festival in Argentina.
And on the heels of the release of "Pantaleon," Variety reported powerhouse media giants from Mexico (Telvisa), Spain (Plural Entertainment) and a marketing group called Latin World Entertainment have joined forced to release Spanish-language films in the U.S., as well. The venture hopes to form a co-distribution deal with a U.S. studio, according to the trade, and plans to release five films annually, with Mexican hits "The Blue Room" and "The Tiger of Santa Julia" slated to be the first out of the gate.
Cinema Tropical's Wagenberg warns such corporate enterprises have to be careful. "It makes sense that the same people producing these films want to benefit from the distribution," she says. "But you still have to do a lot of grassroots work." Recalling the failed release of "Santitos" by now defunct distributor Latin Universe, Wagenberg adds, "They thought they could deal with the film in the same way that you would an English-language film, but these are not English language; you have to nurture them and go slow with them."
While the major media entities plan to target U.S. Latino moviegoers, with cross-platform marketing in Spanish-language TV, radio, and press, the demographic is a notoriously slippery one. There are rumors that Mexican-Americans only see Mexican films and that the market as a whole is more interested in English-language Spanish-accented films (think "Empire" and "Real Women Have Curves") rather than arthouse fare from Latin America or Spain.
But as "Talk to Her" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien" confirm, there exists a sizeable Anglo viewership also willing to see such films. "We're targeting crossover audiences," says Wagenberg. At Cinema Tropical, she adds, "at least half of the audiences are not Latin."
This will likely be the case at U.S. screenings of "Bolivia," a sanctified arthouse property with festival prizes on its resume from Cannes to San Sebastian. The title is an ironic evocation of the cross-national dimension of the new Latin wave: "Bolivia" takes place in Buenos Aires. Shot in black and white during weekends over a three-year period in the Argentina capital, "Bolivia" is urgent indie filmmaking. Largely taking place in a single diner, the story concerns an immigrant cook from Bolivia who encounters a disgruntled group of down-and-out Argentines, seething with racism fueled by their own financial ruin. Comparisons to "Do The Right Thing" are not unwarranted.
Indeed, Caetano is quick to dismiss his film as mere "social denunciation," as he writes via email, "which would minimize the narrative value of the story." More important to the filmmaker is that "Bolivia" is "universal," he states. "I believe it speaks about Argentina, but I also believe this a story that could happen in many places in the world."
This broad-ranging humanist appeal may explain why such films have succeeded at European festivals, from Rotterdam to Cannes, and appear primed to enter the U.S. arthouse big time.
Wagenberg also credits a new generation of talent that isn't afraid to take risks. As an example, she cites "Black Box," the recent feature debut of 23-year-old director Luis Ortega. "You can definitely see that people are not afraid of getting naked spiritually," she says. "These aren't people from the advertising sector; they are students experimenting and willing to be bold in front of the camera."
But the filmmakers themselves don't necessarily feel the movement. "I think we have some points in common because we are part of the same generation," says Caetano of his fellow new Latin American filmmakers. "But I don't necessarily think that makes us part of the same thing. Unfortunately, I don't feel a part of anything."