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DISPATCH FROM HAVANA | Celebrating Latin Film and Contradictions

DISPATCH FROM HAVANA | Celebrating Latin Film and Contradictions

A healthy if strange disconnect colored the Havana Film Festival (December 4-14), officially the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano–but then Cuban society is a textbook model of disjunction. Take opening night, a tripartite schizorama in the 4800-seat Teatro Karl Marx that could only succeed in this surreal capitol of contradictions (which go far beyond the overly circulated images of the shells of ’50s American cars that hide engines from God-knows-where or the crumbling facades of powerful, no-longer-pristine Deco houses).

The evening began with Argentinian Latin rock icon Fito Paez, the most interactive of performers, belting faves and tickling the ivories for a shellshocked audience. Then, from his seat, 82-year-old fest president and longtime Fidel pal Alfredo Guevara delivered a floral, old-school speech in which he reminded guests that on July 26, 2007, in a first, Raul Castro announced that people should speak openly about social problems, whether at their block associations or in their offices or factories. Finally, in a choice both ballsy and ideological, the inaugural film: Brian de Palma‘s “Redacted,” the faux doc about American misbehavior in Iraq that didn’t exactly knock out the attendees. One of its Canadian producers read a note from de Palma stating that he was not present because “the U.S. State Department couldn’t find me a visa.”

In the feature competition, “A Stray Girlfriend” (Una Novia Errante), an Argentinian film directed by and starring Ana Katz, won the International Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize. This somewhat story of a neurotic, obsessive young woman, abandoned by her boyfriend while on a seaside vacation, is full of unglamorous but credible flesh-and-blood characters; the recurring backgrounds of windblown grass and sturdy trees (recalling the most visual of silent films) are as tranquil as its foregrounded protagonist is unsettled. I was president of this jury, which was nearly unanimous in its decision. Yet the festival’s main jury gave it none of its 15 prizes. Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas‘s masterpiece “Silent Light,” which, having already won a FIPRESCI prize in Rio, was ineligible for ours, did deservedly take four of their awards, including best film and best director, but NOTHING for “A Stray Girlfriend?” The pieces just don’t fit.

The other big winners from the main jury were Uruguayan director Esteban Schroeder‘s brilliant political thriller, “Kill Them All” (best screenplay and best actress for Roxana Blanco), based on a true story about a Chilean “chemical engineer of death” under Pinochet whose escape from his Uruguayan military guards (under Operation Condor, the former dictatorships helped each other hide evidence) is investigated by an earnest female human-rights prosecutor in post-junta Montevideo; and Argentinian filmmaker Ariel Rotter‘s “The Other” (third prize and best actor for Julio Chavez, of “El Custodio” fame), a visually and aurally stunning, if narratively thin, study of a man in a two-day midlife crisis. (Second prize went to Brazilian director Cao Hamburger‘s schmaltzfest “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation.”)

The event is huge: 274 features alone in 18 cinemas around town, most overflowing with an average of 27,000 spectators daily. Habaneros are the most cinephilic people I have ever encountered. (Unfortunately, the the three Cuban features this year–Fernando Perez‘s “Madrigal,” Arturo Sotto‘s “The Night of the Innocents,” and Daniel Diaz Torres‘s “Road to Eden“–were bad, very bad).

There is something for everyone. For starters, Havana has competitions for best opera prima, or first films, which were unusually accomplished this year (Brazilian Chico Teixeira‘s fine “Alice’s House” garnered top honors), documentaries (French-Chilean director Camila Guzman Urzua‘s “The Sugar Curtain“–a political hot potato about her time in Cuba before and after the Revolution–was the winner), animation, scripts, and posters. There are seminars–Cubans love to debate–with titles like “Latinos en USA” and “Latinos + Latinos,” the latter an encounter between North and South American filmmakers; a strand of “Cine Fantastico y de Horror en Latinoamerica,” including the new Argentinian genre known as HorrAR; exhibitions of national cinemas from Germany, the UK, Canada, Spain, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland; experimental films, both contemporary and from 1940-1960; retrospectives of the works of gallic director Eric Rohmer, the Spaniard Jose Luis Borau, and the Brazilian Joaquim Pedro de Andrade; several special presentations, including “Old Man Bebo,” a doc about musician Chico Valdes‘s father, who is persona non grata in Cuba–another courageous selection–and the introduction of new film books, my favorite title being The Decadence of the Hollywood Empire (“which reflects an imperialist mentality,” per the catalog).

A scene from Ana Katz’s “A Stray Girlfriend” (Una Novia Errante). Image courtesy of the Havana Film Festival.

By the way, how many film festivals have as their closing night film a doc about the environment like “Earth,” by the UK’s Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield?

Yet, as its official moniker suggests, Latin American movies are the heart and soul of the fest. From the official and opera prima competitions, several trends emerge, at least among the better films. (I’m not counting the childish, gratuitous tits-and-ass-and-genetalia of many of the Brazilian movies, which evidently do well at the domestic box office. Go figure.)

Deconstructing the nuclear family

“Alice’s House” and Mexican director Ruben Imaz Castro‘s “Turtle Family” analyze imploding households. In the former, a working-class mother erupts after her husband has an affair with a teen neighbor; two of her sons are supermacho and disrespectful of both her and her aging mother, a far cry from Latin American family tradition.

The strong “Turtle Family” takes place over a 24-hour period before the first-anniversary ceremony of a mother’s death. Her husband has lost his job and drinks, her daughter has hooked up with a drug dealer, and her high- schooler son is on his way to coming out of the closet. The mother’s brother, who has cerebral palsy and runs the house, is treated as badly as the grandmother in “Alice’s House.” “Silent Light” focuses on a Mennonite family in the state of Chihuahua, where a rare case of adultery threatens not only its stability but that of the entire rigid community.

The most distressing examples are from Brazil. In Sandra Kogut‘s “Mutum,” a family barely subsists on a farm. Conditions are so bad that the prepubescent son is separated from his loving mother (his father is on the lam, having committed a murder) and sent to live with an affluent doctor in a large town. And in Paulo Caldas‘s moving “Happy Desert,” a barely pubescent girl is shipped to the city for the same reasons, but, with no doctor to support her, she necessarily turns to prostitution.

Alternative sexualities

The son in “Turtle Family” is only one of the numerous gay characters in the festival’s films. So is the most “manly” of the boys in “Alice’s House”; in fact, he’s a military diehard. Then there is the confused intersexed protagonist of Argentinian director Lucia Puenzo‘s “XXY,” who just may be content with double genitalia.

But the great find in this category is Argentinian Santiago Otheguy‘s “La Leon” (The Lion), a stunning, beautifully languorous feast of widescreen black-and-white cinematography about a confident gay man in the remote, waterlogged Parana Delta of northern Argentina who comes up against the homophobic surrogate leader of this isolated community. Interestingly, this “leader” is as virulently antigay, though latently homo through and through, as he is anti-illegal immigrant. He spews hatred toward the Paraguayans who innocuously come to the area to log. Sound familiar?

Disappearance and reinvention in Argentina

While small neighboring Uruguay is on the upswing with strong political films like “Kill Them All” and sterling black comedies like “The Pope’s Toilet” (remember Whisky?), Argentina has shifted in another direction. The country has been through a lot in recent decades, including a nasty “dirty war,” the Falklands showdown with Britain, and a devastating economic meltdown known merely as “The Crisis.” For a while a number of overtly political films were produced, mainly critical of the regimes responsible for these fiascos.

Suddenly, almost as a reaction, several movies about people who intentionally disappear and/or reinvent themselves, with little or no political impulse, have taken their place. Perhaps it’s a cathartic phase, or perhaps something is rotten in the state of Argentina. We had a taste of this trend last year with Pablo Trapero‘s “Born and Bred,” in which a Buenos Aires man, following a horrible car accident, abandons his family and builds a new identity in remote Patagonia.

In “The Other,” Julio Chavez plays a Buenos Aires lawyer who goes on a routine business trip to a provincial town, assumes two false names, has a fling, saves an old woman’s life, and returns home ready to face with a smile the life that had been boring him. Male menopause? Sandra Gugliotta‘s “Possible Lives” tells of a woman whose husband vanishes on a journey to Patagonia (again). Even when evidence points to his demise, she is certain that a lookalike she finds there is actually her spouse under a new guise.

Rather than vanishing, the women who reinvent themselves are in your face. The protagonist of “A Stray Girlfriend” ultimately centers herself once her father and his girlfriend arrive and offer support. Silvia Perez‘s aging movie queen in Anahi Berneri‘s “Encarnacion” is a vain, self-absorbed diva. Yet she finds a soft spot in her heart, giving her naive but beloved niece the gift of her new prospective lover.

It appears that general inconsistency, at least in Latin America, is not limited to Cuba.

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