In its 25th year, the Guadalajara Film Festival (which ended today) is that rare blend: a site for serious cinephiles and a locale known for its warm hospitality (and weather!). Four competitive sections (Mexican features, Mexican docs, Iberoamerican features, Iberoamerican docs) and a host of sidebars–including Sound of Cinema (films about music), Focus on Andalucia, Without Borders (international features and docs), Alternating Currents (fascinating selection of foreign features), a salute to France, and several homages, such as one to Mexican actress Maria Rojo–are the scaffolding that supports the wide range of Latin American (and Iberian) movies. The Talent Campus, which, in its second edition, serves students from all over Latin America, is the center of creatively oriented and business-related panels and discussions (this year’s theme: “Persuasion and Seduction–The Art of Storytelling”). Rounding out its support of regional cinema is a market specializing in Latin American films, which it promotes by flying in foreign distributors and letting them see for themselves what is around.
Since publicity and marketing in the U.S. of fare from this vast region is absurdly sparse, especially given the number of Spanish speakers living north of the Rio Grande, here is an up-to-date list of the Latin American films, some screening in Guadalajara, some not, that you should be on the lookout for. In contrast, the French producers association Unifrance gets behind all gallic movies showing in the U.S., whether they are released commercially or shoved into glammed-up markets like “Rendezvous with French Cinema Today.” There are in the States a few windows into Latin American cinema: in New York, for example, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual “Latin Beat” is always a revelation, and Cinema Tropical energetically gets the good stuff out there. But how about if we had something called, hmmm, “Encuentro con Cine Latinoamericano Hoy?” Enough. Here’s my litany of the top 10 that will enrich your life–if you ever get the chance to see them.
One of eight films competing here for best Mexican feature, this amazing work by Nicolas Pereda embraces several genres. One is the slacker film. At the center is working-class layabout Gabino, who constantly fights with his mother and hustles with a friend as a mover, using a cheap van. Another is the family melodrama: Whereas family was once the fabric that held Mexican society together, it has pretty much unraveled. Gabino’s brother doesn’t bother to visit their mom; her own mother is left unattended in an apartment, with tragic results. A third is the genre of the “city film:” Gabino’s work gives him, and us, the opportunity to visit the lives of Mexicans of all classes. Moving someone is a transient job, the better to observe clients who, like travelers, are at their most pressured, and in this stratified society, their most prejudiced. Pereda is an anti-glamour director: Everything about his characters and their situations rings true.
One of the finest films in the Mexican documentary competition here, this groundbreaking work, co-directed by filmmaker Geoffrey Smith and lawyer Roberto Hernandez, takes on that nation’s absurdly corrupt “justice” system. The directors obtained permission to film the trial of a young man, Jose “Tono” Rodriguez, who is falsely accused of murder by an unreliable witness and faces a 20-year prison term. Hernandez and Layda Negrete, who serve as Rodriguez’s lawyers, combat a bureaucracy in which one is presumed guilty until proven innocent. It is no secret that the judge is friendly with the prosecutor, for example. In spite of the stacked deck against Rodriguez, Hernandez and Negrete wisely use their wits as weapons.
In Mexican director Rigoberto Perezcano’s impressive Northless, a first feature that is being shown out of competition here, Andres, a young, naive married man from Oaxaca, gets stuck in Tijuana after a couple of failed attempts to enter the U.S. illegally. There he works in a convenience store, where he begins affairs with both the proprietress and her assistant, both of whom have never heard from their husbands after they successfully joined the American work force. Perezcano shoots details of their unexciting daily lives without rushing toward hyperdramatic plot points. Ultimately, Andres feels compelled to exit this warm atmosphere and try again to sneak over the border in order to earn dollars for his family.
In Oscar Ruiz Navia’s Crab Trap, a no-budget first feature from Colombia presented here in Alternating Currents, a white man from the city named Daniel ventures to an Afro-Colombian community of ex-slaves on the Pacific coast called La Barra in order to find a boat to escape something. We don’t know what, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the unhurried lifestyle in this poor but proud village, how this visitor begins to conform to it, and how Ruiz Navia respects the culture by filming the residents at an appropriate tempo. The drama is more about the locals than about Daniel or another white man, Paisa, an exploiter who wants to develop the area no matter what the cost to those who have lived there for generations. The natural setting is unsettling rather than comforting. There is no disjunction between the tough lives of the impoverished people of La Barra and the threatening, and threatened, seaside location.
It’s Your Fault
Argentinian director Anahi Berneri proves that she is not only a better filmmaker than the overrated Lucrecia Martel (Berneri’s Encarnacion promised it was just a matter of time) but that she also tells more interesting, more in-depth stories about women in her country and how they view themselves. Erica Rivas gives a strong performance as a young mother whose ambiguous behavior with her fighting children leads to a charge of child abuse, after she shows up at the emergency room for an ostensible head wound from a fall by her younger son. The attending physicians are more concerned with all the bruises on both boys and a fracture of the little one’s arm. She does not at first realize the severity of the charges, and Berneri’s handheld camera reinforces her mental disarray. When her macho husband arrives, we witness the magnitude of her subjugation. This is not Martel’s mannered feminism: This is strong drama that also touches upon gender issues.
On his first solo outing since the untimely death of Juan Pablo Rebella, with whom he directed critical favorites Whisky and 25 Watts, Uruguayan director Pablo Stoll exhibits his own mastery with Hiroshima (dedicated to Rebella). This fusion of hyper-naturalism and experimental techniques with the slacker genre features a youthful post-punk and techno soundtrack. Beautifully photographed, the film follows over a 24-hour period a lethargic, decidedly unambitious young man who is lead singer in a band; indeed, music is his only real form of communication. He performs menial tasks and engages in banal activities. Stoll celebrates the small joys of the quotidian: Daily life is not inherently dramatic, but it need not be boring. There are virtually no spoken words: As in silent movies, characters mouth their lines before intertitles provide translation.
Young Peruvian experimental filmmaker and obsessive video blogger Juan Daniel recovered from a bout of amnesia (from a sandboarding accident) by reviewing old footage he had shot in a variety of formats: miniDV, vhs, iPod, 8mm, HD, and a cell phone camera. He had not intended to do anything with the footage, but took the opportunity to make a feature from it, with one-third of the final film recorded just after the accident. He is an original: So many avant-garde films feel derivative, but the combination of abstractions and concrete reality–achingly gorgeous and poignant–is unique. It is also a singular observation of life in Peru, from interviews with Quechua-speaking indigenous people to observations of life in urban Lima to encounters with the country’s unique natural settings. Juan Daniel (his nom de camera) says that he may end up uploading the film for free download. He refuses to be a slave to either convention or format.
Revolucion is a portmanteau from Mexico comprised of ten 10-minute episodes, each by a different filmmaker, acknowledging in a variety of ways the centenary of the Mexican Revolution. The two most impressive segments are as different as night and day. “The Welcome Ceremony,” directed by Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season, Lake Tahoe), is shot in black and white with precise, stationary set-ups. It takes place in a small Mexican village and only obliquely addresses the subject of revolutionary homage. A small orchestra prepares a welcoming ceremony. Dry comic relief is provided by an off-key tuba player who just can’t stop practicing. Ultimately no one arrives for the event, but the odd fellow persists anyway. The political metaphor is apparent. Directed by experienced US-based filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, the upcoming Mother and Child), “7th and Alvarado” is filmed in color and seductive slow-motion (with a Phantom camera) and set in Los Angeles. Mexican residents of one barrio walk in front of charmless stores, cell phones in hand. Suddenly, they are joined by revolutionaries on horseback from a century back. Surveying the empty legacy of their brave battle against formidable odds, the rebels’ eyes express a mild melancholy. That the film ends on such a note of realistic pessimism is the flip side of Eimbcke’s optimism.
Peruvian national Juan Alejandro Ramirez, an ex-still photographer and former New York resident who now lives and works in Senegal, is probably the only filmmaker whose work-in-progress I would include on this list. He is, to put it mildly, special. No sellout, he. His films (Porter, Diary of the End) are never longer than one-half hour and have a commercial potential of zero. His trademark style includes a lyrical mix of fiction and documentary (they look like docs, but the scenes are often re-stagings of real, or at least possible, events and actions), wide-angle and close-in shots, haunting voiceover, and a sincere empathy for the underclasses in Peru. Nobody Special centers on three Peruvian women from three eras, all of whom lead difficult lives, but there is diversity, therefore grace, in their differences.
Daniel & Ana
This startling first feature by Mexican director Michel Franco eschews sensationalism in favor of minimalism. Based on a true story, it depicts almost mechanistically the kidnapping of two wealthy siblings, pouty teen Daniel and extroverted bride-to-be Ana, and their coercion at gunpoint into performing sexual intercourse on camera. Franco is less concerned with the act than with its psychological and emotional aftereffects. (There is very little sex.) He is also unafraid to explore the taboo subject of subliminal incestuous desire. Daniel & Ana is yet another example of the spare, understated films focusing on the buildup to violence coming out of Mexico/