Sliding into Crisis

By Guillermo de Carli

punk-puta.jpgVoces Argentinas, Conscious Cinema, 2002

Reflections on new Argentine cinema

Many Argentineans believe our financial situation will end up being for export. A plan so well thought-out, with so many accomplices inside and outside the country, and unceasingly sustained for more than 25 years, cannot end as just a southern curiosity, or even the IMF’s biggest mistake.

Neoliberalism, applied since the dictatorship of General Videla, and still defended by technocrats and economists, has managed to impoverish the population of a country which, in terms of natural resources, is one of the richest on the planet; it has devastated industry and the health and education systems, appropriated energy reserves and essential services, dismantled foreign commerce, drained away capital accumulated over decades by the state and the population, accelerated the collapse of the political class, put an end to identities and customs, installed death by malnutrition, and spread hunger and unemployment to a degree never seen before. Now they’re coming for our homes and land. We don’t yet know how far it can go.

Living with this collapse of the future, our imagination of the present has been reduced to managing the immediate: how not to continue collapsing. Film and television are associated with this minimalist project; most of the time, sadly, helping us to relax by looking away.

Some months ago, a rumour circulated in local film circles: officials of a well-known Dutch foundation, considering a request for support for an animation film for adults, had responded 'But you've gone mad! Look at the problems you've got, and you want to make cartoons!' The story was greeted with modest surprise among local directors, who involuntarily resumed discussions which had been abandoned after years of savage capitalism: Is there any relation to be expected between reality and fiction? Should one – can one – imitate the real, bear witness to the real, or avoid the real? People want to understand, the industry demands stories. What then is freedom for us as artists? A mandate, a support, compensation, an alibi? Incidentally, what is an artist? At best, the debate turned toward a single question, namely, can cinema help to construct a new political subject?

voces-argentinas-conscious-cinema-1.jpgVoces Argentinas, Conscious Cinema, 2002

In the last five years the term New Argentine Cinema has been applied to a particular kind of fiction production: young directors launching their first works; a certain, exclusively cinematic, comprehension of social relations; good stories, of the type regarded as such in script-writing courses; admiration for classic American cinema and independent cinema anywhere. There was also an avalanche of productions with explicitly commercial objectives which were often considered part of this agitation, in spite of being brought out by more or less classic directors like Jusid, Subiela, Aristarain, and Mignogna, who continued working in the midst of the new wave, following North American and European models, generally tending towards the formula ‘quality’ + business + television $s.

Despite the lack of money or prospects, there is nevertheless a favourable climate for film production in the country. So far this year 45 films have opened and another five or six more are expected in December. Such wealth is only comparable with the best moments of national cinema in the ’50s, when we were a world economic power, with a gross national product around that of Canada or Australia and a quality of life index superior to Europe. Currently, this volume of production comes about through a combination of various factors: the boom in film schools, which turn out numerous graduates; the availability of new digital technology – thanks to the cheap dollar which brought ruin upon us – which facilitate independent production; the new Cinema Law which practically completely subsidises national production; the acceptance and respect created in international markets, particularly France and Spain, which has enabled a good number of co-productions.

voces-argentinas-conscious-cinema-2.jpgVoces Argentinas, Conscious Cinema, 2002

Over the past year, 'reality' has become a category active in the launch of practically all national productions. The present sensibility of the Argentine public towards everything happening to us gives a number of films (Bolivia, Historias Mínimas, Vidas Privadas, Lugares Comunes, Un Oso Rojo) and television programmes (Okupas, Tumberos) an assumed and productive relation with the real. And yet there’s a mismatch, a disparity; in most cases these films are easily able to describe the effects of the crisis on some sectors of the population, although without going into the reasons, its causes or contradictions, and without imagining or proposing action to overcome it. And this naturalised presentation of our growing misfortune is realized according to the accepted formal guidelines of the ‘new’ Argentine cinema, that is to say, distance in the treatment of conflict, caution in identification, scattering of concrete historical references.

In fact, practically all the fiction cinema seen this year originated and was produced between 1999 and 2001. Part of the mismatch may be due to this ‘time slip’, which in some cases (such as with El Bonaerense) makes today’s public more knowledgeable about its theme than the director achieved in two years of investigation. If awareness of the crisis began some time ago, the events at the end of 2001 marked a decisive break. Until that moment, there was an opposition between those who perceived the advance of a society of ever more injustice, trouble and pain, and those who spoke confusedly, with bad conscience, trying to relativise it. From the moment of the December days the situation was obvious to everyone. During 2002, being in contact with some of the things reported in the press, or conditions of extremity glimpsed in the streets, became practically intolerable for the majority of the urban population. There are no fiction films which have touched on this change, nor any which have incorporated the new political groups and proposals which have emerged over this period.

voces-argentinas-conscious-cinema-3.jpgVoces Argentinas, Conscious Cinema, 2002

Rodolfo Duran, director of Detrás de la Frontera: “…the world of film is and will continue to be contradictory. In order to show that there are people condemned to hunger you need at least $700,000." The forms of finance which allow many of these productions (according to the official scheme of credits, subsidies and refunds) correspond to the very system which has brought the country to this terminal situation. The film and television industries are a part – although small – of the collapsed economic network. Today’s directors come from various fields: the aforementioned film schools, advertising, and the film industry itself. They don’t all share the same imaginaries. Not all seem to reflect the image of the ‘new ones’, practically all of them present themselves as the standard for a sort of new realism, and every one of them depends on the continuation of the system in order to continue producing.

“There seems to be an aesthetic of the marginal," says Ariel Direse, editor of the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales, “but behind it nothing happens. There is, in fact, no criticism. In the ‘New Cinema’, this thematic is an excuse not to take sides. What seems to be important is history. But not too much." The common element in many recent productions (El Bonaerense, Un Oso Rojo) is this look which wants to be cold – or cool – about the squalid, which in the end is empty. What kind of look is it? Contemplation without connection. Condescention, confirmation of stereotypes.

voces-argentinas-conscious-cinema-outtake.jpgVoces Argentinas, Conscious Cinema, 2002

With few exceptions, current Argentinean cinema presents a country where pain is clearly deposited in its characters. The spectator was never more spectator without needing to be an accomplice. The actors suffer, the spectator watches them; the director will not lead us to any catharsis, the emotion will carry on being strictly visual. The ending will be open: we won’t learn too much, but we’ve seen everything. Because things are just like that, that’s how they are, or if not, then they’re that way, and that’s how they are. In the jargon of the new national cinema, this is what’s called subtlety.

Social memory must also pass through this filter to become presentable. Kamchatka, by Marcelo Piñeyro, brings us the last shared days of a family whose parents will disappear in the hands of the military. The narrative is reduced to the bare facts, the emotional line, leaving everything else to be understood. The locations are unrecognisable, the violence is metonymic. Every threat against the family’s security occurs somewhere else, there is no need to show it on camera, much less damage the sacrosanct story with details in bad taste.

In the first days of the year, in the midst of the bank collapse and with thousands of citizens in the streets, Piñeyro made clear his position in face of this suffering, in his case, monetary: ‘I’m facing up to the possibility of making myself a director without homeland, going abroad to develop my career. It’s not what I want, but making films is the most important thing in the world to me, and here it’s becoming impossible…’

Lugares Comunes, by Adolfo Aristarain (Un Lugar en el Mundo, Martin (Hache)), concerns the solutions found by a mature couple to overcome the effects of the crisis on their private lives. Realised with fluency and dignity, its effectiveness lies in the director’s well-known tendency to have his characters verbalise at length about their ideological position and practical intentions. This has brought him the rare distinction of being the first director to be expelled from the New Cinema. Says the critic Diego Papic: "…the wordy tone chosen by Aristarain… turns him into the pastor of utopia… Lugares Comunes belongs to the Old Cinema… the story of an old leftie…" The irony is that this film is the first to show and dramatically integrate the events of 19 and 20 December 2001, when the people appropriated the city and forced the President’s exit. But in the New Cinema, anything goes, as long as it doesn’t try to tell us what we have to do to survive.

cineaga-lucrecia-martel.jpgLa Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel, 2001

Carlos Sorin (La Película del Rey, Eversmile New Jersey), who trained in advertising films, has decided to abandon commercials and dedicate himself entirely to film production. His last film, Historias Mínimas, comes in fact out of a famous commercial he made for the telephone company. ‘The idea was to make a fiction film with real people, civilians, let’s say. I mean, if testimonial stuff can be used in a commercial, why not also construct a fiction film out of all that. This came before the story and the script… the mixture of actors and non-actors is pretty dangerous, the non-actors need help. Javier Lombardo – one of the few professional actors in the film – was a bit like the director on the other side of the camera… Advertising gives you a technical training, and this is very important – the exercise of authority. Because directing is exercising authority.’ Historias Mínimas tries to plot the attractiveness of the real, without any of its necessary annoyances (like, for example, understanding it). The advertising aesthetic is undeviating, and this is very effective to the public, who enjoy every sequence.

In different ways and for some years now, it can be said that what is in crisis in Argentina is action. But while no-one in the establishment can show a way forward, an upset is quietly occurring in the forms of representation and production. Assemblies, picketing groups, and above all, workers’ co-operatives. which are taking control of bankrupt firms (from quarrying to electronics, flour mills to pizzerias), function with a dynamic not usually found under capitalism: horizontal in decision-making, heterogeneous in membership, autonomy, self-management. The psychoanalyst Juan Carlos Volnovich has emphasised the role of the women’s movements – and the feminine model in general – in the constitution of these methods of rupture.


Bolivia, by Adrián Caetano, places cleverly on view the power relations among locals and employees in a Buenos Aires bar. With sure framing and editing, it gets the best out of a group of non-professional actors, and the film unfolds like a performance. In La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel brings out a sense of family nothingness; a dense plot slowly enveloping the characters until we come to understand that they have tied themselves up in themselves. Throughout, the soundtrack constructs the reality. A frequent problem in this type of narrative is the director’s ambiguity in relation to their own narrative decisions: surprisingly, these films usually come up with an ending; a last scene, strong, clear, decisive, which creates the illusion of dramatic closure when all along it’s been saying there are only levels and intensities.

The public sees what the director didn’t see. In El Bonaerense, Pablo Trapero found it very difficult to remain within fiction. Premiered in the middle of highly scandalous events which incriminated the Provincial Police, the film was avidly received by a public which didn’t easily accept its fictional perspective. Despite the author’s own efforts – he appeared at the critics’ trade showings explaining what he was trying to do before the screening – it ended up being taken as a picture of the real habits and practices of the police (who are much more ferocious than the police in the film). Everyone went to see the making of the monster.

Not only did the spectators create a link between the film and reality. I have heard several people declare that it suggests the future self-realisation of the protagonist and his quitting the force. Nothing of the kind actually happens: the policeman is cheated by a superior and sent to his home town, where one supposes that he carries on his dirty tricks. But the gentle curve constructed by the director could indeed have led to a heroic finale. The fact that the film doesn’t do this, or reach any clear conclusion about the protagonist’s morals – Trapero has in certain measure abandoned the struggle for meaning – allowed the public the possibility of appropriating the character and his destiny.

This is where the New Cinema seems most lost. We hope for heroes, be they Olympian or everyday. We get tales of melancholy, obvious violence, alienated looks at a society broken and destroyed. The capacity of the ‘well told story’ to transcend the telling of the tale doesn’t work: there is no revelation, no images of movement, no visions of the future. There is what there is.

Guillermo de Carli is a documentary director in charge of the documentary workshop at the University of Buenos Aires.