The Cinematic Tango: Contemporary Argentine Film

By Tamara Falicov

el-abrazo-partido-daniel-burman.jpgEl Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace), 2004

Argentine Cinema Makes a Comeback

Throughout the roughly one hundred years of its existence, Argentine cinema has had to compete against the Hollywood behemoth to garner an audience. Sadly, it was largely successful in only two periods of its film history: during the 1930s–50s, when the studio system produced high-quality, popular genre films, and once again – at least four decades later – in the early 1990s, when multimedia conglomerates began investing in blockbuster films that brought back audiences in droves.

During the post-dictatorship period beginning in 1983 when President Alfonsín was democratically elected to office, national cinema was utilized by the state as a public relations tool abroad. The majority of films produced presented tales of the recent horrible past, and provided testimony to the openness and renewal of Argentine culture in a time free of political censorship and violent repression. The Radical Party (UCR), a moderate political party, considered the cinema a bastion of high culture, and films were exported to scores of international film festivals. During this time films were mainly shown in art houses and were made in a similar vein to the European art house aesthetic. Although the films were successes in middle – to upper-middle-class film festival crowds, they were not large financial successes at the box office, and many working class Argentines did not pay to see them.

Although Alfonsín’s government looked to the European model for cinema aesthetics, for President Menem (1989-1999) the model was the U.S. Hollywood film industry – higher-budget movies with special effects and blockbuster marketing techniques. Menem, taking a more Peronist view of mass popular culture, considered films to be fashioned for a domestic audience. His two administrations were marked not by an interest in promoting Argentina’s image at prestigious film festivals as much as by an active attempt to cultivate the national cinema’s industrial capabilities. Under Menem films were made with a glossy, globalised aesthetic and appealed to a wide general audience, thus boosting the economic viability of the industry. Films such as buddy movie Comodines (Cops, 1997) thriller La furia (The Fury, 1997), and others were imitative of Hollywood fare, but increased admissions to movie theatres. However, state support for a national culture used to inspire, educate, and cultivate a national sense of community was compromised.

el-cielito-maria-victoria-menis.jpgEl Cielito, 2004

Beginning in the mid-1990s, young directors, the majority of whom had graduated from one of many film schools in Argentina, began producing low-budget, independent films in a style that earned this group the classification of the New Independent Argentine Cinema. Part of this upsurge had to do with a small grants program that was initiated by the National Film Institute (INCAA) in the mid-1990s. These recent graduates have made short films (cortometrajes), and then have gone on to raise funds through co-production funding (Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam film festival, the Fond Sud program from France among others). They have relied on their own networks of like-minded young people rather than depend on the traditional film sector structure (the film union, established director’s associations, and the few film studios still in existence). This cinema is different from the previous auteurs of Argentine cinema: some directors have created gritty, realist dramas in a aesthetic vein reminiscent of the political cinema in of the New Latin American Cinema movement of the 1960s and 1970s (symbolized by the Argentine film La hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces) (1968)), but rather than create overtly polemical statements or march under the banner of a political movement, they are working to expand the notion of Argentine citizenship to include subjects and characters who have traditionally been invisible or excluded from Argentine screens. Examples are the Bolivian immigrant in Adrián Caetano’s Bolivia (2000); the young girl protagonist in Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004); lower middle-class Jewish characters such as Ariel’s family in Daniel Burman’s El abrazo partido (Lost Embrace, 2004); the Korean-Argentine characters in the film Do U Cry 4 Me Argentina? (2005) directed by Bae Youn-suk; Laura, a bisexual video editor who is Ariel’s love interest in Esperando al mesías (Waiting for the Messiah, 2000), and Albertina Carri’s Los Rubios (The Blonds, 2003). Carri’s film is an experimental narrative in which the actor who plays the role of Carri is challenging the mythos and memories of her “disappeared” parents during the Dirty War.

These filmmakers want to break with the notion of an Argentine exceptionalism, whereby Argentina is viewed as different from other Latin American countries due to its large immigration from Italy and Spain (i.e., European background and aspiration) and distancing from an indigenous past. In other words, this younger generation of filmmakers in large part does not identify with a European-influenced and -inflected culture. Rather, these young filmmakers identify with ethnic minorities and working-class people in Argentina and project a more varied and heterogeneous face of national identity in Argentina. They show films from a grittier, working-class perspective (especially after the economic crisis of 2001), as shown by such films as Un oso rojo (A Red Bear, 2002) by Adrian Caetano, El bonarense (2002) by Pablo Trapero, and Taxi, un encuentro (Taxi, an Encounter, 2001) by Gabriela David. Additionally, there are films that work to deconstruct or disrupt the hegemony of the middle- or upper-middle-class family, as in La cienága (The Swamp, 2001), Cama Adentro (Live-In Maid) (2004).

rapado-martin-rejtman.jpgRapado (Skinhead), 1992

It is these filmmakers who will continue to push the boundaries of Argentine national identity through a low-budget cinema. Since their auspicious debut in the mid-1990s, however, some of these first time directors such as Pablo Trapero and Adrián Caetano, are now so esteemed and well recognised that each were recently funded by larger production companies for their next projects. Trapero, in addition to starting his own production company, Matanza cine, collaborated with the producers of Comodines, Pol-Ka, (who partner with Disney) on his feature, Familia Rodante (Rolling Family, 2004). Adrian Caetano worked with celebrity television host Marcelo Tinelli’s company to produce an eleven-part television series, Disputas (Catfight) before going to direct and co-write Crónica de una fuga (Buenos Aires, 1977) which received production funds and distribution rights by 20th Century Fox-Argentina. Although some filmmakers are moving up the ranks and gaining more commercial exposure (as witnessed by long time low-budget auteur Alejandro Agresti’s recent film Valentín (2002) which was distributed in the U.S. by Miramax, and his first Hollywood film for Warner Brothers, The Lake House (2006) starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, (a Korean remake of the film Il Mare (2000)), these still are the exceptions rather than the rule. This handful of “crossover” directors calls the term “independent” into question, and this was hotly debated at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival in April 2004. Despite the fact that there was no resolution, it calls into question the idea that Argentina has a full fledged film industry or not. The larger studios would claim that there isn’t, thus affording themselves state subsidies, and other, smaller director producers would say that there is.

One issue is clear: the New Argentine cinema is winning accolades abroad, witnessed by recent awards at Cannes, Berlin, and San Sebastian: Daniel Burman’s El abrazo partido won the Silver Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004 (Grand Jury Prize), María Victoria MenisEl cielito (Little Sky) (2004) won multiple critics’ awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and Paz Encina’s Hamaca Paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, 2006) won a Critic’s Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival, all films made by newer directors (many of them women, the number which is unprecedented) which captured the international scene. The irony, of course, is that few Argentines have come to see these films. Figures for these critically acclaimed films range on average from $100,000-250,000 and producers today claim that a medium budget film (to a tune of 1.5 million dollars) film must make $500,000 to turn a profit, since ticket prices are so low. Thus, while Argentina is making a comeback on the international film festival scene, there are still questions about how to keep home audiences motivated to see national films. These tensions grapple many national film industries, but Argentina’s rich cinematic history attests to Argentina’s attempts at remaking and renewing its cinematic art and industry.

Tamara L. Falicov teaches Latin American cinema studies at the University of Kansas. This extract is taken from her forthcoming book, The Cinematic Tango: Contemporary Argentine Film (Wallflower Press, 2007).