The Hour of the Furnaces: Crafting a Revolutionary Cinema

By Mariano Mestman

hour-of-the-furnaces-octavio-getino-fernando-solanas.jpgLa Hora de los Hornos, 1970

La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968) broke onto the international scene in a situation characterised by the consolidation of the New Latin American Cinema, the emergence of the new African cinemas and the rise of a militant European cinema accompanying the climate of agitation in film all over the world following the events of May 1968. This was also a time of marked visibility for cinematic ‘thirdworldism’ and Third Cinema Theory, a tendency of the 1960s, a cinema of formal inventiveness and political ferment in which form was also an extra-aesthetic issue and where film-making and films were expected to have the effect of changing the world. Although La Hora de los Hornos was able to communicate with that world scene, the sense and orientation of the film was mainly associated with the Argentine situation, in which it sought to intervene.

In 1965 Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino began working together on a documentary-based film to bear testimony to Argentina’s reality. They embarked on a process of collecting archive material – newsreels – and recording testimonies of militants of the so-called Peronist Resistance (a period of popular struggles beginning with Perón’s fall in 1955), of intellectuals and university leaders. This search made the filmmakers travel all over the country and was reflected in the film’s subtitle, ‘Notes and Testimonies on Neocolonialism, Violence and Liberation’.

Throughout this process (from late 1965 to mid-1968), the directors gradually modified their original proposal and part of their ideas. They incorporated the revisionist view of history and a look on the Peronist working class as the main subject of Argentina’s revolutionary transformation. They experienced, as well as many other intellectuals in those years, a journey from the traditional left into a national left. With a new military regime coming to power in 1966, because of the film’s adhesion to proscribed Peronism and in particular to its most radicalised wing, its revolutionary proposals and the will to inscribe it into the struggles for social change, they had to resort to an alternative exhibition circuit.

The formal organisation of La Hora de los Hornos is inextricably linked to these objectives. Its total running time of four hours 15 minutes is structured into three parts, each with a different formal treatment, theme and even objective. The first section, ‘Neocolonialism and Violence’, was conceived as an essay film, which discusses the neocolonial nature of Argentine and Latin American dependency through 13 chapters. The second part, ‘Act for Liberation’, is divided in two, reflecting specific time periods: Chronicle of Peronism and Chronicle of Resistance. Conceived as a film act and dedicated to the ‘Peronist proletarians’, these two chronicles respectively deal with an analysis of the ten years of Peronism in power (1946–55) and a critical reconstruction of the ensuing struggles (1956–66). The third part, ‘Violence and Liberation’, dedicated to ‘the new man who is being born out of this liberation war’, presents itself as a study on the meaning of violence.

Some critics have highlighted the way in which the film articulates an original experimental language with its revolutionary project, making possible the confluence of political and formal avant-gardes. For the construction of this language, La Hora de los Hornos incorporates and works with a wide range of cinematic resources and techniques (newsreel sequences, interviews, documentary material and reconstruction of scenes, extracts from other films, still photographs, intertitles, graphs, freeze frames, advertising images, editing effects, collage and the contributions of direct cinema), while it absorbs and re-works various influences, including Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Glauber Rocha, Santiago Álvarez, Joris Ivens and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as perspectives on art and politics as exemplified by artists such as Bertolt Brecht.

As opposed to cinematic entertainment, particularly in its Hollywood form, the first part integrates various strategies to attack the spectator’s passivity, where counter-information and agitation (agit-prop) are combined without any conflict, while the following parts advance in a more classic, reflective documentary line, critically incorporating and reviewing a series of experiences about which the viewers are invited to draw conclusions, and then act.

hour-of-the-furnaces-octavio-getino-fernando-solanas-2.jpgLa Hora de los Hornos, 1970

The film establishes a close relationship between form and content, seeking to sensitise its ideas and varying each section according to the topic dealt with. The political-ideological perspective, in a strongly Manichean register typical of the period, mainly combined a historiographic revisionism - which contested the liberal version of Argentine history – and an uncompromising Fanonian-rooted ‘thirdworldism’. Frantz Fanon’s influence was certainly remarkable; in every screening, a sign with his motto ‘every spectator is either a coward or a traitor’ hung below the screen.

This first section presents the other history, with its claim of neocolonialist penetration in Latin America and Argentina, a country where everyday violence, represented by alienated work in the factory, reigns. The film also provides a systematic and didactic analysis. Culture, and particularly the position of the intellectual, is addressed in significant sections. Solanas and Getino propose the intervention of the ‘national’ or ‘revolutionary’ intellectual in political and ideological struggles, e.g. the dispute between the national version of history and culture and the colonised intellectuals (a group associated to liberal trends and including the traditional left ) or intelligentsia dominated by the establishment. Thus, another section, ‘The Models’, outlines the mechanisms of pedagogic colonisation, whose major instrument is the University of Buenos Aires.

In ‘Ideological War’, the voice-over heard above background music stresses how ‘ideological war in Latin America is mostly waged in men’s minds’, while a hand-held camera shows crowded downtown pedestrian streets by night. A long and remarkable montage of images and sounds opens up a wide range of issues to be denounced, unveiling mechanisms of ‘cultural penetration’. The last section presents ‘The Option’. A sequence about the burial of a man from the marginal classes in the north of Argentina, an ‘ordinary man’, is followed by images of Che Guevara’s corpse: his lifeless body laid out on a concrete table, followed by a static shot of his face, which lingers on screen for the last five minutes of this section, accompanied only by percussion sounds. The image presents a Christ-like Che, whose example could function as an icon of liberation.

The second part of La Hora de los Hornos caused the greatest degree of controversy internationally. The recovery of Peronism as a revolutionary popular movement, and particularly of Perón as a charismatic leader, was called into question. However, other critics rescued the new treatment of Peronism which the film came to offer, as well as the more complex reading of a phenomenon which most of the European traditional left had wrongly and hastily associated with fascism.

In an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Solanas rescued the historical meaning of Peronism and the place of nationalism in liberation processes, and maintained that many had failed to understand the film’s theses: the limits of bourgeois nationalism; the impossibility of a democratic bourgeois revolution if it was not continued as a socialist revolution; the Latin American horizon of national struggles.

hour-of-the-furnaces-octavio-getino-fernando-solanas-3.jpgLa Hora de los Hornos, 1970

In any case, this revision was there to be discussed by the audience. In this sense, the most interesting aspect was the fact that the film’s very structure incorporated an explicit call for the spectator to continue it through a collective discussion and a transforming praxis. Thus, after Chronicle of Peronism was over, a legend announced: ‘Space open for dialogue’. That was the point when a member of the militant group hosting the exhibition had to coordinate the act, as a unique communication moment among the viewers, a tool to make the spectator (in traditional filmic terms) into a protagonist of the exhibition and actor (militant) in the political process.

Prior to this, the filmmakers’ voice addressed compañeros (comrades – a privileged kind of spectator), those ‘protagonists of the process which the film somehow attempts to bear witness to and deepen’, reaffirming the idea of openness (and even collective authorship) contained in the concept of film act: ‘The film is a pretext for dialogue, for the search and the meeting of wills. This is a report we place before you for your consideration to be debated after the screening. What counts is the conclusions you can draw as the real authors and protagonists of this story… Above all, what counts is the action that might spring from these conclusions… That’s why the film stops here and opens up for you to continue it.’

While Chronicle of Peronism drew on a reservoir of familiar images forming part of the audiovisual memory of Argentinian popular classes, ‘Chronicle of Resistance’ incorporated a fresco of reports and testimonies about Argentine popular struggles during a long period of proscription.

The last part of the film is presented as a study supported by testimonies (letters from fighters, interviews, reports) relating to the meaning of violence in the process of national liberation. From the beginning of this part, there is an insistence on the open nature of the film, related to its disposition to encouraging open dialogue. There is also a specific explanation of its ‘unfinishedness’, as it intends to incorporate new materials which might arise from the process of liberation itself in which the film seeks to be inserted. The film ends with footage of Latin American and Third World struggles, accompanying a discourse questioning the possibility of pacific coexistence, as well as a song on violence and liberation, written by Solanas himself.

The appearance of La Hora de los Hornos encouraged militant cinema in Argentina. As soon as the film was finished, Grupo Cine Liberación started to screen it on a clandestine exhibition circuit, supported by mobile units in the most important cities. At the same time, the group published documents on political cinema (including their best-known manifesto, Towards a Third Cinema).

On an international level, after its successful premiere at the Pesaro Film Festival (Italy) in June 1968, La Hora de los Hornos appeared at numerous alternative cinema fora all over the world and was incorporated into the catalogues of the major alternative distribution companies.

La Hora de los Hornos will be shown at London’s Renoir Cinema on 11th May.

Mariano Mestman is a Lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires. This piece is translated from the Spanish by Libertad Borda and is an edited version of an essay from 24 Frames: the Cinema of Latin America, edited by Alberto Elena and Marina Díaz López and published by Wallflower Press.