New Pathways in Latin America
Ela Bittencourt on the 2016 FicValdivia Film Festival
The casual, festive atmosphere of the FicValdivia Festival, located at the small university town on the banks of Valdivia River in Chile is fueled by its largely young programmers and audience. The festival’s scope ranges from Chilean fiction features and documentary premieres to international retrospectives and ambitious sidebars, particularly Nuevos Caminos/New Pathways, featuring experimental forms, and Disidencias/Dissidences, showcasing hybrid nonfiction, which together comprised most of this year’s discoveries.
Bill Morrison’s magnum opus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, had its South American premiere at FicValdivia, shown as part of a retrospective of Morrison’s films, and set a high tone for the festival. One would be hard-pressed to think of a film more haunting than Morrison’s chronicle of the discovery of nitrate prints on a construction site in the Yukon. After years of preservation and cataloguing at the Dawson Archives, Morrison dives into the material to celebrate cinema’s enduring magic, in spite of film’s fragility (around eighty percent of silent films have been lost), and to narrate modern North American history. Despite this broad, historical scope, Morrison wisely lets the archival images speak for themselves, keeping a light, anecdotal tone throughout. He includes only a few interviews, among them with Michael Jones-Gates, the archeologist who found the prints, and who alerted Canada’s National Film, Television and Sound Archives about their existence. As in Morrison’s previous films, soaring music—in this case, composed by musician Alex Somers, and including percussion and a choir—adds dramatic flair.
As for the backstory: the Dawson nitrate prints were dumped when the industry shifted to safer material. In the years immediately after the first cinemas were built in Dawson, the city went up in flames nearly every year, due to the prints’ high flammability. It is then no wonder that so few films survived. Yet the appeal of movies was so great that the cinema owners kept rebuilding their theaters. Much of the content of Morrison’s film is comprised of chronicles—of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896, with fantastical images of men plowing through the Arctic snow and ice of the forbidding Chilkoot Pass, to reach the gold sites. In voiceover, Morrison narrates stories of men dying in droves, of heroic explorations and, eventually, of the drying out of reserves and of dreams gone bust. Like a treasure chest, besides the main story of development from the Gold Rush to the industrial age, the film contains many minor jewels, such as the tale of an enterprising settler, Donald Trump’s grandfather, who got rich by equipping the town with lodging, food, and a whorehouse. The Ludlow Massacre, in Colorado, during which John D. Rockefeller ordered guards to fire on striking workers in 1918 and the anarchist Emma Goldman being deported back to Russia also get a mention. Such apparently random historical footnotes not only reveal Morrison’s enthusiasm for the wealth of material found in the archives but also increasingly draw a parallel between working with archival prints and a miner’s laborious task—sifting through multiple layers (of dirt, imagery, information) to strike proverbial gold. The asides also make claims for Dawson City’s significance as an emblem of North America’s spirit of self-determination and optimism, as well as its greed and violence.
Considering the festival’s overall adventurousness, perhaps the oddest experience at FicValdivia was seeing viewers in their mid-twenties leave during the late-night screening of La Noche, a hybrid documentary by Argentine actor cum filmmaker Edgardo Castro, which played in the Dissidences section, curated by John Campos Gómez. The fact that the theater was in a shopping mall rather than one of the more experimental venues, such as the wonderful Cine Club on the Valdivia University campus, could be partly to blame. Castro’s film caused controversy at BAFICI earlier this year, but for those willing to sit through its two-plus hours of sex and drugs, it is a rewarding journey. Castro films himself in the streets of Buenos Aires, around the Market del Abasto area, known for prostitution and drug trafficking. He roams, snorts coke, and scouts out clubs and streets to initiate sexual encounters (most of them paid for). His preferred mates are transvestites, in threesomes with men and women. One of the partners on the nocturnal escapades, a gamine transvestite with perfect breasts, confesses to not being bothered by her thick pubic hair, which she does not shave, and notes, “My body has a natural grace.”
Indeed, La Noche revels in the beauty and the variety of bodily shapes and forms, from male or female to androgynous, and from sinuous to flabby. The film’s spirit, in spite of the languidness of seedy bars and drug-induced highs and lows, is celebratory. For all the comparisons to Gaspar Noé’s Love that La Noche has earned, Castro’s film shares none of the latter’s hyper-glossed scandalousness. Where Love seems calibrated to shock, while also coming across as grossly sentimental, La Noche’s most astonishing scenes are moments of coitus casually postponed, giving way to small talk, captured almost exclusively in close-ups, in a bare, no-thrills cinéma-vérité style.
In the film’s finale, Castro and one of his recurring sex partners fall silent at a café, their hands clasped. It is a tableau of the tenderness that remains when desire is momentarily spent. Viewed through the coffee shop’s window, this is a rare moment when the camera is far away enough for us to witness with emotional distance, acknowledging the darker undercurrent of self-destruction, and also the fear of loneliness and of the extinction of eros, that run through the film. La Noche reveals how coy most contemporary cinema is about sexuality, even in this age of disappearing taboos. In La Noche, desire, anatomically precise and captured with a cool, unsparing eye, is the means as well as the end. And while some may find the film low on the pleasure meter, Castro’s compulsive search for sexual stimulus gives La Noche a creepy urgency that makes it difficult to look away.
Where La Noche gave the festival a shot of adrenaline, the New Pathways sidebar, curated by Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria (also a programmer at the Locarno Film Festival), brought it to life with formal experimentation. Among the highlights was Mónica Savirón’s wondrous short, Broken Tongue, made of flashes of grainy black-and-white images in the shape of a circle, or a medallion. The images themselves, which come from various sections of January 1 issues of the New York Times, from its beginning in 1851 to 2013, play at a speed not quite subliminal, yet too fast to allow contemplation. They are a mishmash of popular culture and images of colonization and wars, from slavery to Reagan and beyond. In Savirón’s own words, “The images follow the sound in a way that questions the assumed associations we make between a word and its image/meaning—that is why each image lasts as much as the words do, emphasizing or/and breaking the rhythm, like a song of contrasting voices.”
In Broken Tongue’s voiceover, sound performer Tracie Morris does a jazzy riff on the phrase, “It All Started When We Were Brought Here as Slaves from Africa” (spelled with a “k” onscreen), repeating it with varying syncopations and transforming the phrase until it asserts, “When We Were Africa.” Morris gets deliberately stuck at times, which makes her sound literally like a broken record, while her high-pitch interludes veer from speech to song. The result is a thrilling melodic and visual collaboration between filmmaker and performer that stretches the notion of cinema by emphasizing the auditory, performative aspect and then providing images that cannot be fully “seen.” The hypnosis created by the combination of sound and image serves as a reminder that as both viewers and historical subjects we unconsciously succumb to outside forces. The relentless “makeover” that Morris’s voice performs on the main sentence is also an embodiment of how certain voices prevail, while others are silenced.
Musicality also fuels Colombian filmmaker Camilo Restrepo’s 16mm short Cilaos, which showed in the same New Pathways section. In the storyline, a daughter comes to Cilaos, a French town on Réunion Island, to find the father she has not known. The Mouth, as the father is nicknamed, turns out to have died. Recalling the plot does little justice to Restrepo’s vaguely 1970s-set, beautifully austere film. Its action, if it can be called that, captured in grainy imagery, is limited to the protagonists reciting lines. Music is the film’s main protagonist. Cilaos opens and ends with a song drawing a parallel between the cultures of the American South and the Island. While we may not necessarily know this simply by watching Cilaos, it is hard not to be drawn into its mystery. The pathos of a daughter seeking a father is worthy of a classical tragedy, while the simplicity of the framing—close-up portraits against monotone background—recalls the stark elegance of Pedro Costa’s films, especially his latest, Horse Money. Restrepo’s film has been called a “mini-musical”; its performers, including singer Christine Salem, who plays the daughter, are professionals. The film’s second part is entirely taken up by music, as the three actors drop their roles, and give themselves over to drumming and singing.
My true personal discovery at FicValdivia was Argentine filmmaker María Alché. Alché first caught my attention with a short, Gulliver, at the Olhar de Cinema in Curitiba, Brazil, earlier this year. Gulliver, in which siblings share a cramped apartment with their parents, starts out innocently with haggling over bathroom time and homework. But after the younger sister takes her brother to a party, the tone shifts suddenly: the siblings meet a young stranger; together they travel to a rocky beach and then home, where the stranger is incongruently accepted as a blood kin, with only the sister bafflingly looking on, as the alien assimilates into her family.
Alché’s willingness to abruptly break with realism stood out against the more traditional fare at the festival, such as the two Chilean fiction features I saw. Both films touched on important social topics—homophobia in El Diablo Es Magnífico by Nicolás Videla and abortion in 7 Semanas by Constanza Figari—as well as featured compelling performances, yet the writing faltered in places. By contrast, Alché’s absurd and assured fiction was gripping from the start, especially when re-watched at FicValdivia alongside her pseudo-doc-meets-reality-TV short Noelia. In the latter, a teenage girl, Noelia, kicked out of the house, appears to stalk her mother who works as a hotel maid. Only sometime later do we realize that Noelia is an impostor—she picks random females to saddle with the maternal role. Petulant, Noelia takes selfies as she invades their personal space. Alché’s striking concept could wear thin in a feature, but here provides a welcome frisson. The flash of insight comes from her exposing the brutal arbitrariness of human affection.
My other discovery was the documentary work of Roya Eshraghi, a young Iranian filmmaker living in Cuba. Where Alché’s language is jarring and fresh, Eshraghi’s is consciously poetic. Particularly eloquent was her short The Tree, in which she moves seamlessly from exploring a dilapidated building in Havana, and the tree that grows, incongruously, on its fifth floor, to her long-distance relationship with her parents. When Eshraghi returns to the building, she finds its entrance cemented over. All of Eshraghi’s films are, to some extent, about memory—Nothing and No One, also shown, evokes the death of her brother and her memories of him. The constant displacement she feels in Havana and the impossibility to recover the past, symbolized by the entrance barred with cement, jar with her attempts to establish a sense of permanence between the past and the present.
Eshraghi is both filmmaker and subject—as she speaks in voiceover, we see her write down “the story of the tree.” The tree, with its two-story roots, is a stand-in for uprootedness, as Eshraghi negotiates the temporal and spatial differences between her new and old homes. In one scene, she sits down amidst paint-stripped walls to speak to her father on the phone. We then hear only her father and it is he who reinterprets the urban fable of the tree for us—not as a story of rootlessness, but of determination, and of endurance. The last shot pans from these sturdy tree roots to the landscape of decimated, collapsed buildings, creating a sudden dissonance—it is as if Eshraghi picks up the conversation where her father left it off, and her voice, younger and less secure, adds the skeptical coda. Eshragi’s cinema, like Savirón, Restrepo and Morrison’s is richly discursive. It revels in the power of words as much as in the image, building up tension around conversations and letters. More importantly, it brings together disparate time frames to reveal stories that never fail to haunt us, as well as the slippery nature of memory.