Category: Latin American Cinema

¡Viva! 22 #5: Magallanes (Peru-Argentina-Columbia-Spain 2015)

Taxi driver Harvey Magallanes

Taxi driver Harvey Magallanes

(This is an edited version of my introduction to the film on its first ¡Viva! screening)

Magallanes offers a relatively rare opportunity to see a Peruvian film and to consider what it means to produce a film in a country like Peru. Peru is the fifth-largest Latin American country in terms of population but its film culture is not as developed as that of its northern neighbour Columbia or Venezuela (roughly the same population) or Chile (smaller population but a bigger film market). Cinema requires a substantial middle class audience to support a thriving film culture, at least in terms of cinema audiences and domestic productions. Peru has a history of social inequality and poor economic performance until the last decade of significant growth.

Peru makes around 10 films per year. Its cinemas are dominated by Hollywood features (less than 1% of the audience is for domestic features) but the average frequency of attendance is less than once a year per head of population. (All figures for 2011 from FOCUS produced by the European Audio-Visual Observatory – the figures are four years old, but I don’t think they will have changed significantly.)

Making a local Peruvian film that will appeal to a domestic popular audience (and therefore compete with Hollywood imports) and to international film markets (conferring cultural status) is very difficult and requires one or more factors to be in place.

  • public funding
  • external funding – film festival support for scripts and filmmakers
  • co-production

It usually means finding a popular genre as a carrier for an important local story that will also have some kind of universal appeal outside the country.

Magallanes is a co-production with Argentina, Colombia and Spain. Writer-director Salvador del Solar is a Peruvian actor known for films and TV performances across Latin America and this is his début film. The three main actors are the Mexican Damián Alcázar, the Argentinian Federico Luppi (known in the UK for his roles in Guillermo del Toro films) and Peru’s own Magaly Solier (who has appeared in two previous ¡Viva! films from Peru, Madeinusa (2006) and The Milk of Sorrow (2009) ).

The music is by the Argentinian Federico Jusid, who also composed the music for The Secret in Their Eyes, one of the most successful Latin American films of the last few years and shown in this ¡Viva! festival as part of the Ricardo Darin strand. In some ways, Magallanes is similar kind of film, a genre film with its roots in a national issue. It’s less complex in terms of narrative and less spectacular in terms of action – but perhaps more profound in what it attempts to say.

With a budget of around £650,000 Magallanes is a genuine popular film with international appeal, recognised by its successful screenings at film festivals such as Toronto and San Sebastián. The script is adapted from a novel by Alonso Cueto called The Passenger – and its story begins when a woman gets into a taxi cab. Critics described the novel as a suspense thriller mixed with the psychological depth of the realist novel – and this description suits the film as well.

The narrative and the Political history of Peru

It’s useful to think about Magallanes as similar to some of the successful films made in the smaller film industries of Europe have over the last decade. Films like Black Book (2006) in the Netherlands, Flame and Citron (2008) in Denmark and Max Manus (2008) in Norway. These extremely popular films in their local markets competed successfully with Hollywood in looking back to the Second World War and the ways in which local people dealt with the experience of Occupation and the development of Resistance movements. Sometimes films have also looked at the shame associated with collaboration. This is especially true in France where specific films such as Un héros tres discrèt (1996) explored the ‘myth’ of ‘resistance’ and others such as Un secret (2007) explored the ways in which anti-semitism in France became part of ‘collaboration’.

In Latin America it is the aftermath of the vicious oppression of military regimes and forms of civil war from the 1970s through to the 1990s and beyond which has formed the basis for successful film stories, especially in Argentina. The Chilean documentarist Patricio Guzmán has made it his life’s work to document the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the subsequent atrocities of the General Pinochet regime – Guzmán’s latest film The Pearl Button (France-Chile 2015) is currently on release in the UK.

Peru experienced a civil war which reached its height in the 1980s and continued through to 2000.  The main conflict, in what was a complicated struggle for power involving several different groups, was between the security forces of the right-wing governments of the period and the Maoist guerrilla group known as the Shining Path. These two forces tried to take control of the mountain areas in the Andes, particularly in the Ayacucho region and in doing so they imposed themselves violently on the indigenous peoples of the region. Both sides committed atrocities on a large scale. A ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ reported in Peru in 2003 and suggested that some 70,000 people had been killed or ‘disappeared’ in the conflict and some 500,000 were displaced from their homes. Ayacucho experienced a ‘reign of terror’. The victims were mainly indigenous people and after they fled to the slums of the capital Lima, they became the focus of investigations and death squads as the conflict moved to urban areas in the 1990s.

Celina (Magaly Solier)

Celina (Magaly Solier)

The story of Magallanes – the name of the central character – takes place in Lima in the present day. Lima is a very large city of nearly 10 million people and one of the three largest in the Americas with nearly a third of Peru’s population. It’s a sprawling modern city suggesting economic progress and looking forward to the future, but for many of its residents the horrors of the past are not easy to forget. Magallanes (Damián Alcázar) is a part-time taxi driver and paid ‘companion’ to ‘the Colonel’ – his former commanding officer when the two men were stationed in Ayacucho. The Colonel (Federico Luppi). The Colonel has now succumbed to a form of dementia and we can’t be sure what he remembers of his time in the Andes. When Celina (Magaly Solier) climbs into his cab, Magallanes recognises her as the young indigenous girl taken by the Colonel as his sex slave during those years in Ayacucho. Magallanes quickly hatches a plan to extort money from the Colonel’s wealthy son – but is it the money that he wants or something else? What was his relationship with Celina?

I was most struck in watching the film by a scene towards the end of the film in which during an argument Celina begins to speak in Quechua, the language spoken by many indigenous people. The dialogue is not translated in the English subtitles and as the audience we can’t be sure if the European Peruvians who speak Spanish understand this outburst. But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Some people prefer not to think about the past, others try to hide it. Some try to come to terms with what happened and some just refuse to even listen. Spanish is the dominant official language, Quechua is spoken by perhaps 10% of the Peruvian population. 

The people in power in Peru today still face questions about the aftermath of a conflict that ended less than 20 years ago. In the 1990s the President of Peru was Alberto Fujimori whose ’counter-insurgency’ measures led to deaths and disappearances in Lima. He fled to Japan to escape justice in 2000 but was extradited and in 2009 he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to 25 years in gaol. In April 2016 his daughter Keiko Fujimori won the first round of voting during the Presidential Elections with nearly 40% of the vote. She looks like winning the second round in June. So it goes.

But perhaps the production of a celebrated feature film trying to deal with remembering the past is a sign that Peruvian culture can move forward?

Magallanes plays again as the final screening in this years ¡Viva! at HOME on Sunday 24th April at 16.00

¡Viva! 22 #2: El Abrazo de la serpiente (The Embrace of the Serpent, Colombia-Argentina-Venezuela 2015)

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan (photo by Andres Barrientos)

Antonio Bolívar as Old Karamakate and Brionne Davis as Evan (photo by Andres Barrientos)

This screening was listed as a ‘Preview’ and the film is to be released in the UK in June by Peccadillo Pictures. It’s a shame that the impact of The Pearl Button (Chile 2015) will have diminished a little by then because the two films have much in common and I would urge you to see both. The story of the havoc that European mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism have wreaked on the indigenous peoples of Latin America is one that needs to be told and these are two fine examples of how to do it in a sensitive but always engaging way.

The Embrace of the Serpent is a fictional story but one closely based on two diaries/documentary accounts by a European and a North American making journeys into the Upper Amazon region in the first half of the 20th century. The film is presented in Black and White ‘Scope (2.35:1) with a short colour sequence towards the end. This formal decision immediately sets up meanings for different audiences. For older audiences it may take us back to the documentaries of our childhood when Black and White meant ‘realism’. For younger audiences it might mean ‘artistry’ – or artistic pretension. Personally, I forgot about it very quickly – though I did think about a film like Tabu (Portugal-Ger-Braz-Fra 2012) which raises some of the same kinds of questions. The film was shot on 35mm and the director maintains that the film camera is more robust than a digital camera under extreme conditions – a reminder that Theeb, filmed in the desert conditions of South Jordan also utilised film (and both films were nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year). Film also acts to discipline the filmmaker when two takes is the maximum for each shot, presumably because of cost and the physical labour of carrying more cans of film. The only downside is that there is only one film lab for 35mm in South America – and it’s in Argentina. (For more discussion on this go to the Cineaste interview.)

Director Ciro Guerra

Director Ciro Guerra

The film is set mainly in Colombia on the rivers that flow into the Amazon in the Vaupés region of Colombian Amazonia. There is still debate as to where the Amazon begins and national borders must be fairly arbitrary in this region where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The Venezuelan border is to the North East. The first meeting between a German botanist and an Amazonian shaman Karamakate is around 1910. The shaman believes himself to be the last survivor of a tribe wiped out through contact with ‘whites’. He is hostile towards the European and his assistant, a local man who the European has bought out of slavery on a rubber plantation. The shaman is persuaded to help in the search for a rare plant only because the European says that there are more of the shaman‘s people upstream. The European is sick but the shaman can temporarily ‘cure’ him. A full recovery is only possible if they find the yakruna plant (a fictional epiphyte that grows on rubber trees and is a source of hallucinogenic substances). The second story involves the same shaman thirty years on, still on his own but now less aggressively hostile and accepting that he has lost many of his memories of his people. He agrees to help an American scientist/traveller search for the same plant – although the American’s reasons for his search seem less clear (at one point he seems to be looking for new rubber tree varieties). The film’s director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has decided to tell the two stories in parallel so that the narrative switches from one to the other, almost at will. The effect is that it is difficult without the film actually in front of me to remember which incident relates to which story. The reason for structuring the film in this way is to represent the indigenous peoples’ way of seeing the world and telling a story. Guerra discovered that the two whites who wrote their diaries were perceived to be the same character and that stories didn’t need to be told in a linear fashion.

An image that might have come from an ethnographic account of a journey in the early 20th century. Jon Bijvoet as Theo, the earlier of the two 'whites' to travel upstream, poses with a group of local people.

An image that might have come from an ethnographic account of a journey in the early 20th century. Jon Bijvoet as Theo, the earlier of the two ‘whites’ to travel upstream, poses with a group of local people (photo by Andrés Córdoba).

Guerra maintains that the film is intended to allow the indigenous peoples of the region to tell their story and to represent history as they see it. The region suffered very badly from the ‘rubber boom’ in the last quarter of the 19th century and today the region still has no roads, but is in danger of exploitation from mining as well as coca cultivation and other ‘plantation’ practices. As well as the capitalist exploiters, other agencies such as the Catholic Church are responsible for the suffering of the local people. Guerra discusses the various issues in the press notes downloadable from the US distributor Oscilloscope and in the Cineaste interview.

This is certainly an important film but it might be approached in different ways by different audiences. In one sense it is a genuine ‘art film’, beautiful to look at with an unconventional narrative and no distinct ending/resolution. (I realise I’ve already forgotten how it ends, but I don’t think that matters.) Could it be seen as an art film with the possibility that audiences might miss the politics? Perhaps for some it will be primarily ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnographic’? Others may assume a generic perspective, expecting a trip upstream to be informed by Conrad and therefore a voyage into the ‘Heart of Darkness’. It’s also a reminder of the hallucinogenic/psychedelic culture, mainly associated with the 1960s counter-culture and writers such as Carlos Castaneda. I’m most taken by the ecological discourse and the critique of capitalism and organised religion.

The film’s title refers to the ‘founding myth’ of the peoples of the Amazon basin. Here’s the director on the mythology (from the Cineaste interview):

In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and travelled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.

They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.

I’m looking forward to watching the film again and I’m hoping for a successful UK theatrical release.

¡Viva! 22: Spanish & Latin American Festival 2016

The opening film at ¡Viva! 22, Álex de la Iglesia's 'Mi gran noche'

The opening film at ¡Viva! 22, Álex de la Iglesia’s ‘Mi gran noche’

Manchester’s ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival is back for its 22nd edition. Last year the festival was affected by the move from Cornerhouse to HOME and operated as three ‘Weekenders’ at different times of the year. This year, settled in its new home, ¡Viva! returns as a festival running across 17 days from April 7 to April 24. Download a calendar to see the spread of screenings and events. The big change this year is that six theatre shows are programmed in the festival, including work from Cuba and Catalunya. There are 21 films in the season from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela and three visual arts events as well as a range of intros, talks, discussions and Q&As to accompany the films. Most films are screening twice.

Ixcanul (Guatemala-France 2015)

Ixcanul (Guatemala-France 2015)

We’ve always been big fans of ¡Viva! and have returned year after year, so we are excited to visit again in the next few weeks. (See what we made of previous festivals using this ¡Viva! tag.) ¡Viva! is unique in the UK and this year there will be four UK premieres as well as three previews of films that will eventually get UK releases. The selection includes four titles featuring the Argentinian star Ricardo Darin and it’s particularly pleasing to see two films listed from the less well-known film territories of Peru and Guatemala. Q&As are always a feature of ¡Viva! and many of them have been highly enjoyable as well as very informative, so do try and catch one.

We hope to see several of the films in ¡Viva! 22 and to report back.

GFF16 #9: Parabellum (Argentina-Austria 2015)

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

This film didn’t really work for me and I was surprised that it was selected for the Audience Award Competition. There were some good ideas behind the development of the project but they weren’t exploited effectively. Parabellum, as the title implies (transl. ‘prepare for war’), is about ways of tackling conflict and its aftermath. The film posits a world undergoing a never identified crisis manifest in random explosions as comets/bombs? fall from the skies and groups of people take advantage of the panic to start looting and rioting. There is only minimal dialogue as a random group of (presumably middle-class) people from the city is taken to a resort in the forest where we see them instructed in various forms of survival. Eventually they are deemed ready and those who have completed the training set off into the bush to ‘survive’. We don’t know what kind of ‘mission’ they might have been given.

The problem with the long training process is that it is so loosely edited with the inclusion of what seem like redundant or overlong shots that there is no tension or suspense, partly because it isn’t clear whether they are all expected to succeed. Is it a competition? We hear the training instructions but virtually nothing in the interactions between the recruits. When the ‘survivors’ finally get out into the river delta (which isn’t that far from Buenos Aires) things get a little weirder but not much. The trailer for the film includes some interesting images but it doesn’t convey the lacklustre appeal of the narrative. A posting on the film festival’s blog suggests all kinds of things about the film. Director Lukas Valenta Rinner and his collaborators Ana Godoy and Esteban Prado (who co-wrote the script) joined genuine Argentinian survival courses at the time of the 2012 ‘end of the world mania’. The lack of dialogue is a deliberate policy related to the experience of this preparation. The director was raised in Austria before moving to Argentina via Spain to study film and it seems that the film is inspired to some extent by the similarities between the Austrian middle-class and the Argentinian ‘upper middle-class’ (the director’s terms). If I’d read the blog before watching the film I might have been more disposed to support it, but at the end of a long day this film just didn’t grab me like the preceding four.

Trailer from International Film Festival Rotterdam: