Another début film, Diablada is a fiction feature based on the true story of a serial killer who raped and murdered young women, mainly teenagers between 1998 and 2001 in the Chilean region of Alto Hospicio in the North of the country. Although the names of the characters and other details have been changed, the film sticks fairly closely to the narrative of the real events. I found the film impressive in many of the aspects of its presentation but somewhat baffled by the overall approach of the filmmakers writer Omar Saavedra Santis and director Álvaro Muñoz.
The film begins by introducing a small group of characters in a small desert town close to the coast. These include a single parent father Andres (Daniel Candia) and his young teenage daughter Nene as well as a female police officer Rosaura (Catalina Saavedra) who is badly treated by both her managers and her male colleagues. My first thought was that I was watching something like a Chilean version of a Nordic Noir crime thriller. Here is a crime story in which the crimes appear to be happening in a way that exposes a range of serious social and political problems in the society. The central point is that although a significant number of teenage girls have gone missing over the last few weeks and months, the local police have made no real attempt to find them and have assumed that the girls have left the town to seek more ‘excitement’ over the border in Bolivia. The point is made repeatedly that the police will not really do anything for the poor, but will act swiftly if the local wealthy people are threatened by minor crimes. My second thought was that the opening reminded me a little of Australian crime fictions involving Indigenous Australian communities such as in Mystery Road film and TV series. I’m assuming that the local community depicted in Alto Hospicio has a significant indigenous population and that their marginalisation by the authorities is a political issue. The film’s title refers to a traditional dance performed mainly in Bolivia and Peru but which appears also to have developed in Northern Chile. The dance is woven into the narrative because Nene performs in the local troupe, but wearing a costume that her father believes to be for a male rather than female role, thus linking to the gender discourse in the narrative.
As the narrative progresses, more familiar genre elements are introduced, including a new young detective who arrives in the region. He is welcomed by the local wealthy ‘boss’ character but there are signs that he might not buy in to the local male dominance and abuse of women. He also introduces more modern policing methods. When Nene goes missing like the other girls, Andres joins up with Rosaura in an attempt to unite the mothers of the missing girls and to act as an amateur detective team as well as agitating for the police to do more. The problem with the film is that all the details of the community and the introduction of the characters take up most of the running time. There is no time to see how the investigators find the killer, denying the audience the resolution of what had originally been introduced as a conventional crime story. I don’t have a problem with a lack of resolution and I can see that the social/political issues are the most important part of the film. But presumably the local Chilean audience know the ending anyway – the killer was eventually arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Another film that is worth considering here is Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) with the same mix of politics and incompetent policing. Again this was a well-known serial killer case that had already been adapted several times. Bong’s film is much longer and more complex and at the time of the film’s production the crimes from 1986 had still not been solved.
We might ask why Muñoz and Santis didn’t opt for a more straightforward genre narrative or a documentary reconstruction of the crimes and the eventual investigation, arrest and conviction. I can only think that Muñoz and his cinematographer Alvaro Cortés wished to experiment with the presentation of the landscape and the characters. The landscape of the desert and the simple wooden houses are carefully presented in widescreen and there are occasional ‘arty’ shots of isolated features which are effective in themselves, but slow down the narrative drive. There are also some fantasy/dream sequences which don’t seem signalled. I wasn’t sure if I understood a couple of sequences. It may be that the intention was to pose the social/political questions in a way that would provoke discussion. I’d love to know how the film has been received in Chile (and Venezuela) if it has been shown there. As a genre film, Diablada doesn’t focus directly on the actual killings. In that sense it isn’t exploitative but there are a couple of scenes which feature the victims in ways that are quite shocking. One of the few reviews available accuses the film of a lack of humanity towards the mothers. I’m not sure I agree but I can see that there are reasons to make that charge.
I must commend the leading players Daniel Candia and Catalina Saavedra and the production team, but I do feel in the end that something is missing. Diablada shows again at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 22nd August at 13.45.
It’s rare that I sit down to write about a film without any background information at all but Salvador is a recent film that has not been reviewed outside the Hispanic language press as far as I can see. I’m therefore reliant on Google Translate to make sense of Spanish and Latin American websites. Another shortish feature of under 90 minutes, Salvador tells a familiar tale of a middle-aged romance but situates it in a very dangerous time and place – the centre of Bogota in 1985 during action by the guerrilla forces of ‘M-19’, which included the occupation of the Ministry of Justice building in the city centre. A début feature by César Heredia Cruz, the film is inspired by the director’s own memories of his childhood and by the figure of his grandfather who was a tailor in the city. But it is a fiction, the director’s grandfather was not like the character in the film and did not react to events in the same way.
Salvador Velazquez (Héctor García) is a 46 year-old tailor. He is single and lives on his own except for his dog Laika. Each day he travels into the city centre and takes the lift up to the seventh-floor of a traditional office block and his workshop. It’s an unusual location for a tailor. He works on his own and his customers come to see him in his workshop. Salvador doesn’t have much of a social life but he visits his sister-in-law and his nephew, a university student, on most days. One day he finds there is a new lift operator in the office building, an attractive woman in her late thirties, Isabel (Fabiana Medina). Over the next few days/weeks, Salvador gradually gets to know something about Isabel, though he is slightly taken aback when she has her daughter, a school-child, with her in the lift one day. Gradually a romance develops, but at the same time, tension in the city mounts as M-19 become more of a threat. The local security forces are stopping people on the street to check ID cards and a curfew is brought in.
The romance narrative is structured as a slow but conventional courtship. Salvador is a quiet man but tall and not unattractive, especially when he smiles. Even so, he seems an unlikely partner for Isabel who is lively and adventurous. She attracts the attention of all the men in the office block. What does she want from Salvador? His name of course denotes ‘saviour’ and she is separated from her husband and worries about her daughter. But is Salvador the man for the job? Without wanting to spoil the plot development in any way I should perhaps state that though the pleasures of the romance are present in the film, the other element in the narrative remains important throughout. The film is about the real physical, and moral, difficulties of living in a city under threat of violent action by both guerrilla groups and government forces. Writer-director Cruz provides a kind of running commentary on the escalation of the conflict with snatches of news reports on the TV set in Salvador’s sister in law’s apartment, in the cafés and bars he visits and from the radio in his workshop. This is contrasted with the music that is associated with Isabel. Their early encounters include a discussion of her love for boleros. From his position high up in the city centre Salvador is also conscious of the helicopters above and the soldiers on the streets.
A tailor is an interesting character in this kind of atmosphere. Salvador has customers who might be associated with the military or the guerrillas. His is an intimate business. He deals with potentially dangerous men who he must measure accurately and fit their suits. He doesn’t usually make clothes for women, so Isabel’s entry into his workshop is provocative and creates genuine tension and excitement. Salvador is in some ways a surprising film and it marks a notable début. Colombia is a mid-range Latin-American film production centre with the potential to develop further and I enjoyed this opportunity to see a new release. Salvador plays again at HOME in Manchester on Sunday 15th August at 14.00
This début film by film school graduate Valentina Reyes won the ‘National Film’ prize at the Santiago International Film Festival in 2020, an honour for the young writer-director and her classmates and tutors who helped her to get the film produced successfully. It tells the story of three generation of women in the same household – a story strongly influenced by Reyes’ autobiography. As the title implies, the house is almost a fourth character as the grandmother in the film, Emilia (Grimanesa Jiménez) has lived there for over 50 years. Mother Mónica (Trinidad González) and daughter Leonora (Bernardita Nassar) also have a strong attachment to the house, but in different ways. The house is situated in Ñuñoa, a city within the greater Santiago region now seen as a highly desirable residential area and subject to intense interest by developers.
The narrative explores some familiar themes. There is the strong relationship between Emelia (‘Leila’) and her granddaughter ‘Leo’, so that Mónica bears the heavy responsibility of attempting to hold things together and making difficult decisions. Leila is suffering from the onset of dementia. An artist since her youth, the house is full of her paintings and the possessions which remind her of her past. Leo has inherited both her interest in art and aesthetics and some of her radical and feminist values. The narrative swings between Leila and Leo while Mónica faces realities of their situation. I’m not really spoiling the plot by revealing that she realises the house has to be sold.
There are no male characters in the film as such. Reyes explains in an interview that there was initially a relationship for Leo but she decided to cut it out and focus solely on the women’s relationships with each other, partly because she thinks there aren’t enough films about women’s stories without men. This perhaps explains the 77 minute running time. Nearly all the action takes place in the house (and the garden). In many ways this is a classic female melodrama and therefore the terrific performances of the three leads are supported by the cinematography and the detailed mise en scène and music score. I enjoyed the music very much and each of these components is equally powerful. This is definitely a film to be seen on the big screen.
In her interview with a local Santiago arts website (Spanish only), Reyes explains the difficulties associated with ‘dressing’ the house chosen for the main location since it had to be dressed and ‘undressed’ for different scenes and further complicated by the availability of the three actors over the long period of production. All the effort was certainly worthwhile. In one wonderful scene Leila, unable to sleep (or is she dreaming?) wanders through rooms full of memories that are slowly revealed to be empty, having been stripped for the sale. Cinematographer Felipe Peña makes excellent use of light through windows, filters for a sense of mood and offers us a range of close-ups in a ‘Scope frame that bring us close to the characters and to Emilia in particular.
Dementia as a general condition refers to many distinct forms of illness and in this case Emilia is wrapped up in her past and her art practice – so much so that she is unwilling/unable to engage with the realities of the present. Leo finds herself intrigued and emotionally concerned with her grandmother’s memories. But as the two develop ever stronger bonds, Mónica is isolated in making difficult decisions about the future. If the film has a flaw it is in not fully representing Mónica’s anguish. In some ways, the pain of dementia falls upon the responsible carer as much as on the sufferer themselves.
Chilean cinema is on something of an upsurge over the last few years. This UK première of the film is perhaps the first cinema screening of the film outside Hispanic territories (it doesn’t appear to have been reviewed in the US or UK). Valentina Reyes, who co-edited the film as well as writing and directing it, has the potential to become a major talent. As well as other Chilean filmmakers, I was intrigued to see her name Naomi Kawase as an influence alongside Andrea Arnold, Chantal Ackerman and other familiar names. Reyes hopes to travel and study abroad and I look forward to whatever she produces in the future. Las mujeres de mi casa plays again at ¡Viva! on Wednesday 11th August at 16.00 and Saturday 21st August at 14.45. I recommend it highly. Here is a trailer (no English subs):
Great news! ¡Viva!, Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American Festival returns for its 27th edition, running from Friday August 6th until Sunday 22nd August. Usually held in the Spring but with 2020’s festival being delivered across two programmes in 2020 because of Covid restrictions, ¡Viva! returns in the height of Summer 2021. It’s a cracking programme with 18 films, 11 of which are UK premieres. There will be the usual ‘added value’ features of introductions by the curators and recorded contributions by filmmaker guests. Café Cervantes, a free but ticketed event on Saturday 21 August, offers you an opportunity to share your thoughts about the films you’ve seen while practising your Spanish with native speakers and other festivalgoers. The programme includes eight Spanish features but also has space for some of the smaller Latin American producers such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Columbia and Dominican Republic plus a trio of Chilean titles. I’ve seen just one of the films so far and I can fully recommend the terrific Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020).
The festival opens on August 6th with the UK premiere of El Robo del siglo (Argentina 2020), the entertaining true story of a 2006 bank robbery, one of the most famous and complex heists in Argentinian history. There is a strong contribution by Spanish films this year including El Año del descubrimiento (The Year of Discovery, Spain-Chile 2019) an epic (200 minutes) documentary by Luis López Carrassco offering a fascinating insight into contemporary Spain, through the lens of recent history told by the locals of Cartagena, a naval city in southeast Spain. The year in focus is 1992. The festival notes suggest that this is “a rallying cry to the left and centre left to mobilise against unchecked capitalism and the far right”. On a lighter note La boda de Rosa (Rosa’s Wedding, Spain-France 2020) is a romantic comedy by Icíar Bollaín and Nora (Spain 2020) by Lara Izagirre offers a road-trip through Northern Spain in a Citroën Dyane 6.
El Inconviente (One Careful Owner, Spain 2020) by Bernabé Rico is a comedy drama in which a young woman moves into a flat only to discover that the former owner, an older woman, is still legally there. The two must find a way of living together. La Última primavera (Last Days of Spring, Spain 2020) by Isabel Lamberti is a début feature, a drama set in Europe’s largest shanty town on the outskirts of Madrid. Las Niñas (Schoolgirls, Spain 2020) by Pilar Palomero is another film set in 1992 about a young woman finding her own identity in a convent school setting. It won several Goyas for the creative women behind the production including script, camerawork and direction as well as Best Film.
Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones, Chile 2020) is an acclaimed gay love story by Omar Zúñiga, set in a Chilean fishing community and described by The Hollywood Reporter as a “queer festival darling”. Salvador (Colombia 2020) by César Heredia is a romance drama set in the 1980s in Colombia and Apenas el sol (Nothing But the Sun, Paraguay 2020) by Arami Ullón is a documentary exploring the diversity of indigenous peoples in Paraguay and focusing on the under-represented Ayoreo people. Diablada (Chile-Venezuela 2020) tells the true story of a serial killer who operated between 1998 and 2001 and Pseudo (Bolivia 2020) by Gory Patiño, Luis Reneo is a ‘social thriller’ set in La Paz. Mosh (Dominican Republic 2019) by Juan Antonio Bisonó tells the story of a 16 year-old dancer who lives with her mother and her cousin, Gerónimo, an aspiring rapper. The festival brochure tells us it offers a dazzling riot of colour, music and movement that is by turns poignant, funny and tense”. Jason Wood, HOME’s Creative Director: Film and Culture and author of the Faber Book of Mexican Cinema will introduce Nuevo orden (Mexico-France 2020) by Michel Franco.
I hope this is enough to whet your appetite – you’ll find the other equally exciting titles in the full listings. ¡Viva! is always a favourite festival for me. I won’t be able to get there this year but thanks to the curators I’ve got the chance to preview some of the films and reviews will appear here. If you can get to Manchester do give it a whirl and enjoy the chance to see the best of recent Spanish and Latin American cinema. Festival Bookings are now open and further details of all the films can be found on the ¡Viva! pages of the HOME website.
Thanks to the curators: Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film.
This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime. Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of the ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.
The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.
The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.
Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well, making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.
The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score from the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.
The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA) is offering the opportunity to watch films online with some free and others charging a fee. There are 450 free short documentaries and I chose three titles all produced by students at the International Film School in Cuba, an important institution founded by Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban filmmakers Julio Garcia Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and the Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Birri in December 1986. The school was set up to provide education and training for primarily Latin American filmmakers and it has received support from filmmakers around the world. It is best known as ‘Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television’ or EICTV.
The three films I chose were all submitted to IDFA’s student competition. I was first attracted to two films dealing with aspects of Cuban Railways. I hadn’t realised that Cuba saw some of the first steam railways in the world (before Spain) and that although the system has suffered because of the US blockade and the end of aid from the USSR, there has been a revival recently with new stock from China and Iran and older equipment from other countries maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The Load (La Carga, 2015, 25 mins), dir Victor Alexis Guerrero, is less about the railway itself and more about the men who work on it. We open somewhere on a single track railway through fields with grass that nearly grows over the tracks. It’s night and there appear to be several men in a freight car. At first I was confused by this. I knew there wouldn’t be illegal riders on the train, but I remembered that many Cubans have had to travel in communal trucks, either because they can’t afford long distance buses or services have not been available. One of the men in the freight car is trying to get a light to work with bare wires and a piece of card. Eventually he manages it and we can see that in total there are seven men on the train and they are all crew. They live in a wagon with bunks and a cooking range. One of them is the driver and the others are presumably there to help load and unload the train of wagons. They are based at a railhead in Matanzas, the port city some 55 miles east of Havana. Cuban Railways clearly has some problems and the men find themselves waiting around for a new load. We have already seen their difficulty in moving their open wagons. At one point with the train slipping on the rails, the men are out putting sand on the rails to try to achieve better adhesion.But mostly the men engage in familiar forms of banter including tales about women. Eventually a new load is found for the train and they trundle away with a load of aggregate for building work. It’s nice to just spend a few minutes with a group of working men, bitching about their jobs, just like workers anywhere.
Inertia (All Pantographs Go to Heaven, 2008, 15 mins), dir Armando Capó Ramos, is also about railways but it is a very different kind of film. Its subject is the ‘Hershey Railway’. This railway between Havana and Matanzas is the only electric line surviving in Cuba, all the other motive power is diesel. It was built originally by the US chocolate giant Hershey in circa 1916 to transport sugar to Havana from its mill in the town of Hershey (now Camilo Cienfeugos). Several branch lines were also constructed to enable workers to get to the mill. Some of these are now closed, along with the mill, but tourist traffic keeps the system open. This short film reminds me of some of the Cuban revolutionary/avant garde shorts of the 1960s. There isn’t much in the way of political comment, except for a sequence in which I’m guessing that a group of local passengers look rather bored and disapproving when a musical group boards the train and performs a conga down the aisle, presumably with some tourists joining in. Earlier we have been offered a montage of close-ups of faces and objects and an aerial/overhead shot of the train shed (possibly the camera was running along a rail suspend from the ceiling?). As well as montage, the filmmaker also uses reverse projection, so the same car moves swiftly out of the shed and then back. In the final third of the film, the camera remains static as the train stops and we watch the passengers walking away down the track and gradually out of focus. This last shot lasts 5 minutes and does prove oddly fascinating.
The ideas explored here about how to represent the railway and its passengers are interesting but I’m not sure that they are fully integrated. I would guess that the filmmaker hasn’t got the experience needed to assess the completed film and then go back and re-edit. On the other hand, why should the documentary prioritise ‘coherence’? I was intrigued by the film and I did get a sense of what the railway was like. Perhaps that’s enough?
Iceberg (2015, 26 mins), dir Juliana Gabriela Gomez Castañeda, seemed to me the most successful of the three films. It is a film about loneliness which manages to compress a maternal family melodrama into its 26 minutes. Although the central character reveals her pain in two short sequences, we also see that she lives in a small community that appears to be supportive. I’m guessing that this is the meaning of the title. Like an iceberg, Teresa appears on the surface to be happy in her community, but underneath she is pining for contact with her daughter and with her mother in the cemetery.
Teresa lives in a small community on the coast close to Puerto Santiago de Cuba. She is not completely alone because her dog Diana seems to accompany her everywhere. Most days Teresa, who is in her 60s, goes fishing. She has two floats linked together by chains which she places in the water, and then sits back in the water with one float under legs and the other beneath her upper torso creating a star shape. Diana jumps up between her legs and stands on the float and Teresa uses her arms to gently paddle out into the bay. Occasionally she catches a small fish. It’s not an efficient way to fish but it doesn’t cost anything and it’s a nice way to spend the day. In the first part of the film, María, her granddaughter is staying with her, but soon she has to go back to boarding school by ferry. Teresa’s social life revolves around the church and a drink with friends in the evening when she sings. But she is most expressive in her phone call to her daughter in another city who hasn’t seen María for some time. The film is beautifully shot in a ‘Scope ratio and like the first film, shows the ordinary lives of Cubans.
Cuban cinema was the leader of Latin American cinema in the 1960s and it is good to see that the International Film School is still training new talents, especially in documentary. Perhaps if Trump loses in November, the Cuban industry might benefit from any lifting of the US blockade? I certainly hope so.