Category: Latin American Cinema

Yorimatã (Brazil 2014)

Luli (left and Lucina in the 1970s

Luli (left) and Lucina in the 1970s

In her second introduction of the Brazilian Weekender at HOME, Stephanie Dennison told us that music documentaries have been very popular in Brazil for the last few years and that Yorimatã was both critically and commercially successful in cinemas in 2015. She suggested that this was both surprising and encouraging since many audiences didn’t know about the two main subjects of the film – women who challenged conventional music industry ideas in the 1970s. This was my third documentary of the week and my second music documentary. Yorimatã has some things in common with Bayou Maharajah, but also several differences.

I don’t think I’ve seen a music documentary before in which all of the performers were unknown to me (apart from Gilberto Gil who makes a brief appearance). Coupled with my limited knowledge of Brazilian music styles this meant I found it a little difficult to discern the chronology of events. (The narrative is non-linear.) Other than that, however, I was captivated by the music and personalities of the two women who appear to have used just their first names – Luhli and Lucina – throughout their long careers. Here is the official trailer for Yorimatã which explains the title and introduces the story and the music. (The official website in Portuguese has some other interesting material, including the images used here.)

Luhli (sometimes Luli) and Lucina both began performing and recording in the 1960s as solo artists and with other performers. They got together in the early 1970s, forming a musical partnership that was exciting for them and for audiences and which lasted more than twenty years. They decided to become ‘independents’ and move away from the global music labels such as Philips and Polygram and took themselves off to live in the country – following, but in their own way, the similar trends in Europe and North America. The ‘music majors’ have always been global but, unlike Hollywood, they tend to put more effort into developing local ‘artists and repertoire’. They do so in conventional ways so Luhli and Lucina were seen as ‘radicals’. The living arrangements they made were also radical and ‘anti-conservative’ as they set up a family unit with photographer Luiz Fernando Borges da Fonseca. This three-way relationship was captured by Luiz and his archive of footage formed the basis for director Rafael Saar’s documentary (Saar is something of a specialist in music films). These archive clips are mixed with interviews, footage of the two women today, including recent performances with other musicians and archive clips of their earlier performances together.

05

The family in retreat

The 1970s performances and the home movie footage of life in their rural retreat provide perhaps the most appealing sequences – enhanced by the grainy and colour-degraded qualities of the blown-up images. I was trying to think of what the British or American equivalents might be but I realised that the social and political differences between Brazil and the ‘North’ would have been an important factor. These images from Brazil seem at the same time more ‘homely’ and frankly more fun than 1970s hippy communes as depicted in Anglo-American music culture – but also more of a challenge to society since Brazil was under an authoritarian military dictatorship which arrested and exiled some musicians whose politics were deemed unacceptable.

In musical terms, however, it’s interesting that Luhli and Lucina made familiar moves towards musical forms that were more ‘roots’ orientated and sometimes more ‘spiritual’. But they also went through a phase of electrifying their music and becoming more rock-orientated. At this point I thought about Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention and wondered how things might have been different if Sandy had had a close female collaborator and soulmate. The music of Luhli and Lucina remained in a Brazilian context and for musicologists there are references to samba and the ways in which African music and other foreign forms have been developed in a Brazilian context. The most surprising aspect of the women’s performances (apart from the appearance of the 10-string Brazilian guitar – viola caipira?) is their use of African drums (see the trailer above). We see them working to make these drums and the film begins and ends with a drumming performance.

I’m not sure if this film will get distribution outside Brazil (it did appear at Toronto) but I do hope somebody tries to make it happen. The sounds and images have stayed with me and audiences should get a lot from it. Some will enjoy the women’s strength and challenge to the social order. Others will enjoy the music. Everybody will get something from it. I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it.

A more recent image of of Lucina (left) and Luhli

A more recent image of Lucina (left) and Luhli

Jonas e seu circo sem lona (Jonas and the Backyard Circus, Brazil 2015)

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

Jonas drumming up an audience for his backyard circus.

This film in HOME’s Brazilian Weekender turned out to be a documentary about what Stephanie Dennison in her Introduction referred to as a ‘small subject’. Professor Dennison leads on Brazilian film at the University of Leeds and the Weekender is a joint Leeds/Manchester University initiative with HOME’s festivals team. She suggested to us that often the Brazilian films that are seen abroad are about ‘big’ subjects or they are ‘exotic’ and strange/wonderful. She went on to suggest that with the swing to the right in Brazil what she thought was interesting about this film (apart from the technical skill on display) was its concern with public education – something that was an important part of the Workers’ Party agenda. Certainly the last two Brazilian films I’ve seen were Second Mother (Brazil 2015) and The Violin Teacher (Brazil 2015), both concerned with issues related to education.

The ‘striking technical skill’ here belongs to first-time documentary feature filmmaker Paula Gomes. She crafts an 83 minute film that takes its simple premise and presents it as accessibly as possible while maintaining a reasonable observational distance from its subject – though this is breached three times, but each time in an interesting and revealing way. The ‘Jonas’ of the title is a 13 year-old boy in the North-Eastern region of Bahia. He lives with his mother and grandmother, both of whom have had experience in the circus. If we are told about a father figure, I missed it in the subtitles. However, we do learn that Jonas has an uncle who is still operating a circus in the region.

The ‘plot’ of the documentary sees Jonas using a holiday period to devise a circus performance with his friends in his mother’s backyard. His mother tolerates this (and his grandma encourages it) but the mother’s concern is to see Jonas succeed at school. Jonas has the skills and the commitment to ‘make a go’ of the circus but his friends in the neighbourhood don’t share his need to be a performer and although they ‘muck in’ and enjoy themselves, they gradually drift away. Meanwhile, Jonas is only a peripheral figure at school – knuckling down only when the camera is on him. The filmmaker appears briefly in one scene reflected in the mirror in Jonas’ bedroom when his mother tries to wake him to send him to school. More importantly perhaps the director is addressed in one scene by the headteacher who tells her that her film is a bad idea since it gets in the way of Jonas and his schoolwork. This seems a little unfair, but it’s good to see some concern over the boy’s education. The closing credits include another line of dialogue directed to the filmmaker but I won’t spoil what is a pretty good joke.

For me, the technical and artistic success of the film is based on an ‘intimate’ camera style which brings us into the world of Jonas and his friends and family without ever being ‘exploitative’. There are many close-ups, mainly of faces. It is indeed an impressive first feature. Jonas is an engaging young man and his mother and grandmother are equally interesting characters. The classroom scenes suggest that working class education in Brazil is a real issue and I’m reminded that one of the great education thinkers was Paulo Friere who came from Recife in the neighbouring region of Pernambuco. The turn to the right in Brazilian politics is bad news for the working class.

¡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.