Category: Latin American Cinema

¡Viva! 25 #10: Pajaros de verano (Birds of Passage Colombia-Mexico-Denmark 2018)

Birds of Passage Cannes

The ritual dance that begins the tragedy of the Wayuu with Rapayet (José Acosta) and Zaida (Natalia Reyes)

This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.

There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:

For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.

Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:

It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.

The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:

The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.

The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.

Peregrino and Rapayet. The straw hat that Rapayet wears is said to be iconic in Colombia

I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.

In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.

Birds of Passage

Ursula (Carmiña Martínez) is a formidable leader of her clan.

The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all  professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.

The fantasy/dream images and premonitions of death

I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.

I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.

25th ¡Viva! Festival at HOME, Manchester, 22 March – 13 April

The opening film of ¡Viva 2019, Tiempo después (Some Time After)

It’s time again for another burst of Spanish and Latin American culture at the UK’s most important Spanish language festival in Manchester. This is ¡Viva!‘s 25th Anniversary edition and it’s appropriately entitled ‘Serious Fun‘. The Festival kicks off on Friday 22 March with a party open to all. The opening film on the first night is Tiempo después (Some Time After) (Spain-Portugal 2018). This absurdist comedy sets up the theme of the festival derived from the tradition of esperpento – which according to the festival brochure “uses satire, the grotesque and dark humour to skewer the foibles of contemporary society”. There are 21 new features from Spain and Latin America in the programme. Most are new releases, ten of them UK premières. But there are also archive films and, fitting the theme this time, we get the chance to see the work of masters such as Luis García Berlanga and Álex de la Iglesia and a celebration of the late great Bigas Luna with his ‘Iberian Trilogy’. These are three great directors, each with a distinctive funny bone and a commitment to biting social/political satire.

As usual, most screenings are enhanced by introductions and Q&As with special guests. This year there are five short films on the programme, presented before selected features and there are events of various kinds including ‘One Hour Intros’ to the Festival theme and to Contemporary Argentinian Cinema, Café Cervantes and the Language Lab, and a discussion about the environment and mass corporate agriculture.

This year’s festival also joins in with HOME’s year-long Celebration of Women in Global Cinema with particular films and events highlighted for the contributions of female directors, writers, producers and stars. There is also a theatre presentation by Barcelona’s Señor Serrano with their new production Kingdom running from Tuesday 9th to Saturday 13th April.

Click on the image above to download the full programme brochure

We’ve been attending and reporting on ¡Viva! for a long time (going back to the 1990s) and you can find posts about the festival on the blog using this tag: https://itpworld.wordpress.com/tag/viva/ In all that time we’ve found this to be a very special festival with enthusiastic audiences, great guests and events and the opportunity to see a diverse range of films, many of which would not otherwise appear in the UK.

I can recommend the archive screenings, particularly El Verdugo (The Executioner, Spain-Italy 1963) by Luis García Berlanga on Tuesday 26 March at 18.05 with an introduction by Andy Willis. Of the new films, the only one I’ve seen is Rojo (Argentina 2018), showing on Monday 8 April at 18.15 with an introduction by Dr Carmen Herrero. I’d certainly recommend this preview screening. Argentinian cinema is definitely on the rise in terms of the number of films appearing at international festivals (even if they struggle to get seen in the UK). There are six Argentinian titles in the programme including a new documentary by one of the major figures of Latin American cinema, Fernando Solanos. Viaje a los pueblos fumigados (Argentina 2017) shows on Wednesday 27 March at 18.00 with a post-screening discussion on this investigation into the impact of global ‘agribusiness’ in Argentina. There is a second screening on Friday 29 March at 15.50 which I’m aiming to catch.

There are 18 Spanish films in all including seven archive features plus other Latin American films from Mexico, Peru and Columbia and one from The Dominican Republic. It’s a wonderful programme put together by the regular team of Rachel Hayward, Jessie Gibbs and Andy Willis and I can’t wait to get stuck in. See you there!

Tremors (Temblores, Guatemala-France-Luxemburg 2019)


There appear to be quite number of films produced in Guatemala but I cannot remember the last time that I saw one. The portrait provided here is of the power of religion in a sector of the middle classes. The country has suffered from military regimes, revolution and civil war, and most recently government corruption. But in this film we only get a sense of a particular fraction and cult. This title was screened in the Berlinale Panorama programme; definitely challenging and controversial.

The film opens as Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) drives into the grounds of a mansion to find both his family and that of his wife waiting for him. The heavy rain presages all is not well; a sense reinforced by the grim visages of the men and a note of hysterias in the women. It takes some time for the crisis to become clear but one gradually realises that either Pablo ‘has come out’ or that he has been ‘outed’ by an acquaintance. How shocking this news must be is emphasized by an earthquake shortly afterwards.

Initially Pablo has to leave home and set up his own apartment, assisted by his current gay partner, Francisco (Mauricio Armas). The film spends quite an amount of time showing Pablo adjusting to this change of life. Whilst initially coy, the first use of the word ‘gay’ is only heard thirty minute into the film, in these sequences the life of gay men is fairly explicit. The apartment is in what seems to be a slum area and we do see life on the nearby streets.


Whilst this has been taking place we have seen the family members attending a revival type religious meetings. This bears all the hallmarks of a cult with a dominant leading male and female pastors. It seems at first that Pablo will settle into his gay life. But the family are efforts to ‘rescue him’. The cult, clearly homophobic, actually has rituals to cleanse such sinners. And we see Pablo sent [more or less willingly] to a rehabilitation centre. This is a really oppressive set-up. There is religion, a sort of secular confession, group therapy and more masochistic actions. At one point we see Pablo receive an injection into his testicles.

Rather to my surprise this actually works and the film ends with Pablo, his own family and the relatives of himself and his wife, all singing, waving hands, and heavily involved in a cult ceremony.

For me there was definitely an overdose of religion in this film. And there is little sense of the theology of the cult. The cult  espouses fairly reactionary values and is extremely hierarchical. The congregations seem to be required to sing, shout, wave their hands and adulate their pastors.

The film intends a critical view of all these religious practices. The last shot of the film shows a young woman, Luisa, looking at the compliant Pablo. She is a servant in the family household but also one of the rare members who sympathises with Pablo’s situation. But I would have liked more distance throughout the film; some idea of what the cult actually stood for; and a sense of where this faction fits into the wider urban society. I would have engaged more with the film if the critical stance was more explicit.

The style of the film emphasises the intensity of the cult and of the relationships among members. Most of the film is shot in a shallow focus and with extensive use of close-ups and large close-ups.The feel of this is stronger as the film uses the widescreen of Panavision in 2.39:1. I think it is this close almost subjective feel that inhibits the sense of the critical. It is also in colour and the digital version I saw had English sub-titles.

Overall the cast and the technical work are good. I am possibly less able than some to sit through a lot of religion. I have thought that last year had an extra large slice of religion, including two films about Jehovah Witnesses. These cult members in Guatemala make them look rather limp.

The film is written and directed by Jayro Bustamante. I also noted that the actor playing Pablo has carried over his name. I incline to think that the intensity of the film is based on actual experience by someone involved in its production. The director studied in Paris and his first film at home was Ixcanul (2015), the title won a prize at the 2017 Berlinale. He has founded his own production company, and, interestingly, Guatemala City’s first cinema dedicated to independent film.

This title has been supported by European funding and Memento Films were involved. So a British release is possible and it is a powerful drama to watch.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany 2018)

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Looking for freedom

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience, firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose ‘Pepe’; Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.