December 9, 2013
Film industry: in sync with democracy
From submissive practices during 1976-1983, cinema blends art house and mainstream
There’s this thing about round figures: they’re practical in the sense that, thanks to their mathematical precision, an accurate timeline may be drawn to help us think about certain topics in a certain temporal context. Other than that, we all know that round figures normally allow us to frame people and events under an umbrella concept — or do they?
Thirty years after the return of democracy in 1983, the round figure approach may be applied to the fact that the modes of production and viewing necessarily change under different political systems and social contexts.
But if we were to consider that the thirty years in question start exactly on December 10, 1983 — the day former president Raúl Alfonsín took office after the bloody 1976-1983 military dictatorship — we’d be dead wrong in at least one regard: the inception and gestation of the kind of cinema that emerged and gained visibility after the reinstatement of democracy began several years before the seminal date democracy was restored here.
REBOOT. The March 24, 1976 military coup marked the beginning of one of the most horrendous periods in Argentine history.
The movie industry was not alien to this process — it had to adapt to the de facto government’s implicit or explicit production. In many cases, studios and filmmakers produced — churned out, rather — a long string of seemingly innocuous movies aimed at keeping the masses entertained.
Think slapstick comedy or tamely erotic movies and you’ll be right there — like all movies, they were meant to be watched, but there were many ways of seeing, some passive, some more involved. The type of cinematic divertimento produced during the años de hierro was just another manner of pushing attention away from the atrocities being committed by the military.
Just think of the comic duo made up of Alberto Olmedo and Jorge Porcel and you get the idea. Starring in films with bluntly humorous titles like Basta de mujeres (a fine comedy, actually), El rey de los exhortos or Así no hay cama que aguante, Olmedo-Porcel provided the mind-assuaging (mind-numbing?) fare the criminal military dictatorship fed audiences with.
OK COMPUTER. Considering the power of metaphor and allusion as denunciation, we may review the “Thirty Years of Culture in Democracy” as a process that started as early as 1978, with the release of Alejandro Doria’s La isla, in which the insane are trapped in nightmarish captivity on an island and the rest keep a vigilant eye on the inmates.
The film wisely avoided censorship by, precisely, resorting to metaphor, which censors were unable to detect.
Furthermore, the military found a reason to celebrate La isla: the film brought home what they regarded as a valuable token: the Best Actress Award for Graciela Duffau at the Montreal Film Festival. A big deal was made of it — a cover story on Gente magazine and similar accolades on the prensa canalla.
Another milestone in pre-democracy, politically engaged cinema was Rodolfo Aristarain’s Tiempo de revancha (1981), about a former union leader turned mining worker. Forced into silence by his bosses and the system, the worker makes a dramatic decision to take revenge. A linear reading of Tiempo de revancha was just the account of a brutal incident, but the film amply transcended its anecdote to speak about repression.
From 1984 to the early 1990s, the politically-engaged kind of movies produced by the Argentine film industry was a case of an understandable need to revisit the traumatic recent past, the most salient case being La historia oficial (Luis Puenzo, 1985), a remarkable account of an adoptive mother (Norma Aleandro) who embarks on a relentless quest for the true identity of her child, abducted at birth from an illegal detention centre.
The film made an impact with local and foreign audiences, and a multiple award winner: Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, Best Foreign-Language Picture Oscar, and Cannes Best Actress Award for Aleandro, ex aequo with Cher for Mask.
One of the most remarkable events in the film industry after the advent of democracy was the abolition, in 1984, of the iron-fist censorship that prevented producers and distributors from making or showing controversial movies.
Abolition entailed not only a new-found freedom to choose subjects and treatment, but also the introduction of innovative narratives and languages, even if Argentine cinema stuck to the same old formats of yore. Until that year — with the sole exception, perhaps, of Fernando Solanas’ Tangos (El exilio de Gardel), premièred in 1985 — it was a matter of content over form, meaning that writer and directors stood by long-standing narrative rules and conventions.
Jumping forward to 1995, creativity and innovation came to the fore with the first installment of Historias breves (a short films compilation made by cinema students), which paved the way for the release of Bruno Stagnaro / Adrián Caetano’s Pizza, birra, faso (1997), and the foundation of the seminal, inspiring Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Films (BAFICI) in 1999.
Pizza, birra, faso, Martín Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto (1998) and BAFICI spearheaded what came to be known as Nuevo cine argentino (New Argentine Cinema), a much-needed breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant movie scene.
The Nuevo cine argentino monicker was not quite accurate for, starting in 1957 and through the late 1960s, an eponymous movement emerged that reflected the existential malaise of Argentine youths and society at large.
The second Nuevo cine argentino, then, with foundational movies like Mundo grúa (Pablo Trapero, 1999, winner of BAFICI’s first edition), La ciénaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2000), Sólo por hoy (Ariel Rotter, 2000), pointed the way to new modes of writing and filming and, more importantly, new ways of looking at ourselves, reflecting our true preoccupations and concerns.
As BAFICI and Nuevo cine argentino came of age and became a staple of independent cinema here and abroad, the Argentine film industry began a process of consolidation and amalgam between indie and mainstream, which culminated with Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-winning El secreto de sus ojos (2009).
Providing ample proof that mainstream’s self-financing capacity (to a certain extent) need not be equated solely with pecuniary concerns to the detriment of quality, El secreto... is still the one movie that points the way to the place where art and industry should ideally converge on.