‘Cambio cambio’: the film exploring Argentina’s underground dollar market

Lautaro García Candela’s movie explores Argentines’ obsession with the US currency through the eyes of an illegal dollar seller

Every day, Buenos Aires’ bustling financial district fills with people hawking dollars nonstop to a country obsessed with the U.S. currency. Popularly known as arbolitos (Spanish for “little trees”), informal dollar sellers have been a stable part of the city’s flora for decades. 

Filmmaker Lautaro García Candela set out to portray this world and spoke to them for months. He even wrote one of them as the lead character.  The end result is his most recent film — Cambio, cambio (Exchange, exchange), titled after the catchphrase arbolitos blurt out all around Florida street.

The movie premiered at the 2022 Mar del Plata Film Festival, where it received a special mention and a best film nomination, and is now showing in the MALBA museum. The 90-minute film stars Ignacio Quesada as Pablo, a young newcomer to the arbolito world — both a financial thriller and a love story set in the very streets that inspired its director. 

The film also stars Camila Peralta as Florencia, an ambitious architecture student Pablo falls for, and the main reason he starts working for Daniel (Darío Levy), a sketchy cuevero  — a person who manages a cueva, an illegal exchange house — in BA’s financial district, known as microcentro.

“Everything started when I moved to microcentro in 2019, three blocks away from the corner of Florida and Lavalle,” García Candela told the Herald. “Some time later, the [presidential] elections took place, and between the primaries and the general elections, there was a big jump in the value of the dollar.” He then saw what he remembers as a “frenzy” both in the streets and the media — “people were exchanging money in the middle of the street, their bills totally in sight.”

He was watching the surface ripples of the 2019 currency run that took the US dollar from AR$40 to AR$60, which he later turned into a key plot point of his script.

García Candela’s investigation consisted of a year-long immersion with the best source available — arbolitos themselves, some of whom he befriended and remains close with to this day. “I’ve invited them to the premiere since they appear in the movie, they helped me with the actors,” he said. “We had meetings with arbolitos and actors, and I also met them to better understand how to film the movie because they distrusted cameras.”

How was the filming process?

It wasn’t easy; we had a very small team — six or seven people. We only filmed at specific times and places because I didn’t want to bother them. Arbolitos don’t want to be filmed, which is very understandable. A lot of people went to exchange dollars with the actors while we were shooting!

Did you make the specific choice of filming the streets where the arbolitos were working?

We went for a very high depth of field, so you could see the characters in their environment. The movie is very conventional narratively; it’s a love story with a little thriller in the mix, and it takes various elements from conventional film genres. But it dialogues with the “documentary” part of it, if you will. And, for me, that’s the most beautiful part of cinema, one of the things it can accomplish like  no other art form can — the feat of documenting reality. And what happens is that it generates something that is dialectic and contradictory — a typical fictional story against an overly-realistic backdrop. That was the idea.

What did you learn throughout your investigation?

Speaking with cueveros I realized that they are convinced that they provide a public service. They not only exchange dollars, but they are also moneylenders — like bankers. Basically, they think that they are doing a service to the community because they allow you to operate without the bureaucratic part of the banks. And people believe they have the right to the dollar. They quickly connect the need and the satisfaction of having that need fulfilled, and they believe that the state is the enemy. The [previous] government raided cuevas, but the businesses will get through any way they can.

A sort of recurring theme in the film, perhaps even more incomprehensible to foreigners than Argentines’ love for the greenback, is the difference everyone involved (buyers, sellers, and even financial institutions) makes between “small-portrait” bills (dollars issued between 1928 and 1995) and “large-portrait” banknotes (issued from 1996 onwards). For some reason, the former is worth less than the latter in Argentina.

“It’s a completely fetishistic issue,” García Candela said. “Argentines want the banknote and [think that] the newer bill is worth more than the older one, even though the United States accepts both.”

Does it make any sense?

Not at all. It has to do with an urban myth that says that, at some point, the United States is going to stop accepting small bills. That’s never going to happen. I mean, the Federal Reserve constantly says that they accept all bills. It also has to do with the fact that there are very few small-portrait bills still in circulation. The thing is that Argentines have been saving in dollars for 40 or 50 years — after the United States, we have more dollars in cash than any other country in the world. It is a question of the relationship itself, not with the currency as something symbolic but with the bill as a concrete object.

Argentina’s love for the greenback was a major point of discussion in this year’s presidential elections, as Javier Milei won with the dollarization of the economy as his flagship proposal — and although he has since backed down, he tapped into a very Argentine passion. García Candela says that he understands that people flee from the peso in a country with 160% interannual inflation, but that the proposal is “mounted on a lie.”

Cambio Cambio was also one of the films whose clips were shown in a video by the Argentine National Film Board (INCAA, by its Spanish initials), defending the institution from Milei’s proposal of closing it. The INCAA promotes and funds the Argentine film industry.

“It’s difficult to see the idea of closing the INCAA as anything else than ignorance — leaving everything to the market is a wrong idea,” García Candela said. “Argentine cinema is excellent from every standpoint — it’s diverse, has very high quality, and, above all, it is part of our culture.”

“Defending it is important since it creates discourses and narratives about our mythologies, obsessions, and contradictions.”


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