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Aesthetic Colonization: The Cultural Battle Within Latin America’s Arthouse Cinema

Agarrando pueblo (Luis Ospina & Carlos Mayolo, 1977)

No matter if it’s a haunted mansion in Guatemala City, the vast deserted plains of the colonial Tierra del Fuego, or a neon-tinged swinger room in futurist Brazil, the setting is essentially the same. What all of these different scenarios portray are just pieces of the same all encompassing and uneven puzzle usually referred to as ‘Latin American Cinema’. A region of exotic sights, non-stop social turmoil and historically misguided people of color that happen to be suffering all the time, a distress that in the realm of “civilized” film culture comes packaged in the form of ‘World Cinema’ program sections that hold the promise of enriching one’s cultural capital by being exposed to “less-privileged” realities.  

The notion of approaching Latin American art as an exercise in philanthropy can be tracked to the curating process behind important validation spaces such as European film festivals; these being the mecca for developing countries’ filmographies still seeking to position themselves in the cinematic landscape. It’s true that each event in question has its own self-perceived identity, one that tries to be pushed forward in its programming, yet the prevalence of a certain discourse regarding what constitutes an independent Latin American film seems to be always present.  

With eight films from the region spread across the Competition, Gala and ‘Global Cinema’ Official Selections, this year’s edition of Film Fest Gent comes across as an stellar opportunity to comprehend the current implications and contradictions of that generalized label, showcasing contemporary trends and the arm wrestling between developing nation’s art scenes and their First World aspirations.   

The matter at hand has been a topic ever since the region began to be noticed by their former colonizers’ art institutions, exposing the hierarchical nature of said bond. Brazilian filmmaker and critic Glauber Rocha timelessly described it in his 1965 manifesto Aesthetic of Hunger as “the foreign onlooker [cultivating] the taste of that misery, not as a tragic symptom, but merely as an aesthetic object within his field of interest,” a quirky affinity on par with liking an unheralded local artist or gawking at an underrated “minor” piece. But as the director of  Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964) and Terra em transe (Entranced Earth, 1964) also pointed out, the blame can’t just be ascribed to the scarf-wearing white bon vivants of the old continent. This shallow understanding also has to do with a self-conscious catering towards preconceived notions of highbrow sensibilities. The idea that the art being made is strictly manufactured so it can be exported to the cultural epicenters, having little to no regard for the sensibilities of its immediate context.  

Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Glauber Rocha, 1964)

This timeline can be traced back to the end of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. The class numbness and celebratory cult of personality of these Maria Felix vehicles ceased their cultural dominance by the late 1960s, giving way to an aesthetic antithesis to rise in tandem with the turbulent political context of 70s Latin America. This was materialized in the glib strain of documentary eventually referred to as porno miseria, a term coined by late Colombian cinematic pioneers Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo, and sharply exemplified in mockumentary Agarrando Pueblo (The Vampires of Poverty, 1977) and its companion manifesto. The concept was simple: a bout to see who could find the hut with the muddiest floor and the children who looked closest to death by starvation; a scabrous motivation that ended up paying dividends at the expense of white liberal guilt.  

Since then, the pandering has found subtler ways, morphing into the ominous detachment and brooding affectation of contemporary arthouse trends; your dead-eyed peasants gloomily harvesting potatoes in 15 minute static shots, and invasive close-ups of head-scarf wearing old ladies miserably gazing at the abyss beyond the stained windows of public transportation. Albeit on paper those referents might be of universal appeal, their inception does come from a determined sociocultural tradition. Be it Hungarian miserabilism or cheap Haneke rip-offs, there’s a genealogy deeply ingrained in European experience that goes all the way back to Italian Neorealism and Bresson’s catholic self-scourging. It’s certainly true that globalization has erased some of the geographical barriers of yesteryear, and that said affectations could genuinely parallel some developing nation’s concerns, nevertheless, the generalized import of said pretenses seems disingenuous when seeing in the context of a distinctive historical background.  

Agarrando pueblo (Luis Ospina & Carlos Mayolo, 1977)

Radical Argentine artists Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas, creators of incendiary political documentary La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), put it best when they gave name to a whole cinematic revolution with their ‘Third Cinema’ concept. Away from the Hollywood machinery of crowd-pleasing (First Cinema) and the European heritage of individualistic auteurism (Second Cinema), Third Cinema presented itself as an alternative born out of revolutionary zest in which grassroots approaches towards filming, exhibition and distribution were being pushed forward as ways to counteract the neo-colonialist specter that haunted the arts.  

In spite of their unquestionable influence in film history, both in terms of subject matter with its activist demeanor, and aesthetics with its rough and direct style, the movement was short-lived and the self-imposed subservience to the conquistador effectively reestablished by way of international funding’s muzzle. The movie economy bore too much weight for conceits coming from what Trumpian speech calls “shithole countries” to be actually sustainable; the raging fires of Third Cinema appeased by the proven template of First World pretense. 

It comes as a natural conclusion then that cine latinos most successful moments regarding international reach and monetary reward don’t stray away from the hegemonic taste of Western audiences. Those are the Mexican melodramas and macho comedies of yesteryear icons Emilio Fernandez and Fernando de Fuentes, the maudlin mainstream hits of Argentina’s Official Cinema (as described by influential film critic Quintín to categorize state-funded ventures) like Ricardo Darín-starring Oscar favorites El secreto de sus ojos (2007) and Relatos salvajes (2014), and the industry-friendly schtick of a certain trio of Mexican amigos. The same idea permeates the works being made for internal consumption, which exist mainly to please an endogamous microcosm of local audiences by way of raunchy screwballs and saccharine feel-goods that tend to top the box-office for weeks, but stay encapsulated within their self-determined specificity. Naturally, the mindset also extends to the prestigious world of European film festivals.   

In the case of Film Fest Ghent’s small sample of current Latin American cinema, different examples of these traditions cohabit with works actively trying to defy them, immediately putting to rest the commonplace idea of the region as a homogenous entity. It’s not just that the majority of movies come from different countries (Guatemala, Chile, Perú, Argentina, Brazil and Costa Rica each have one feature being shown, while Colombia has two), more so that the singular way each film finds to address their concerns, unveils unique and complex relationships with their given context.  

A constant issue in most of the more palatable strain of Latin American independent movies (those that get award consideration and aim for crossover appeal) is the circumstantial nature of their actual setting. The contrasting locations function more as an exotic background for prosaic narrative beats and shipped-in aesthetic proposals than as a truthfully vivid element. Playing Ghent with the glowing banner of Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award and hyped English pull-quotes behind it, Alejandro LandesMonos (2019) is probably this year’s best-regarded ambassador for said type of film.  

Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Shot on location in the unforgiving conditions of the Colombian Andes, the picture seems to confuse the stunning sight of its never-caught-on-film fog-drenched jungle with authenticity, as its depiction doesn’t stray far away from the non-descript brush strokes of otherness in which Anglo-Saxon literary tradition tends to sketch the green hell”. No matter that the protagonists speak Spanish, Monos arc of forsaken children’s spiraling descent into the “heart of darkness” appears more comfortable as a minor Lord of The Flies tribute than as an exploration of its rich environment. 

Although less portentous, the same indistinguishable sense permeates the also programmed Litigante from Colombian (and 2014 Best Film winner at the festival) Franco Lolli and Fin de siglo from Argentine debutantLucio Castro. Both are domestic character studies that package their somewhat conventional melodrama and gay romance, respectively, in the muted narrative and contemplative tone so favored by contemporary World Cinema. As with many other international works found in the festival circuit, their modesty doesn’t necessarily equate a shortcoming, yet their proposals eventually fold towards the general notion of what its festival-going public is seeking, before actually establishing palpable sense of identity. That doesn’t need to be the case, though, as in recent years filmmakers like Chile’s Dominga Sotomayor of De jueves a domingo (2012) and Tarde para morir joven (2018) and Argentina’s Matías Piñeiro of Viola (2012) and Hermia & Helena (2016) have shown how to make a name for oneself with subdued character-driven studies. Even when dealing with matters as supposedly non-cinematic and trivial as family events (former) and the world of artistic residencies (latter), it’s possible to create a lasting impression by being formally inventive. 

In the last decade, a variety of audacious artists have taken this inclination towards innovation to new limits by merging narrative traditions with experimental mainstays, many of which have set their focus on deconstructing colonial history. The most memorable coming from New Argentine Cinema auteurs Lucrecia Martel in Zama (2017) and Lisandro Alonso in Jauja (2015), and also Chilean plastic artist Niles Atallah in Rey (2017). All of them play with film stock alteration, aural dissonance and unorthodox aspect ratios in a wathat makes the colonial anxieties they set out to portray be felt as fever nightmares, confronting the senses with an uncanniness inherent to the bleak period represented. The Competition title Blanco en Blanco (2019) from Venice’s Orizzonti Best Director winner Théo Court is a worthy addition to this incipient canon. Through an expressionistic use of light and by playing imaginatively with double-exposure, the picture dives head first into the power of its landscapes, the barren valleys of 19th century Tierra del Fuego, placing the viewer in the middle of a decadent purgatory of colonizing excesses, unfulfilled desires and manipulation of reality. The main merit of these works lies in how they create novel cinematic languages that respond to their singular preoccupations; a fresh perspective that builds from what the region’s most important movements of subversion laid out as foundation.  

Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017)

Not all attempts at vindication in Latin American Cinema come close, or even try, to be as transgressive of an experience, though. In line with the more journalistic heritage of documentary exposé, plenty of features from the region opt for the pamphleteer. Those are the Faculty of Social Sciences’ greatest hits of lecturing cinema; capital ‘I’ Issue movies that often don’t stray far away from the miserabilist machinations of porno miseria. ‘Global Cinema’ selection Canción sin nombre (2019) from Peruvian director Melina León is one of these works whose staying power gets diluted by how much it tries to address. Its black & white photography and 4:3 aspect ratio draw a pristine sketch of 1980’s Lima and its sociopolitical chaos, but the narrative gets lost between thematic layers that range from discussing homosexuality as taboo, indigenous discrimination, corruption of bureaucracy, and going as far as uncovering an organized web of child abductions.  

In order to avoid these overbearing limitations, and also the usual solemnity of ‘denounce movies’, it’s becoming more and more common to see Latin films delve into genre. So has been the case since Agarrando Pueblo’s Luis Ospina made a vampire flick with Pura Sangre (1982), and an uptick in recent years has sparked thanks to works like Amat Escalante’s Zuwalskian sex-alien pictureLa región salvaje (2016) and lesbian werewolf movie As Boas Maneiras (2017) from Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra. More than just importing creatures from Western lore and sci-fi tropes to tropical contexts, these works profit from the symbolic power of otherworldliness to explore issues of class, race, violence, religion and history, and at the same time do it in a playful manner that eschews easy-readings and subverts preconceived borders between arthouse and lowbrow. Within Ghent’s Official Selection, Divino Amor (2019) and La llorona (2019) are accomplished instances of this tendency.  

Divino Amor (Gabriel Mascaro, 2019)

The first sees emerging Brazilian talent Gabriel Mascaro’s (Ventos de Agosto, Boi Neon) up the ante amidst his country’s reality of ultra-conservatives in power, proposing a future where theocratic dystopia reigns supreme and sex is transformed into a control measure for preserving the ‘good’ values; as usual with his contemplative style, long takes of neon tinted intercourse and mundane chores are given equal importance. The second film is acclaimed Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s final entry into his trilogy of historically misrepresented groups in Central America (after 2015’s Ixcanul and, earlier this year, Temblores), a film that also dialogues with recent events and creates a fictionalized version of dictator Efraín Ríos-Montt’s trial for genocide, in which the unrest of historical memory is translated through local folklore into an ethereal horror haunting.  

The relationship the region has with fabulism is a secret to none that has opened one of the canonical novels of García Márques and Borges, however, the ways the moving image interprets that bond goes beyond the argumentative to focus instead on atmosphere. Here is where ethnography and mysticism go hand in hand, erasing the boundaries between fact and fiction, and letting make-believe reign supreme. As it happens, the marked cultural specificity and closeness in tone to Asian slow cinema makes this strand one of the less profitable in terms of hype, yet works like Andrea Bussman’s Fausto (2018) and Eduardo William’s El auge del humano (2016) have found their way to minor cult status. Considerably less experimental, but in the same artistic vein is Ceniza Negra (2019), first feature from Costa Rican director Sofía Quirós. Traversing a dangerously thin line between exotism and fly-on-the-wall observation of customs, this faintly surreal coming-of-age story distinguishes itself by the genuine sense of wonder it conveys in relation to its setting in the Caribbean jungle.  

truly diverse assortment of work, Film Fest Gent’s Latin American cinematic representation shows the ongoing dialectic between innovative forms and the molds they’re usually asked to fit. The region’s chaotic diversity is seamlessly exemplified by a selection of works that goes from the daring to the sterile, simultaneously subverting and pleasing hierarchical aesthetic templates. As more left-field leaning showcases like Locarno Film Festival and Mexico’s FICUNAM make a valiant effort to exhibit the evolution of these disruptive explorations, traditional events keep a foot in the door trying to not alienate its attendants; but even if for just one tiny moment the foundations of Western complacency are shaken, Latin American cinema can still be confident that the ongoing cultural battle it refuses to surrender is one worth fighting for.