Meet the directors, too
Here’s an only-in-Houston conjunction of art and commerce: Rather than being dreamed and willed into being by a cinephile, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Latin Wave festival of Latin American films is the brainchild of two international corporations, Tenaris, an oil field services company, and steel giant Ternium.
They both belong to an Argentine holding company which contracted with a Buenos Aires contemporary arts museum, Proa, to spearhead its worldwide cultural outreach program.
Both companies have large offices in Houston, so they asked Proa director Guillermo Goldschmidt to develop cultural activities here. Goldschmitt was attracted by the MFAH’s strong Latin American arts programming, so he approached the museum about beginning a film festival. “Tenaris and Ternium saw film as a good way to communicate about the various cultures of Latin America,” he says.
The MFAH agreed, and five years ago the festival began, programmed by Colombia native Monika Wagenberg. Since then, Latin Wave has grown in importance on the Houston film calendar. This year's edition opens Thursday, with three screenings (including one at the Rice Media Center), and continues through Sunday.
MFAH Film and Video curator Marian Luntz attributes the festival’s success to Wagenberg’s informed and passionate programming. Wagenberg programs Latin American films for festivals ranging from Miami’s Cinema Tropical, the New York Latin American Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival, and, last but decidedly not least, the venerable Cartagena (Colombia) Film Festival, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Latin Wave mainly lands films that are making the international festival circuit, but which are not widely available, or even known, here. For example, the truly great Mexican film Silent Light screened here in 2007, but appeared on very few other U.S. screens. As selected by Wagenberg, all the films are of high cinematic quality, and all are making their Houston debut. Directors often accompany their films, and the whole thing kicks off with a great party.
This year’s lineup looks strong. A partial list includes Uruguyan director Adrian Biniez’s Gigante, which generated considerable buzz in Toronto and Berlin. Mexican director Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar is “hot on the film circuit” right now, according to Luntz. The Brazilian film Jean Charles tells the tragic story of the Brazilian immigrant to London who was mistakenly killed by police there after the terrorist attack on the subway.
Obviously, Wagenberg has her finger on the pulse of Latin American film, which has soared in both quality and international recognition in recent years, in a renaissance that began when the Argentine government offered financial incentives to filmmakers. That country’s film industry took off to the point that now some 100 features are made there each year, a semi-astonishing number.
This year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film was Argentina’s The Secret of Their Eyes. Other governments have since followed Argentina’s lead, and camera crews are turning up all over the continent.
Wagenberg normally shows 25 or so films at the other festivals she programs. But because Latin Wave is so concentrated — eight films in four days — Wagenberg is able to edit her list so that the MFAH gets “the best of the best,” in her words.
Houston audiences have responded. “The audiences are very diverse, active, and enthusiastic,” Wagenberg says. “It’s very rewarding for the filmmakers and for me.”
She adds that the directors are always surprised to see how diverse Houston is, and that when she takes them on a whirlwind cultural tour, “the art [in Houston] is amazing for them, as it was for me the first time.”
She says she can’t pick a favorite from this year’s films, but she does note a trend that they share. “The setting is a lead character [in several of the films],” she says. That is, several of the films bring to life corners of the world that have seldom been seen in film, such as the beautifully photographed Peruvian fishing village in Undertow, and the harsh Brazilian outback in I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You.
Though she doesn’t name a personal favorite among the films, Wagenberg talks more about Argentina’s Historias Extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories) than the others. Latin American film has tended toward the intimate, she says, but Extraordinary Stories is a four-and-a-half hour epic narrative “with not one minute of excess.”