The best of Latin American cinema: A newbie's guide to the Latin Wave filmfestival
My son is blogging in Spanish from Argentina and I recently moved down the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This year might be the one that I actually show up for Latin Wave: New Films from Latin America Thursday through Sunday. I've always meant to go; I heard the party was a blast.
This year, that's gone, but the lineup looks delicious.
I know that because I've watched every trailer. Several film artists will be in attendance for a Q & A, including Santiago Mitre, director of El Estudiante (The Student), Cristián Jiménez, director of Bonsai, Carlos Osuna, director of Gordo, calvo y bajito (Fat, Bald, Short Man) and Katerina D'Onofrio Dibos, the actress in Las Malas Intenciones (Bad Intentions).
CultureMap: What do I need to know as a total Latin Wave newbie? Can you give me a flash history of the festival?
Marian Luntz: Latin Wave was created to offer Houstonians an annual showcase of the talented and diverse filmmaking renaissance happening in Latin America. It's a nice complement to how the visual arts of Latin America are celebrated by the museum’s Department of Latin American Art and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA).
Monika Wagenberg: Seven years ago, the MFA, in collaboration with la Fundación Proa in Argentina, began Latin Wave as way of introducing Houston to contemporary films from Latin America, a region whose cinema was experiencing a period of growth and rejuvenation. Over the years, we have brought not only some of the most important films of an unprecedented decade of Latin American cinema but also many of the filmmakers behind these works.
Many of the films that we have programmed, although having participated in and won important awards at the most prestigious International Film Festivals, are not able to secure wide commercial distribution in the USA and, consequently, Latin Wave becomes the only opportunity to enjoy them on the wide screen.
CM: How did Monika Wagenberg get involved curating the MFAH festival?
ML: In order to assure the strongest selection of films and guests, we sought out a highly-regarded professional with experience and contacts in the field. Monika was the obvious choice.
MW: As co-founder and co-director of Cinema Tropical, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes Latin American Cinema in the U.S., I had been in conversations with La Fundación Proa and the MFA, separately, about different options for collaboration. A fortunate coincidence occurred in 2004 when La Fundación Proa, with whom Cinema Tropical had collaborated in 2001 in the U.S. theatrical release of the Argentine movie, Bolivia,informed me that they were thinking of working with the MFA.
It was a moment of great serendipity, as Marian and I had been in conversation for years about how to bring the Latin American films Cinema Tropical was representing to Houston.
CM: In looking at the trailers, it seems some of these movies may be playing at the mexaplex in their respective countries. I am not sure the term "mainstream" vs. "indie" has the same meaning as here, but how would you describe the mix?
MW: In the U.S., any cinema that is subtitled is immediately designated as art or independent cinema. Americans, unfortunately, are less and less inclined to read subtitles (in the '70s, 10 percent of all commercial releases were subtitled, as opposed to less than one percent today) and consequently, the possibility of having a foreign language film with a wide commercial release in multiplexes is virtually impossible (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which grossed more than $120 million, was an exception).
Yes, we do bring films that are commercial and box office hits at home, as is the case this year with Miss Bala and Las Malas Intenciones, but Miss Bala had a limited release in the U.S. and Las Malas Intencioneshasn't secured a commercial release here.
CM: What kinds of trends are you seeing?
MW: The rejuvenation in Latin American film began in Argentina at the end of the '90s with a new generation of filmmakers producing a number of groundbreaking low-budget films, which rapidly propelled Argentine cinema into the spotlight. Characterized by the use of non-professional actors, often shot in black and white, and making use of intimate, dynamic, hand-held camera techniques, a number of these films emerged in rapid succession over the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the term “New Argentine Cinema” was coined.
One of the most noticeable trends was that these films shared a dramatic break from the past, which had been characterized by the epic and often heavy-handed political cinema movement of the 1960s and 1970s and embraced a fresh, new approach to film-making, characterized by intimate, personal, auteur-driven perspectives.
Subsequently, there has been a "trickle up" effect in the region, as innovations in Argentine cinema began to expand to many of the other Latin American countries. Some of these trends include breaking with the past and engaging with the real, the present, and the contemporary, dissolving lines between fiction and documentary, often using non-professional actors, intimate, personal and author-driven stories, showing without judging, and thereby generating open-ended, "contemplative" films, predominance of character-driven stories, dealing with themes such as broken families, alienation, the domestic and feminine world, complex characters with uncertain identities, austerity in style, and the practice of rigor and control.
CM: The one thing I know about Latin American culture is the devotion to literature and the power of the written word. How does that play out in this festival?
MW: In this particular edition, we've included a film that reflects upon the power of the written word and celebrates literature like no other Latin American film has in recent memory. A highly recommended film for lovers of literature, storytelling and the intersection between literature and film, Bonsaishould be at the top of your list. Based on the successful novella by Alejandro Zambra, Cristián Jimenez's charming film astonishes for its originality and unique take without being completely faithful to Zambra's work.
CM: I'm not the only one doing a first time thing, five out of the eight films are “operas primas” as in first films. Just a great year for new filmmakers or something else?
MW: If you look at the past editions of Latin Wave, you'll see that they favor operas primas. This is a reflection of the strength and vibrancy of the cinema in the region. Several of the filmmakers that came to Latin Wave with their first films have gone on to direct successful second films (and have returned to Houston with them, including directors Macelo Gomes and Sebastián Silva) and many are into their third ones currently.
The success of first-time filmmakers is the product of a number of Latin American countries having taken active steps to nurture their domestic cinema, with countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela embracing government incentive programs, new laws designed to channel money into local production, and the proliferation of film schools, thereby fostering the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers.
This year’s Latin Wave program, with a significant representation of first time filmmakers, bears witness to the success of these initiatives.
CM: Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala feels like a blockbuster thriller, except without Tom Cruise or Matt Damon. I forget that those exist outside of our boundaries. What drew you to this film?
ML:Miss Bala is among the most talked-about Mexican films of the past year, with two celebrated Mexican actors who are both stars in their own rights – Gael Garcia Bernal (now on television in a Gillette razor commercial!) and Diego Luna — as executive producers.
Following its premiere at Cannes and screenings at high profile festivals such as Toronto and New York, it was the topic of discussion in the national media including NPR and The New York Times. People kept asking me whether it would come to Latin Wave. Then, many Houstonians (myself included) missed it during its brief commercial run in Houston, and so it seemed important for Latin Wave to offer more opportunities to see it.
MW: The topic of drug violence in Mexican (and Colombian) cinema is prolific, and it's a rare event to find a fresh treatment of the subject. Naranjo, one of the most talented Mexican filmmakers of his generation, picks the point of view of an unlikely heroine, a beauty pageant contestant, to narrate the deadly chaos affecting Mexico today, with with sharp eye and incisive perspective. Although the film utilizes a populist and accessible genre, its perspective is not light entertainment.
CM: When I was little we used to dig holes in the sand hoping to make it to China. We never did, but Victor Kossakovsky did in his film¡Vivan las Antípodas!, which explores four pairs of antipodes (places that are on the exact opposite side of the planet from each other).
MW: Yes, and if there is one film you should not miss it's this one. It will remind you that sometimes it's much better to see the world through the eyes of talented filmmakers than your own! As we wrote in the description of this film, this ¡Vivan las Antipodas! may be the most visually ravishing film you will ever see. And it must be seen on the wide screen, an opportunity that will probably only happen twice in Houston (the weekend of Latin Wave).
CM: Festivals give us a chance to hear the director speak about his/her process. Why should we stay for the Q & A?
ML: Experiencing the Q&A and asking questions is one of the best ways to offer a warm Houston welcome to the delegation coming to Houston for Latin Wave. All of the guests will also be available to speak with one-on-one throughout the weekend. I say to everyone: Don’t be shy!
Watch the trailer for El ESTUDIANTE (The Student)
Trailer for Los Acacias