Fighting Against a Tidal Wave

It is a source of profound disgust for me that Americans are so parochial when it comes to the arts. Of the approximately 300,000 books published in the United States every year, three percent are works in translation. No, that is not a typo or an error. Three percent. Maybe the answer to the question "Why do they hate us?" is that they hate us because we don't give a shit about anyone but ourselves.

As bad as the situation is in publishing, it is a thousand times worse in film and television, in part because it is so expensive to work in those fields. Even a cursory glance at box-office returns outside the U.S. will show that the overwhelming number of top-grossing films in the world are major-studio product from here. How can anyone stand up to the marketing/advertising/ distribution juggernaut that is Hollywood? It's like trying to stand off a tsunami.

Yet filmmakers around the world try every day.

I am reminded of this fact almost every time I sit down to write about film, in part because I have tried -- in this blog and in my print work -- to give more attention to non-mainstream films, to documentaries, foreign films and American indies.

And every so often, actually fairly frequently because I'm in New York and not someplace else in the U.S., an event comes along whose specific purpose is to give voice to those all-but-silenced filmmakers. A perfect example is the new series at the Museum of Modern Art, Iberoamerica: That's the Way We Are, which runs from November 14-30. The series is a small tribute to Ibermedia, an intergovernmental organization now celebrating its tenth anniversary, which is designed to support filmmakers in hispanophone and lusophone countries in the most concrete ways. In just one decade, Ibermedia has made possible the creation of over 300 films, facilitating and financing co-productions from its member countries, which now number 17.

MoMA and Instituto Cervantes held a press conference earlier this week involving seven of the filmmakers represented in the series as well as representatives of the two organizing groups and the executive director of Ibermedia, Elena Vilardell. Over and over the filmmakers struck the same note, best summed up by Esteban Schroeder: "We are trying to recover the Latin American cinema tradition so that we can tell our stories ourselves."

Schroeder is an Uruguayan filmmaker whose debut film, Matar a todos (Kill Them All). is a political thriller about a kidnapping engineered by supporters of Pinochet and an Uruguayan prosecutor (Roxana Blanco) who investigates it. The film is typical of Ibermedia at work; it is a co-production involving Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, with a serious subject that resonates in all three of those countries. As he noted on Wednesday, "It was important for us to integrate our efforts [across national borders] in order to find a common space for our audiences. Sharing distribution is a means to combat the dominance of American film in our cinemas."

Most of the films in the series are by younger filmmakers, and, in the case of Schroeder and several others, come from younger film industries like Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela. The two names that will be most familiar to serious film students are both old-timers from two of the oldest film cultures in Latin America, Mexico's Arturo Ripstein and Argentina's Fernando Solanas. Yet each of them offers a vibrant and radical vision.

Ripstein, who was an assistant to Bunuel 45 years ago, is represented in the series by his 2000 film, Asi es la vida (Such Is Life). One of his first excursions into video production, it is a modern-day reworking of Seneca's Medea, set in a Mexico City slum. Ripstein uses the lightweight video equipment brilliantly to give us a film made entirely in sequence shots with a constantly prowling camera that emphasizes the claustrophobia of his sets and the hyper-melodramatic nature of the colliding forces of Julia, a curandera whose partner, a failed boxer named Nicolas, is leaving her for the younger and more prosperous Raquel. The film is unmistakably both an homage to and a parody of the telenovela with its outsized emotions and convoluted plots. Ripstein brings to the table wild changes in register, from the quasi-religious to the poetic to shrieking and obscene invective. He also makes brilliant and frequently hilarious use of the television as a Greek chorus. The result trades the precision and polish of his best films like Profundi carmesi (Deep Crimson) for the rough-and-ready high-energy of a seemingly improvised work. Asi es la vida suggests one way forward for young filmmakers, which is only appropriate, since Ripstein himself is a mere 64.

Fernando Solanas is 71, but he obviously has neither mellowed nor beat his cinematic sword into an "entertainment" ploughshare in the nearly 40 years since his most famous work, Hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces). The Solanas film in the MoMA/Instituto Cervantes series, La dignidad de los nadies (The Dignity of the Nobodies), is a bit less openly manipulative than that classic piece of cinema engage, but in its chronicle of ten unsung heroes of the Argentine struggle against the neo-liberal policies that shattered the nation's economy at the beginning of this decade, it is no less committed. Solanas still has his trademark staccato rhythms and the whirlwind mixture of news footage, printed word and his own documentary footage, but La dignidad is more universal in both its theme and its appeal, a spirited attempt to show the "nobodies" whose everyday struggle just to live should be at the heart of any progressive politics. At one point early in the film, protestors chant, "If we aren't the people, where are they?" And several of his almost anonymous heroes are searching for new forms of representative government, new cooperative efforts that will allow them to improve their lives in spite of a government that willfully ignores the poor and the working class.

In a sense, La dignidad is a perfect film to speak for the festival itself. After all, what is Ibermedia but an attempt by the so-called have-not film industries to forge new methods of financing and distribution that will allow them to survive to make more movies, movies that speak in the voices of and on behalf of those who are silenced by their lack of access to mass media? At a time when mainstream American filmmakers have completely stopped making movies about people who work for a living -- unless they are serial killers, cops or supermodels -- what could be a more important basis for fighting against the tidal wave of multinational companies that utterly dominate the movie and TV screens of the world?

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This might be a propitious time to note that this is my 100th post of the year. The subject matter seems particularly apposite. Needless to say, the good people of Ibermedia and the Museum of Modern Art and Instituto Cervantes (which does a lot of excellent film programming, by the way) are doing exactly the kind of work that I believe in, helping bring marginalized works and creators to a larger audience. Of course, their efforts are meaningless if people don't attend. I strongly urge you to support cultural institutions that supply a platform for original, independent and oppositional artworks -- not just the three named in this post (and yes, I know that MoMA and the Instituto are hardly "oppositional" in their intent, but they frequently showcase work that is) -- but the whole range of such bodies. Some of them can be found in the links on this page and the links on those pages. But you should be seeking them out yourself. And if you find ones that I haven't mentioned over the nearly two years of this blog, please feel free to let me know.


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