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Neruda – poetry – Chile.

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda is an internationally funded film with investment from Chile, Argentina, France, Spain and the USA. The credits offer a long list of production companies including Fabula, which has produced all of the films by Larrain, together with a number of commercial companies and also a number of state funding institutions. As a recognised ‘auteur’ one expects that Larrain has a degree of latitude in his work but that also the pitch for the film will have had to satisfy these varied interests.

The film has taken about $900,00 in the USA. Its opening weekend was limited to three screens. In Italy 73 screens. In Britain it has had a limited national release taking the equivalent of $50,000. To date the worldwide box office is equivalent to $1.500,000.

The film enjoyed a slot in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ at the Cannes Film Festival. it was also nominated by Chile for the Best Foreign Language film at the Aacademy Awards. Responses by critics in the UK have been generally positive. Maria Delgado praised the film and offered an interesting commentary in the May Sight & Sound. However, what has been overlooked by many is that this is the second film about the poet Pablo Neruda produced in Chile in just two years. The other, written and directed by Manuel Basoalto, has the same title. Moreover, it appears to dramatise a similar period in the life of the poet. However, this version has not enjoyed a release outside of Latin America, so the chances of seeing it soon are slim.

Both films focus on events in and around 1948. This includes Neruda’s role as a Senator in the Upper Chamber of Chile’s National Congress. Threatened with arrest Neruda, with the assistance of the Communist Party of Chile (Partido Comunista de Chile) of which he was a member, went into hiding. Later he managed to escape across the border into Argentina and then into exile in Paris. In this period he composed one of his most famous works, ‘Canto General’. The 2014 Neruda presents this narrative as flashbacks by Neruda when he received the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. The 2016 version has a rather different approach which I will discuss below.

First though it is worth placing the film in the overall output of Pablo Larrain. He work includes producing, directing, and scriptwriting for both film and television. But the key works would seem to be the series of fictional feature films that he has made since 2006.

The first was Fuga (2006) which I have not seen. Larrain both co-scripted the film with Mateo Iribarren and directed. it is apparently set in the Chilean city of Valparaiso and concerns music and insanity, [Ken Russell territory].

Then came Tony Manero (2008). Larrain contributed to the script by Alfredo Castro;  Mateo Iribarren also scripted the film and worked as camera operator. The film takes place in Santiago and the main character is Raúl Peralta  (Alfredo Castro).  Raul is an odd character. He is obsessed with the character of Tony Manero, played by John  Travolta, in the film Saturday Night Fever (USA 1977). At one point he performs an impersonation for a television ‘opportunity knocks’ show. However, the focus of the film is in Raul’s life in a shanty town. We are in the period of the Chilean Junta and its leader Augusto Pinochet. The repression and the secret police are here and two other would-be performers are also involved in secret opposition to the regime. Raul emerges as a really nasty character, it is difficult to think of equivalent unsavoury types outside of depictions of fascism . He exploits everyone around him in his pursuits of his obsession. He abuses women, steals including from corpses and commit murder.  The film is shot like a noir thriller. The cinematography is by Sergio Armstrong, who films the majority of Larrain’s work. The chiaroscuro adds to the unsettling feel of this dark and disturbing world.

Larrain’s third feature is Post Mortem (2010). This time the script is by  Eliseo Altunaga with contributions from  Mateo Iribarren  and Larrain. This film is set in the last days of the Presidency of Salvador Allende and the military coup. The protagonist, Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro) works in a morgue. The object of his fantasy, Nancy Puelma (Antonio Zegers ) a burlesque dancer, disappears in the crackdown. In as obsessive a manner as Raul Mario commences a search for her.

Tony Manero and Post Mortem are reckoned to form a trilogy with Larrain’s next film No (2012): all films being set in a Chile ruled by the military Junta. In 1988 Pinochet called a referendum on his role as President, a National Plebiscite. A coalition of opposition parties organised an advertising campaign to call for a ‘No’ vote. The Pinochet regime, under pressure from International forces, allowed equal access to the media for its supporters and the oppositional; the latter included liberal and left parties including the Communist Party of Chile. However, the other factors in this event were the increasing opposition by the working class. The control by the Junta at the end of the 1980s was shaky to say the least.

No focuses on the Advertising Campaign organised by a coalition of opposition forces and the story centres round the advertising expert bought it to run the campaign, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal). In the film Rene is shown as persuading the political leaders to focus the campaign on a positive stance, epitomised by the slogan “happiness is coming” to challenge concerns about the dangers or irrelevance of voting. The audience see short films that display the brutality of the regime but these are not included in the campaign. Those used  looks suspiciously like the standard fare on the medium in the period. One shows a happy family on a picnic. There is a note of irony, since the baguette amongst the food is an anachronism as one character point out. But it is the ‘happiness’ theme that dominates and appears to convince the voters.

Whilst the film includes footage of the repression by the regime there is no representation of the organised resistance of the period. And the adverts that dominate the story deliberately avoid political statements and slogans. The narrative is also dominated by Bernal’s Rene. The personal drama in the film is very much his. This does include a partner who is strongly critical of the approach taken in the campaign, but Bernal dominates in screen time and drama. In this way the films follows the tropes of star power in telling the story. And indeed the tropes of the advertising industry seem to dominate the film visually. Notably Larrain and his cinematographer recreated the adverts, including their academy ratio, by using an old and now redundant video system.

The Club / El club (Chile 2015) is set in a coastal retreat for priest suspended for misdeeds which include paedophilia and removing babies form unwed mothers. The film follows the conflicting relationships among these ne-er -do-wells. An important part of the plot is their interest in dog racing and the associated betting. This film has a similar noir look to Tony Manero and the actions of the protagonists are equally unpleasant. One senses that the film offers metaphor for the amnesia over past crimes in Chile, but this is not spelt out explicitly.

Jackie (2016) is a co-production involving the USA, Fox-Searchlight. The script is by a US-based writer, Noah Oppenheim, who has previously worked for US television. The leading players are all Hollywood actors. It would appear that Larrain directed this project because of his increasing international stature: it may also be that the expertise with old-style .1.37:7 framing was a factor, as this film also uses that ratio to recreate the famous CBS programme hosted by the protagonist of the film, Jackie Kennedy, i.e. the wife of the famous and mythologized US President John F. Kennedy.

The film opens on an interview given by the now widowed Jackie Kennedy to an unidentified reporter. She recounts the events in Dallas and the subsequent preparations and funeral of her dead husband. This involves frequent flashbacks but also extracts from the CBS Programme, a tour of the White House with the ‘First Lady’. The recreation of the actual moment of assassination and the subsequent traumatic experience for the surviving Jackie is done with expertise and real drama. I did wonder about how accurate it was. When the Air Force I returns to Washington with the corpse of the dead President Jackie is shown still wearing the blood-spattered pink suit; this seems to be accurate. But she also, at this point, wipes the specks of blood from her face, which I found unlikely.

The film focuses on Jackie’s trauma and her resistance to the manipulation of the new President Lyndon B. Johnson and the White House apparatchiks. The main sympathetic person is Kennedy’s surviving brother Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard), her companion Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) and her Roman Catholic confessor (John Hurt). Her resilience and steely determination is impressive. But, rather like No, this is a one-sided portrayal. There is a lack of critical treatment in the echoes of the Kennedy legend. The film uses the title song from the stage musical ‘Camelot’, but with an apparent lack of irony. it rather reminded me of the parallel uncritical representations when the British royal member Diana passed on.

So we come to Neruda (Chile Argentina, France, Spain, USA 2016). Rather like Tony Manero or The Club this is not predominately a film about events and characters in the history of Chile. There are more well known historical figures in this film than in those. And the plot of the film features the series of events involving Neruda that are well known. But these struck me as surface gloss. The deep focus of the film is the relationship between the poet and the policeman who is trying to catch him, Gael García Bernal as Oscar Peluchonneau.

The film is introduced by the voice of Peluchonneau [though he is only identified later] as the audience are shown Neruda’s situation; A Senator who is in conflict with his peers; who is a trenchant critic of the President, whom he once supported; and a literary darling with connections to the Communist Party. Peluchonneau provides a commentary on the characters and the actions. We see him meet President Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro bringing overtones of earlier films) and hear his scathing comments on Videla as a puppet of US interests. This explains the anti-communist policy of the Government and Neruda’s volte face on the President. But in a nihilistic fashion Peluchonneau is equally scathing on the Communist Party and on Neruda himself, who he sees as a political dilettante.

The portrait of Neruda accompanies a party at his villa where Neruda dresses up in Arab garb [as Lawrence of Arabia] and recites lines from one of his most famous poems:

“Tonight I can write the saddest lines.” (From ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair).

This line recurs a number of times in the film suggesting an artist resting on his earlier laurels. We also meet Neruda’s second wife, Mercedes Morán as Delia del Carril, a painter and a bourgeois. Neruda himself came from a lower class family; his father was a railway employee and his mother a teacher.

The bulk of the film is concerned with Neruda going into hiding after learning he is to be arrested and then his journey into exile. In this he assisted by friends and by members of the Communist Party. The latter is also declared illegal by the President. The film cuts between Neruda in hiding and Peluchonneau on his trail., This is not a exciting cat and mouse pursuit, more a playful game between the two protagonists. Neruda constantly leaves copies of paperback thrillers for the policeman to find, with clues included in the volumes. Peluchonneau either fails to decode these clues or does so too slowly. After a failed attempt to leave by sea Neruda sets off across the border mountains to Argentina. It is in the high snowy wastes that the policeman finally catches up with both his quarry and his nemesis. However, by this stage it is clear that the detective is actually a creation of Neruda’s imagination; a way of dramatising his journey into exile.

It is also clear by this stage that the film is less a study in Chilean history or a study of a national poet. It seems that Larrain has described the film as an ‘anti-biopic’. This is a fanciful creation that allows the filmmaker to explore the mythologizing impulse found in the earlier ‘Jackie’ in the context of his native land. As with No the film appears more concerned with the conceits of the nominal hero than with the actual context for the character and his actions.

At one point we see a shot of a desert-based prison/torture camp for working class militants presided over by one Augusto Pinochet. The camp was reused after the 1973 military coup. And the actual flight of Neruda appears to stick to that recorded in Neruda’s ‘Memoirs’ (‘Confieso que he vivido: Memorias’ Translated by Hardie St. Martin, 1976).

“I moved from house to house, every day. Dozens opened to receive me everywhere. It was always people I did not know, who had somehow expressed their wish to put me up for a few days. They wanted to offer me asylum even if only for a few hours, or for weeks. I passed through fields, ports, cities, camps, and was in the homes of peasants, engineers,, lawyers, seamen, doctors, miners.”

The film does condense this journey but it also includes actual events in its key moments. This included the meeting with and protection by the capitalist/owner of the land in which he is secured.

“A man who was both mature and youngish, with graying hair and set features, got out of the jeep with my friend Bellet. The first thing he said was that, from then on, he would be responsible for my safety. Under those circumstances, no one would dare try anything against me.”

There follows Neruda’s account of crossing the Southern Andes, through the high level snow and own into Argentina.

However Neruda does not record a meeting in the snow with his police nemesis, or indeed any of the police and security people searching for him. This is Lorrain’s invention. A sort of double with whom Neruda can play out a game of ‘hide and seek’. Games would seem to be a central pre-occupation in the film: witness the play with the paper-back thrillers. So rather than a political conflict this becomes a puzzle which the protagonists, and the audience, are invited to solve. This seems to be an increasing tendency in Larrain’s output, and one which is discernible in his earlier films. So Tony Manero is constructed around the television talent show that Tony enters. No is about television advertising, rather than advertising in general. The Club has a focus on dog racing and betting. And Jackie is taken up with television. Rather as if Larrain actually believes Marshall McLuhan’s’s claim

‘the median is the message.’

A rather different approach to the political history of Chile is found in the films of Patricio Guzmán. His most famous work remains the epic trilogy La Batalla de Chile: La insurrección de la burguesía (1975), La Batalla de Chile: El golpe de estado (1977), La Batalla de Chile: El poder popular (1979). But Guzmán has continued his film work and since the end of the Junta he has been able to work in Chile once again. His two most recent films offer an engagement and analysis with the politics and history of Chile and offer this through the medium of cinematic poetry.

Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la luz (Chile, France, Spain, Germany, USA 2010) is a documentary set mainly in the Atacama desert. The film presents astronomers using telescopes to search the heavens above and enjoying the clarity that the dry desert environment offers for these observations. Counterposed nearby are women who search the desert for remains of their loved ones, victims of the military junta who were murdered under the Pinochet regime. An old mining camp was turned into a prison; after execution the bodies were buried then un-interred so that the remains could be scattered, wasting the evidence.  Guzmán combines personal history, archive material, interviews, sequences showing the women searching and the astronomers observing and fills in the ‘back stories’ of these. The film also references his earlier work: indeed the Atacama desert featured in his epic The Battle of Chile and in the more recent film The Pinochet Case  (France, Chile, Belgium, Spain 20011).

In an interview in Sight & Sound (August 2012)  Guzmán explains some of the combination in the film:

“But in Nostalgia there is, of course, an element of philosophical reflection on the relationship between human life and the life of the cosmos, on human memory and the memory of the stars, of infinity. It’s a film about the past, a demonstration that the most important thing in life is the past, because the whole territory of the past is fundamental for people and the future. In as much as we are human beings, we are the inheritors of generation upon generation going back to pre-history, and the matter of our bodies is the matter of the stars.”

Guzman also explains that the film is not a typical documentary, but falls somewhere between a documentary film and film essay: [shades of Chris Marker]. It certainly has the poetry often found in essays. The author translating records and testimonies into artistic expressions that heighten the content. The filmmaker also explained that he had problems getting funding, partly because potential investors found the proposed film difficult to comprehend:

“Yes. Everyone said to me, “Mr Guzman, what are you doing here? It’s a melange of anthropology, archaeology, cosmology and human rights. What is it?”

I did think that the film stretched its use of metaphor, especially astronomy, too far: the relationship between the two main subjects at times challenged the viewer to make the connection. However it remains a powerful and moving study. Unfortunately, despite strong critical comment, the film has struggled to reach substantial audiences. In the UK the DVD issue was in 2011 but a cinematic  release only happened in 2012.

Guzman’s most recent release seems to me to provide the metaphor that illuminates the history, the events and the testimonies offered. The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar (France, Spain, Chile, Switzerland 2015) presents the long ocean border of Chile and, in particular, the southern extremities where an archipelago with vast amounts of water occupies much of Patagonia. In these seascapes and landscapes the film examines the history and focuses especially on the exploitation and oppression of the indigenous peoples: [Kawésqar, Selk’nam, Aoniken, Hausch and Yáman] by C19th European colonialists. To this are added yet more victims of the Pinochet regime who were murdered in the region and in many cases their bodies were dumped in the sea. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is a relic of one of these victims found in the sea.

There are clearly parallels between this film and Nostalgia for the Light, but there is also a not just distinctive histories but a distinctive metaphor. In the same interview Guzmán explained his plan for a ‘diptych’ which became The Pearl Button:

“The sea is a kind of planet within our planet, which preserves memory, which is interesting because water arrived from space; comets brought it. It was probable that life came from beyond the earth, which is fascinating. It’s a possibility, it’s not proved scientifically, but many astrophysicists are thinking about the possibility that life could have come from somewhere beyond the earth. We’re very close to proving this with planet sections. I think it’s a magnificent subject to treat, the earth’s memory. And because Chile has many huge coastlines I’ll no doubt shoot it there.”

The two films are linked as opening shots of the Atacama desert lead to the coastline; following this down the film arrives at the Patagonia, a immense but sparsely populated territory of water, islands, mountains and glaciers. As with Nostalgia for the Light the images presented  are beautifully shot and framed. The archive material fills out the ‘back story’ of the region . And the editing relates the two murderous crimes of the ruling classes together and to the land, to the sea and to the peoples. Again this is a powerful and moving film and the aptness of the main metaphors offers an illumination rare among documentaries.

The period covered in Larrain’s Neruda is when  the poet was writing a long poem, ‘Canto general’ (1950). This includes

‘El Fugitivo X!!’, ‘To everyone, to you’.

The last stanza runs,

“To all and everyone

to all I don’t know, who’ll never

hear this name,  to those who live

along our long rivers

at the foot of volcanoes, in the sulphuric

copper shadow, to fishermen and peasants

to blue indians on the shore

of lakes sparkling like glass,

to the shoemaker who at this moment questions,

nailing leather with ancient hands,

to you, to whomever without knowing it has waited for

me,

I belong and recognise and sing.”

(From ‘The Essential Neruda Selected Poems’ Edited by Mark Eisner with English translations).

This seems to refer to Neruda’s journey as he flees the repressive arm of the Chilean state. It is far removed from the representation in Lorrain’s film. However, Guzmán’s films addresses the very people who Neruda was addressing; Indians, peasants, workers like shoemakers and fishermen. There is a a compatibility between the politics in Neruda’s poem and Guzmán’s films. Whereas there is an incommensurability between that of Larrain and Neruda. Larrain’s films fall within the ‘first alternative’ described by Solanos and Getino in ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, ‘author’s cinema’:

‘a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the film-maker be free to express himself in n nonstandard language and inasmuch as it was a step at cultural decolonisation.”

They go on to point out that;

“such attempts have already reached, or about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits.”

I would add that it is debatable how far Larrain’s film expresses ‘cultural decolonisation’. There are passing references to the reactionary Chilean state, and indeed to Pinochet and the military. But the film, like especially ‘No’, foregrounds the dominant global values rather than specific values of Chile and resistance. Guzmán’s films on the other hand fir the ‘real alternative’ cited by Solanos and Getino.

“making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight the System”

Hence Lorrain’s films seem to find funding relatively straightforward and they enjoy a wider and fuller distribution in a world system that is tailored as representing capital and commodities. I have not found the returns for Guzmán’s films, but then box office receipts are not an apt valuation of these art works.

 

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Posted in Auteur cinema, Latin American film, Political cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

No, Chile, France, USA, Mexico 2011

Posted by keith1942 on June 18, 2017

This commentary was originally posted on ITP World. I have reposted it her with some of the comments that followed. I want to write about Pablo Larrain’s new film Neruda and this film is part of the context.

Like the Chilean director’s earlier films, No is set during the military dictatorship presided over by General Pinochet. We are right at the end when the Junta bowed to both internal and international pressure and organised a National Plebiscite/Referendum. To the surprise of the military, observers and many Chileans it lost this plebiscite. An important factor was the campaign, fronted by fifteen minutes daily on national television, to vote ‘No’. The campaign relied to a large degree on professional public relations experts. It is that campaign that is the central focus of this film.

It is a film definitely worth seeing. At times humorous, at time dramatic, it has an excellent cast headed by Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, the advertising expert recruited by the ‘Vote No’ Alliance. The film includes footage showing the coup and the brutal repression of the Chilean working class and their organisations and parties. It also uses the actual television material from both right and left in the Referendum campaign: at times impressive, at times banal, and at time almost surreal.

The film used a 1983 U-matic video system, which gives a fairly uniform appearance to both the filmed footage and the archive material, mainly the advertisement featured. . The whole film has a sharp, tawdry look due to this. In fact, Pablo Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero had a low-budget tawdry feel which also matched its subject matter. The cinematographer on the film is Sergio Armstrong and he has done excellent work in producing this visual consistency.

My major reservation was a rather lightweight political stance. This seems to follow on from the approach that was adopted in the actual television campaign in 1988. And there are clearly strands of irony in the presentation. But there is not a developed sense of the politics of the different class fractions and factions involved. Terms like ‘communist’, ‘socialist’ and ‘fascist’ recur frequently. However both the left and the right at this moment were somewhat disparate coalitions of differing social forces, and this the film misses out on illuminating this. Certainly other films from Chile have managed to deal effectively with the political landscape under the dictatorship. I also felt that the film subscribes to a view that probably over-emphasises the contribution of the television adverts: but the absence of other factors in its plotting also contributes to this lack of overall illumination.

There is a trenchant set of criticisms by The Socialist Party [formerly Militant].

The Centre to which they are affiliated, Committee for a Worker’s International, had an organised presence in Chile in this period. The article lists some of the serious omissions from the film. The major problem is the absence of organised resistance by the working class. One telling example is the demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace as Pinochet and other military leaders wrestled with a response to the vote. The film suggests that it was plain sailing once the result was announced, when in fact there was a covert and overt class struggle over its implementation.

My other reservation was technical and may only apply to the UK release. The U-matic video format gives an aspect ratio of 1.33:1: the ratio that preceded sound film, when the addition of an optical track produced 1.37:1. In the UK (and presumably in most territories) the film is distributed as a Digital Cinema Package. This comes in a standard 1.85:1, with other ratios printed within the standard format. For 1.33 or 1.37 you get the central image bordered by black framing. On 35mm the projectionist could adjust the framing to the ratio: on DCP it comes ‘baked in’. Good quality cinema presentation involved bringing in the black masking to frame the appropriate ratio. This is what usually happens at the Hyde Park Picture House where I viewed this film. They also continue the honourable tradition of opening the curtains at the start of the screening. Not so with No. For some odd reason the subtitles (in yellow) have been printed so that they frequently extend beyond the 1.33 ratio into the black borders. This means the black masking is unusable. Why, I don’t know, though it did seem that the font of the subtitles was larger than usual. I found this very distracting. I can usually flick my eyes up and down to accommodate both the image and the titles: with this film I had to flick to left and right to read all of the titles. I actually missed a few. The film is distributed by Network Releasing, but I could not see an end credit for titling, so I am not sure who is responsible.

So I feel it is a bit of a problematic movie, certainly in the UK. But it is still worth seeing. It is a distinctive film with a distinctive subject matter.

Director Pablo Larrain. Screenplay adapted Pedro Peirano from the play ‘Referendum’ (‘El Plebiscito’, unpublished) by Antonio Skarmeta.

Comments on ITP World:

keith1942

Further to the subtitles. It seems the UK distributor has advised that the filmmakers requested that the 1.33:1 frame was projected within the larger 1.85:1 frame of the DCP. And that they set the subtitles to extend beyond the frame of 1.33:1.

I have not been able to find an explanation of this anywhere. And I cannot think why they would want this. Any suggestions.

Reply

Roy Stafford

I didn’t find the subtitles to be a problem as such, but I agree that being unable to mask the image is not a good thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and though I agree with you that the political situation was not explained properly, I think that was to some extent deliberate so that the focus is on Rene (Gael García Bernal) and his position caught between his ex-wife, his father’s legacy, his own fatherhood and his professional ambitions and creativity. For that reason, I think it’s important that the film is shown to as many media students as possible and then discussed in detail. It’s a wonderful film for teaching.

Reply

keith1942

Roy is right that the film focuses on Rene, but this would seem to be an aspect of the way that ‘star power’ can produce its own distortions. There is a review of the film by the Socialist Party – http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/16112 – which fills out some of the aspects of class struggle in the late 1980s which NO overlooks or ignores. I think if it is used with media students then the sessions need to include other material which gives contrasting pictures. The film is ‘ideological’ in the sense that it offers the surface appearance, but it seems not the underlying social reality.

I have also looked at a few reviews and they all seem to think that the film used U-matic and the U-matic camera.

Reply

Roy Stafford

U-matic is a videotape format. A U-matic video recorder could receive an analogue video signal from any suitable camera. Before there were ‘camcorders’ with the tape machine physically part of the camera, the video camera was linked by cable to a separate recorder. The Press Pack for No does indeed state that they used ‘U-matic cameras’ (Ikegami tube cameras to be precise). However, I think that calling something a U-matic camera is misleading. Whereas a 16mm film camera shoots images on 16mm film, any video camera could be put directly through a mixing desk and the output recorded to any analogue video format. It’s the video recorder which is U-matic not the camera. A minor point I grant you and not that important perhaps, but it is revealing just how quickly people forget how these technologies were used.

Re the ideology of the film and its suitability for students, of course it needs other material. My point was that the film reveals the dilemmas of a bourgeois character caught between different forces and deciding to follow his ‘professional’ instincts, which is a common occurrence in media industries in capitalist societies. I don’t think the film attempts to explain the politics and I don’t think it is deliberately misleading, but it is disappointing to read in the Press Pack that the campaign was ‘instrumental’ in deposing Pinochet. My impression was that the film was much more circumspect about how valuable the campaign was. Which, I guess, just goes to show how things can be read differently.

Reply

keith1942

Maybe ‘camera’ was a short hand, and maybe they have never used the format.

My memory of it was always using the umatic’s camera.

More to the point I think you are being generous to the film. I cannot quote now, but my strong impression at the film’s conclusion was that it presented the advertising as a crucial factor. And it a sense that is reflected in a number of reviews.

My original comments about the film ‘lacking substance’ is in part that the film is rather like the adverts that it features. Rather long on gloss.

And I am afraid that it is likely that studies of the film will focus on the film itself and less on the wider context. While many people are aware of the dictatorship the context around the referendum is much less widely known. I have talked to several people who viewed it and their recurring comment was that they were not familiar with the event or period in Chile.

Larrain’s earlier Tony Manero presented politics at a tangent, but there was a clearer sense of the range of views and class forces.

Reply

keith1942

This film was screened on the UK Channel 4 last week. I have already noted the political problems with the film, which remain problematic at a second viewing. However, there was also the oddity of the digital version distributed in the UK, a 1.37:1 image letter-boxed into a 1.85:1 frame: and unalterable even in projection because of the yellow sub-titles that ran all across the larger frame. [A correspondent to Sight & Sound actually liked the use of yellow]. Channel 4 also letter-boxed the film, but into 16:9 frame [approximately 1.78:1] which was slightly less obtrusive. More importantly, the subtitles were white and contained with the original 1.37:1 image – so one could watch it in the 4:3 ratio on the television.

This mini-industry narrative grows odder and odder.

 

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Sangre Negra [aka] Native Son Argentina 1950

Posted by keith1942 on August 12, 2016

Hunting a slum rat.

Hunting a slum rat.

This film, whose title literally translates as ‘Black blood’, was screened in Il Cinema Ritrovato programme ‘An Alternate History of Argentine Film’. It was only when we had an introduction that I realised that the film is an adaptation of the famous novel by Afro-American writer Richard Wright, published as ‘Native Son’ in 1940. Wright himself was involved in the making of the film and playing the main protagonist Bigger Thomas. Wright’s novel, which both attacked the then prevalent racism of the USA but which was also influenced by the association of Wright with the Communist Party USA, was not filmable in his own country. He met the man who would partly script and also direct the film, Pierre Chenal, in Paris. Chenal had been an émigré in Argentina during the war and had seen the stage version created by Orson Welles in Buenos Aires. Since they could not arouse interest in Europe the pair produced the film in Argentina through Argentine Sono Film.

Wright’s seminal novel traces a series of events in which young black man Bigger Thomas is inadvertently involved in the killing of a white woman. The hysterical and racist outcry leads to his imprisonment, trial and execution. One gets a sense of Wright’s portrayal in the diatribe delivered by the prosecutor  at the trial which includes the following:

“Every decent white man in America ought to swoon with joy for the opportunity to crush with his heel the woolly head of this black lizard, to keep him from scuttling on his belly farther over the earth and spitting forth his venom of death!” (1972 Penguin edition).

Bigger is not portrayed as innocent, in his flight from pursuit he kills his black girlfriend Bessie to protect himself. But there is no balance between his acts and the response of the predominately racist white population: indeed he is charged with both murder and rape, despite the lack of evidence for the latter. Wright’s purpose in the novel was not just to depict and attack white racism but also to portray the effect on the negro [the term then used] population. In his introduction ‘How ‘Bigger’ was born’ Wright writes of one model:

“The Jim Crow laws of the South were not for him. But as he laughed and cursed and broke them, he knew that someday he’d have to pay for his freedom. His rebellious spirit made him violate all the taboos of intense elation and depression. “

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is that Wright provides a running commentary on Bigger’s thoughts and emotions, from his family life in a slum, through his conflicted contacts with white people, his crime and subsequent flight and the trial and sentencing.

The film condenses the novel greatly, one section left out is the extended plea by the defence lawyer at the trial: that seems more didactic than the sequence in the film. It does retain the opening scene of the novel as Bigger hunts a rat that is terrorising the family slum. The film does eschew the subjective element, there is no attempt to present Bigger’s mental state nor any voice-over. So we see a fairly conventional cinematic narrative following Bigger through the few days as the events unfold. The filmmakers manage to recreate a sense of the Chicago of the book, though not the snow, with the book set around the New Year. They cut between studio sets in Buenos Aires and stock footage of the actual Chicago. The film has at times a strong expressionist and noir feel, especially in the sequences in which Bigger is hunted down. There is an impressive rooftop pursuit which ends under a looming water tower.

Bigger and Bessie

Bigger and Bessie

In the novel Bigger is 20 years of age but Wright in the film is clearly much older. And he is better at the fear than the anger of his character. Bessie seems more of a good-time girl than in the novel. Several US film actors appear in the film including Jean Wallace as the victim Mary Dalton together with amateur black actors. This did not assist the release in the USA; 14 minutes were cut from the film. It seems that the UK release was the cut version.

The film has something of a hybrid status. The Argentine film programme basically slotted into the category of a national cinema, with some level of critical engagement. But there is no sign of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist standpoint that emerged only a few years later with the work of Solanas and Getino. However, Santa Negra, with its US setting and engagement with the situation of negroes/Afro-Americans is essentially a film about civil rights. It was the most oppositional of the films that I saw in the programme, but of a different ilk from them. The full-length version, screened at the Venice Film Festival, was thought lost. But a film historian found a 16mm print which was used to reconstruct the 35mm version by the Library of Congress. Whilst it is a lesser work than the original novel, it is a powerful representation of the period and situation and hopefully will receive wider circulation.

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Embrace of the Serpent/El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia/Venezuela/Argentina/The Netherlands 2015.

Posted by keith1942 on June 23, 2016

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

The younger Karamakate tends Theo.

This new film explores the interaction between the indigenous people in Amazonia, the western explorer who investigates them and their terrain and the media representations of all of these. The film is consciously a variation or even subversion of that classic text by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. The plot is ‘inspired’ by two actual explorers, ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grűnberg (Théodor von Martius in the film played by Jan Bijvoet) who visited the Amazonian area in Columbia in the early 1900s. And then Richard Evans Schultes (Evan in the film played by Brionne Davis) who followed in his footsteps about 40 years later. Apart from the terrain the common element in the search and travels is an indigenous Shaman Karamakate. He guides both men, as a younger character (Nilbio Torres) for Theo and then as an older character (Antonio Bolivar Salvador) for Evan. The search is for a rare tropical plant, the yakruna, with special healing qualities. The inversion is that it is Karamakate who leads the expedition, who examines the mores of these two explorers, and who, eventually, finds them wanting. They are dependent on his knowledge experience  and special talents. So, in a sense, rather than Marlowe investigating the ‘dark continent’, the native investigates the darkness within the westerner.

The film is modernist in its form. We cut back and forth between the two separate expeditions. And the progress of each sheds some illumination on the other. It also enables the character of Karamakate to make his judgements. The films presentation has the older man with a failing memory, so that he has to rediscover the problems and limitations of a white explorer.

The film is shot in a black and white anamorphic format. The wide screen suits the unfolding landscape of jungle, river, mountains and plateaus. The framing does not make particular use of the scope frame but there are some evocative shots with figures set against landscapes. There is a colour sequence near the end of the film, a dream or ‘trip’. Apparently the film was shot in Argentina and Venezuela as the Columbian terrain has changed or remains inaccessible. The editing is particular fine, with some excellent contrasts made as the film cuts from one journey to another.

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

The older Karamakate followed by Evan.

The two explorers, like Marlowe in the novel, are not especially malevolent though also not particularly trustworthy. However, unlike him, they do not seem to possess a superior viewpoint to the native. Meanwhile the other western participants, companies exploiting the rubber in the forest, troops of the Columbian state, are both extremely exploitative and oppressive. The crimes against the natives echo those in Conrad’s novel, though the visual representation would seem to owe more to Francis Ford Coppola’s film rendering, Apocalypse Now (1979, not a good rendering of the novel).

Karamakate enjoys a greater knowledge and understanding than the explorers, here in his own territory, whilst the film itself offers a partly omniscient viewpoint for audiences. In that sense the film does not invert Marlowe’s key role as narrator in the novel, rather it transfers it to the filmmakers. So in some sense this is an auteur film, though we might expand second cinema to include ‘traveller’, and the travellers viewpoint. It does use the indigenous languages [all told Cubeo, Huitoto,  Ticuna,  Wanano,  Spanish,  Portuguese,  German,  Catalan,  Latin,  English] but there does not seem to be a title in one of the indigenous languages. So Embrace of the Serpent does not achieve the reversal that [for example] Ousmane Sembène achieves in Borom Sarret (1963) through the character of the poor cart driver. This film does have a sense of irony, though it does not play with those to be found in the name of the actor playing the older Karamakate, nor in the geography that informs the film, different from the earlier actuality.

The other complicating factor to consider is the fairly recent tendency to posit a ‘fourth world’ of indigenous peoples, who have neither a state nor a country. However, this is rather a limitation of terms, ‘Third World’ does not address the reality in the same way as ‘oppressed peoples and nations’. The film offers a sympathetic and rather different representation of an indigenous people, some way from Conrad’s. In a way this reflects the changes in mainstream values over time. However, I think we would get a rather different narrative and representation if Karamakate or an equivalent character took us and the camera into the Amazonian forests.

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Redes, (The Wave, Mexico 1936.

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2015

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_1

This 61 minute docu-drama was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and then screened at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The film was made by Mexican and US filmmakers for the Secretaría de Educación Pública of the Mexican Government. The story is set amongst a small fishing community and shot on location in Mexico at a river mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is in black and white, with Spanish dialogue and English sub-titles. The film was among the early credits of Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann.

Strand was a photographer who had worked in the National Film and Photo League. He had also worked on two experimental silent films. He was to become the central figure in a group of progressive filmmakers in the USA committed to politically informed documentaries. His later work included the photography for The Plow That Broke the Plain [1936] and the radical Native Land [1942].

Zinnemann had migrated to the USA from Germany where he had worked as an assistant cameraman, and was part of the team that produced Menschen en Sontag [1929]. Redes was his first directing credit and he later achieved success in this role in Hollywood. The two Mexicans who were important in setting up the project were Carlos Chavez, who was a noted composer, and Narciso Bassols, the Secretary of Educación Pública.

The simple story follows a fisherman, Miro, who is exploited by a local entrepreneur. The latter controls the fishing boats and access to markets. Miro becomes more radical when his son dies because he cannot afford medical care. He leads the fisherman in a revolt. But he becomes a martyr when his death is organised by a politician in the pay of the entrepreneur. The end of the film suggests the fisherman will fight on.

We enjoyed a 35mm print when the film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. The Catalogue included memories of Zinnemann on the film:

The film – the first and last of its kind – was expected to play a small part in the Government plan to educate millions of illiterate citizens throughout the enormous country and bring them out of their isolation…

We had recruited practically all “actors” from among the local fisherman, who needed to do no more than be themselves. They were splendid and loyal friends, and working with them was a joy. In addition to acting, they carried all the equipment, rowed the boats and did a multitude of other jobs, earning more money than ever before – forty-five cents per day, per man – and enjoying themselves hugely …”

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_2

Visually the film is in a style already familiar in Mexican cinema: using the landscape to create a sense of belonging. The figures are frequently posed against water, clouds, their thatched huts and the implement of fishing. The use of camera angles suggests the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, who had worked in Mexico on the unfinished Que Viva Mexico between 1931 and 1932. This is also true of the editing which cuts between characters and actions to create meanings after the style of Soviet montage.

The film’s social consciousness is presented in a narrative that follows many conventions of the Hollywood model. We have an individual hero, and a linear plot, with clearly delineated morals. This is the limitation of a certain sort of cinema. I felt that the film did not present the indigenous culture in the way that [for example] Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) manages. The key filmmakers are the two from the USA, though a number of the team are Mexican. In this period colonialism was still a major contradiction round the world, along with a developing neo-colonialism. In the case of Mexico the USA exercised dominance in line with its infamous C19th ‘Monroe Doctrine’. But in this film the exploitation and oppression of the fishermen is vested in an individual capitalist and a corrupt politician: the film lacks a sense of the wider capitalist mode or indeed of the neo-colonial relationship between Mexico and the USA. In fact Mexico already had a vibrant national cinema. It would be interesting to know the factors that governed the choices made by Educación Pública.

From that point-of-view of workers struggling against both exploitation and oppression the film seems to look forward to another set of filmmakers, Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico. Their Salt of the Earth, [1953] was set in New Mexico and dramatised a strike by Mexican migrants working in the mines. My memory of the latter film is that it has a more developed sense of communal struggle. The pair of films would make an excellent double bill.

Recently some of the restored films have featured on multi-DVD collections. Unfortunately for reasons to do with copyright the UK version from Eureka does not have Redes included. The French version does but lacks English subtitles. There is a US version which I have not yet been able to check.

Directors: Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel. Scenario: Augustin Velázquez Chávez, Paul Strand, Emilio Gómez Muriel, Fred Zinnemann, Henwar Rodakiewicz. Photography Paul Strand. Editing Emilio Gómez Muriel, Gunther von Fritsch. Sound Roberto, Joselito Rodriguez. Music Silvestre Revueltas.

Cast: Miro – Silvio Hernández. Entrepreneur – David Valle Gonzalez. Politician – Rafael Hinojosa. El Zurdo – Antonio Lara. With a supporting cast local fisherman.

 

Posted in Documentary, Latin American film, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Grupo Ukamau

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2014

Blood of the Condor

Blood of the Condor

This is a film collective based in Bolivia and unfortunately their work is very difficult to see in the UK. It was formed in 1968 and included Jorge Sanjinés, director: Osca Soria, scriptwriter: Antonio Eguino, cinematographer: and Ricardo Rada, producer.  Bolivia is a land-locked country in the central Andes, named after the great Liberator Simon Bolivar. The population is divided between Quechua and Aymara Indians, mestizos [of mixed European and Indian descent] and a small elite of European descent. Soon after the Spanish conquest silver was discovered. Mining became and has remained the most important economic activity, though natural gas has joined this in recent decades. As is the case elsewhere in Latin America the modern period has alternated between military coups [apparently 189 by 1980] and ‘democratic’ government,

The Grupo Ukamau took their name from a film made for the Bolivian Film Institute. It dramatised the exploitation of the indigenous Aymara Indians through the tale of revenge by an Indian on a mestizo [a petit bourgeois] who raped his wife. The final confrontation takes place on the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau. Whilst this involves just the two men [shades of Greed, 1923] it quite clearly involves class and ethnic conflicts. It was certainly seen as critical by the then military government who dismissed the group members who then developed independent film production.

In 1969 the group made what is probably their most famous film, Blood of the Condor (Yalwar Mallku). Filmed in black and white it recounted actual events when members of the US ‘Progress Corps’ [‘gringos’, also known as the Peace Corp] were secretly sterilising Quechua women under the guise of medical aid. The film was initially banned but aroused great interest and in 1971 the Peace Corp was expelled from Bolivia. The film also attracted international attention and was seen as part of the New Latin American Cinema emerging across the continent. Whilst the film was made with the help of the Indian villagers who appear in the film, its form is recognisably similar to western art films. There is a complex use of flashbacks and overall the film fits into the melodrama of protest mould. One obvious influence is Soviet Montage, and the final freeze frame of the film with upraised rifles appears to homage October 1927. Both this film, Ukamau and later films make use of the quena or Indian wooden flutes.

The Grupo members became critical of their own approach and the form of their next major feature, Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971), was different. The film dramatised the massacre of striking miners in 1967. Witnesses to these events provided the substance of the film and appeared in it. The Grupo members took care to discuss both the form and content of the film with this community as it was made. Noticeably the film eschews the use of flashbacks [which some Indians found confusing] and of close-ups, tending to the long take. The witnesses provide multiple narration of the events: and the form of the film is elliptical and still complex. The focus shifts from the individual protagonist familiar in dominant cinema to ‘the solidarity of the group’.

A period of exile split the group and two further features were made outside Bolivia by Rada and Sanjinés. The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, Peru/Bolivia 1973) describes events in Peru in 1963 when an Indian community struggled for justice. The film includes the recollections of a community leader setting out the long struggle of the community from the time of the Spanish invasion onwards.  Get out of Here! (Fuera de Aqui, Bolivia/Ecuador 197) recounts a struggle by Andean Indians to protect their land from a multi-national corporation. In a parallel with Blood of the Condor a US religious sect is part of the process of expropriation.

Title

Two more films were then made in Bolivia and in colour. Banners of the Dawn (Banderas del amanecer, Bolivia 1983) is a documentary tracing democratic struggles against dictatorship between 1978 and 1983. And there is what appears to be the last film by Ukamau to get a substantial release in Europe, The Clandestine Nation (La nación clandestina, Bolivia 1989 with funding from the UK/C4, Spain, Germany and Japan). The film recounts the journey, physical and mental, of an Indian representative who is corrupted by dealings with a US food programme. His journey is one of repentance and expiation, but it is also an exploration of the community values and rituals. Sanjinés, and his cinematographer César Pérez, adhere to the practice of long takes or sequence shots, emphasising the community and the landscape in which it lives. The film does return to the use of flashbacks, but these are integrated into the contemporary as the camera ‘pans’ rather than cuts from past to present. This is effectively a type of complex montage similar to that seen at work in Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946).

Ukamau have made further films since then [Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995), released in Bolivia and Germany; Los hijos del último jardín (2004), released in Bolivia and Japan] but they do not appear to have circulated Europe. The most recent film Insurgents (2012) has only enjoyed releases in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico.

Apart from the film work Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group have produced agitational and theoretical material. The major work is a set of Manifestos, ‘Theory & Practice Of A Cinema With the People’.  The carefully worded title is important. One of the developing emphases in Ukamau’s work is giving cinematic voice to the subjects, transforming them from the objects of dominant cinema. In Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema:

A film about the people made by an author is not the same as a film made by the people through an author. As the interpreter and translator of the people, such an author becomes their vehicle. When the relations of creation change, so does content and, in a parallel process, form.“

The point is illustrated by comparisons drawn between Blood of the Condor and The Principal Enemy.

When we filmed Blood of the Condor with the peasants of the remote Kaata community, we certainly intended that the film should be a political contribu­tion, denouncing the gringos and presenting a picture of Bolivian social reality. But our fundamental objective was to explore our own aptitudes. We cannot deny this, lust as we cannot deny that our relations with the peasant actors were at that time still vertical. We still chose shots according to our own personal taste, without taking into account their communicability or cultural overtones. The script had to be learned by heart and repeated exactly. In certain scenes we put the emphasis entirely on sound, without paying attention to the needs of the spectators, for whom we claimed we were making the film. They needed images, and complained later when the film was shown to them. …

During the filming of Courage of the People, many scenes were worked out on the actual sites of the historical events we were reconstructing, through discussion with those who had taken part in them and who had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done. Furthermore, these protagon­ists interpreted the events with a force and conviction which professional actors would have found difficult. These compañeros not only wanted to convey their experiences with the same intensity with which they had lived them, but also fully understood the political objectives of the film, which made their participation in it an act of militancy. They were perfectly clear about the usefulness of the film as a means of declaring throughout the country the truth of what had hap­pened. So they decided to make use of it as they would a weapon. We, the members of the crew, became instruments of the people’s struggle, as they expressed themselves through us!

This is notable both in the visual and aural style of the film.

Our decision to use long single shots in our recent films was determined by the content itself. We had to film in such a way as to produce involvement and participation by the spectator. It would have been no use in The Principal Enemy, for example, to have jumped sharply into close-ups of the murderer as he is being tried by the people in the square, because the surprise which the sudden introduction of a close-up always causes would have undercut the development of the sequence as a whole, whose power comes from within the fact of collective participation in the trial and the participation by the audience of the film which that evokes. The camera movements do no more than mediate the point of view and dramatic needs of the spectator, so that s/he may become a participant. Sometimes the single shot itself includes close-ups, but these never get closer to the subject than would be possible in reality. Sometimes the field of vision is widened between people and heads so that by getting closer we can see and hear the prosecutor. But to have intercut a tight close-up would have been brutally to interpose the director’s point of view, imposing mean­ings which should arise from the events themselves. But a close-up which is arrived at from amongst the other people present, as it were, and together with them, carries a different meaning and expresses an attitude more consistent with what is taking place within the frame, and within the substance of the film itself.

Distribution and exhibition were equally seen as essential aspects of film work.

In Bolivia, before the appalling eruption of fascism there, the Ukamau Group’s films were being given intensive distribution. Blood of the Condor was seen by nearly 250,000 people! We were not content to leave this distribution solely to the conventional commercial circuits, and took the film to the countryside together with projection equipment and a generator to allow the film to be shown in villages where there is no electricity.

The article also refers to similar practices by other groups of filmmakers in Argentina, Chile [before the coup], and Ecuador. The Manifesto clearly falls within the wider ambit of the New Latin American Cinema that arose in the 1960s. One can see crossovers between this statement and analysis and other works like ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ and ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’.

The prime focus of Ukamau is the Andean Indian communities who are the subjects of their films. But their work also offers an important example for other filmmakers. I went back and revisited their work after critically viewing two Palestinian films.

Five Broken Cameras is a record of a village under occupation by Israel as it constructs the ‘separation wall’. The filmmaker and major protagonist in the film, Emad Burnat, was assisted in producing the film by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. What emerges is the voice of this Palestinian farmer: given voice in part through the cinematic skills of the Israeli filmmaker. The film’s power resides mainly presenting this voice and this experience. The major weakness in the film is a lack of an analytical overview: something that I have noted in a number of documentaries set in Palestine. The work of Ukamau offers an example of both giving voice but also drawing out the actual overall social relations at work.

The second film is Apples of Golan. This is a documentary made by two Irish filmmakers in an area occupied by Israel along the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. This film is also very effective but a major weakness is a rather confused presentation of the politics of the people. Whilst the local population oppose the Israeli occupation there is also a strong sense of support for President Assad in Syria, who is seen as a protector. The filmmakers obviously found this a problematic aspect. And the film does not really present a clear sense of the community’s take on this. In fact, in a Q&A, it transpired that the editing took place in Dublin and that the ‘form of the film’ emerged in this process. This is the opposite of the methodology developed by Ukamau and would seem to explain the lack of clarity.

Theory & Practice appeared in Spanish in Siglo XXI Editores in 1979. A translation into English by Richard Schaaf was published in the USA by Curbstone Press in 1989. In 1983 a translation by Malcom Coad of Problems of Form and Content appeared in a BFI Publication for Channel 4, Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan.

The Workers Film Association Media & Cultural Centre in Manchester had Ukamau films in its catalogue, so it is worth checking with them.

Posted in Latin American film, Manifesto, Palestinian films, Political cinema | Leave a Comment »