In the book Magical Reel: A History of Cinema in Latin America by John King, King writes about the nature of studying, or trying to study Latin American Cinema, suggesting it is a complicated endeavor given that “Latin America Cinema is (made up of) a whole bunch of imperfect sources.” He goes on to suggest that this has played a role in Global Cinema looking in on Latin America and assuming that it only holds relevance in the past 30-40 years, and that anything else is hidden by the absence of any real industry or disagreeable “socialist” politics. This unfortunate assumption is part of the challenge trying to gain an accurate glimpse of cinema’s development in Latin America, particularly as it tries to locate it within the pages of a diverse yet interconnected history.
In my previous blog on Mexican Cinema, a necessary starting point for following Latin America’s cinematic growth and development, I noted that Mexico represents a key point of discussion primarily because of the way it acts as a defining line between the ever shifting influence of Mexico and America as competing and dominant industries. A secondary, if slightly later sort of influence arises from Cuba. In both cases, Mexico and Cuba position Latin America Cinema within a picture of revolution, and ongoing revolution. An understanding of Latin American Cinema comes through an understanding of the force and necessary power of smaller film industries set over and against the dominant influences.
One of the ongoing narratives of Global Cinema is the growth and dominance of “Hollywood” set over, sometimes in partnership to and sometimes over and against, competing forces of influence. In most, if not all cases, what you find hanging in the balance is a connection between a Country’s ability to find and discover it’s own voice, and thus the voice of it’s Country’s socio-political narrative, and identity. Closely connected to this is a Country’s ability to also relocate it’s identity beyond these international influences and towards the story’s of the indigenous people’s, whom hold a Country’s ethos captive in what are often lost narratives to histories of power and money. This might sound counter intuitive, but small industries matter more than big ones in terms of the relationship of art to the shaping of politics and social realities/struggle. The film industry, as the most dominant and visible art form of our time, is intimately tied to the development of these Countries given its emergence in the pages of history alongside the development of these Countries. It is the primary “social” art of our day.
This is indeed the familiar story of many of the Countries that make up a collective Latin American identity. The struggle to develop a cinematic identity mirrors their struggle to give voice to their people and culture, being subsumed by the pressures of money and power. And yet, to dig underneath these competing powers and influences is to find the story represented within the ongoing struggle that forms these national identities, particularly as one tries to locate an equally important “Latin American” identity.
REVOLUTION AND THE ROLE OF FILM
What holds our understanding of Latin American Cinema together, then, are two complimentary “revolutions”- Mexico’s “ready made” revolution and Cuba’s developing revolution. “The beginnings of Latin American cinema correlate with the the incorporation of (uneven) Latin Economies into the world (King, Magical Reel: A HIstory of Cinema in Latin America)”, and the doorway into the world (international presence) flows first form Mexico, in which we find the history of the Mexican revolution handing the primary influence of Latin America Cinema to Mexico over and against America, and then out of Cuba, out of which we find a working template for revolution for the diverse forms of “New Latin American” cinema that empowers the many smaller industries of this geographical based identity.
“Unlike other Countries in Latin America, Mexico’s revolution gave it a ready made presence, theme, topic, substance and purpose. (Magical Reels)”
“It is difficult to underestimate the importance of Cuba in helping to shape the growth of a radical consciousness throughout Latin America…. the Cuban model for revolutionary change might not have been successful in other areas, but it definitely had achievements in art and stands as symbolic. (Magical Reels)”
I’ve already written much about the influence of the Mexican revolution and their development into a key cinematic influence, so perhaps my time here will be better spent narrowing in on Cuba on that incredibly influential period of the 60’s and 70’s (informed by the 40’s the 50’s) that led to the rise of the “New” cinema. However, let me at least say this. One of the biggest outcomes of Mexico winning that cinematic tug of war between itself and America is the protection of a “socially” minded or “socialist” identity. What could have been defined as a negative force that needed to be abolished in America’s push to democratize (and therefore liberate) colonized nations and countries under its influence was actually allowed to grow and develop according to a larger European led mindset regarding socially driven ways of thinking and viewing their world and history. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the resistance of Latin America to economies burdened by American style growth of industry. What I found in these different Countries is an opportunity for both the story of their present and the story of histories to emerge unscathed and ready to be embrace and challenged in different ways through the power of cinema. And of course, the way this happens is through the embrace of “revolution”.
In any case, the language of “revolution” was already written into the story of Latin American’s development, and what an understanding of the Cuban Revolution then provides is a way into a ready made environment in which people were craving an opportunity to allow the cinema of the present to inform their past for the sake of their future.
THE CUBAN REVOLUTION AND THE GROWTH OF NEW CINEMA
As King suggests in Magical Reels, the “New Cinemas”, which is about to emerge from the 40’s and 50’s, “grew up in the imagination of revolution” that Mexico set the stage for and Cuba helped to define. That this happens through complicated regimes, dictatorships, and growing understandings of socialist values is the most wondrous and informing aspects of Latin American cinema.
A basic understanding of Cuban film begins with recognizing the shift of a period in which, leading up to the 1960’s had a significantly small repertoire of film (the stats suggest around 80 films in total, which according to Mike Gonzelas in his article on Imperfect Cinema, “were almost entirely light commercial films linked to the entertainment and sex industries that were Cuba’s main source of foreign earnings after sugar”), and a post revolutionary period that saw a cinema reclaim (or even claim) an identity. Of course this comes out of the Country’s connection to it’s past, but it is most defined by the development of the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográficos ), itself born from the “first culture law” of the revolutionary government. This institution recognized film as “the most powerful and provocative form of artistic expression, and the most direct and widespread vehicle for education and bringing ideas to the public.” Move beyond the wikipedia’d information of this institution though, and you will find that it’s development is connected directly to Cuba’s widespread influence on the “New Latin American Cinema” movement throughout Latin America particularly as it frees Countries and their people to “imagine” revolution in their particular contexts. Not only are the 10 years proceeding from the development of this institution considered the “Golden Age” of Cuban cinema, it claims and reclaims the golden ages of films across the region, largely in conversation with their own unique cinematic histories in tow and conversation.
THE THREADS OF A CINEMATIC REVOLUTION
You can’t talk about the ICAIC without talking about the Latin-American ICAIC News (Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano). “The Social Documentary in Latin America” is a wonderful source of documented and studied information of the integration of “news” and film as an “interpretative” source of the stories that inform the different Countries that make up Latin America.
“The main thing that distinguishes Cuba’s newsreels from elsewhere is that they do not limit themselves to recording a given reality, but offer a specific and explicit interpretative vision of the various realities they record.”
– THE SOCIAL DOCUMENTARY IN LATIN AMERICA
There is a fascinating conversation that emerges from this article that talks about the relationship Cuba saw between News sources and film as a marriage of “forms”. If “news” can be determined and shared as an “interpretative” process, that means that news is what informs all of art as an active “social commentary”. The difference between forms, as the article suggests, be it press, radio, television, film, and books, is defined by the speed in which they reflect on information. This is where Cuba saw value in the form of film, in its necessary lack of speed in creation (even in the sense of distribution as well, given that the amount of reels they had was far outnumbered by the amount of cinemas or screens they needed to be screened on), as something that can reflect news or information in a more timeless, valuable, and permanent way. Film, by nature of its form (film language, according to the article, has two essential means of interpreting reality in “form”- framing and editing) evokes the universality of the working image. It can, by way of this form, reflect on information in ways that are as valuable, or even more valuable, than quicker forms, which often get caught up in the immediate antagonizing nature of socio-political voices and entities. It is about creating permanent interest, and often does this by way of existing beneath the politics. In what I thought was a brilliant way of describing this, the article makes this working distinction- information is closed work, interpretation is open work. Interpretation plays the role of “denouncing injustice, mobilizing support, bearing witness, inciting viewers to analyze or combat powers and information”, and these things should not be above scrutiny themselves. That is the nature of a perpetual and ongoing revolution.
Another great source for understanding the development of this institute and the Newsreels is Iconoclasm & Experimentalism: From Revolutionary Roots to Today’s Cuban Cinema. It helps give definition to how the relationship of Cuba to both Mexican and American influence positioned it in an almost ironic position in terms of the breadth of its influence post revolution, and the current state of its modern industry amidst new found agreements with America. Much of what it helps point out is Cuba’s ability to rethink and rediscover the value of socialism, particularly in relationship to film as an art form rather than an industry:
“Three months after the dictatorship was overthrown, the new regime created a film institute, the ICAIC, which would quickly demonstrate that where there’s a will there’s a way. The new institute (an effectual state monopoly) was empowered to function as producer, distributor, and exhibitor, (but) it was also designed to operate autonomously—an autonomy it would fiercely defend over the coming years, first against liberals who attacked it as hardline Marxist and then against hardline Marxists who attacked it as bourgeois.
The new Cuban cinema was entirely modern. It represented the confluence of the two avant-gardes, the political and the aesthetic, and its revolutionary ideology was shared by political filmmakers across Latin America. The difference was that Cuba had escaped the domination of its screens by the US majors and was liberated from the cultural imperialism of Hollywood… although the new independent filmmakers do not see themselves as part of the old project of revolutionary cinema, they readily acknowledge Cuba’s rich revolutionary film culture as a significant source of inspiration, especially its tradition of iconoclasm and experimentalism. They are not in oedipal rebellion against their artistic fathers: they have what (is) called a “genealogical conscience.” But in assuming a critical eye towards their reality, they do so from another angle, through another prism.
Inevitably this leads to political tensions. Film has always been seen in Cuba as a primarily artistic rather than commercial endeavor… (however) the future is uncertain. The rapprochement with Washington in 2014 led to a loosening of restrictions, and Hollywood was quick to respond… it (now) looks more like a return to the fate… in which Cuba serves Hollywood primarily as an exotic location. Meanwhile it remains absolutely true that in the current order of things, making films in small underdeveloped countries is never going to be easy.
– Iconoclasm & Experimentalism: From Revolutionary Roots to Today’s Cuban Cinema
As the article suggests, “Cuba was destined to remain merely an outpost of the Mexican film industry and occasional host to Hollywood films seeking exotic locations” until revolution helped it to break free from the grips of these dominant powers. The sad reality today is that increased American infiltration into its landscape actually sets it in danger of being cut off from it’s shared roots with Mexican cinema as well, and therefore the story of its influential presence throughout Latin America by nature.
THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE AND THE VOICE OF THE GOVERNMENT: A WORKING CINEMATIC CONVERSATION OF SOCIOPOLITICAL INTERESTS
This living and existing beneath the powers and the politics in by way of an afforded autonomy, saw in the 70’s a growth of films dealing with modern sociopolitical issues in Cuba (by way of the ICAIC, under the new leadership of Julio García Espinosa). You find an increase at this point in history in the recognition of Cuban Cinema as as whole, and in it’s influence in the construction of important Latin American cinematic functions, such as the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. One of the most important sociopolitical realities of this time was the demise of the Soviet Union, which complicated international relationships and confused the relationship between Cuba’s politics and it’s art. Historical study recognizes the impact of its ability to retain its influence through artistic growth during what is known as the “Special Period” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Period), an understudied component in Latin America Cinema.
This also heightened the reality of what history knows as the Cuban Diaspora, which is an important distinguishing line in terms of Cuba’s ability to establish an ethos and a particular “Cuban” culture and Cubans who are making films abroad looking in on Cuba from the outside, which of course comes with particular perceptions. This is a common thread in global cinema at large, and often forms of the heart of the struggle in terms of a Countries ability to build and establish a culture. These diaspora’s which happen in times of sociopolitical struggle and war, can often be seen as a form of liberation for those who have escaped oppression, which it of course is and can be. But what is often less documented, particularly for those places that have welcomed this immigration, is the long term impact this has on the Countries ability to retain its culture. You see this in Germany, where you see a long standing struggle to embrace its past and build on its past. You see this in a place like the Philippines, where mass exodus has meant a large struggle for that Country in building its culture and establishing its culture moving forward.
All of which sheds light on both the future of Cuban art and culture, and the ways it’s past can inform it in particular ways. The future is defined by this positioning caught between two powers, both it’s reestablished relationship with Russia via Putin, and it’s recent policies which have allowed American influence to gain a firm hold on it’s cultural landscape. The past, in which it finds a wide spread influence as a relevant voice in creating and building a uniquely “Latin American” culture, can best be viewed in Cuba’s most recognizable movement, “Imperfect Cinema”. In 1968–88, which provides a dividing line between the future and the past, “the most common and desired form of film used in Cuba was Imperfect Cinema.” As Julio Espinosa continues to say in his article “For an Imperfect Cinema”,
“Nowadays, perfect cinema — technically and artistically masterful — is almost always reactionary cinema. The major temptation facing Cuban cinema at this time — when it is achieving its objective of becoming a cinema of quality, one which is culturally meaningful within the revolutionary process — is precisely that of transforming itself into a perfect cinema.”
The author goes on to establish why this important.
“These two tendencies exist: those who pretend to produce cinema as an “uncommitted” activity and those who pretend to justify it as a “committed” activity.
Anyone engaged in an artistic activity asks himself at a given moment what the meaning is of whatever he is doing. The simple fact that this anxiety arises demonstrates that factors exist to motivate it — factors which, in turn, indicate that art does not develop freely. Those who persist in denying art a specific meaning feel the moral weight of their egoism. Those who, on the other hand, pretend to attribute one to it, buy off their bad conscience with social generosity. It makes no difference that the mediators (critics, theoreticians, etc.) try to justify certain cases. For the contemporary artist, the mediator is like an aspirin, a tranquilizer. As with a pill, the artist only temporarily gets rid of the headache. The sure thing, however, is that art, like a capricious little devil, continues to show its face sporadically in no matter which tendency.”
– For an imperfect cinema (Julio García Espinosa)
Imperfect Cinema, seen in light of the Cuban cultural ethos, “was creative, innovative and possessed a distinctive style that is typically a very thought provoking original work of art (wikipedia).” It is an embodiment of “revolutionary” filmmaking according to Anna Taylor, a recgonizable voice on Latin American Cinema. If, as Mike Gonzela stated, the 80 feature films that were produced in Cuba before the 1959 Revolution were “almost entirely light commercial films linked to the entertainment and sex industries that were Cuba’s main source of foreign earnings after sugar”, then what history also shows is “Fidel Castro was quick to recognize the importance of cinema in promoting and consolidating the revolution.” The wikipedia page on imperfect cinema in Cuba quotes this well from its sources, saying that “Imperfect films captured the viewer’s attention because the relevance of the story line matched what the audiences were experiencing in their own lives”, going on to quote from Garcia saying that, “only in the person who suffers do we perceive elegance, gravity, even beauty; only in (them) do we recognize the possibility of authenticity, seriousness, and sincerity. Not only does imperfect cinema represent the struggles of the people it also reveals the process which has generated the problem (Espinosa, Julio Garcia. For an Imperfect Cinema).”
Garcia further describes it this way.
“The subjective element is the selection of the problem, conditioned as it is by the interest of the audience-which is the subject. The objective element is showing the process-which is the object. Imperfect cinema uses the audience as the subject to show the process of the problem as the object.”
So why is this important to a study of Latin American cinema? Because in this depiction of “Imperfect Cinema’ we can locate the language of “revolutionary cinema” that informs the Countries, made up of smaller industries, that make up Latin America.
THE CHALLENGE OF SMALLER INDUSTRIES IN A BIG INDUSTRY DIGITAL AGE
With this as our working backdrop- the revolution of Mexico and the revolution of Cuba, I can now move to look at Latin America cinema at large. What’s important to recognize here are two central developments in cinematic history:
1. The invention of the digital age- Digital film brings with it both increased possibilities and increased challenges. One of the biggest opportunities digital film brings is the opportunity for smaller industries to create film on smaller budgets. One of the biggest challenges that digital film creates are blurred lines between culturally formed and informed cinema and international presence.
2. A growing and largely undefined global cinema- History is the story of competing powers and politics, and in the modern age this has been informed by and through cinematic development (on a sociopolitical level). In the digital age, the increasingly blurred lines of an international industry and global cinema can create an ongoing tension and struggle in the relationship between a Country’s sociopolitical struggle (their story) and the investment of art, primarily in how it translates internally in terms of “investment” in a Country’s particular cultural formation. This makes the power struggles that still exist within the industry less obvious and less immediately aware, with the smaller industries being the ones that tend to suffer the most.
In nearly all of the Latin American Countries, one can note the presence of this strength and its challenge.
ARGENTINA: TANGO, REVOLUTION, AND AMERICAN INFLUENCE
Moving from Mexico and Cuba into the larger Latin American Cinematic landscape, the two most recognizable of the smaller industries are Brazil and Argentina. What sets these two Countries apart in terms of their cinematic identity and its relationship to “revolutionary cinema” is their ongoing commentary on race and politics from a particular Latin American history and perspective.
For Argentina, you can see a gradual development shaped by Argentinian born stories. That most of their films were adaptations of Argentinian authors and stories is what helped to shape their identity according to a specific awareness of class representations in their Country (as one descriptive puts it- impoverished or poor heroes and rich villains are a staple of Argentinian cinematic identity). To simplify this into the Argentinian sociopolitical identity, one can break it into five essential parts- the early years (1896-1930’s), (1930’s-1950’s), (1950’s-1980’s), (1980’s-1990’s) and (1990’s-present). These working parts can help narrow in on the development of Argentinian Cinema (in relation to Latin American cinema) and different points of necessary revolution.
If the early years in Argentina provides the foundation for this working commentary on socioeconomic classes, an interesting point of historical development begins to emerge along the border between Uruguay and Argentina in a complicated fashion. Given the widespread recognition of Tango, which comes by way of Argentinian films (and in arguably more tainted ways in international depictions of Argentinian culture), holds in its hands Latin America’s colonial past and the tango’s indigenous and African roots. This emerges as well in the story of Brazil and Brazilian cinema, which has a more particular and aware Afro-Brazilian representation struggle, but in the case of Argentinian cinema, it is fascinating to follow the development of Argentinian Cinema from the lens of Tango, given the ways Tango was associated with corrupted forms of life and culture (in terms of seeing it as a less than conservative expression of lifestyle, sexuality, and liberation). In Argentinian Cinema, the Tango is used largely to demonstrate the class struggle, and thus becomes an important interpretative voice in their culture. This is connected to early cinema which filmed “the estates, the money, and the upperclass” as a way of shedding light on Argentinian class distinctions.
In the 1930’s, you see the global development of sound cinema, which carries with it a common global development of narrowing cultures according to language. As cinematic history reveals, it is much easier to translate across cultures by way of silent film than it is through language, which still exists in a resistance to “subtitles”. As a small industry, it is sound that helps give voice to a more established Argentinian industry (through the development of local studios) that builds on its dedication to Argentinian voices (literature).
In the 1950’s, where we see the growth of television, we can locate Argentina within the revolutionary language of Cuba by way of “Third Cinema”, one of the first expressions of the larger movement of “The New Latin American Cinema”. This is again an oversimplication of a larger political reality (read: https://clas.berkeley.edu/research/argentina-persistence-peronism for context), but as Veronica Herrera describes, “The Peronist movement redefined Argentina in 1946, forever changing the political trajectory of the country.” This flows out into cinema, carrying it’s focus on the divide between the social classes with it. This gives us a backdrop for this focus:
“At the turn of the century, Argentina seemed destined to become a regional leader. Early industrialization attracted a large influx of European immigrants, and the country’s population grew sevenfold from 1887 to 1930. Argentina enjoyed increasing economic prosperity by exporting grains and high end products such as beef and leather goods. The conservative elites who dominated these industries ensured their own political survival through the electoral fraud that dominated Argentine politics until 1916. It was then that their traditional rivals, the Radicals, won control of the presidency with the election of Hipólito Yrigoyen. The first of many military coups ended Yrigoyen’s administration and returned the conservatives to power. This tension between military power and popular democracy was a fitting backdrop for the rise of the iconic populist, Juan Domingo Perón.”
This backdrop then leads to Peron, who divided Argentinian by way of his modeling after Italy’s Mussolini, which he then translated to a particular Latin American form in Mexico’s revolution and Cuba’s revolution. Thus you have a defining, and uniquely applied sociopolitical divide in the Argentinian landscape between the left (the voice of the people, or the poor, the working class) and the right (the voice of the military conservatives, the rich).
Apply this to the development of cinema in Argentina and you also find the interconnected challenges of the Catholic Church (and censorship), and American influence (which is where Mexico’s history helps to create that buffer, winning the battle in terms of being the dominant voice of revolution in Latin America by way of its cinematic industry over and against, or in relationship to, the grand influences of America’s cultural reform). What emerges from this is the Cinema Law of 1957, a Law formed to protect Argentina from international influence and to help foster a unique Argentinian language. Thus the emergence of Third Cinema, which, as Gonon writes about Third Cinema, is where “filmmakers sought to review the values, histories, and hegemonic culture of the nation.” Describing this further, Gonon writes,
“Deeply rooted in the needs and aspirations of their own people, the filmmakers of the Third Cinema were determined to preserve and cultivate Argentina’s cultural heritage and to reinforce it against deforming cultural exports from the developed world (Burton 1976 33). For this reason, Third Cinema sought to shed light on the truth, elucidating causes rather than documenting effects. Genuine national reality, according to Solanas and Getino, was the national or people’s truth and that any form of expression which tried to express that reality was automatically received as subversive by the dominant sector (Burton 1978 58)
As revolution resurfaced (or continued) in the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, what one finds is the increasing manifestation of cinema as the voice of the people. For those interested in the role of cinema in Argentinian development, this is a great read: https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/e0ad5de4-e0c6-4942-82c4-f77abbec9a01/648152.pdf
The important part flows from this descriptive:
The mass culture of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s broke in three important ways from the patterns established in the 1920s and 1930s. First, whereas the radio and cinema of the earlier period addressed its audience as a popular mass defined in opposition to the rich, post-Perón-era mass culture spoke primarily to the middle class, a class that had coalesced in opposition to the Perón regime. Second, the marketing of mass cultural products specifically to young people was also novel. Finally, the intense
politicization of the 1960s and 1970s had no equivalent in the earlier period. In the 1930s, consumer choices—whether to listen to tango, folk, or jazz, for example—did not tend to indicate specific political preferences, as similar choices later would.
Nevertheless, there were also significant continuities. The Argentine mass cultural marketplace remained—and remains—fundamentally transnational. In both periods, Argentines consumed substantial amounts of foreign, particularly North American, mass culture. Likewise, in both periods, this imported culture offered more prosperous Argentines a means of achieving distinction: those who disdained local films in favor of the latest Hollywood releases prefigured middle-class porteños.
This brings to light the relationship between a uniquely bred Latin American “revolutionary language” and international influences. This tension would persist through the Argentinian new wave in the 80’s, the development of the INCAA (Independent Argentine Production) and the National Institute of Cinema in an effort to reclaim Argentina’s independent identity through cinema (which looked backward into Argentina’s unique story and narrative). It filled a need to find voices and film that could speak to that unique story in light of present economic struggle (related to the division of class).
BRAZIL: RACISM, HOLLYWOOD MONEY, AND FORMING A NEW CINEMATIC IDENTITY
Brazil, the third most dominant industry outside of Mexico and Cuba bears some similarities to Argentine in terms of the challenge of encroaching American influence, international forces depicting Brazilian culture as seductive and immoral, and an undercurrent of class division. Where the story of Brazil travels a different path is in the story of it’s Afro-Brazilian community and the influence of colonial powers.
In the book Magical Reels, it talks about the ways in which the Brazilian film industry was built on “vertical integration”. This means that art is controlled by big money, which informs this picture of resources and opportunity funneling downwards from investors. The problem is, when it came to big money Brazil couldn’t compete with the big players in Hollywood, which caused early momentum to stall and falter and for Hollywood to begin to push their way in. With the lack of infrastructure (and according to Magical Reels, widespread availability to electricity), this threatened then to define the trajectory of Brazilian culture according to American ideologies. “North American cinema, with its hegemonic control over taste, was also a purveyor of cultural modernity.” Early Brazilian film were often based on local crimes, moving after the War to diversify in terms of its focus. With European and Hollywood influences, particularly on the part of America, this diversification gradually began to shape some of the depictions of the Brazilian people, particularly the women whom were being sold as something “exotic” (The Art of Seduction: Representation of Women in Brazilian Silent Cinema). The stats read that “85 percent of film” being screened in Brazil in the 1920’s were American, so not only was this the depiction on the foreign soil, but it was the depiction being fed back into the Brazilian landscape.
At the same time, Colonialism was threatening to define Brazil according to “European imperialism”, which continued to inundate Brazil with foreign film and a foreign vision for it’s Country. As the book Magical Reels defines, colonialism wanted to render Brazil as an attractive outpost and tropical setting to visit, film in, and imagine within the European narrative. It is absolutely fascinating, especially as someone from North America, to read about how these two influences, European Colonialism and American Capital, affected the Afro-Brazilian peoples. On one hand, they were removed enough from some of the narratives that would plague places like America with rampant racism and oppression. On the other hand, these outside forces were involved enough to direct Brazil’s cultural and social history in very particular ways. One of the ways this happened was by trying to control the narrative. Whereas Afro-Brazilians were fairly firmly established in the Brazilian landscape, and by and large made up the majority of the population, what these outside forces did is tried to write the narrative, using film, according to what Magical Reels calls the “Indian as a brave warrior.” Whereas Afro-Brazilians were a positive force for revolution and resisting oppression, the “black rebellion was ignored while Indians were depicted as those who resisted slavery.” The reason for this was because the “Indians” were a bit removed from their own European history, removing them somewhat from association, while the black rebellion was too distinctly “Brazilian” while at the same time largely relevant to European and American Colonization. Magical Reels makes a fascinating point by recognizing that foreign film makers were also not too keen on depicting the people they (white people) had replaced, associating Afro-Brazilian culture with a white narrative (with things like Samba, an Afro-Brazilian creation). The irony is, by doing this they also ignored what colonization did in displacing the Indigenous peoples, helping to foster in Brazil a problem of “redface” rather than “blackface”.
According to the paper Fade to Black, while the dominant Afro-Brazilian population, and their revolution, was still strong enough to resist these forces, even to the point of gaining representation on screen in different ways, it wasn’t until they Brazilian “New Cinema movement” (which was part of the New Latin Cinema forming from the Cuban revolution) that it “reached back into the lost corners of Brazilian people and culture and brought to the surface Black Cinema.”
The New Brazilian Cinema movement in the late 1950’s, or Nevau Cinema, which was modeled after the French New Wave and Italian Neo Realism, sought to apply the social interests, documentary styles and inexpensive productions that defined those movements through a particular Latin American lens. Art with a conscious is what the book Magical Reels describes it as, flowing from Rio by “transforming the poverty of means into stylistic invention.” Cinema Novo tried to emphasize the tropical setting, but rather than being an European and American outpost, it was used to bring clarity and definition to Brazilian culture, the Brazilian character, and most importantly the Afro-Brazilian story. Brazil would travel some ups and downs, but as these new movements overtook Latin America, and as Mexico continued to offer a buffer from dominating American influence, Brazil gradually began to reclaim cinema from the big money and colonial imprint, developing a modest industry that has been able to tell the Brazilian story more honesty and more intimately, with Brazilians making films that are less dependent on widespread international presence. In many ways they set the pace and the model for small industries throughout Latin America as they adapted to this new language of revolution within their individual borders.
SMALL INDUSTRY, REVOLUTIONARY LANGUAGE, AND SOCIOPOLITICAL CONCERN: LATIN AMERICAN CINEMA AS A FORCE FOR CHANGE
Whether we are looking at a Country like Uruguay, which earned the moniker “the Switzerland of Latin America” due to the dependability of it’s welfare state, or Paraguay where “the daily routine, the monotonous and insistent rituals, the power of religion and the grinding poverty are all captured (through film) in an implacable portrait of this land without men and men without land (Magical Reels).” As in Paraguay, a Country that wasn’t able to make films until the mid 1950’s, and which suffered under a repressive government for nearly 40 years, the National Film Institute of Paraguay didn’t develop until 2017 in a Country where this small industry, revolution, and awareness of their socioeconomic issues was desperately needed (or like Peru, where the industry remains non-existent), what marks all of these Countries in one form or another is small (to non existing) industries, revolution (or the need for reform), and in intense focus on socioeconomic issues that is shaped by the language of revolution and Latin American’s unique “socialist” approach.
PEURTO RICO AND BOLIVIA: REVOLUTIONARY LANGUAGE, NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL CINEMA
Consider Peurto Rico, an industry shaped by the American Invasion in the late 1800’s (and the camera’s they brought for documentation) and emerging slowly as a definable culture that began the first Peturo Rican film, Los Peloteros (1953), leading to a growing industry now in relationship with Mexico. You can see an ebb and flow in their cinematic story in terms of when their cultural identity languishes and when America has an increased presence (such as in the 70’s and the 90’s). Where Peurto Rico has been able to find something of a voice in film is by way of its given autonomy and self governance. It’s rich indigenous and Spanish history in terms of its relationship to Latin America, it’s lengthy history of arguing over its status and independence. This becomes a great study of the challenge of fostering and building a true culture and identity, particularly in relationship to a Countries ability to produce film, as so much of this culture is caught between the invasion of American culture, the exodus of filmmakers to American soil as that money and influence sits in contrast to the greater Latin American ethos, and the freedom to find and tell a collective story that can help capture the history of its peoples. This is a Country that is no stranger to the want of revolution.
Contrast this with Bolivia, who’s film industry is probably not big enough to be called an industry, and you find this want of revolutionary language being expressed through a national revolution, giving rise to film that depicted the story of their people in terms of socioeconomic struggle and their need for change. Labeled “New Bolivian Cinema”, Bolivia took the language of the Cuban Revolution and applied it to “making film for people together with people.” They resisted Hollywood influence, and saw the value of Brazil’s New Cinema’s focus on low budgets, non-professional actors and real locations (as influenced by Italian neo-realism and French New Wave). Like the Cuban Revolution, this was considered an intellectual revolution that gave voice and representation to their indigenous communities. While the industry is small, the value of this revolutionary language being applied to the film industry is important for it’s continued cultural and socio-political development. Small companies and schools have created opportunity for the people to the story of their people, becoming an important link to the indigenous peoples past. To use the words of these filmmakers, “Video serves as a medium to save that which our grandparents can no longer tell.”
CHILE AND HAITI: CENTRALIZATION AND DECENTRALIZATION
In Chile, their cinematic story begins a bit more centralized, with the film dependent on the money from the mining industry. A modest start gave way to Pedro Sienna, still one of the most important voices in Chilean film history (making the first Chilean future length feature, The Hussar of the Dead). The Chile Films Project, which paved the way for The New Chilean Cinema, was in need of a revolution to actually help it break through as a voice and a purveyor of Chilean culture and identity, and the revolutionary language that informed much of New Latin American Cinema, fighting through a mass exodus and an eventual victory that led to a developing industry in the 90’s. What gave it shape though were the filmmakers whom continued to capture Chile and it’s spirit both at home and abroad, believing that it had a story to protect and to tell. And although it’s industry is modest, it demonstrates strength and character and resilience through a homemade national art fund that has worked to inspire and empower Chilean filmmakers young and old.
In contrast, Haiti is a story of mass and forced decentralization that prohibited them from being able to develop a film industry and tell their story of ongoing poverty and struggle. U.S. Occupation followed by a 28 year dictatorship led to a total of “4 films” being produced, with the general diaspora and persistent poverty preventing the Country from being able to rally around a sense of its cultural identity as a story to be told and a story to be heard. With no established industry, and nothing in the way of policies or directives to empower filmmakers and given them the means to tell these stories, the result is a sociopolitical reality that has long been ignored and not heard. Haiti is a testament to the importance of art in affording people that necessary revolutionary language. There are glimpses of what is very much worth celebrating though, such as “The Motion Picture Association of Haiti (MPAH)”, which works to celebrate the Haitian culture, people and film.
COLUMBIA AND FOSTERING A CINEMATIC CONVERSATION
Country like Columbia can perhaps provide a landing point here in terms of the working relationship between the language of revolution, sociopolitical issues, and the power of small film industries to help give voice to these people and raise up it’s culture. At the heart of the Columbian Film Industry is the Grupo de Cali (Caliwood), which played a big role in the growing developing New Latin American Cinema. “Caliwood alludes not to desire and nostalgia, but to a playful and ironic defiance to the traditional vision of Hollywood as superior and unattainable (Routledge).” Led by young voices, filming their city raised the value of film as necessary and important, arriving with the vision to actively form Latin American Culture from their uniquely Columbian perspective. From this movement we get Caliwood, Tropical Gothic (which challenged depictions of Horror as a lesser form, arguing for it’s artistic merit) and pornomiseria.
What’s interesting about following the Caliwood movment in line with the New Cinema that was forming Latin America is to see it’s own revolutionary language in play. It thrived on conflict between politics and art, and it is actually where New Cinema started to create art that both depicted and helped form sociopolitical realities that Caliwood lost it’s force. Columbia faced a bit of an odd positioning in forging it’s own identity within something uniquely Latin American. This ground level movement met the more developed New Cinema (with it’s infrastructure), even as it shared a desire to raise art above mere entertainment. If Latin American Cinema is understudied and difficult to to unearth it’s diversity of voices and experiences, what we find in the different “clubs” of Columbian Cinema (La Casa de la Amistad de los Pueblos, Nueva Generacion, and Cine Club de Cali), all of which rose to prominence in the 70’s, is rich and vital discussion regarding Latin American culture and it’s value.
What clearly identified Columbian culture was the 1000 Days War, which basically settled the Country around the idea of a centralized government. This informed the film industry and it’s revolutionary language, especially when Panama separated from Columbia. Part of the discussion that was happening within this landscape is an interesting implementation of a critical term called Pornomiseria, which was all about how it was that film captured and depicted human misery and struggle. This is just one example of the rich dialogue that Columbia was able to foster with it’s deep interest in exploring the relationship between film and culture.
The later years essentially develop through the creation of what is called FOCINE (Cinematic Development Company and the funding for film), which enforced international relationships (with Europe), and the later Law of Cinema, which attempted to reemphasize a necessary focus on developing a local film industry (passed in 2003). This “standardized” the industry within it’s centralized form of Government, creating a working relationship between taxes and the filmmakers/artists that could feed and foster an influential industry and local culture. This has not only given the Country the means to have a voice, but it has allowed it to become influential in the way that it exhibited filmmakers willing to sacrifice their own time and energy and finances to keep telling the Columbian story.
LATIN AMERICAN CINEMA: A NECESSARY CULTURE
As I hope I have show, Latin America is a rich and diverse region built on a strong history of revolutionary language that became a pervasive and influential force in industries across the region, both big and small. A mark of these industries are their unique sociopolitical concerns, with Countries exhibiting different types of struggles with both their internal realities and outside, international forces. In this we can find wonderful examples of film helping to bring change, film helping to give voice and tell stories that were otherwise silent or hidden. In this we find the power of art to not only change history, but to hold history, particularly where the people meet the politics, and where social realities meet social change. It stands as a reminder of why we need these industries to help establish a region of such diversity, upholding the uniqueness of each of these Countries stories within a wider narrative of revolutionary language and socialist development. This uniqueness, after all, is what makes culture, and the stories that help to develop it, so necessary.
If you are interested in exploring Latin American Cinema, here are some places to start:
Cinema of Latin America by Guy Hennebel and Alfonso Gumucio Dagrón
Material for a prehistory of Haitian cinema by
Libia Villazana, “Hegemony Conditions in the Coproduction Cinema of Latin America: The Role of Spain
Shaw, Deborah. Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Breaking into the Global Market.
Burton, Julianne. Cinema and Social Change in Latin America
Ana M. Lopez, “An ‘Other’ History: The New Latin American Cinema.”
Michael Chanan, Cuban Cinema
Patricia Aufderheide, “Latin American Cinema and the Rhetoric of Cultural Nationalism: Controversies at Havana in 1987 and 1989.
Davies, Catherine. “Modernity, masculinity and Imperfect Cinema in Cuba
“The movie industry in Argentina”
“Argentine Cinema History (1896–1945)”
Company of contradictions: Puerto Rico’s Tropical Film Company (1916-1917). Naida Garcia-Crespo. Film History.
Johnson, Randal; Stam, Robert (1995). Brazilian Cinema
Stam, Robert (December 1982). “Slow Fade to Afro: The Black Presence in Brazilian Cinema”
Stam, Robert (1997). Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture
Bicalho, Maria Fernanda Baptista (1993). “The Art of Seduction: Representation of Women in Brazilian Silent Cinema”.
Hernando Martínez Pardo, Historia del Cine Colombiano
Brazilian Cinema Randal Johnson, Robert Stam
The Routledge Companion to Latin American Cinema
A Companion to Latin American Cinema edited by Maria M. Delgado, Stephen M. Hart, Randal Johnson
South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994
The Social Documentary in Latin America by Julianne Burton
Magical Reel: A HIstory of Cinema in Latin America by John King
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976) By Carolina Rocha
“The Art of Seduction: Representation of Women in Brazilian Silent Cinema”
Latin American Cinema: A Comparative History by Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez