or ‘Me gustan los estudiantes’: Mario Handler at St Andrews
The Uruguayan documentarist Mario Handler came to St Andrews recently for a symposium revisiting New Latin American Cinema of the 60s through the Uruguayan case. The event was able organised by Beatriz Tadeo Fuica, included a prety cogent overview of Documentary and Activism by Leshu Torshin, and a Q&A with Mario Handler by Gustavo San Román. This was my own contribution.
In the early 1980s, I filmed an interview with him for a documentary on New Latin American Cinema for C4, in which he talked about making Me gustan los estudiantes, which takes its title from a song by the Chilean singer-songwriter Violetta Parra. Last summer, searching YouTube for videos from the student protests in Chile, I discovered several new versions of the same song, and this prompted some reflections on the continuities and discontinuities in the praxis of political documentary then and now.
I knew it in the version by Daniel Viglietti that Mario Handler uses on the soundtrack of his eponymous 1967 documentary. (The album on which he sings it is in my sadly neglected vynil collection.) I checked the listing for the song title on YouTube a few days ago: it now gives 238 results! They include versions from other countries, like Mexico and Colombia, and of course Mario’s film. The most popular version used in a number of these videos is that of Mercedes Sosa; sadly there seems to be no recording by Violetta Parra herself.
First, here’s the interview as it appeared in the television documentary. It includes a clip taken from the latter part of Mario’s film, where Viglietti is singing a different song.
I couldn’t resist the temptation to make a college out of the new versions, so each of the seven verses is a different video. In fact this is instructive.
My first thought about this is simple enough. The problems Mario described about distribution don’t exist today. Documentary is nowadays shot on video and digital video has not only solved the problems he described, but the web has created unparalleled possibilities for socially engaged film-making. In short, the whole context for political film has changed.
This change has two main aspects. First is the creation of a new and global technological infrastructure of communication. When portable video first appeared many people spoke glowingly of it opening up a new more democratic era for the audiovisual domain. For our purposes an appropriate reference point is a famous essay of 1970 by the Cuban director Julio García Espinosa, a polemic called ‘For an imperfect cinema’ where he glimpsed the future with extraordinary prescience. Ten years after the Cuban Revolution, with a decade’s experience of a bold new effervescent revolutionary cinema, Espinosa observed the rapidly evolving communication technologies of the globalising world and pondered their implications. What happens, he asked, if the development of video removes laboratory costs, and if television broadcasting develops decentralised transmission systems which render movie theatres superfluous? What happens if videotape replaces film stock and cinemas go out of business? Well, now we see what happens. Cinema doesn’t die, the industry has ways of fighting back, but also, just as Espinosa suggested, new kinds of film-makers emerge, aficionados rather than professionals, who make new kinds of film. That is, videos, in a variety of styles, some of which get enormous circulation.
Second, the political context has also changed. The shorthand version is this: the fall of Communism and end of the Cold War; the demise of socialist ideologies in the face of deregulated, neoliberalist capitalism; and now, everywhere, the consequences of the near-death experience of global financial capital, as always unevenly distributed around the world; thus the Latin American experience has been different from that of the old First World, different again from the Arab world, and so forth. Pretty much everywhere, however, the political aspirations of fifty years ago have been transformed. In the face of international terrorism, popular movements have almost universally adopted non-violence (Libya and Syria are cases apart), while a growing sense of democratic deficit has led to a resurgence of resistance in the metropolis, and the reinvention of a new anarchism which is slowly attempting to define itself. The result is that between the political films of the 60s and 70s and the new video, there are both continuities and discontinuities. The same urgency, but a different political culture. You can see this in the videos. For example, the kind of street violence we see in Mario’s film (albeit as he says unusual for Montevideo) is mostly not seen in the past year’s videos. There’s one exception, the video from Mexico. But in those that take their imagery from Chile itself, the atmosphere is carnivalesque, and the violence is that of the forces of law and order engaged in state sponsored repression.
Another thought is about the song itself, whose choice is a highly resonant cultural marker. Music has exceptional power to serve as a conduit of memory, both private and popular, and this song, in this context, has important associations. Firstly, in Chile there’s the figure of Violetta Parra herself, mother of the Chilean folk song movement, Communist, unremitting critic of the privileged, recuperated after the end of the dictatorship by the centre-left government of the Concertación and promoted as an icon of the true spirit of Chilean culture (and now also the subject of a splendid movie by Andrés Wood). Her reputation is not limited to Chile, of course; the singers in my collaged versions are from Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico; there’s even a rap version (and there are various concert performances of the song on the web that I haven’t used). The stylistic variety of these performances, each with its own inflection, tells us about the tradition of socially conscious popular song in Latin America, which transcends national cultures and belongs to the whole region.
But there’s something else I want to get at. This song by Violetta Parra — it’s as if the student movement here in the UK had adopted, say, ‘Street Fighting Man’, a song of 1968, that is, a song which connected them with a certain past. Given its political associations, however, the suggestion is faintly absurd. The nearest we get is Billy Bragg’s version of ‘Whose side are you on?’ played in a demonstration on a boom box. In fact, the music videos of the British movement generally use new genres, above all rap, being written now. I take this as a signal of a political separation from the past in Europe — and a rejection of any whiff of nostalgia. In Latin America, it’s different. Indeed ‘Me gustan los estudiantes’ serves in Chile as more than an evocative memory, but by invoking the period of Unidad Popular and the Presidency of Salvador Allende, an explicit political gesture, a sign of unfinished business.
A last observation. If my video college shows that each singer of the song has their own inflection, then the same can be said of the videos, where you can see two or three main tendencies or sub-genres. There is first of all the standard YouTube model of illustrated music tracks. The basic version is a simple slide show; the most sophisticated, with its fast cutting and split screens, is a music video promo for a rap group which uses professional techniques. There’s also another format, using street footage and even retaining the sound that goes with it, giving a strong sense of immediacy. It should be said that music videos like these represent only one strand of the overall video output of the movement, which as in other cases, includes short mobile phone videos of the citizen journalism kind, and various other forms of spoken videos and short documentary reports. In short, an audiovisual stream wherein the politics is mostly diffuse and undefined but the voice is that of the street, and above all the youth.
Here (to conclude) I sense another continuity with the political film movement of the earlier period, which returns us to Mario’s remarks in the interview about the film-maker’s encounter with reality, the imperative to go and meet it without preconceived schema, which he likens to Vertov’s concept of the kino-eye, although he didn’t know about that till later. Video not only makes this much easier to accomplish, but also facilitates the secondary elaboration that goes on in editing, which becomes a much faster process. If it often loses finesse as a consequence, then rough edges don’t necessarily impair the result, but serve as signs of a sense of urgency expressed through minimal means and close to zero budget. This is an aesthetic that challenges the image-making of the mainstream media and bears comparison with Fredric Jameson’s description of the alternative aesthetic politics of the earlier period, that it transforms its own ‘imperfect’ mode of cinema into a strength and a choice, a sign of its own distinct origins and content. But maybe today there’s something more: a small-media aesthetic that also offers a utopian model of a different way of organising politics. In that case, this suggests one final element of continuity with past political aspirations for the media, for of course the first to dream of the democratic potential of the mass media, back in the 1920s and 30s, were Dziga Vertov and Bertolt Brecht.