New? Latin American? Cinema?

The proper title of Havana’s annual film festival, founded in 1979, is the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema – Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano.  The words mark the Festival’s identification with a movement that was born in the 1960s, in the diverse endeavours of a new generation of filmmakers across the continent. The Festival remains a model of its kind after thirty-five years, the programme not only full of films in cinemas across town but also workshops and masterclasses of all sorts. This year’s centre-piece seminar (in which I was privileged to be one of the panelists) boldly addressed the Festival’s very raison d’être, under the title ¿Nuevo? ¿Cine? ¿Latinoamericano? – ‘New? Latin American? Cinema?’ It went along with perhaps the strangest festival promo you’ve ever seen, beautifully made by Pavel Giroud, in which an old projectionist switches off his projector, takes the reel off and goes and buries it.

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The term dates from a meeting of Latin American filmmakers in Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1967, when many of them met each other for the first time and recognised in the radical low-budget films they were making a commonality of purpose, which was less a question of style, like French or British new wave of the same decade, but political – the rejection of Hollywood dominance and the Hollywood model of cinema, the creation instead of a new kind of cinema with local roots; in short, a call to revolutionise both form and content, both the mode of production and that of representation. Indeed they succeeded, and films by directors like Glauber Rocha, Miguel Littín, Jorge Sanjinés and T.G.Alea (from Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and Cuba respectively) were among the most exciting of the decade anywhere in the world, not to mention documentarists like Cuba’s Santiago Alvarez, or in Argentina, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Their mutual understanding emerged directly from the historical conjuncture: the wave of revolutionary anti-imperialism that in the wake of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, swept through the continent in bitter and bloody struggle against right-wing governments and military dictatorships emboldened by Washington’s fear of Communism. Filmmakers were liable to find themselves in the front line; some of them disappeared, others were forced into exile.  After years of supporting oppositional filmmakers from across the continent, Havana was a natural home for the new film festival. I was lucky to find myself there at the founding festival in 1979, the year the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua; the festival proudly premiered the first Sandinista newsreel straight out of the labs in Havana. Heady days.

And yet by the mid-80s, the idea of ‘nuevo cine latinoamericano’ was beginning to unravel – over the same years that saw the demise of military dictatorships in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and finally, at the end of the decade, Chile. A signal shift was taking place in the geopolitical cultural imaginary. At a conference of film scholars I went to in 1986 at the University of Iowa, the suggestion was made that New Latin American Cinema had been more of a utopian ideal than a reality, that the political imperative which held it together was becoming diluted, and it would be better to speak in the plural of nuevos cines latinoamericanos. A year later, the issue was taken up in Havana at the Festival and provoked heated debate. But if the question isn’t a new one, time has made it paradoxical. Once raised it has never gone away, because in independent Latin American cinema of more recent years, for all the cinematic transformations of the last couple of decades, something of the original impulse persists: a certain sensibility, and the claim, at once cultural and political, to express the imagined community of the region. And now here we are debating it again.

The seminar began appropriately with the presentation of a new book by the Peruvian Isaac León Frías, El Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano de los sesenta. Entre el mito político y la modernidad fílmica (‘The New Latin American Cinema of the Sixties: Between political myth and cinematic modernity’), where he argues that the movement was an idea of its moment which took many different forms, was not at all monolithic, and included partial articulations, not all of them marked by political engagement but representing significant formal experiment. The implications of this expanded view of the movement for the question in hand were shared by the contributions that followed, each from their own perspective (including the Uruguayan Jorge Ruffinelli of Stanford University; the Cubans Joel del Río, Enrique Álvarez, Víctor Fowler, Manuel Herrera and Festival director Ivan Giroud; the American feminist critic Ruby Rich; and the international journalist Ignacio Ramonet). In Manuel Herrera’s view, for example, ‘the same aesthetics and positions as then, only expressed in forms that belong to today’s new generation’. Del Río was more specific, speaking of certain common elements in the new and the old, like the reflection of marginality, a documentary vision, direct sound, non-professional actors and minimal budgets. But there was also deep concern for the challenge of the new digital technologies and the loss of the traditional form of cinema as a collective audience experience.

(For Readers of Spanish: links to reports on the Seminar.)

What follows is the written outline of my own contribution. (I’m amused to find that in the photo used by the Festival’s daily paper to report on the event, it’s myself that’s talking.)

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¿Nuevo? ¿Cine? ¿Latinoamericano?

Allow me to take the terms of the debate in reverse order.

1. Latin American?

There’s a paradox running through the history of cinema – the economic regime of cinema is transnational with regard to distribution, while production is nationally based. To be sure there are coproduction mechanisms, but films continue to be identified by country. In fact from the very beginning cinema constituted a form of what only much later would be called globalisation. Before Hollywood emerged in foremost position at the end of WWI, there was no country capable of producing enough to satisfy its own market, so distribution was already international.

Until the coming of sound, Hollywood had two advantages. First, it rapidly developed the largest national market in the world (at that moment). This attracted investment by the New York bankers, and produced an economic advantage: the costs of production were recovered in the home market (very difficult nowadays) and films could be sold abroad cut-price, undercutting local producers, known as dumping. Nowadays, films are dumped on television and other so-called secondary markets like DVD, which may well outstrip the box-office take, nationally and internationally.

Second, there was originally no language problem, because written texts could be easily translated. With the talkies, the world of cinema was divided up by language, and one result was the emergence with greater force than before of national cinemas, exploiting both speech and music. But it’s not so simple – the UK, for example, already suffered the domination of Hollywood in the 1930s, and not for the last time, because of sharing the same language as the USA (leading not just to the easy invasion of Hollywood movies, but also investment in the British film industry, when they didn’t rob the talent). Another example: the musical films made by Carlos Gardel in the 30s were not shot in Argentina, but in Paris and New York.

In this perspective, Latin America shares a language (except for Brazil) and it should have seen the creation of a continental film market, which was impeded, however, by the way the economic mechanisms of the cultural market worked, in short, the methods of what was called cultural imperialism, the process of unequal exchange in the market which supports the unequal symbolic exchange of the cultural object. Consequently the rise in the 60s of the Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano reflects a fundamental development: the discovery through cinema of a shared cultural politics. It was due, in other words, to the political-cultural will of filmmakers from different countries who discovered that they comprised a continent-wide movement, with common concerns  and political evaluations within their cultural diversity.

The first conclusion, then: it needs to be asked in what way this economic and cultural context has changed, if indeed it has, or if there are important aspects of the New Latin American Cinema, its dreams and aspirations, which have not disappeared, although styles have shifted, once-abandoned genres have been restored to life, and so forth. But the underlying economic condition which positions the film industry in each country is the same now, broadly speaking, as it always has been, and nor has the image of Latin America and its individual countries lost its marginality in the mainstream media of Europe and North America.

On the other hand, the world political context has changed greatly, first with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the second world, and most recently, the crisis of capitalism which exploded in 2008. This crisis has produced a globalisation of popular protest which hasn’t been seen since the 60s, although today with different focus points. Among other things, growing ecological consciousness. That this orientation is pretty strong in Latin America is something I discovered a few years ago when I gave a workshop in documentary at a small festival in Uruguay, attended not by students but young filmmakers with very well prepared projects; a good proportion had chosen ecological themes. Here you could find an awareness of the contemporary world in global perspective. In the 60s, Latin America identified itself as one of the three continents of the Third World; today it thinks about the whole planet, south and north, west and east all together – which also returns to indigenous roots, to the rights of Pachamama, the earth goddess, invoked in Bolivia by Evo Morales.

2. Cine?

There are big changes here, and another question arises: the new technology. In the 80s, analogue video came along as an alternative means of production at two levels: professional for television, and other low-quality formats which opened up a new non-television sector. A new sector of alternative production now emerges in Latin America, mainly documentary and sometimes in highly unfavourable conditions, like Chile under dictatorship, where video proved more practical than film because it was more suited to clandestine shooting and distribution. In the 90s comes digital video, and about ten years ago, the internet as a medium of dissemination.

The result is that the word ‘cine’ (cinema, film) becomes ambiguous, imprecise, because video is significantly different from cinema, and a new somewhat inelegant term emerges: audio-visual. Television is a medium that among other things reproduces films, like radio reproduces recorded music. Video as a medium dethrones the primacy of the image, placing it on par with the aural. It is even possible to consider video as an oral form, where speech is accompanied by the image. For example, take the indigenous video movement which first appeared in Brazil at the end of the 80s – should we think of this as a form of film or cinema, or something new and distinct? In a couple of videos about the movement made at the time for North American audiences, the participants in the movement speak of it as a kind of television. (‘Video in the Villages’, 1989, and ‘The Spirit of TV’, 1990, both by Vincent Carelli.) As such, video encourages the development of genres which originate not on the big screen but the small screen, as well as new genres like the video-letter which is sent by one community to others. In the same way, how should we think of an example like cine piquetero, the militant community video movement in Argentina at the start of the millennium, which also arose before internet platforms like YouTube? Solanas himself claimed it was like the re-birth of Third Cinema. Was that just wishful thinking, or could it really be seen that way? Is it, perhaps, that what in those years was called cine militante is now called video activism? (This includes the new phenomenon of citizen journalism, which I’ll come back to.)

Video has completely replaced photographic film for documentary production throughout the world, and is in process of doing so for feature production and now also exhibition. Nevertheless, none of this changes the rules of the game of cinema as big business, subject to a small group of major distributors, operating like a cartel to dominate screens across most of the world. But video has other effects: the democratisation of audio-visual production, the opportunity for non-professional participation in front of and behind the camera, and perhaps above all, creation and dissemination outside the market by means of the internet. This is of paramount importance since it has the potential to overturn the functioning of every market in cultural goods, because it eliminates all exchange value if the object can be freely reproduced. The film industry speaks of piracy, which clearly happens on large scale, but what the internet creates is a new parallel public sphere in virtual form, where, as has often been said, information and creation desire to be free. This is not just a piece of conventional wisdom, but points to a fundamental antinomy between commercial forces and the public commons.

3. New?

Here again another question arises, because what was then new has now become classic, or if it hasn’t, then it’s been forgotten, lost in the archives (including many films which deserve to be recovered as classics). So we need to address the problematics of continuity and renovation. What impresses me about the new generation of Latin American filmmakers is that they do not reject what preceded them, they don’t suffer from Oedipal rebellion against their fathers, in the same way that high modernism in Europe a century ago – abstract art, cubism, surrealism, atonality, etc. – was the repudiation and rejection of the bourgeois art of the previous century. Or the rejection of the dominant cinema by the generation of the New Latin American Cinema. This is also to say that sibling rivalry has less traction than a sense of brother-and-sisterhood, or solidarity, which  extends across the generations.

The new is born within the old. The audiovisual universe still needs to resist the hegemony of the cinema majors; for example, by pursuing new policies at a global level, like the fight for the ‘cultural exception’ – the argument that cultural goods should not be treated like regular commodities. It isn’t easy, as can be seen in the practice of coproduction. Coproduction may seem an effective solution for small countries, but can also create problems. When it operates across continents, between Latin America and Europe, for example, the demands of the foreign coproducer can distort the film’s cultural character and integrity, a result of the same unequal and unbalanced relations in the international market as before.

In fact, a strong case can be made that the universe of the screen reproduces the same division into three that is found in the theory of the three cinemas proposed in the famous manifesto, ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, by Solanas and Getino in 1968. Remember, this is not about a physical geography which is now defunct, that’s to say, a vocabulary which after the disappearance of the second world no longer makes sense. The three cinemas in question belong to the virtual world of the screen, and remain in evidence:

First cinema is comprised of major commercial production industries wherever they’re found (Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood). Second cinema, roughly speaking the art movie and auteur cinema, can be very radical, and often deals with themes that first cinema would never touch. From my European perspective I think of directors like Michael Hanecke, whose entire corpus is totally unthinkable within first cinema; ditto Ken Loach, who has publicly rejected any idea of working in Hollywood – which in recent years has seduced several successful Latin American directors. Nevertheless the bulk of independent Latin American cinema nowadays belongs to this category. Third Cinema is quite another thing, and extremely difficult to find within established distribution systems, because it escapes and opposes itself to the domination of consumerist values. It is essentially anti-capitalist.

This is very schematic, and some immediate qualifications are needed. For one thing, the distinctions are not restrictive, the categories are not closed. According to the film scholar Teshome Gabriel, the most interesting films are often those that fall between the categories – he gives the example of Cuban directors like Humberto Solás or T.G.Alea, who as directors are auteurs, while their films express the revolutionary values of third cinema. For present purposes, however, the crucial thing is that with digital video and the internet, the biggest growth area is in what Solanas & Getino called third cinema, precisely because – as already mentioned – it functions outside the market. The greatest impact of this expansion is in the terrain of documentary and non-fiction.

This is where citizen journalism comes in. The non-professional videos of demonstrations and protests filmed by people in the streets with their mobile phones, has had huge impact in creating an immediate and alternative representation of public events than the version promulgated by the mass media. There is nowadays no popular protest movement anywhere in the world that is not accompanied by hundreds of cameras filming what happens. (By the same token, there are also more nefarious uses, like groups engaged in one form of violent action or another who produce their own videos.) In the process, and despite the troubles with amateurism, video becomes as potentially universal a skill as literacy, and the representation of the social world undergoes a shift of register. That this becomes the basis for the renovation of documentary that can be seen, for example, in some of the longer videos coming out of the student movement in Chile. But this is only one example, and filmmakers respond to new opportunities in quite different ways. All told, a repositioning of documentary is happening everywhere, to a greater or lesser degree, as the mass media face a new form of competition in the public interpretation of the world, and the institutional documentary struggles to retain credibility.

The problem for the filmmaker? Producing for free is no way to make a living, so as the saying goes, don’t give up your day job – if you’ve got one.


For readers with Spanish: Report from Progreso Havana on YouTube:

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