Buenos Aires - Big screen dreams

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Although some big-budget productions make their way out of Argentina, the heart of local cinema lies with independent filmmakers who, despite their shoestring budgets, conjure up award-winning movies time and again. Oryx talks to the man behind Bafici, and the co-directors of a US$3,000 film selected for Cannes.

Although El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) – a film with big names and a bigger budget estimated at US$2m – returned Argentine cinema to the spotlight after snapping up the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010, the local industry is alive and kicking thanks to hundreds of independent filmmakers who are waiting for their moment to shine like an anxious extra.

Argentina also hosts the annual Mar del Plata international film festival – an A-grade affair that jostles with the big boys from Berlin, Cannes, and Cairo – which has been taking place since 1954: a sure indication that the country has long had a romance with cinema.

Despite the short-lived glamour and obvious boost that awards bring, Argentina offers an ideal platform to see local and regional films made on a shoestring at the Buenos Aires Independent and International Film Festival (Bafici).

Taking place from April 6-17, 2011 and now in its 13th year, the festival started out with a cluster of screenings in 1999 and has emerged to become one of the largest of such events in Latin America, according to its artistic director, Sergio Wolf.

Liliana Mazure

“It’s the city’s biggest film festival, and with respect to independent filmmakers it’s the most important in the region, in my opinion. Other regional festivals have started up off the back of Bafici, and some have even changed their profile to incorporate more independent films,” he says. “It has grown so much it is now the window to see the year’s newest, riskiest, and most cutting-edge cinema of the year.”
Lip service

One film that made its debut at Bafici 2010 then went on to take Cannes, the ritziest festival of them all, by storm was Los labios (The Lips). Co-directed and co-scripted by Iván Fund and Santiago Loza, this docu-drama is cutting-edge not only for a slashed budget – a paltry US$3,000 is what the duo had to shoot with – but also for its combination of art and reality. Snapped up the day of Loza’s birthday for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category last April, its protagonists Eva Bianco, Victoria Raposo, and Adela Sánchez jointly shared that section’s Best Actress prize for their interpretation of three nurses who treat real patients in the rural and impoverished Sante Fe province.
Although Loza says Bafici’s reception “had a huge impact and was important”, being selected for Cannes and whisked off to the south of France a month later was incredible. “We couldn’t believe it as Cannes doesn’t accept already-screened films in general,” he adds, while Fund says: “And not usually ones with such a small budget.”

The directors concur: “It was an out-of-this-world experience that will probably never happen again. The interviews, the heat, the parties, and the films we watched – it was a tiring but wonderful time, especially when the actresses won their award.”

Although Los labios was produced on a shoestring, local filmmakers can access a slice of the US$10 million that Argentina’s INCAA film and audiovisual arts institute distributes each year, either as a loan or a subsidy.

Shots from Los Labios

Talking about the current state of the country’s cinema, the body’s president Liliana Mazure, a Bafici producer in 2001, says: “Independent films make up almost 100% of productions because there aren’t any large studios here, so most films have a very small budget. However, in 2010, 154 films were made with 110 reaching cinemas. Thanks to its creativity and production capacity, Argentine cinema is currently seeing huge expansion and lots of Latin American co-productions are taking place.”

Too good to be true

Not only allowing first-time directors to make their debut, Bafici is a hub of activity for other festivals’ programmers, who come from Sundance, London Film Festival (LFF), and Rotterdam among others, as well as producers looking for their next perfect vehicle. From its base in the Abasto neighbourhood, which is usually associated with tango, the industry’s great and good gather for seminars, screenings, and rendezvous over the course of 12 days, trying to watch as much as they can possibly squeeze in.

“Last year more than 40 Argentine feature-length films premiered at Bafici, and around 12 of those came from directors making their debut,” says Wolf, adding that plenty of films travelled to other festivals. “The problem with Bafici is that there are too many good films to choose from – and that makes me proud. El ambulante (The Peddler), for example, went to London, and it had been picked up at Bafici by the LFF programmer.” Directed by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, and Adriana Yurcovich, the humorous documentary, which follows a filmmaker determined to make a movie in a rural village despite not owning a camera, has picked up ten awards in the past year, including the People’s Choice at Bafici.

Shots from Los Labios

Independent cinema is almost synonymous with Argentine expression – economic crises and dictatorships over the years have dealt creativity a full house, forcing filmmakers to find a way of making their scripts a reality. While 14,000 students attend film schools around the country (the prestigious UCINE/University of Cinema is located in the San Telmo neighbourhood which was one of the top three locations in Buenos Aires in 2010), equally others keen to get behind a camera will simply go for it with some friends “because they have the urge to do so,” says Wolf. “Bafici has an unwritten, open-door policy for such directors, and they know that they can offer us their work.”

The mentality of ‘go out and shoot’ doesn’t tend to exist in countries such as France, adds Fund. “It doesn’t happen much because it doesn’t occur to people to take a risk, or work but not get paid.”

Looking ahead to this year’s Bafici, film buffs can look forward to seeing more participation from Argentine producers, according to Wolf. Although the selection won’t be confirmed until mid-March, whatever local talent has conjured up over the past 12 months is sure to be magical on the big screen.

And the winner is…

Argentina has picked up two Oscars for El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes; 2010) and La historia official (The Official Story; 1986).

Both won best foreign language film, and each dealt with Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, a still-open wound as many ‘disappeared’ people remain unaccounted for. Focusing on the precursor to the dictatorship, big-budget thriller El secreto stars box-office draws Ricardo Darin, Soledad Villamil, and Guillermo Francella. Over a million film fans watched El secreto in the first month of its release, making it the most popular film in Argentina’s history.

Meanwhile, La historia official tackles the delicate and very real subject of adoption during the Dirty War, in which sympathisers of the cause were ‘rewarded’ with newborn babies taken from imprisoned ‘subversives’. Thirty-four years later, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights organisation is still trying to reunite children with their blood relatives.

El secreto’s director, Juan José Campanella, is renowned for his work on TV show House, and his next film Metegol (Table Football) is set for release in 2012. Luis Puenzo also started out in television and his debut La historia official, filmed while the Dirty War was ending, picked up prizes from Cannes, Toronto, and Berlin that same year.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Distance: 13,319 km
Flight Time: 18 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: Daily via São Paulo

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Comments (5)
good article
Angela | 29.03.2011, 18:41 BAFICI
Nice article, Sorrel. Can't wait for BAFICI to get started. I missed it last year and still haven't seen most of the films I wanted to. It's just more exciting at a film festival than at home.
Ginger Gentile | 25.04.2011, 16:31 A great place to film
loved the article, I´m a filmmaker from NY who has a production company in Buenos Aires, Argentina called San Telmo Productions. We offer complete production services to TV crews, film crews and documentaries who want to take advantage of the low costs and great value that Argentina has to offer. We blog at http://FilmingInArgentina.wordpress.com where we blog in English about the local film scene.
Stephen Page | 02.05.2011, 21:37 Vagabound
Great article. Look forward to reading more.
Sorrel Moseley-Williams | 23.06.2011, 16:36 BAFICI
Just wondering what film picks people made as I was travelling for much of it! Thanks for the lovely comments!
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