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New Argentine Moviemaking

New Argentine Moviemaking

Articles - Directing

Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson in Imagining

The film was Pizza, birra,
(Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes). You’ve probably
never heard of it, but it was the spark that ignited the New
Argentine Cinema. When it premiered at the International Mar
del Plata Film Festival in 1997, Adrián Caetano and Bruno
Stagnaro’s crude tale of a bunch of poor street-tough kids trying
to turn their lives around with a small-time robbery generated
more excitement than any Argentine film since Luis Puenzo’s The
Official Story (La Historia Oficial)
won the Oscar for Best
Foreign Film in 1986. 

But the excitement of 1997 was a very different kind from the
excitement of 1986. In 1986, Argentina was barely three years into
rebuilding its democratic society after nearly a decade of dictatorship
and state-sponsored terror. From 1975 to 1983, Argentina’s military “disappeared” as
many as 30,000 of its citizens, and when democracy was restored in 1983, moviemakers
embarked on a mission. Films like Héctor Olivera’s Funny Dirty Little
and Fernando “Pino” Solanas’ Tangos, the Exile of Gardel weren’t
mere movies. They sought to recover a stolen history. 

By 1997 a new generation of movie­makers was facing a new
set of challenges. Under the weight of an enormous national debt
(another legacy of the dictatorship), Argentina’s economy had spiraled
into hyperinflation in 1989, and unemployment—especially among
young adults— reached an all-time high. What little money there
was for film was going to older, more established moviemakers,
and even there the results were depressing. Sergio Wolf, film critic
and documentarian, details the fall: “If we are speaking about
the key filmmakers, Luis Puenzo had a flop with Old Gringo (starring
Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda); Carlos Sorin had a flop with Eversmile,
New Jersey
(with Daniel Day Lewis); Solanas’ The South,
likewise. Adolfo Aristarain had moved to Spain to film, and Maria
Luisa Bemberg was filming one of her last pictures and was already
quite old.” Worse, Argentine movies had become stiff, mannered
and clichéd. 

In contrast, Pizza, birra, faso (though nowhere near as
strong as Caetano’s solo follow-up, Bolivia), had
the three ingredients that represented a break with the “old” Argentine
cinema: dynamic camerawork, an unmannered style using mostly non-actors
and dialogue that could have rolled off the lips of people on the
street rather than the tip of a writer’s pen. 

Ricardo Darin, Norman Aleandro and Hector Alterio in Son
of the Bride

But Caetano and Stagnaro had not entered unchartered territory.
Local underground hero Raúl Perrone had already made 10
features on video, and Martín Rejtman, whom many consider
the first director of New Argentine Cinema, had enjoyed critical
success with Rapado. But the first to garner awards, receive positive
reviews and actually bring moviegoers to the theater was Pizza,
birra, faso

The film’s very title generated excitement among young audiences.
With its use of local slang rather than proper Spanish (“birra” instead
of “cerveza” for beer, “faso” which means “cigarette,” or “joint” to
anyone under 30), it suggested something exciting, something real,
something of their own everyday experience. Add to this a pulsing
soundtrack of cumbia villera music and a tale of unemployed youth,
and it was clear that something was happening here. 

As Caetano went to work on Bolivia, a lean drama about
an illegal Bolivian immigrant who comes to Buenos Aires to make
money to send back home, two of his peers were already deep into
their first features. In 1999, Pablo Trapero completed Crane
, an eloquent portrait of a middle-aged man—once the bassist
for a one-hit-wonder band in the ’70s, now unemployed, overweight
and separated—at a crossroads in his life. The following year,
Lucrecia Martel filmed La Ciénaga (based on her Sundance
Lab-winning screenplay), and raised the stakes for New Argentine
Cinema. La Ciénaga not only fit the rubric of the new cinema,
but it was both profoundly Argentine and displayed a high level
of technical virtuosity. 

Between these three projects, Argentine films won major awards
at Sundance and Berlin (La Ciénaga), Venice and Rotterdam
(Mundo Grúa) and Cannes (Bolivia).
Most importantly, these films expanded the local audience, sending
a message that this new cinema represented a diversity of young
moviemakers—not just Caetano his followers. Eduardo “Quintin” Antin,
editor-in-chief of El Amante Cine and director of the Buenos
Aires International Festival of Independent Film, explains: “What Pizza,
birra, faso
demonstrated was that a young director could
successfully make an important film that dealt with certain issues
and that brought different voices to the soundtrack, with a certain
amount of artistic freedom. But it wasn’t anything that, in formalistic
terms, has had any continuity. There isn’t a Pizza, birra, faso

“The recent devaluation of the Argentine
peso has made filming in Argentina the best buy a moviemaker
or producer could imagine…”

A cursory survey of any handful of films shows the diversity of
New Argentine Cinema. Plots range from a woman who becomes obsessed
with meeting others who share her name (Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto )
to a pair of punky lesbians who pick up an overweight straight
girl to prove their love (Diego Lerman’s Tan de repente). 

The influence of New Argentine Cinema’s realistic dialogue and
production styles can be seen in films like Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine
, which did very well at the U.S. box office and is currently
being remade in the U.S. by Gregory Jacobs as Criminal,
as well as in Juan José Campanella’s Oscar-nominated Son
of the Bride

Of Carlos Sorin, whose Minimal Stories   swept
festival prizes in Europe and Latin America and is coming to U.S.
theaters later this year, Wolf says: “There was definitely a change.
Compared to La pélicula del rey, which
was Sorin’s first film, Minimal Stories is a complete inversion.
One is a megalomaniacal, gigantic project to create the story of
the king of Patagonia and the other is a minimal story about a
poor retiree in search of his dog.” 

New Argentine Cinema has also increased interest on the part of
American producers in filming their own work in Argentina. Faye
Dunaway, who wrapped Jennifer’s Shadow in Buenos Aires this
past September, told Le Nacion she was attracted to the
project because she was “very interested in the innovative work
of Latin American filmmakers.” 

Diego Lerman’s Tan de repente (2002) and Fabián
Bielinsky’s Nine Queens (2000) show New Argentine Cinema’s
crossover appeal.

In the case of Imagining Argentina, it was the cause of
the “disappeared” that brought director Christopher Hampton to
the country. Hampton first received the film’s script in 1989,
after winning the Oscar for Best Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons,
and campaigned for 11 years before finally getting support from
Myriad to make the film. When he arrived in Buenos Aires for the
first time, he was “surprised at the city’s ‘European-ness.’” Says
Hampton: “I’ve been to a good number of cities in South America
and Buenos Aires is unique. It is a dreamlike, displaced city.”

Moviemaker David Moreton first went to Argentina for a break from
pre-production on his second feature, Testosterone, and
was immediately taken with the city.  Between the lower production
costs and the city’s “very distinctive look,” he decided to rewrite
the script for Buenos Aires. Says Moreton: “It has a great mix
of sophistication and a sort of sultry, sexiness that fit the film

Julia Solomonoff, an Argentine moviemaker who has been living
and working in the U.S. for the past seven years, has opted for
an Argentine producer for her feature-length Hermanas, which
takes place in both Texas and Argentina, because she feels “the most
critical artistic decisions that I need to make—those places where
I can’t compromise the film without weakening its emotional impact—will
be better nurtured by the kind of support and freedom that a director
gets in Argentina.” 

Further, the recent devaluation of the Argentine peso has made
filming in Argentina the best buy a moviemaker or producer could

rolo Azpeitía, who produced Herencia, winner of
the first prize at the Miami International Film Festival, gives
a realistic idea of the costs: “We made Herencia before
the devaluation for around $750,000. But if we had to do it today,
the total cost—from start to finish—would be somewhere around $500,000.” Octavio
Nadal of Patagonik Films, which produced both Nine Queens and Son
of the Bride
, says either of those films could be filmed today
in Argentina for around $800,000. “In terms of production services,
a film that costs half a million below-the-line is our level of
film… today’s independent filmmaker is an important client for

Axel Kustchevasky, publisher/editor of La Cosa and a programmer
and creative consultant to Telefe (one of Argentina’s largest TV
stations), makes an even more dramatic claim: “For $200,000 U.S.,
you can make a film in Argentina that looks like it cost $1 million.” 

Even more impressive is that in 2003 alone, right in the middle
of this economic crisis, Argentina produced a total of 61 films
that have, to date, won over 115 awards in festivals internationally.
In 2004 and 2005, almost all of the major players are coming out
with films: Martel with La niña santa, Trapero with Familia rodante,
Caetano with Después del mar, Rejtman with Los
guantes mágicos
, Campanella with La luna de Avellaneda,
Sorin with Le chien, Puenzo with La puta y la ballena and
Bielinsky with El aura. 

Ironically, with so much production and all of its success in
Latin American and European festivals, New Argentine Cinema is
not well known in the U.S. While the Film Society of Lincoln Center
has been promoting these films since 1997 (bringing films like
Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto to audiences through their Latin
Beat and New Directors/New Films series), only now are some of
these films getting American distribution deals. Marcela Goglio,
one of the co-curators of Latin Beat, admits “It has been a slow
start,” but points out that the audience for Argentine film has
grown enormously and distributors are finally taking note. She
confirms, “a change is definitely happening.” MM

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