Festival Daily

By Jason Lapeyre

The conquistador Ruy Díaz de Guzmán first referred to the territory as Tierra Argentina, Land of Silver, in the 17th century. Four hundred years later, we may do well to refer to it as the Land of Silver Nitrate, as Argentina has blessed the Festival this year with its highest contribution to date. There are six films from the region in the current lineup, and they are all remarkable in their own way. 

“Not only do we have continuity with those filmmakers who were part of the New Argentine Cinema that became so acclaimed in the late 1990s,” says TIFF programmer Diana Sanchez, “but we have new voices from first-time feature filmmakers that are groundbreaking and original.”

Covering aspects of Argentine life through approaches ranging from the light urban comedy of Gabriel Medina’s The Paranoids to the poetic, child’s-eye view of maternal instability and rural Patagonia in Pablo Agüero’s Salamandra, the films are pulsing with vitality despite their somewhat dark subject matter. This clash of innocence and brutality is especially evident in Pablo Trapero’s Lion’s Den, the grim story of a woman raising a baby in prison, which is almost magical in the way it summons forth warm emotions from the audience using images of unremitting bleakness.

But why now? What’s happening in Argentina to cause this surge of incredible filmmaking in 2008? The Festival Daily spoke with the creators behind some of these films to find out what provoked such an outpouring of great cinema.

The Paranoids is the charming story of the hopelessly paranoid Luciano, an aspiring screenwriter who obsessively Googles his own name and calls HIV help lines only to hang up, too afraid to know and too worried not to. Luciano discovers that his childhood best friend has gone on to become a successful television producer by creating a show about a paranoid loser named… Luciano. Daniel Hendler’s portrayal of Luciano is magnetic, making him both pathetic and endearing yet somehow, still pretty cool. The film was produced by Sebastian Aloi, who first studied economics before moving into film school in the early 1990s. “I don’t know why this year is bigger than others,” he says. “I think that most of the things that go on in Argentina do not stimulate filmmaking. The social and economic context doesn’t really help.” 

Earlier this decade, Argentina suffered an economic collapse from which it is still recovering. The country went through four presidents in 10 days, and bank accounts were frozen for tens of thousands of dollars. The crisis was declared over in 2005, but the future remains tenuous for many. “I guess we have many people with stories to tell, and this pressure is what we see,” says Aloi.

This optimism in the face of despair is certainly evident in Luciano, who struggles to keep from collapsing through crushing fear and anxiety, a predicament that usually leads to hilarious situations teetering on the edge of tragedy.

Salamandra, on the other hand, looks tragedy dead in the face, although through the eyes of a six-year-old. Its director, Pablo Agüero, was born in rural Patagonia, the rugged plains of southern Argentina, and raised in a shack without electricity. “I grew up among a people without cinema,” says Agüero. Much of his debut feature is inspired by that upbringing, and the filmmaker clearly identifies with the outsider status of Inti, his six-year-old protagonist. “The first monkey that did a figurative drawing drew the bars of his cage,” he says. “I was homeless for years, filling notebooks in the street with what I saw and was hearing. Now I spend a lot of time alone, observing, writing, reading, filming when I can. I believe in solitude.”

Agüero’s film begins with Inti being whisked away from the quiet stability of his grandmother’s apartment by his mother, who has just returned from being a political prisoner under Argentina’s then-military dictatorship. Inti’s mother is unbalanced and given to rash decisions and rambling monologues that make it clear her relationship with the outside world is fragile. She takes him to live in a hippie commune (with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, strangely) and then to a cabin in a Patagonian valley. The strange sights and sounds are filtered through Inti’s innocence, and the net effect is a kind of voyeurism.

“Argentineans have no identity,” explains Agüero. “We live in a kind of dreamy cynicism.” Such a mindset is certainly understandable in a country that’s lived through the collapse of modern capitalism, but Inti’s innocence goes a long way toward restoring hope in the face of insanity.

Finally, Lion’s Den may be the heavyweight champion when it comes to conflating hope and despair. Julia (Martina Gusman) wakes up one morning and fails to notice the blood on her pillow. And in her hair. And on her back, in deep, slashing cuts. She also fails to notice the two dead men in her kitchen until she gets home from work that night and collapses in a howl of realization and foggy memories. She is quickly ushered through the Argentine legal system and sent to a prison for pregnant women and new mothers. At first an outsider, Julia eventually earns the respect of the jaded community through her stubborn stoicism. Trapero’s unflinching images capture a real poetry in the prison, setting innocent scenes of childhood against a decaying institution. And Gusman gives an inspiring performance as a mother almost Cool-Hand-Lukish in her refusal to cave to the enormous pressures trying to separate her from her son. The film ends on an ambiguously hopeful note, one that is of a piece with the “dreamy cynicism” described by Agüero. Whatever uncertainties lie in the future of this Land of Silver, a mediocre cinema is by no means one of them.

Sept. 12, 8:15pm, Varsity 6

Sept. 13, 3:15pm, Varsity 4

Sept. 13, 9:30am, Scotiabank Theatre 3