The Philadelphia Latino Film Festival: independent latino vision

Independent cinema thrives in Philadelphia. Many films come through the city by way of the Philadelphia Film Society and the cinemas in Old City. Philadelphia Film Society has its annual festival in October and international, national and local films are shown, some of which continue to receive prizes and acclaim in larger festivals. PFS recently bought the Roxy and the Prince Theatres, which gives them a permanent space to screen. The three Ritz cinemas in Old City regularly present independent films and have 11 screens, but these venues tend to show films with larger budgets and from more experienced filmmakers.

The Latino Film Festival offers another option. This year, it presents its fourth film festival at the Caplan Recital Hall at the University of the Arts on Broad Street. The festival includes discussions, films, receptions and live performances. Highlights of the festival include the film The Liberator about Gran Colombia’s Simón Bolivar, Canción de barrio, which is a documentary from contemporary Cuba, and the discussion  Filmmaking for Social Change. 
Although Simón Bolivar originally was from Caracas (in the provincia of Venezuela while under Spanish rule), he led a revolution that resulted in the creation of a new republic, Gran Colombia, which lasted from 1819-30. It included the modern day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panamá.

Bestia de Cardo  was the first film show in the festival at 1:00 pm on June 20, 2015. I attended this screening and was excited to see a film from the Dominican Republic, since I had never seen one. Virginia Sanchez Navarro is the writer and director, and also stars as “Moira,” the protagonist. The story focuses on a young Dominican woman who leaves the island to study in New York and her very specific issues with her family and the local high society. It is obvious from the film that the writer/director has a theatre background. While watching, I felt from the beginning, the strong theatrical influence, with interior monologues, soliloquies, the emphasis on the darkness and very quick scene changes. The plot was quite strong but it depends a lot on symbolism, which is sometimes harder to depict on the screen than on stage. The overuse of dark scenes (nearly the entire film) was exhausting to the viewer, and the uni-lateral perspective from the protagonist forced the viewer into her gaze, even though the protagonist was not a very sympathetic character. I think that these strategies would have been amazing in a stage play but made for an uncomfortable movie going experience. (Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s intention and I am curious to see what the reaction will be from a wider audience).

The meaning of it all becomes clear at the end of the film, but it is a long road to get there, in which the audience may be perplexed and frustrated at times, trying to make sense of it. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant and poignant story and you do feel something for Hermes and Moira. And it is, after all, a first film. It takes time to develop a style and also a budget! With a larger artistic team (and a separation between actor and director–directing and acting in the same movie is something that is quite difficult to accomplish even for the most experienced of filmmakers), cinematography can be further developed to bring out the strengths of the medium to support the story.

I was looking forward to hearing from the director herself about some of these choices, as she was scheduled to give a question and answer after the screening. But unfortunately, she was unable to leave the Dominican Republic and had to cancel. Although unintentional and a disappointment, this was ironic since it parallels  Bestia de Cardo. We’d just watched a fictional feature film in which the main character constantly struggles to leave behind (either physically or mentally) the hypocritical high society of her town in the Dominican Republic. Still enveloped in the aura and ambiance of Bestia de Cardo, it almost seemed fitting and definitely pardonable that the director, who also starred as “Moira”, would somehow be thwarted in leaving the country to escape to Philadelphia.

The Fourth Annual Philadelphia Latino Film Festival continues this weekend. Don’t miss it or these independent latino films, the discussions and the performances. Check the website for more information: http://www.phlaff.org/

The Book of Life: Testimony of a Shared Heritage?

For centuries the United States (and what were once the British colonies/US territories) has been intertwined with the people who live in the area today known as Mexico. In fact, part of the USA, the state of Texas and much of the Southwest was part of Spanish territory. Although in the north of the USA one does not readily feel this legacy as strongly, it is quite obvious in the region that used to be part of Spanish territory/Mexico, and that currently share a border with Mexico.
United_States_1789-08-1790-04
As a child growing up in New York City, Spanish was always there, but there were no (or very few) Mexicans. The majority of Spanish speakers were Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans, and perhaps some Cubans. Gradually this began to change and today in New York City (and its tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut), Spanish speakers hail from all over Latin America and Spain. There is even a sizeable Mexican immigrant population–even though some of them hardly speak Spanish, but indigenous languages.  It is fascinating to see today that Mexican culture has spread from the Southwest to the East Coast via more recent immigration. The midwest already had a Mexican-American population which came by early railroad to work in agricultural and meat packing industries some four generations ago.

Words like “fiesta,” “cinco de mayo,” “loco”, “no problema” are now part of the American English lexicon. Americans not only eat at Mexican restaurants and fast food joints, but also have been preparing chile, tacos and other Mexican-derived foods for decades. Go into any grocery store in the country and you’ll find tortillas, guacamole, tortilla chips, jalapeños and salsa. In spite of the love-hate relationship with Mexico–the rejection of it expressed through rabid xenofobia and prejudice against Mexican immigrants, and the acceptance through the consistent use of cheap immigrant labor and more positively, the cultural mixing–it cannot be denied that there are certain areas of the USA that have always been hispanic. These are: Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. For sure,  Mexico and many things mexican, are now in our blood.

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The fun and colorful children’s film The Book of Life (in Spanish: El libro de la vida) is a reflection of this history and cultural intermingling. It unites a cast of talented, mostly latino voice actors to tell a love story–the triangle between Manolo, Joaquín and Maria. Guillermo del Toro, of Mexican descent produced the animated feature and Plácido Domingo (opera) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) and Kate del Castillo (Mexican soap operas and Bajo la misma luna) are well known international celebrities that lend their talents.

The Mexican holiday, Dia de los muertos, The Day of the Dead, is prominent in the film. This holiday has Aztec origins but was tolerated by the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is a remembering of those that have passed on. But unlike the somber funeral of mourning, that is characteristic of death in U.S. culture, it is celebratory and festive. The Day of the Dead is often celebrated as two days in some parts of Mexico. One day is in rememberance of the infants and children who have died and the other day is for the adults. The concept behind it is that by remembering what these people were like, one will feel their presence on The Day of the Dead.  They will return in spirit. Mexican people who celebrate it, go to cemetaries with flowers, music and food and have a big party to welcome back their dead ancestors. They also make altars at home too, with candles, skulls, mask, and figurines that represent their dead loved ones and ancestors. There is a special pan de muertos (bread for the dead) that is baked for this holiday. The figurines show their deceased family doing activities that they enjoyed doing while alive and other foods and beverages that they liked are also prepared. All of these features of the holiday appear in the movie and the characters even look like the skeletal dolls that represent the dead on the altars.

Day of the Dead figures

Day of the Dead figures

The movie is lighthearted and the characters endearing. It is full of color, music and folklore. It is spoken and sung mostly in English, but there is a Spanish version that is playing in Spanish speaking countries. The Book of Life meshes the Mexican with the United States language (English) and its manner of presenting the story is simple and accessible to most. It is perhaps consoling to Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest, and familiar to a younger generation of “anglos” who have learned of Day of the Dead in school or in community events. At any rate, this is an uplifting and fun story that is educational and enjoyable to watch unfold. Go see it!

Life-Changing Music in Venezuela

For a long time I have been impressed with the  program, EL SISTEMA. This is a government sponsored program in Venezuela that has been in existence for some 30 years. It provides Venezuelan children (most of them in the program are poor or working class) with a music education. It gives them a chance to learn how to play a musical instrument, play in an ensemble or sing in chorus. There are even choruses for deaf children who make music with hand gestures. With dedication and gusto, these young musicians experience the beauty of music every day of their lives, and that is life changing.

In December of 2012 I attended a concert of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Gustavo Dudamel in Philadelphia. The ensemble played with such passion and commitment. I honestly had not experienced such an exciting performance of an instrumental group since I was a teenager and heard my first live concert at Lincoln Center in New York City. There were several encores for the Venezuela ensemble. I thought the audience was going to break out into a riot–there was so much energy in the hall, and genuine admiration and pride for this talented maestro and his orchestra expressed by standing ovations, applause and screaming.

There are two films available about this program. One is in Spanish and is called EL SISTEMA. The other is TOCAR Y LUCHAR and is multilingual.  I highly recommend the uplifting documentary, TOCAR Y LUCHAR, for those who want to see the children playing and hear commentary by such important musicians as Sir Simon Rattle and Plácido Domingo.

 

A New Brazilian Film: History of Love and Fury (translation)

 

“Rio 2096: Uma história de amor e fúria”   is a new Brazilian film that premiered in 2013. It is an independent film that has already won some awards, revolutionary in its themes and form. It is an animated film, a rarity in Brazilian cinema, which critiques and presents a different version of Brazilian history—one from the point of view of the Tupinamba indigenous people. The hero lives for 600 years. He’s been given the power of immortality and the ability to remember his lives over the centuries. His mission is to deliver the tupi people to the land without evil. This mission, along with his deep love for Janaína (who appears as different women over the ages—but she does not recognize him or realize that she has been reborn) gives him the strength to continue his struggle.

The film takes the spectator on a journey through Brazilian history. For example, it includes the extermination of the Tupinambá Indians, the Balaiada Revolution in Maranhão, the creation of the Brazilian military, the military dictatorship that started in the 1960s and a dystopian future, in which the corporation “Aquabrás” controls all the water in Rio de Janeiro. The “marvelous city” has turned into a dark nightmare in this film. There is no light—neither figuratively nor literally. From its beginnings, Rio de Janeiro has been described as a tropical paradise, full of nature due to the Bay of Guanabara, the Tujica tropical forest, and its beaches. But in 2096 the city is portrayed as a concrete jungle, corrupt, with a weak Christ the Redeemer statue—the poor thing has a broken arm!

The film is a critique of the “official history.” It offers another version by way of the indigenous perspective and mythology. But it is also a warning. It provokes some questions: What is the role of the police and military? How long will we continue to waste natural resources? In reality, who is the government? Recently, due to the protests over the last few months in Brazil, there has been a lot of talk about the masses becoming more politically aware. Some say “The giant (Brazil) has awoken.”  Is “Rio 2096: A History of Love and Fury” a result of this new consciousness, a natural consequence in film, or is this another challenge?

Novo filme brasileiro: Uma história de amor e fúria

“Rio 2096: Uma história de amor e fúria”  é um novo filme brasileiro que saiu em 2013. O filme é independente e ganhou alguns prêmios já. É revolucionário na sua temática e na sua forma. É um filme de animação–raridade no cinema brasileiro, que critica e oferece uma versão diferente da história brasileira–a través do ponto de vista do indígena tupinambá. O herói vive por mais de 600 anos, dado uma potência de imortalidade, de renascer e lembrar suas vidas.  O contexto do filme é a mitologia tupi-guarani. O herói deve levar seu povo para a terra sem maldade. Essa missão, e o amor para Janaína, são as motivações do herói para continuar sua luta e vencer durante seis séculos.

O filme leva o espetador por vários momentos históricos do Brasil. Por exemplo, a exterminação dos indígenas tupinambá, a Balaiada no Maranhão, a criação do exercito brasileiro, a ditadura militar e até um futuro distópico em que uma empresa “Aquabrás” controla toda a agua da cidade do Rio de Janeiro . A cidade maravilhosa no filme, virou pesadelo obscuro, sem iluminação–figurativa ou literal. O Rio de Janeiro, desde seus inicios, descrito como um paraíso no litoral, cheio de natureza da Bahia de Guanabara e da floresta da Tijuca, é no ano 2096 uma cidade de concreto, podre, com um fraco Cristo Redentor de braço quebrado.

O filme é uma critica da história “oficial”, outra versão dela a través da perspectiva e mitologia indígena, mas também uma advertência. Provoca estas questões: Quais são os papéis da policia e das forças militares?  Por quanto tempo vamos desperdiçar os recursos naturais? Na realidade, quem governa? Recentemente tem falado que “o gigante acordou” no Brasil, indicado pelos protestos dos últimos meses. É “Uma historia de amor e fúria” uma resulta desta nova consciência, uma manifestação cinematográfica consequente,  ou outro grito de alerta?

Eating Garbage in “Lixo Extraordinário” (Wasteland) — Documentary

             Cuban art critic, historian and curator, Gerardo Mosquera,  has made a career of defining Latin American Art. In articles and conferences he recognizes and explains Brazilian modernist, Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófogo” (Cannibalistic Manifesto), yet asserts that “Antropofogia” is no more and that it was a temporary movement that no longer fits contemporary Brazilian art.  According to Mosquera, Brazilian art has outgrown it and has become globalized, universal and abstract.  He also asserts that this cannibalism has negatives that have not been explored enough in more than 70 years, since its inception in 1922. Instead, antropofogia has been considered a positive way for Brazilian (and Latin American as a whole) artists to justify their use of imitation as a form of post-colonial resistance against the colonizer, the “center/metropolis” or the European/United States model. I translate that Mosquera cautions: Following the cannibalism metaphor, it is necessary to highlight the digestive battle that is implicit in this relationship: sometimes the consequences are addiction, constipation, or worse yet, diarrhea.” (Contra el arte latinoamericano:entrevista, 2009 http://arte-nuevo.blogspot.com/2009/06/contra-el-arte-  latinoamericano.html)

Nevertheless, Vik Muniz’  “pictures of garbage” is a 21st century example, par excellence, of Andrade’s “antropofogia,” (cannibalism).  It takes discarded items that are the culmination of years of colonization, imperialism and environmental degradation, involves some of the most marginalized people in Rio de Janeiro, parodies beloved paragons of European art, and combines them all to make a new Brazilian aesthetic. The artists figuratively ingest the garbage, transform it, and excrete it in the form of high art that revitalizes the lives of several individuals living on the margins of Brazilian society, making their livings by picking through the toxic refuse of an entire city.

A few years ago, Muniz, who now lives in New York City, decided to do an art project that would involve the people in a certain space and transform them through the art itself. He did not know what the result would be but he desired to give back to his Brazilian people with this project. In the documentary he states that he was ready to do art that would affect other people directly. He no longer needed to buy things or concern himself with money. He had immigrated to the United States after being shot in Brazil (and subsequently receiving a monetary settlement), and had made a good artistic career in New York City. In 1996 his exhibition  “Sugar Children”, photographs of Caribbean children filled with sugar, got him noticed.

The documentary, “Lixo Extraordinário” or in English, “Wasteland”, is the story of this contemporary Brazilian artist and several landfill pickers in Rio de Janeiro.  One should note that the title in Portuguese is optimistic and inspirational, while the English is not—it is the opposite.  A direct translation would be “Extraordinary Garbage”, which in fact, it is. It is turned into beautiful art and results in a lot of money and personal transformation for the artists. The protagonist of the documentary, the landfill Jardim Gramacho, closed in June 2012, but for some 30 years had been one of the biggest and most toxic dumps in the world.  In his project, Muniz recycles garbage into stunning works that garner a high price in the contemporary art world. The pieces are auctioned off in London in 2010, earning thousands of dollars each. The pickers in the documentary are forever changed by their own work as artists, the dignity that they feel because Muniz values them and their work, and by the money that the artworks earned—it all goes back to the pickers, including money earned by the documentary. This is “Antropofogia” or artistic cannibalism at its finest.  Moreover, it clearly shows how one individual can make change in the world, and how art can transform people.

For this project Muniz chose Jardim Gramacho because he saw the potential in the garbage/recyclables and realized that the people who work there are some of the most desperate in the city. When he arrives he meets and selects subjects who later he poses in traditional ways. Some of these poses are direct “rip-offs” from famous European art. Antropogia at work: “eating the European and transforming it into something Brazilian.” (my interpretation of Oswald de Andrade). His subjects are Brazilians in a disgusting dump, and once he takes the photos, they are blown up to a gargantuan size. The pickers then fill in the photos with scraps and recyclables. Finally, another photo is taken of each and that is the finished piece. Muniz and the pickers transform refuse that others have thrown away into striking works of art that are auctioned off for high prices and also exhibited in Europe and in Brazil.

Equally significant is the exhibition of “Pictures of Garbage” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.  The pickers who collaborated in the works attend. Usually most pickers at a dump in the “Baixada” area of Rio de Janeiro would not have the time or the money to travel into the city to see exhibitions at this museum. The museum space itself is enlarged and classes/social statuses are leveled and equalized by this exposition—in terms of the work exhibited as well as the type of individual who views it.  Muniz is the catalyst that encourages these pickers/artists, to rediscover themselves and rethink who they are–they are more than their dirty job—they are people, humans, who have been undervalued—by themselves and society.

“tupi or not tupi, that is the question.” (Manifesto Antropófogo, Oswald de Andrade)

Just as Oswald de Andrade plays with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, subverting Shakespeare with indigenous culture and also word pun in English, the original meaning remains under the parody:  is a life of challenges and hardships worth it? “Pictures of Garbage” and Lixo Extraordinário demonstrate that it is. 

SOURCES:

http://www.ufrgs.br/cdrom/oandrade/oandrade.pdf (Manifesto antropófogo e Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil, Oswald de Andrade)
http://arte-nuevo.blogspot.com/2009/06/contra-el-arte-latinoamericano.html
http://artnexus.com/Notice_View.aspx?DocumentID=9624 (Del Arte Latinoamericano al arte desde America Latina)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0Xli9BNPy0 (Adios a la antropofagia)
Vikmuniz.net

Arráncame la vida – film

Music is weaved into the drama of this film which is  based on the novel by Angeles Mastretta. The title of the movie is also the title of a famous song by Mexican composer/singer Augustín Lara. This song is  sung in the film by a “famous” singer. At this point the protagonist, Catalina (played by Ana Claudia Talancón) sings along and this annoys her “caudillo” husband. 

Breathtakingly beautiful, Catalina catches the eye of a General (Daniel Giménez Cacho) early on. She was only 15 when the General took her on a trip to the beach, and is her first lover. At this time in the early 20th century  this is a bit strange but Catalina is attracted to the General. She doesn’t know what she will do with her life so she goes along with the General’s subsequent marriage proposal. Little does she know of his past and his ambitions that later make her abhor the sight of him.

Music appears again in the form of “Cielito lindo.” This is a favorite song of Catalina’s father. Carlos, the orchestra conductor, uses it to publicly woo the married Catalina, unbeknownst to her husband Andrés (General) who is now Governor.

Drifting in and out of the period cinematography, is the theme song, Danzon No. 2 by Mexican composer, Arturo Marquéz. For the music alone, this is  a lovely historical romance. (Director: Roberto Sneider, Mexico 2008).