Cartagena Communique
by Dennis West

The Chilean Building

The Chilean Building

In 1960, native son Víctor Nieto founded the Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival (FICCI) in that Colombian city on the tropical Caribbean Coast—known internationally to many readers as the magical land of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. And, in spite of major financial challenges typical of a Third World setting, Don Víctor, as he was affectionately known, managed to keep his festival chugging along on an annual basis for nearly a half century. Nieto originally envisioned the event as a showcase for Latin American and specifically Colombian cinema. And much of this original emphasis was retained in the fifty-first edition of FICCI, held Feb. 24–March 3, 2011.

This edition premiered a new, forward-looking management team headed by General Manager Lina Rodríguez Fernández and Director Monika Wagenberg. This “Dynamic Duo” seems intent on raising both the national and international profiles of the event, which was widely trumpeted this year as the longest running film festival on the continent. To bump up the profile of the festival from the get-go, Wagenberg and Rodríguez Fernández called in a big gun on opening night: none other than President of the Republic Juan Manuel Santos, who in his speech made glowing references to both FICCI and the recent renaissance in Colombian cinema.

The festival’s main event was the Official Competition of recent fiction features from Iberoamérica—Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. This competition—which offered a cash prize—was regarded as an effort to stimulate new and young filmmakers in the region, since only first, second, or third features were accepted in competition. The artistic level of the dozen competing features was generally strong, but a few of the entries no longer seemed so recent. I had seen Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre—the finely drawn portrait of a small-time, middle-aged limeño moneylender altering his life when a baby-in-a-basket appears mysteriously in his home—at Karlovy Vary in early July; and A Useful Life—an esthetically rigorous, concise, and typically understated hymn à la uruguaya to cinephilia (Part One) and a sort of romantic comedy involving a now laid-off public functionary’s actually getting a life outside the movies (Part Two)—had already opened in the U.S. in January of this year. The talented Vega brothers captured the Official Jury’s prize for best direction.

It came as no surprise that A Useful Life, which was produced, cowritten, coedited, and directed by the Uruguayan Federico Veiroj, himself a former Cinemateca Uruguaya employee, won the FIPRESCI, or International Critics Prize. After all, this small, engaging comedy offers an affectionate look at the decline of film culture as it used to be, back when artistically important films mattered in a given nation’s overall cultural context. Part One follows the informative but plodding activities of an old-style cinemathèque that keeps hosting its traditional and boring radio show rather than retooling into the current Facebook craze—as the institution’s principal donor prepares to terminate financial support. To create his understated comic vision, Veiroj made strikingly effective esthetic decisions, such as using the academy ratio and shooting in color but then printing in black and white to give A Useful Life the outmoded look of so many low-contrast black-and-white features from the 1950s and 1960s. And then there is his playful, in-the-know use of actors: some are well-known public figures from contemporary Uruguayan film culture, such as the portly, staid, always properly dressed and comported critic Jorge Jellinek, a former Cineaste contributor, and Manuel Martínez Carril, the famous director of the real-life Cinemateca Uruguaya.

The $10,000 prize awarded by the Official Jury for best fiction feature went very appropriately to the extraordinarily dark Chilean drama Post Mortem, which was cowritten and directed by Pablo Larraín. In his latest film, Larraín again productively draws on fifty-something lead actor Alfredo Castro—he of the sadly gaunt, know-nothing countenance framed by straight white-blond locks, dancing or not in the director’s previous feature Tony Manero. In Post Mortem, Castro plays a socially and politically clueless, shady, and repressed clerk routinely toiling away transcribing autopsies in a downtown Santiago morgue, where business picks up exponentially after September 11, 1973, when a right-wing military coup d’état violently topples the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The initial narrative thread follows the protagonist’s single-minded pursuit of an anorexic dance-hall girl near the end of a forgettable career—whilst the nation plunges into violent chaos. Eventually the protagonist gets some political awareness foisted onto him—when the military powers to be show up at the morgue, slap a helmet onto his head, declare him a soldier in Chile’s fight against communism, and whisk him off to record an autopsy in a dark room somewhere…who knows exactly where? Then, the pièce de résistance: in a macabre and seemingly interminable tableau framed by darkness, prominent military officers ominously and silently surround the grimly efficient doctor performing the autopsy on the brightly illuminated cadaver of President Allende, even as our nervous protagonist, seated nearby, is all thumbs as he struggles to type up relevant anatomical and other details using the late model electric typewriter emphatically set down in front of him—an apparatus with an apparent life of its own, which he has never so much as touched before. Thus Larraín—who was born after the overthrow of Allende—darkly and absurdly imagines what many older Chileans might regard as a culminating moment in their nation’s twentieth-century history. With Post Mortem, Larraín has solidified his reputation as a major figure with a uniquely personal and dark artistic vision.

The festival specifically supported Colombian cinema by organizing a section dubbed 100% Colombian, which offered a hefty $25,000 prize for best feature. And President Santos himself, in his statement in the festival catalogue, referred to “the boom Colombian cinema has experienced in recent years. Back in 2003, we were producing only three films a year, but since 2004—a year after the Film Law was passed—an impressive sixty-eight Colombian films have premiered at home and abroad, and in 2010 we released ten films that have already been seen by one million spectators.” Though the president was publicly upbeat about the future of his nation’s cinema, some Colombians in the film industry that I spoke with were less optimistic, citing difficulties in their nation’s distribution and exhibition sectors.

For decades, sadly, Colombia has been known as the land of La Violencia, a virulent and violent sociopolitical phenomenon that has produced thousands of victims while rending the nation’s social fabric. Most of the Colombian documentary and fiction films I screened dealt to a significant degree with this seemingly intractable social phenomenon and its implications.

The mounds of dead bodies piling up in the morgue’s hallways and stairways in Post Mortem are a grisly motif that reappears in the opera prima All Your Dead Ones, which competed in the 100% Colombian selection. This fiction feature, which was cowritten and ably directed by Carlos Moreno, powerfully poses the following unsettling and grotesque question: How does Colombian civil society literally dispose of the bodies of the victims of La Violencia that have been literally piling up throughout the land? This black narrative takes off when a humble, mind-your-own-business farmer in the Cauca River Valley inadvertently stumbles upon an oversized pile of cadavers deposited who knows how or when out amidst the tall corn in one of his fields. Terrified, he flees to town to report the massacre. But the local authorities do not want to be bothered with such a down piece of news since it is election day, and the business of election day, as everyone knows, is getting one of the two mainstream political parties elected by doling out free food and drink or by most any other means necessary. Moreno’s fierce satire skewers both political parties, the local cacique or boss, armed bands roaming the area, as well as the official authorities. Moreno’s unsettling esthetic approach involves genre uncertainty. Is All Your Dead Ones primarily ink-black comedy, the legacy of Valle Inclán’s Spanish esperpento, sociopolitical satire more or less grounded in traditions of realism, theatre of the absurd, or a unique combination of all these ingredients? For this is a work in which realist elements alternate with blatantly theatrical or metaphorical moments, as when the heap of corpses miraculously comes back to life at the end of the narrative. At the public screening I attended in a huge, packed auditorium, this approach struck a chord as evidenced by the prolonged applause afterwards. And the jury awarded the film a special prize.

The two Colombian documentary features I screened were competently produced but artistically conventional; both opened fascinating windows onto the nation’s recent social turmoil and history. In Meanders, directors Manuel Ruiz Montealegre and Héctor Ulloque Franco sociologically examine the remote tropical region of Guaviare, where the Colombian government has for decades left rural inhabitants largely to their own devices and thus exposed to the armed incursions of paramilitares and guerrillas and also to the violence unleashed by the illegal but lucrative coca growing business. Via conventional means such as monologues, pressing socioeconomic issues are examined: the efforts of small farmers to lead a sustainable lifestyle with little significant support from the national government, the plight of indigenous peoples, the government’s use of hazardous defoliants to eradicate coca plants by aerial spraying, and the vastly changing ecology of the region as incoming settlers destroy the jungle and replace it with livestock operations and agricultural endeavors. In Meanders’ most unusual sequence, a settler accompanied by a guitarist uses the distinctive trova musical form to sing his complaints directly to government authorities.

On November 6, 1985, thirty-five heavily armed M-19 guerrillas captured Colombia’s High Court of Justice, located in downtown Bogotá, and also the many dozens of unfortunate souls who happened to be inside the monumental structure at that time, including Supreme Court justices. The government’s response came swift and brutal: tanks and soldiers were sent in to wipe out the guerrillas regardless of the fate of the innocent hostages who might be killed in the ensuing crossfire. The documentary feature The Siege, directed by Angus Gibson and Miguel Salazar, chronicles the period of twenty-seven hours in which these deadly events unfolded using abundant archival resources: radio and walkie-talkie communications amongst government forces and riveting actuality footage of the military’s attack—including the dramatic moment in which a tank finally punches through the massive doors of the courthouse. Gibson and Salazar weave into their historical narrative coverage of a relevant current event: the protracted and contentious trial of Colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega, who led the military assault and now, twenty-five years later, is formally accused of “disappearing” a dozen workers in the building at the time of its takeover. Salazar and Gibson are to be congratulated for enshrining on film the memory of this sorry, bloody event, which many Colombians regard as a defining moment in their twentieth-century history.

The finest documentary feature I saw was The Chilean Building, a first work imaginatively directed and cowritten by the Chilean Macarena Aguiló. In the early 1980s, the anti-Pinochet guerrilla group MIR decided to send its exiled militants—including the parents of young children—clandestinely back into Chile to foment the overthrow of the dictatorship. The children left behind in exile would be cared for collectively, alongside nonbiological brothers and sisters, in the Utopian Proyecto Hogares, for which the Cuban government donated an entire apartment building outside of Havana. Aguiló is the daughter of a former high-ranking MIR officer. As an infant, she had been a detenida (an illegally arrested person held without charge by the dictatorship) and then subsequently a child participant in Proyecto Hogares. In her moving first-person account, she attempts to reconstruct and understand her past by creatively drawing on memoirs, carefully preserved letters, drawings, exercises in animation, and interviews with the biological parents and others. Aguiló deservedly received a special prize in the documentary competition as the director of this exceptional work.

In addition to competitive sections, this edition of FICCI offered numerous attractive sidebars. Long Live Mexico presented some of the work of Mexico’s leading twenty-first-century figures, such as the accomplished documentary filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo and the always controversial Carlos Reygadas. Major retrospectives of the works of French director Olivier Assayas and the Mexican Nicolás Pereda were mounted.

García Márquez—rumored to be in Mexico at the time— did not make an appearance at this year’s edition; but plenty of film stars, such as Willem Dafoe, Luis Tosar, and Geraldine Chaplin, did. The future looks bright for upcoming editions of a rejuvenated FICCI, provided Wagenberg, Rodríguez Fernández, and their backers can keep coming up with the necessary budget and other support. I observed only one challenge to the smooth functioning of this year’s event: some distracted international attendees revealed a tendency to slip away from the festival to marvel at downtown Cartagena’s beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture—now boasting a UNESCO World Heritage designation—or even, heaven forbid, to populate those nearby warm and inviting Caribbean beaches.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.