Children of the coup: Chilean cinema after Pinochet

A retrospective of 21st-century Chilean film at the Seminci Film Festival in Spain revealed how the national cinema has flourished and diversified in the post-Pinochet era. If only these exciting films could be seen in the rest of the world.

Mar Diestro-Dópido
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Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday (2012)

Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday (2012)

Premieres are the bread and butter of most film festivals, the element that most obviously defines them, offering the perk of seeing something new before anyone else. For another type of festivalgoer, though, the main incentive lies elsewhere, in thoughtfully curated retrospectives that in their own way set a festival apart from its competitors. The Seminci Film Festival in Valladolid, the second oldest in Spain after San Sebastián, has struck a balance between the old and the new throughout its 61 years, garnering a particular reputation for showing cutting-edge European auteur cinema.

In each edition there is at least one retrospective organised around the cinema of a given country: recently Finland, Argentina and Mexico were featured. Chile was the focus of Seminci’s 61st edition, with a programme entitled Chilean Cinema of the Democracy, meaning the cinema of the new millennium and the beginning of full democracy. Included in the programme were a total of 29 films. That’s 20 features – fiction and documentaries – and nine shorts, with directors ranging from international stars (Pablo Larraín, Patricio Guzmán) to locally known names (Cristián Sánchez, director of 2008’s Tiempos Malos; Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, director of 2007’s Mirageman), providing a welcome introduction to what is widely acknowledged to be an exciting resurgence of Chilean cinema.

It felt like a timely event given that Chile’s most celebrated director, Larraín, has just released two high-profile films, putting Chilean talent on the international map and among the Oscar frenzy, with his anti-biopic of one of the country’s most politicised and notorious figures, poet Pablo Neruda; and his first foray into English-language, studio-backed cinema with a study of an even bigger icon, Jackie Kennedy.

Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (2016)

Pablo Larraín’s Neruda (2016)

A roundtable discussion including seven of the Chilean filmmakers featured provided useful context. This panel was moderated by Pablo Marín, academic, historian, critic and writer of perhaps the most valuable supplementary material to this event, a beautifully illustrated book surveying the 16 years covered by the retrospective. Much of the content and many of the quotes in this piece are indebted to both this roundtable event and this book, as well as my own viewing of three or four Chilean films a day for a week, some of which were screening for the first time outside Latin America.

Chilean cinema owes some of its newfound international visibility to the much greater number of films being produced. During the first years of the century, an average of one to two films were being made annually; in the past few years, particularly from 2014, this has increased to around 40 films. Looking further back, 12 features were made in the 1950s, whereas between 2011-15 there were 146 films produced.

Nor do these figures do not indicate the diversity of genres, voices, production values and ages (this is a cross-generational phenomenon) found under the banner of Chilean cinema. This is perhaps the key element that unites all these films and the subject that looms largest in the retrospective and the book. So it’s not surprising that Pablo Marín opened the roundtable with a pertinent question: “What is Chilean cinema now?”

Andrés Wood’s Violeta Went to Heaven (2011)

Andrés Wood’s Violeta Went to Heaven (2011)

For Italian film critic Giovanni Ottone, an expert on Latin American cinema who was on the panel, Chilean independent cinema of the past 16 years does have a distinct identity, albeit (perhaps paradoxically) a fragmented one, operating in a personal, existential register and/or through the optic of the family, with the country’s conservatism and elitist class system woven through.

For Andrés Waissbluth, director of A Horse Called Elephant (2016), the only children’s feature film made in the country, Chilean cinema has a clear identity, comprising a particular sense of humour (as in Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái (2011), or Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street (2012), a distinctive way of speaking (Che Sandoval’s films) and a strong tradition of dealing with historical subjects (as in the films of Larraín and Guzmán, or Andrés Wood’s 2011 Violeta Went to Heaven, a film and a TV series).

Much more revealing though is what Waissbluth identifies as the footprint left by the dictatorship in Chilean cinema, which he identifies as “the absence of a collective dream”. He elaborates: “Chilean films today express the human tragedy of individualism that was installed in us in such a violent way. That’s the reason why the films are also a little bit dark and harsh, from the most absurd TV to the most experimental cinema, and even comedies [or ‘dramedies’, as Marín refers to them in his book] – they all speak a lot about loneliness. It is like a ghost that haunts our society, and I think that ghost, that absence, is what unites Chilean cinema; a loneliness that somehow drags us along as a collective.” The sugar-coated and bittersweet ‘happiness’ of Larraín’s No and Alicia Scherson’s outlandish Il futuro (2013), the first screen adaptation of a Roberto Bolaño novel, come to mind.

Larraín’s No (2012)

Larraín’s No (2012)

In terms of their training, the filmmakers of the democratic period divide into two generations – the film-schooled and the unschooled. Before 1995 and the creation of the Film School of Chile, there had been practically nowhere to study cinema in Chile, and the only option (if you had money) was to study abroad, in the US or Europe. For directors like Macarena Aguiló (The Chilean Building, 2010), Orlando Lübbert (A Cab for Three, 2001) and Miguel Ángel Vidaurre (Gringo Rojo, 2016), who co-founded the school, “there had been no one to talk to,” as Vidaurre told the panel. “The school, with both its positive and negative sides, became the place to have those conversations, to watch films and to discuss them.”

For Waissbluth, another of this generation, the resulting films “move within the darkness of these transitional years, where we, the affluent, speak about poverty, like in my debut film Debutantes,” the 2003 movie that closes this earlier period.

The second phase of Chilean cinema under democracy starts with the filmmakers who did attend the film school, and who start getting international awards and becoming fully acquainted with digital cinema. They include Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, 2013, and the less well-known yet fantastic The Sacred Family, 2005), Dominga Sotomayor (Thursday Till Sunday, 2012), Sebastián Silva (The Maid, 2009) and Marialy Rivas (the fantastically politically incorrect lesbian coming-of-age story Young & Wild, 2012).

Marialy Rivas’s Young <span class="amp">&</span> Wild (2012)

Marialy Rivas’s Young & Wild (2012)

Finally, there are the ‘old glories’ themselves: a third, older generation also working in the present, directors from the Chilean New Wave of the 60s, such as Miguel Littín, Guzmán, Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento (Secrets/Secretos, 2008), all included in the retrospective. This 60s generation, particularly the outspoken Littín, find the cinema of the younger generations cold and individualist, according to Weissbluth. “They are the generation of the collective dreams, and they find it abhorrent that the newer filmmakers even speak about individualism.”

Speaking of Guzmán, there is no cinema without an infrastructure, however minimal. And perhaps the most supported genre in Chile is documentaries. They have a strong presence and a sustained production backed up by Guzmán’s own film festival dedicated to documentaries, Fidocs in Santiago, as well as the more recent MiraDoc, an initiative created in 2013 with ChileDoc, an organisation that promotes, exhibits and distributes documentaries in Chile.

Documentaries are also where, by general consensus, greater experimentation occurs, particularly from 2005 onwards – be it Esteban Larraín’s Alice in the Land (Alicia en el país, 2008) or Marcia Tambutti Allende’s mesmerising personal portrait Beyond My Grandfather Allende (Allende, mi abuelo Allende, 2015), about her grandfather, the leftwing president ousted and murdered by Pinochet, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s newly inaugurated L’Oeil d’Or documentary award.

Maite Alberdi’s Tea Time (2014)

Maite Alberdi’s Tea Time (2014)

There was also the film that caught me the most off guard and that I most enjoyed, Maite Alberdi’s Tea Time (La once, 2014), an ‘ethnographic tragicomedy’, as Alberdi describes it, in which she follows a group of elderly women who went to school together as they meet up once a month to talk irreverently about politics, death, illness, gender abuse, racism, happiness and their own friendship over tea and cake. This group of documentaries challenges the boundaries not just between fiction and nonfiction but, foremostly, between individual and collective memory.

Also amongst these documentarians is Aguiló, who was the only woman in the panel. Her masterful The Chilean Building (El edificio de los chilenos), co-directed with Susana Foxley, is an autobiographical account of a social project in the 70s and 80s, barely known about even in Chile and organised by exiled MIR militants. In Project Home, children were raised by social parents, other militant members, in a building in Cuba, while their parents carried on fighting the dictatorship. After The Chilean Building was released, another 11 documentaries were made exploring this same subject, using the testimony of the people known as the ‘children of the coup’.

Macarena Aguiló’s The Chilean Building (2010)

Macarena Aguiló’s The Chilean Building (2010)

Many of these films never leave the country or venture into other Latin American markets, even if they are promoted by events such as the Valdivia International Film Festival, a platform for Chilean cinema since 1993, and more recently the festival Sanfic, founded in 2004, as well as on free online platforms for Chilean and Latin American cinema such as cinepata.com. So on one hand, Chilean independent filmmakers’ opportunities to release their work have been expanding relatively fast within the past two decades. But for the producer Juan de Dios Larraín, one of the main problems is that while there are many directors, what the Chilean film industry really lacks is producers.

For that reason, Juan de Dios founded the company Fábula with his brother Pablo Larraín in 2004. The most versatile and outward-looking of Chilean production companies, it has produced some of the most interesting films currently emerging from the country, including all of Pablo Larraín’s work, from his lesser known debut Fuga (2006) to Jackie (2016); Sebastián Silva’s films from Life Kills Me (2007) to Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus (2013), Nasty Baby (2015, with Kristen Wiig) and his forthcoming A Fantastic Woman (2016); Sebastián Lelio’s The Year of the Tiger (El año del tigre, 2011) and Gloria; Rivas’s Young & Wild; and the TV series Fugitives (Prófugos) for HBO.

Sebastián Silva’s Life Kills Me (2007)

Sebastián Silva’s Life Kills Me (2007)

Aside from rare cases such as Fábula, however, Chilean cinema depends largely on state subsidies as well as co-production treaties signed with Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, France and Canada. There is also the money that comes from European institutions to promote Latin American cinema, such as Ibermedia, Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund and filmmaking residencies in Cannes and Berlin and the Sundance Lab, as well as completion schemes such the ones offered by the San Sebastián Film Festival in collaboration with Toulouse in the En construcción initiative. There is a problem, though, which is that for a while, as Chilean academic and film critic Carolina Urrutia says in the retrospective’s book, these schemes seemed to encourage “an anthropological stance”.

So we return to the question “What is Chilean cinema now?” The version that we, as outsiders, get from any given country’s cinema is necessarily rather partial, and mediated by what makes it to the festivals, as well as our own physical access to those events. On that basis, you could certainly call Chilean cinema “brave and provocative”, as did one of the abovementioned critics during the roundtable’s Q&A. Examples would include Larráin’s political trilogy; Che Sandoval’s misogynist masculinity in Much Better Than You (2013), an urban comedy that focuses on a very particular use of spoken Chilean; Matias Bizé’s one-take bride-to-be revenge tale Sábado (2003) and his exclusively bedroom-set In Bed (En la cama, 2005); and lesbian films such as Young & Wild and María José San Martín’s Rara (2016), which challenge gender taboos.

María José San Martín’s Rara (2016)

María José San Martín’s Rara (2016)

Is this kind of film representative, though? In Waissbluth’s opinion, festival programmers “sometimes respond to the idea that the rest of the world has of what Chilean cinema, or Latin American cinema, should be: from Brazil, stories of favelas; from Mexico, crossing the border; from Chile, the dictatorship. I think there’s some Eurocentrism in the festivals’ view of what Latin America should be,” he continued. “That’s what they select, even if it does not necessarily represent the true identity of the cinema of a certain country.”

Or as Bizé says, “The risk is that the collective imaginary of Latin America ends up being generated by a vision coming from Europe.”

For me, Seminci’s Chilean Cinema of the Democracy retrospective not only was one of my film highlights of the year, but offered a welcome corrective to this mindset.

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