Bright Lights Film Journal

Uncertainty and Change: The 42nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival 2001

The fest’s focus on New Argentine cinema is especially timely in light of the country’s dire economic situation

“This new generation [of Argentine filmmakers] has found a more authentic way to present social problems, without considering tradition and the prevailing magic realism as the sine qua non of cinematographic production,” remarked Eduardo “Quintin” Antin, film critic and founder of the magazine El Amante Cine, at the 42nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November 2001.

Magic realism aside, evidence of Antin’s assertion was plentiful in the festival’s program of 15 features and 3 shorts from Argentina. The films, all made within the last eight years, are weighted by melancholy, unease, and loss. Collectively, they project a view of life in Argentina as one of an inexorable slide into fragmentation. That a precarious mood permeates the films isn’t surprising given that the country is in virtual economic collapse at this writing. But there has also been a distinct shift, as Antin noted, away from the political cinema traditions epitomized by the Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Their film La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1966-1968) was a rallying cry for a militant film movement, and it reverberated across Latin America.

The turn from cinema as a tool for political liberation toward an existential aesthetic is exemplified in Veronica Chen’s Vagon Fumador (Smoker’s Only, 2001), a lugubrious depiction of youth and love in Buenos Aires. Andres is a 20-year-old taxi boy who sails through the night on roller blades when he’s not having sex with men in cash machine vestibules. Reni, also 20, is a singer in a struggling punk band. They meet one evening when she forgets her bank card inside a cash machine. Together they prowl the streets of the city searching for truth and love among the hustlers and misfits.

Shot almost entirely at night, Vagon Fumador resembles a netherworld from which there is no escape. The cavernous boulevards and grand plazas of Buenos Aires take on a surreal quality in the dim glow of street lights, making the characters’ pursuit of life’s purpose seem a cruel joke. In this shadowy city, the only hope of escape is through illusion.

Continuing in the same angst-ridden vein, albeit not nearly as fatalistic, is Ariel Rotter’s Solo Por Hoy (Only For Today, 2001), a stylish portrayal of disaffected youth yearning for something more profound in their lives. Structured around the days of the week, the film weaves together the stories of Aili, a painter; Moron, a videomaker; Equis, a cook; Toro, an actor; and Fer, a lost soul. “We are what we do everyday,” says Moron, and therein lies the conflict. For each of these characters is desperate to overtake the limitations – dull jobs, lack of money, broken hearts, emptiness– that identify their existence.

Using voiceover and focusing on the intimate, mundane details of daily life, Rotter creates a convincing portrait of how the best of intentions are never enough. The film is a glimpse, said Rotter, of “…people that are always just about to ‘become’. They find themselves unwillingly spending time on something that makes them unhappy, either because they need to make a living or because they always have an excuse for postponing their wishes.”

Crossing into the realm of middle-age, Pablo Trapero’s Mundo Grua (Crane World, 1999) follows the affectionate Rulo, a 50-year-old former bass player who now operates a huge crane on a construction site in downtown Buenos Aires. Rulo shares laughs with his friends, embarks on a love affair with Adriana, a lively woman who runs a kiosk, and tries his best to keep his teenage son out of trouble. All is well until he suddenly loses his job and is forced to leave the city to find employment. He heads south to Patagonia for work only to end up grappling with loneliness and despair.

Photographed in black and white with a largely amateur cast and no formal script, Mundo Grua has a gritty neorealist sensibility. The images of workers, their faces weathered by years of arduous labor, are sharp reminders of the cost, in human terms, of unchecked development. While discussing the film, Trapero noted that the number of cranes in use in a city corresponded to the city’s well-being. “Cranes are a symbol of progress and, from this point of view, the film contains a paradox. The protagonist, who gradually loses everything he has, works with a machine that represents the opposite of what is happening to him.”

Other notable festival screenings included La Libertad (Freedom, 2001), by Lisandro Alonso, a lyrical portrait of the life of a solitary woodcutter living off the land in the Pampas; Martin Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto (1998), a breezy postmodern take on relationships and ennui among the twenty-something set in Buenos Aires; and La Cienaga (The Swamp, 2001), by Lucrecia Martel, a biting portrait of decay and self-indulgence among the bourgeoisie.

Thessaloniki International Film Festival is held annually in mid-November in Greece’s second largest city. Emphasizing artistic rather than commercial fare, the festival promotes mostly young, independent directors (the international competition is open to first and second features only) while also highlighting East European and Balkan cinema. Visit the festival’s official site at www.filmfestival.gr.