Latin American Spirit:  A vibrant film sector is emerging
EmptyMEXICO CITY -- Festivalgoers can expect plenty of Latin American flavor on the Croisette this year, courtesy of the region's top film-producing nations: Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
In all, about a dozen films from Latin America are screening In Competition at the 61st Festival de Cannes, including four Palme d'Or contenders and an eclectic mix of sidebar entries. Brazil's "Blindness" kicks things off as the opening-night film.
Adding even more regional spice, director Steven Soderbergh has brought "Che" to the In Competition section, a two-part biopic about Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.
Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have seen a dramatic increase in production over the past decade. Homegrown fare in most countries is gradually gaining market share, yet problems of old persist as local distributors continue to battle for screen time against the Hollywood movie machine.
Some of the smaller markets like Colombia, Chile and Venezuela have also ramped up production as they look to follow in the footsteps of the territory's leading industries. Even tiny Uruguay has experienced a significant turnaround as of late.
While most producers in the region lean heavily on state financing, in recent years the private sector is showing growing interest in local production as Latin American cinema continues to mature.
Here's a closer look at the industries:
Argentina's film industry has been enjoying an unprecedented period of international critical acclaim in recent years. Further signs of that success came with the selection of two Argentine films for the Official Competition of this year's Festival de Cannes, a historic first for the country.
Argentina has always had one of the most storied and respected film industries in South America, and long served as a reference point for other filmmakers on the continent. And now more and more producers, directors and actors from other parts of the world are looking to Argentina for ideas and inspiration, and even work.
Leading the wave of the so-called "new Argentine cinema" are directors like Pablo Trapero, whose feature "Leonera" is In Competition at Cannes, along with Lucrecia Martel's "La Mujer sin Cabeza." Other notable Argentine names include Daniel Burman, Adrian Caetano and Lucia Puenzo. Many of their films touch directly or indirectly on Argentina's tumultuous recent past, from the military dictatorship of the 1970s to the crippling economic crisis of 2001. But that's not to say that all Argentine films are dark and brooding, or that they even share a similar aesthetic.
"What I think characterizes this movement is the personal relationship between the director and the story that he or she wants to tell. A force that binds the idea and the way the story plays out onscreen," says Trapero.
And while critical praise can often translate into foreign distribution deals and future investment funds, some think that a new new wave of filmmakers needs to emerge in order for Argentina to continue producing intriguing movies.
"What concerns me is that the names that show up are always the same ones who have been making internationally recognized films for the past 10 years. You don't see many 25-year-olds getting noticed," says Diego Lerer, film critic for Clarin, Argentina's largest newspaper. "In Mexico, for example, you see new and young directors all the time. But here in Argentina we have this elite group of five or 10 directors. There isn't much rejuvenation," Lerer adds.
An average of 75 feature films are produced in Argentina every year, thanks in large part to the government, which provides subsidies to qualified films. But as well-received as many of these movies are on the overseas film circuit, they often have a hard time finding an audience in Argentina. Just 12% of boxoffice sales in Argentina are attributed to homegrown features; Hollywood blockbusters are still the biggest draw.
"I think Argentine cinema is in something of a crisis. It is producing more and more films that are seen by less and less people. So they are trying to reinvent themselves after the big boom that happened following the 2001 crisis," says Swiss director Tomi Streiff, whose Buenos Aires-based Streiffschuss Films will preselect films for the upcoming New World Cinema Series, which will screen Latin American films in the U.S. in 2009.
"Everyone in the Argentine film industry needs to sit down and think how we can maintain a space for Argentine films here, while also making our audience happy," adds Trapero.
Brazil is having a breakthrough year on the festival circuit, and its films are increasingly becoming more exportable to meet a growing international demand.
In February, Jose Padilha's action-packed police drama "The Elite Squad" won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film fest.
Now all eyes are on Fernando Meirelles' drama "Blindness," which grabbed the prestigious opening-night slot at Cannes. "Blindness," an English-language adaptation of Jose Saramago's critically acclaimed novel, stars Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Danny Glover and Gael Garcia Bernal in a story about a city hit by a mysterious blindness epidemic.
"Blindness" will screen alongside the Competition entry "Linha de Passe," from Brazilian directors Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas. Salles, one of Brazil's most prominent helmers, has directed such films as 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries" and 1998's "Central Station."
In the Un Certain Regard sidebar, actor-turned-director Matheus Nachtergaele is bowing his feature film debut, "A Festa da Menina Morta" (The Dead Girl's Feast).
As production surges and quality improves, Brazilian films are drawing strong interest in the international marketplace. Titles like "The Elite Squad," Chico Teixeira's "Alice's House," Paulo Morelli's "City of Men" and Marcos Jorge's "Estomago" have landed distribution deals in numerous territories.
"We're in a good moment right now," says Alberto Flaksman, head of international affairs at state-run financing agency Ancine. "Brazilian films have been selling really well in international markets."
At home, domestic fare captures a relatively high percentage of the boxoffice market share when compared with most Latin American nations. Nevertheless, slow theater development continues to stifle growth in the exhibition sector.
Jorge Peregrino, senior vp distribution for Latin America and the Caribbean at Paramount, says Brazil's underserved exhibition market sorely needs more investment.
"It's ridiculous," he points out. "Brazil has 190 million inhabitants and about 2,300 screens. Compare that with Mexico, which has 107 million inhabitants and 4,200 screens."
Most theater complexes are concentrated in well-to-do neighborhoods in Brazil's largest cities.
On the production front, O2 Filmes, the shingle founded by directors Meirelles, Morelli and producer Andrea Barata Ribeiro, has numerous projects in the works. Currently in production is Heitor Dhalia's drama "Adrift," starring Vincent Cassel and Camilla Belle. "Adrift" is the first of five features slated under a three-year co-production agreement between O2 and Focus Features.
Brazil consistently ranks among the top film-producing nations in Latin America. Thanks to fiscal incentives created for film financiers, the industry receives considerable support from public companies like development bank BNDES, oil firm Petrobras and privately owned TV broadcasters.
From 1973 to 1990, under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chile's film industry was teetering on the brink of extinction. Directors were fleeing the country, film schools were shutting down and production plummeted.
In 1992, with democracy in full swing, the state launched a film fund that would play a crucial role in Chile's cinema revival. Chile now releases about 10 local films annually, and it expects to produce 18 features this year. Currently, some 30 projects are in postproduction -- not too shabby for a country that was releasing just one film a year in the early '90s.
Chile has co-production agreements in place with France, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Pablo Larrain's sophomore feature "Tony Manero," a Chile-Brazil co-production, is participating in the Directors' Fortnight section. "Tony Manero" centers on an aging dancer intent on living out his "Saturday Night Fever" fantasies.
Another recent production that has been garnering awards is Jose Luis Torres Leiva's drama "El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia," which grabbed the FIPRESCI Prize at this year's edition of the Rotterdam Film Festival and best feature film at the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival.
Over the past decade, Chile has made considerable investments in film production facilities, and state funding is rising. The filmmaking community was delighted in 2006 when it got word that Chile had been selected as one of several nations to participate in the Cannes World Cinema section.
"Things are definitely improving," says Diego Valenzuela, producer of the 2007 hit "Radio Corazon." "Distribution is still the major problem in the industry -- if we can call it an industry just yet. But there's very good infrastructure here."
A federal law established in 2003 jump-started Colombia's struggling film industry. Prior to the measure, the country was producing about four features annually, yet in recent years output has tripled.
More importantly, domestically produced movies are faring extraordinarily well at the boxoffice. According to state-run film entity Proimagenes en Movimiento, Colombian cinema has captured 22% of the market share so far this year. Leading the way are Simon Brand's immigrant-themed "Paraiso Travel," Dago Garcia's comedy "Muertos de Susto" and Carlos Moreno's crime drama "Perro Come Perro."
"In the first four months of the year, Colombian films have had unprecedented admissions," says Proimagenes director Claudia Triana de Vargas.
Bogota-based CMO Producciones, one of the nation's most important production companies, produces two films a year and receives up to eight scripts a week.
Currently, CMO is producing the Colombia-Costa Rica co-production "Del Amor y Otros Demonios," an adaptation of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The shingle also is developing numerous screenplays with first-time directors, among them Carlos Mario Urrea's "Una Nina Llamada Jairo."
"Everything is much better now that it was several years ago," says CMO executive producer Ana Pineres. "Now, we have a lot of talented young filmmakers and a fantastic film law."
As Colombia establishes itself as one of Latin America's fastest-growing production hubs, the current administration is making a strong push to lure more foreign shoots, especially after it saw the $15 million impact that Mike Newell's "Love in the Time of Cholera" had on the local economy in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena.
One of the strongest proponents of drawing more runaway production is Vice President Francisco Santos. He acknowledges that some producers have gone into Colombia with apprehension due to security concerns and a U.S. State Department travel warning, yet he insists that the nation's notorious crime situation has vastly improved over the past five years.
Colombia is presenting its upstart film commission at this year's edition of Cannes.
Not since the Golden Age of Cinema in the '30s and '40s has Mexico enjoyed such a remarkable production boom. Last year the nation produced 70 features, and if the industry stays on course, it could churn out nearly 80 films this year.
A tax incentive known as Article 226 has had a major impact on production. Output is increasing, fresh talent is emerging and the slate of productions is growing ever more diverse.
"I think this is one of the best eras for Mexican cinema, and it's all because of the diversity that you're seeing now in production schemes and subject matter," says writer-director Fernando Eimbcke, who is receiving this year's FIPRESCI Revelation of the Year award at Cannes for his coming-of-age drama "Lake Tahoe."
Up-and-coming Mexican filmmakers have been picking up a slew of awards on the festival circuit lately. Among the promising directors that have been grabbing headlines are Eimbcke, Ernesto Contreras, Rodrigo Pla and Cannes favorite Carlos Reygadas, whose Mennonite love story "Silent Light" won the Cannes Jury Prize last year.
This time around, Reygadas' protege Amat Escalante is presenting his sophomore feature "Los Bastardos" in the Un Certain Regard section. Produced by Reygadas' shingle Mantarraya, "Los Bastardos" tells a tale about two Mexican immigrants in the U.S. hired to carry out a contract killing.
Mexico also has one of the world's leading exhibition markets, with theater chains raking in more than $500 million last year, an all-time high. Unfortunately, local producers usually fail to recoup their investments, as they only get about 15% of the boxoffice take.
As Mexico undergoes a cinematic renaissance, many small indie distributors have been cropping up lately. Shingles like Reygadas' Mantarraya and Canana, the production company of Mexican actors Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna and producer Pablo Cruz, launched distribution arms last year.
The Canana release "El Violin," a small black-and-white picture that screened at Cannes in 2006, stood out as Mexico's biggest boxoffice surprise last year. Cruz says the Fernando Vargas-directed film had one of the highest per-theater averages in the history of Mexican cinema.
Mexico's 2008 release schedule looks very promising. Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," Pla's "Desierto Adentro," Gerardo Naranjo's "Voy a Explotar" and Carlos Cuaron's "Rudo y Cursi," which reunites "Y tu Mama Tambien" co-stars Garcia Bernal and Luna, have generated considerable buzz.
"I think we are going to see a lot of surprises on the screens this year," says Victor Ugalde, head of Mexican film fund Fidecine.
Uruguayan cinema offers proof that big things can indeed come in small packages. After all, we're talking about a nation with a population of 3.4 million -- roughly the equivalent of Montreal.
As one might expect, financing a full-length picture in Uruguay presents some serious difficulties, forcing most producers to turn to foreign co-production partners.
As Control Z Films executive producer Fernando Epstein says, "It would be impossible to produce a feature without partners."
Control Z co-produced 2001's "25 Watts" and the deadpan comedy "Whisky," the latter winning the Un Certain Regard FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 2004. In the Directors' Fortnight section, the Montevideo-based shingle is debuting "Acne," a coming-of-age story about a boy dealing with hormonal swings and the hardships of adolescence. Mexico's Goliat Films, Argentina's Rizoma Films and Spain's Avalon Productions co-produced.
Martin Papich, head of the National Audiovisual Institute, says Uruguayan cinema has made extraordinary progress in recent years.
"About 15 years ago, there were no Uruguayan films in theaters here," he points out. "This year, we expect to produce seven features and have five releases."
And there's more good news on the horizon. Congress is set to pass a film law that will create a $1.2 million production fund, a small amount but a step in the right direction nonetheless. Additionally, the law aims to establish tax breaks of up to 25% for domestic producers.
Still, Uruguay's exhibition market is so small that local producers must line up projects that can travel well, films like last year's award-winning drama "The Pope's Toilet."
"It's key for us to produce films that target the international marketplace," Papich says.
Since the 2006 launch of state-run film facility La Villa del Cine, Venezuela's filmmaking community has become notably divided between those working within the studio system and those on the outside looking in.
Many industry figures have sharply criticized La Villa del Cine, claiming it serves as a propaganda machine to promote President Hugo Chavez's so-called "cultural revolution."
Jonathan Jakubowicz, who directed Venezuela's all-time boxoffice leader "Secuestro Express" (2005), believes it has become more difficult in recent years to secure private financing.
"It's always been hard and it's certainly harder now," he says. "Some filmmakers have been left with no choice but to work at La Villa del Cine because they feel it's the only way to make movies in that environment."
La Villa del Cine director Lorena Almarza insists the facility gets a bad rap. "Those who suggest that La Villa del Cine is doing (propagandistic) films are expressing political opinions that do not permit them to see that these films are allowing us to develop an industry," she says.
Venezuela produced more than a dozen features last year, most receiving financing from La Villa del Cine. Among the studio's releases this year are "Bambi C4," a political thriller about an anti-Castro terrorist, and "Libertador Morales," which centers on a Simon Bolivar-quoting motorcycle-taxi driver seeking social justice.
Many local filmmakers have lashed out at the government for its decision to provide $28 million in financing to actor-turned-
director Danny Glover. A longtime Chavez supporter, Glover received the money to make a biopic about Toussaint Louverture, the leader of an 18th century slave revolt in Haiti.
Producers' association Caveprol estimates the money for the Glover picture could have partially financed about 56 Venezuelan features.
Despite the financing woes, a talented group of new filmmakers has emerged from Venezuela in recent years. Some of the nation's biggest contemporary hits include Jakubowicz's "Secuestro Express," Eduardo Arias-Nath's "Ellipsis" (2006), Alberto Arvelo's "Cyrano Fernandez" (2007) and Freddy Fadel's 2007 boxoffice champ "13 Segundos."