The spirit of San Luis


Legislation, hard work and a growing festival have helped the province become a force on the Argentine film scene.

BUENOS AIRES -- On Dec. 23, 2001, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa was sworn in as president of Argentina. Soon after being handed the powder-blue presidential sash, he defaulted on Argentina's $100 billion in debt, the largest in modern history. A week later, he was out of a job.

As Rodriguez Saa struggled in Buenos Aires, 500 miles away, in the province of San Luis, where he had been governor for 18 years, local lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on Resolution VIII-0240-2004 -- the Ley de Cine (Cinema Law) -- which they passed in hopes of turning their small province into Argentina's moviemaking capital by providing subsidies to local and foreign filmmakers.

At the time, the idea of spending taxpayer money to lure feature film productions to the remote province (population 400,000) was ridiculed for being out of touch with the urgent needs of Argentines, who were grappling with unprecedented levels of unemployment, crime and poverty. But six years later, San Luis has successfully established itself as one of the most popular filmmaking destinations in Argentina, and perhaps South America. It boasts a 1.6% unemployment rate, the lowest in the country, and consistently entices directors to its open pastures, rocky red mountains and rich green forests.

"We have an enormous amount of natural locations in San Luis that have never appeared on film before; it's virgin territory for filmmakers," said Alberto Rodriguez Saa, the brother of the former president and San Luis' current governor. "Plus, we have skilled local technicians, extras, screenwriters and actors, and our prices are very competitive."

Perhaps the province's biggest promotional push is the upcoming Festival International San Luis Cinema, which opens Friday and runs through Nov. 25. Twenty-two feature films will be in competition for the $50,000 top prize. The jury will be headed by American actress Geraldine Chaplin and includes Argentine director Eugenio Zanetti, Spanish actress Emma Suarez and Ghassan Abu-Shakra of Lebanon's Ministry of Culture. There also will be a documentary and shorts competition.

Catherine Deneuve will receive a lifetime achievement award on opening night, when Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens the festival.

"The motivation behind the festival is to have people come to see what San Luis has to offer to filmmakers, and to entice them to enter into co-productions with the province," festival director Julio Marbiz said.

In recent years, about 25 features have been lensed in San Luis, including "Blessed by Fire," which took the top prize at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. If you check the province's Web site these days, next to postings about an upcoming blood drive, you'll find ads for casting calls.

"The Cinema Law has provided so much for the province, both in making it a destination for filmmakers and in providing our citizens with cultural education," the governor said. "That is why we are so proud of it."