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Politics and Poetics: A Brief History of Argentine Documentary Cinema

By Richard Shpuntoff

From Fernando Biri's <em>Tie die </em>(1958), considered and early example of modern Latin American documentary cinema

Fernando Birri, the founder of modern Argentine--as well as Latin American-- documentary cinema, defined the enemy as "subcinema." His 1962 Manifesto of Santa Fe concludes that the social documentary's revolutionary function in Latin America demands that filmmakers "put [themselves] before reality with a camera and document it, document the underdevelopment. The cinema that makes itself an accomplice to this underdevelopment is a subcinema."

Birri based his conclusion on research he conducted with his students at the Documentary School of Santa Fe from 1956 through 1958, which also resulted in the film Tiré die (Throw me a Dime). A harrowing portrait of life in a shanty town just outside the city of Rosario, Argentina, Tiré die is now considered the first film of modern Latin American documentary cinema. Centered around a daily ritual/"game" called the tiré die, in which children between the ages of 5 and 11 perilously run alongside passenger trains begging for coins, the film defined a path for Latin American documentary in just over 30 minutes.

The reality of Argentine documentary cinema that I began to know when I moved to Buenos Aires in 2002, a year in which 38 documentaries were produced, was a very different and in many ways much more complex one. There were filmmakers who considered themselves disciples of Birri and the other militant documentary filmmakers of the 1960s, but there were just as many, if not more, who were making films that seemed to have no connection with the history of Latin American documentary cinema. I wondered: Was there a common thread that ran through Argentine documentary?

Film professor and researcher Eduardo Russo suggests a richer, more nuanced approach to the history of Argentine documentary: "In order to give a kind of image of how I see these 50 plus years of history, rather than a common thread, one should think of a woven fabric made of many different threads. At times we become used to the idea of historical periods, general tendencies and lines of thought, but if we look back at Birri and the foundation of this cinema, there is a need to separate the lines of thought because of what I refer to as ‘collateral effects' of this cinema. That is, Birri along with his militant, political line also has very strong poetic tendencies, and there are filmmakers today who consider themselves disciples of Birri for his poetics."

This brief introduction to Argentine documentary cinema will offer an overview of how documentary has developed in the country from the pioneering avant-garde work of Birri and his contemporaries to the present, in which Argentine filmmakers produce 50 documentaries annually on a broad diversity of subjects and with an equally broad diversity of approaches.

While I will generalize in this history and divide it neatly into three periods--the militant cinema of the 1960s, the return to democracy in the 1980s, and the current explosion of documentary production--I also hope to provide, from interviews with three generations of filmmakers, some sense of the quotidian experiences that make up this "woven fabric" that is Argentine documentary cinema.

Militant Cinema (1956-1976)

The path that was laid out by Birri's thinking, as well as that of filmmakers Glauber Rocha in Brazil and Santiago Alvarez in Cuba, had an impact all over Latin America. In Argentina, in opposition to foreign imperialism/colonialism and the military dictatorship that was running the country, a "militant" cinema was created by a number of documentary filmmakers, including Raymundo Gleyzer, Humberto Ríos, Octavio Getino and, most famously, Fernando "Pino" Solanas.

Solanas and Getino, working clandestinely from 1966 to 1968, created one of the landmark works of Latin American documentary cinema: La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces). This four-and-a-half hour trilogy was a manifesto and a direct attack against the military dictatorship, as well as the First World nations that supported it and benefited from it. Attending a screening of La hora de los hornos was considered an act of treason. The film was projected at community centers and union halls, with a look-out posted at the door, and the filmmakers would regularly interrupt the projection of the film to open the floor for a discussion about the film's contents and ideas.

Further, Solanas and Getino wrote an essay, "Towards a Third Cinema," in which  they called for the creation of a "third cinema" that represented the needs of the Third World, and defined it in opposition to the "first cinema" (industrial, Hollywood) and the "second cinema" (bourgeoisie, decadent auteur cine, European).

But it would be wrong to imagine that the films of this militant cinema comprised an ideologically monolithic body of work. Ríos, for example, who had studied cinema in France, was very affected by the work of Alain Resnais and Georges Franjou, as well as by the latter's political experience related to the independence of Algeria. With his film La Faena, Rios was interested in creating a cinematic essay that "reflected on my perception of the reality as I saw in Argentina upon my return from Europe." And Gleyzer, halfway through his film México: La revolución congelada (Mexico: The Frozen Revolution, shifts from what appears to be more "traditional" historical documentary to a personal questioning of the failure of contemporary Latin American revolutions.

But in 1976, this period of militant documentary and cinematic innovation was violently ruptured by the murder/disappearance of three documentary filmmakers by the Argentine military: Gleyzer, Pablo Szir and Enrique Juarez. Solanas, Getino, Gerardo Vallejo and Ríos only survived by going into exile. Argentine filmmaking was under government control and highly censored, and documentary production was limited to films that spoke proudly of the nation.

Return to Democracy

The return to democracy for documentary film meant,(1) the development of new tendencies (i.e., questioning the objectivity of documentary, a greater presence of filmmakers within their own works), and (2) the beginnings of an effort, that continues to the present day, to try to recover history and understand the implications of the dictatorship.

There was at least one short-lived attempt to start a new collective of documentary filmmakers, but we will focus on one its members: Marcelo Céspedes. Together with filmmaker and anthropologist Carmen Guarini--who studied with Jean Rouch and earned a doctorate in anthropological cinema at the University Nanterre--Céspedes founded the documentary production company Cine Ojo (named in honor of Dziga Vertov´s concept of the Cine-Eye).

From 1985 to 1996, Céspedes and Guarini were able to produce and direct eight films, but each film was an uphill battle: INCAA (the national film institute) had no policy for supporting documentary film, there was no commercial circuit to distribute their finished work, and documentary was considered a minor "genre" of film and of no interest to the general public.

"Establishing documentary [in Argentina] was a struggle that took place over many years," Guarini elaborates. "Our efforts in the beginning to fight as a collective of filmmakers for resources were not successful. INCAA didn't respond to us as a group. The few responses they gave were to individuals. And in the end the group dissolved. So we would have to each go individually. You would knock on the door of the institute, wait a number of hours, and sometimes they would meet with you and sometimes they wouldn't, and sometimes you would go home without any funding and sometimes you would leave with a subsidy for finishing your film." In fact, films finished in 16mm didn't even qualify for national subsidies.

But by 1996, more and more people were becoming aware of Cine Ojo's work, and Céspedes, in particular, took on more of a role as a producer for other people's work. From 1997 to '99, Cine Ojo served as the Argentine co-producer for two films by Birri and, in many ways more importantly, a new generation of documentary filmmakers turned to Cine Ojo to produce their work.

Andrés Di Tella, who had already done well with his first two films, Monteneros, una historia and Prohibido, was in the middle of work on his third, La television y yo (The Television and I) when he met Céspedes, who offered to produce the film. "[Céspedes'] film Tinta Roja (Red Ink) marked a turning point in Cine Ojo's production," Di Tella recalls. "In fact, that was what united us. I met Marcelo, who I didn't know, one day and I said I had seen Tinta Roja and had liked it very much. He was kind of surprised because I was coming from somewhere completely different in terms of documentary. And that's how we got talking."

Di Tella became the first of a number of the next generation of filmmakers to work with Cine Ojo. Sergio Wolf and Lorena Muñoz co-directed Yo no sé que me han hecho tus ojos (I Don't Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me), a search for Adá Falcon, a legendary tango singer who gave up her life of fame in 1942 to join a convent of Franciscan nuns, that also tells the story of the end of the era of tango. Cristian Pauls' Por la Vuelta is an essay on the obsessive and solitary nature of artistic creation that centers on a portrait of bandoneon player and composer Leopoldo Federico. And Albertina Carri, who split with Cine Ojo before completing production, made Los Rubios (The Blondes), a controversial film in which she reflects upon her own identity as the daughter of two famous intellectual militants who were disappeared by the Argentine military when she was four years old.

Taken individually, these films have little in common, but taken collectively, they reflect the renewed interest in documentary in Argentina from 1999 to 2002, as well as the increasing diversity of approaches and subject matters.

The Current Reality and the Crisis

Two major factors have most defined the explosion of documentary filmmaking in Argentina. First, as with the rest of the world, has been digital technology and the access and immediacy it offers. Second, ironically, has been Argentina's economic crash in 2001 and 2002.

Gema Juárez Allen, currently a producer with Habitación 1520, remembers the change that occurred around the economic crash, or "the crisis," as it was commonly referred to in Argentina: "In 1998, when I was studying to become a documentary filmmaker at ENERC (the national film school), it was rare to find someone who wanted to make documentaries. There wasn't even a documentary program. But four years later, beginning with the crisis, things really changed, and suddenly lots of people who never thought of making a documentary were doing so. I think that the new reality was so brutal, so harsh that it thrust itself upon them."

Humberto Ríos, who after returning from exile in Mexico in 1987 started teaching at ENERC, saw how the crisis also brought a renewed interest by students in understanding the documentary work of the '60s and '70s. "A lot of people, especially students, took to the streets in 2001, filming with a hundred cameras, trying to make a hundred films, and there was, of course, a lot of repetition. But it got people to start connecting cinema to a political reaction that they were able to document in the moment it was happening. And at the same time that they were working on these films, the students were studying the work that had been made in Latin America in the past."

A number of other developments have also been important in fostering the production of and interest in documentary films.

BAFICI, the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival, whose first director was Di Tella in 1999 and 2000, has included a significant amount of documentary work as part of its program, and over the years the festival has gone on to include documentary work in competitive sections with narrative films. In 2001, Cine Ojo founded the Doc Buenos Aires Festival (DocBsAs), which focuses exclusively on documentary work and is meant to be more of a forum for production that allows for exchange of ideas than a competitive festival. In 2007, Doc Meeting Argentina, an international conference consisting of workshops, seminars and meetings, was launched under the auspices of planoLatino. This year's Doc Meeting Argentina takes place September 11 through 13.

Also in 2007, INCAA responded to proposals by various documentary associations by creating a new funding stream for digitally produced documentary work called the quinta via (fifth track). "The aim in developing the fund was to make it possible for more filmmakers to film, so that new filmmakers could make their first films," says filmmaker Ernesto Ardito, who serves on the jury for the fund. "What DOCA (Argentine Documentarians) proposed to INCAA was a fund that would allow more filmmaking, based on the examples of foundations like Jan Vrijman in Holland. There are a number of calls for submissions during the year with the aim of producing an average of 40 films per year with a budget of 120,000 pesos ($40,000) each, though now the fund is being increased to 160,000 pesos."

In closing, I will refrain from attempting a neat summary. There are too many issues that are beyond the scope of this article (i.e., major problems of distribution and broadcasting, lack of access to equipment in poorer regions of the nation) and the future seems wide open in every sense.

So I instead shall pass on what Humberto Ríos shared with me: "Where is the emotion of time and of space in our documentaries? It seems like an abstract issue, but it isn't, and it is something we must aim to achieve, to the extent that we can strip the hard journalistic skin off our work in order to transform it into art. And this is the challenge of the future for Latin American documentary, and something that we must further discuss: How can we reach the emotional level in order that we may communicate with each other more profoundly?"


Richard Shpuntoff works in Buenos Aires as a translator specializing in film and film production. He is currently working on his documentary about the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade.