Skip to main content

Docs on the Latin Side: Buenos Aires Hosts Works-in-Progress Competition

By Richard Shpuntoff

This past April, the Buenos Aires Lab (BAL), the oldest running production workshop and competition for independent Latin American film, held its tenth anniversary edition. Held within the framework of BAFICI (the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film), the BAL is a particular event in the world of production workshops in that it puts documentary on equal footing with fictional film--which is to say that documentary filmmakers and producers present their work to juries, possible funders and investors and buyers side by side with filmmakers of fiction (as well as those working in experimental film and animation).

Selected filmmakers and producers can participate through one of three programs run by the BAL: Co-production meetings, the Puentes workshop for Latin American and European producers, and the Work-in-Progress competition. And along with creating possibilities for advancing a film through a co-production deal, pre-sale or funding, the BAL offers over a dozen awards that include film stock and developing, post-production services, and cash. This year's jury included Argentine documentary filmmaker Andrés Di Tella, Spanish documentary producer and educator Marta Andreu, and Vicenzo Bugno, project manager for the Berlinale/World Cinema Fund.

While this year's edition included only four documentary films (out of a total of 32 films), all four docs were in the Work-in-Progress section, and made a very strong showing in the competition for awards.

The Lahaye and Tauro Digital Awards, which include the use of an HD camera kit and post-production sound work, respectively, both went to Aurora, a coming-of-age film that follows the lives of a family of adolescents and young adults from a closed community of German-descended farmers in the northeastern jungles of Argentina. The director, Nele Wohlatz, is a native of Germany who first came to Argentina in 2003 during the economic crisis and did camera work on a couple of documentary films. She moved to Buenos Aires in 2009 and shortly began work on Aurora. Her film is a portrait of both youth at a crossroads and the culture of the Protestant work ethic as it has defined this community for over a hundred years. Speaking of her participation in the BAL, Wohlatz was very pleased with the reactions to the work-in-progress presentation: "In many of the meetings, people mentioned that when they read the synopsis they weren't sure if the film was documentary or fiction, and that the photography gave them a similar feeling about the film."


From Nele Wohlatz's Aurora, which won two awards at the Buenos Aires Lab.



Another documentary that did well in terms of awards was The Eye of the Shark by Alejo Hoijman, whose previous film Unidad 25 won the best Argentine film award at the 2008 BAFICI; The Eye of the Shark won two Sinsistema Awards. The film follows a pair of youths, Maycol and Bryan, who live in Greytown, a small town on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua where the main opportunities offered for making a living are drug trafficking and shark hunting. In discussing where documentary fits into the BAL and the BAFICI, Hoijman said, "In practice I always try to fight the idea that documentary is a genre. I think that documentary is a kind of cinema that establishes a particular dialogue with that which is real, and this dialogue is different from what we is called fictional narrative film. The BAFICI, and the BAL along with it, is one of the places in the world where they think in terms of cinema and not in terms of fiction or documentary."


From Alejo Hoijman's The Eye of the Shark.



The other two documentaries that participated in this year's BAL were also, coincidentally, coming-of-age stories, a strange occurrence that the filmmakers discussed with each other, joking that they were starting a trend.

Normal School by Celina Murga, who is known for her fiction films and who spent a year under the mentorship of Martin Scorscese, follows the lives of students in the upper grades of Argentina's oldest "normal" school, which came out of the standardization movement for public schools in the nineteenth century. The film intimately weaves the threads of the student election and the teachers' union meetings with the day-to-day life of the school. Ezequiel Yanco's Days is an observational documentary that records the lives of ten-year-old twin sisters, Martina and Macaela, as their parents struggle through financial difficulties during Argentina's ongoing economic problems while trying to provide the girls with a normal middle-class life.

For all four films, the rest of the year holds a number of possibilities for acquiring finishing funds and support. Both Doc Meeting Argentina, to be held in September, and DocBsAs, in late November, offer more opportunities for competing for funding and services awards as well as meeting with foreign co-producers, distributors and acquisition editors. And all Argentine or Argentine co-produced films are eligible to apply for funding through various channels from the Argentine Institute for Film and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA).

Richard Shpuntoff is a documentary filmmaker and translator who lives in Buenos Aires and New York City.