Aro Tolbukhin: En la mente del asesino

If making a Latin American feature film is difficult these days, merely screening one in Bolivia requires a small miracle. With much of the region’s economy in tatters, production is a risky business, and investors willing to offer up the cash for a feature film are few and far between. Mainstream distribution and exhibition circuits are largely caught in the stranglehold of the North American majors, which flood the natural market for Latin American cinema with Hollywood products. Often the only way of making a film is via a (usually European) co-producer, offering the tempting combination of money up front and potentially lucrative exposure in the European TV or cinema circuits.

As such, the Ibero-American Film Festival of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia is in itself an act of defiance. Since 1999, the Festival has offered an almost unique platform for both homegrown and other Latin American cinema, and this fifth instalment, held between 21-30 August, showed that if money is in short supply across the continent, talent and determination are not. It also showed that if dependence on foreign funding and international markets sometimes results in bland, formulaic package-films, many of the continent’s new generation of filmmakers are far from resigned to cultural anonymity. Despite the claim by many working in the national industries that Latin American cinema is in almost terminal decline, Santa Cruz is a valuable platform both for veterans and for new generations of filmmakers with fresh ideas, a high degree of technical accomplishment and the talent to script a good story.

It is difficult to find a common thread running through such a wide variety of thematic and stylistic approaches, but many films – in their own ways – dealt with the comic, tragic or absurd destinies of their protagonists, and how those destinies relate to the comic, tragic or absurd social situations in which they find themselves. Entre ciclones (Between Cyclones, Enrique Colina, Cuba, 2003) is one of them – an assured debut comedy set in contemporary Havana that deals with the familiar issues of entrapment, escape and the exotic allure that Cuba holds for the “West”, and vice versa. Tomás is generally fed up with his lot as an apprentice telephone engineer. He also has to contend with a best friend determined to get him involved in petty crime, a grumpy boss with a phobia for new technology, and a girlfriend with a phobia for his wandering libido. None of this is helped when his house is destroyed by the first of the eponymous cyclones, the second of which presumably comes after the narrative is over, symbolically trapping the bumbling Tomás in his essentially directionless existence. The film’s angst-ridden story acts as a vessel for a series of comic set-pieces, frivolous character-driven humour and crisply played-out visual gags. “We who have nothing are very rich, you have to look at things upside-down”, comments Tomás’ friend as Tomás appears to hang effortlessly from the ceiling, before the camera pans across and pulls back to reveal it is in fact the new-age Buddhist friend who is standing on his head against the wall.

But Tomás will not resign himself to what he subconsciously sees as the suffocating presence of the Castro regime, and he sees the possibility of escape in an affair with the alluring Spanish nude photographer Adriana whose fax machine he is sent to repair. As she sits in her palatial apartment surveying the decaying Cuban capital from on high she comments, “Do you know why I like Havana? Because it’s like the naked bodies of the people I photograph”. But her haughty exoticism finally provides no way out to Tomás’ problems, and the film ends up, like many of its generation, implicitly and mildly criticising both the Cuban regime and the foreign “solutions” that would set those like Tomás on a more meaningful path. Despite a weak ending and a set of characters that struggle to get beyond a set of stereotypes, Colina’s snappy direction, ear and eye for situational comedy and refreshing visual style make Entre ciclones an entertaining, if somewhat superficial, look at contemporary Cuba.

Bolívar soy yo

Another comedy that works with stereotypes, but in a more searching and self-critical way, is the latest film by veteran Colombian director Jorge Alí Triana, Bolívar soy yo (I Am Bolivar, 2002). Latching onto Colombia’s twin national obsessions with soap opera and patriotism, Alí Triana’s film explores the complex nature of truth and knowledge in a country whose urban population lives its own bloody civil war to a great extent through a constant bombardment of “factual” television news reports. The film is narrated in a non-patronising way through the TV melodrama idiom, which forms both the emotional lives and the historical awareness of the captivated soap-opera viewers affectionately portrayed throughout the film. Real-life Colombian soap star Robinson Díaz plays Santiago Miranda, a prima donna of an actor who plays the role of national hero Simón Bolívar in a popular TV soap opera, and whose ego and exaggerated sense of realism leads him to question the dramatic manipulation the scriptwriters visit upon the historical “truth” of Bolívar. Both Miranda and the public become so enthralled with the role that they end up believing the fiction, and the president of the Republic invites the actor to a summit of the “Bolivarian” nations – the countries liberated by el libertador – not simply to “represent” Bolívar, but symbolically, to “be” Bolívar. The script, mise en scène and music deftly blur the boundaries between the “fictional” world of the TV melodrama and the melodramatic “real” world of Santiago’s delirium; even the heavy-handed dialogue can at a stretch be forgiven as a parody of the tacky, overstated style of soap itself (the director’s comment that “This is not about telling a true story, this is a dra-ma-ti-sa-tion!”; Santiago’s wonderfully corny proclamation that “I am the frustrated dream of a continent!”)

When Miranda/Bolívar uses the occasion to kidnap the corrupt president of Colombia in the name of freedom, we begin to take seriously the “reality” of his role as a symbolic Bolívar: since he embodies the national (misappropriated) emblem of national freedom, an army general comments that “killing a symbol is just as dangerous as killing the real thing”. But the shockingly bloody shoot-out in Bolívar’s house in Bogotá that ends the film pulls us back from facile enjoyment. We witness this event intermittently through the cameras of the sensationalist press that gather outside, in a savage attack on pornomiseria: the media’s conversion of Colombia’s war into depthless spectacle. Postmodernism can be fun, perhaps, but beware of trivialising the real.

From postmodern comedy to two notable realist dramas from Chile, both presenting moral dilemmas and both dealing with very different kinds of dysfunctional and partly unresolved community relationships. Tres noches de un sábado (Three Nights on a Saturday, Joaquín Eyzaguirre, 2002) is a fairly well-wrought opera prima, if somewhat manipulative and sentimental. As the title suggests, the film comprises a triptych of three evenly-told and similarly structured stories of three different couples or groups of friends from three different social groups: a lorry driver who seduces a barmaid with whom he goes looking for a motel to have sex; a depressed port functionary who is sacked and goes on a drinking binge with some friends; the cold upper-middle-class couple suffering marital alienation and infidelity. The naturalist performance style of Mirko and his girlfriend, the couple who act as a narrative thread linking the other three couples, sustains the viewer’s sympathy throughout. The intertwining plot strands are managed with sensitivity and at no point seems contrived, and this, combined with the fact that each story line ends in death, lends a tragic air of pre-determination and resignation to the piece. Eyzaguirre wants us to challenge our initial stereotypical readings of his characters – the middle-class husband goes from bedraggled and hen-pecked to corrupt and adulterous; the football-loving lorry driver from drunk and lecherous to loving and sensitive. But these “re-evaluations” seem too hackneyed for the film to be truly challenging, and the effect is a slightly simplistic heroisation of the humbler characters.

El Leyton, hasta que la muerte nos separe

The other Chilean offering, El Leyton, hasta que la muerte nos separe (Gonzalo Justiniano, 2002), is another story of alienation from the community, but more accomplished in its dramatic and cinematographic creation of a feeling of fate and inevitability. Leyton is a smooth-talking fisherman accused of a crime by the inhabitants of his village, and almost the entire film is narrated by him in first-person flashback as he explains his misdemeanours into the microphone of the local radio station. While the villagers only need to find out whether or not Leyton committed the crime in question, the viewer’s task is more complex, needing to establish first of all who Leyton is, what crime has been committed, and why there is such hatred towards him. In spite of the whole series of mysteries it engenders, this narrative strategy reproduces the stifling, closed atmosphere of a small village in which everybody knows everybody else’s business. An extensive use of hand-held camera shots and canted frames underlines the unreliability and instability of Leyton’s narrative (is he lying? How many different points of view could we see the story from?). Although such techniques become tired to the point of cliché at times, the stylistic creation of atmosphere underlines the final moral dilemma that the film presents to us, and we are left with a feeling that things will never quite go back to normal.

But for all the skilful and entertaining fiction films on show, the most gripping and dramatic production of the Festival was undoubtedly the superb feature-length docu-fiction from Mexico, Aro Tolbukhin: En la mente del asesino (Aro Tolbukhin: In the Mind of a Killer, Agustín Villalonga, Lidia Zimmermann and Isaac P. Racine, 2002), which deservedly took home the Tatú Tumpa prize for Best Film. Weaving together first-hand documentary footage, direct testimonial interviews and dramatised reconstructions of past events, Aro Tolbukhin takes as its raw subject matter the story of a Hungarian man who has confessed to burning alive and murdering seven people while working as a missionary in Guatemala during that country’s civil war. But the film is also about and lays bare its own creation – its makers consistently and deftly refrain from claiming that their own version of Tolbukhin is definitive, suggesting instead that even (or perhaps especially) the variously fraught, unsettling and frank journalistic interviews that provide a whole range of narrative points of view, are incomplete truths, fictions reconstructed in the minds of the protagonists after the event.

Its narrative timeframe begins at the time of the production of Aro Tolbukhin itself: the opening sequence sees one of the Spanish documentary makers shown around the film archives of the jail where Tolbukhin was held, where she discovers the semi-degraded Super-8 films with chilling interviews of the prisoner awaiting execution. This kick-starts a spiralling montage of temporal planes and points of view that the viewer scarcely has time to put in chronological order – the filmmakers’ own testimonial interviews; both first-hand footage and dramatic reconstructions of Tolbukhin in prison and in the missions before the killings; a long, haunting section given over to a reconstruction of the killer’s bizarre, incestuous childhood. Part of the difficulty – and of the film’s originality – is that each historical moment is rendered in a visual and dramatic style that variously confirms or upsets our expectations. Some of the filmmakers’ first-hand interviews, for instance, use a crisp, medium-contrast black-and-white, while others use a cinéma-vérité style grainy colour stock with a sharp, juddering hand-held camera. The reconstructions of the missions are similarly shot in a grainy colour reminiscent of the ageing documentary footage of the same era that stands alongside it, with harshly realist cinematography and performance styles. The childhood reconstructions, by contrast, are highly elaborated and technically accomplished, using a sharp black-and-white film stock and a reflective, poignant and painful use of slow pans and long-shots that seem to show the young Aro and his sister/lover powerlessly watching events unfold before their eyes. This may appear to alienate each period of the protagonist’s life from one another, but in fact the measured cutting between them has the opposite effect, creating an uneasy sympathy for this serial rapist and murderer, presented in three dimensions but perpetually unapproachable. As an investigative, self-reflective social docu-fiction Aro Tolbukhin revives and refreshes the fine tradition of the Chilean classic of the New Latin American Cinema, El Chacal de Nauheltoro (The Jackal of Nahueltoro, Miguel Littín, Chile, 1969). The difference, typically of the current wave of new Latin American cinema, is that rather than a large-scale political denunciation, Aro Tolbukhin tells an individual story that quietly acquires its own social and political significance by pushing the viewer to question his/her own way of thinking. Let us hope the tradition will continue.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited picture was the one Bolivian feature at the Festival from local debutant director Rodrigo Bellot, Dependencia sexual (Sexual Dependency, 2003). Arriving among a fanfare of models, publicity and red carpets, this movie was widely accused of committing the same crimes as was in some quarters the Festival itself – of self-indulgently basking in glamour and superficial good looks; of bizarrely trying to reproduce Hollywood in a country whose dire economic situation makes such glitz seem distasteful and inappropriate. All of these charges against the film are to an extent justified, although Bellot must be congratulated for even getting the film made at all, and for the Critics’ Prize it picked up at Locarno immediately prior to Santa Cruz.

Dependencia sexual is made up of five separate stories, some set in Santa Cruz and others in New York, all of them linked by their dysfunctional relationship with sex or sexuality. The most visually striking feature of the film is its almost constant use of a vertical, two-way split screen, which has moments of effectiveness but which by and large looks like a stylistic gimmick designed to divert attention from the banality of much of the narrative. The first, Bolivian-based episodes, are the rather trite and forgettable stories of a teenage girl going through the pains of growing up, in which overwrought music and dextrous camera movement try to substitute the complete lack of drama arising from the characters or situations themselves. The second chapter is equally vacuous, showing a Colombian adolescent forced by his friends to sleep with a prostitute – this which seems to be little more than a vessel for a set of one-liners and stereotypes.

Dependencia sexual

However, the intense, haunting fourth episode, set in New York, is where Bellot’s split screen comes into its own. A black woman confesses her rape at the hands of a group of racist, machista thugs, as she addresses an unsettled hand-held camera mainly in glaring close-up. Both sides of the split screen show the same shot, one following the other with a few seconds time lag and each with the sound-track synchronised with the image-track. The result is a sinister, suffocating effect, and a reminder of our own role as voyeurs as this woman’s trauma is reproduced on celluloid for our entertainment. We begin to question the role of the media and its celebration of the stereotypes that lead those men to commit their crime, and indeed this seems to be the intention of the film as a whole; but one need only to look at the publicity poster of a pair of almost naked male and female models, airbrushed to perfection, to wonder how sincere is Bellot’s critique of a society in which image and appearance rule, and how far he cynically employs those social defects to get bums on seats. The end of the film is also rather hackneyed, and undoes much of the serious work achieved in the fourth episode. This creates a feeling that that episode would have worked marvellously standing alone as a short, but Bellot’s ambition and obvious technical know-how suggests he could be a name to look out for in the future.

Alongside the main competition there was a large and much under-attended display of both fiction and documentary video: the real future of the expressive audiovisual sphere in Bolivia, according to many working in the business. Perhaps the most significant of these screenings, certainly from a national perspective, were those given by CEFREC, a La Paz-based organisation that trains and lends equipment to video-makers from indigenous communities countrywide, and has established its own national alternative video distribution network. Their members make both documentary and fiction videos reflecting the problems, beliefs and world-views of their communities, offering a valuable antidote to the condescending stereotype of the poverty-stricken Indian all too prevalent both in Bolivia and abroad. CEFREC’s interest in achieving recognition and distribution internationally (and even nationally, in terms of commercial urban circuits) is marginal to their main purpose of education and cultural awareness, and as such, they felt peculiarly out of place at Santa Cruz.

Even so, they offered a thought-provoking counterpoint to the series of meetings organised by PIDCA (Ibero-American Platform for Audiovisual Coproduction), aimed at stimulating co-production deals between Latin American filmmakers and (mainly European) producers. PIDCA and CEFREC would seem to embody two major tendencies of Latin American cinema today – the more commercially-minded filmmakers who struggle and strike deals to achieve foreign funding, distribution and exhibition; and those that stick to the grass-roots, uncompromising to an extent that perhaps not even their highly politicised predecessors of the 1970s were unable to be. Both currents show that Latin American cinema is far from dead.