INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
In 1999, as a jury member for Antorchas, a now-defunct private foundation that awarded endowments for the arts and the sciences in Argentina, I was reading a huge pile of scripts from filmmakers applying for something like $10,000 US in funding. One of those scripts, written by one Mariano Llinás, was completely different from the others. Not only did it lack the usual three-act structure and disobeyed all the rules and techniques for scriptwriting, it was really different. Titled Balnearios, the proposed film was a voiceover-heavy mockumentary that classified the different kind of water resorts in the country, from the posh sites for the rich by the seaside to very ordinary and not particularly pleasant places along some small rivers. The whole thing could be read as a report for some kind of public office, except for one detail: there was a slightly ironic undertone in the text, too conscious of class nuances to be a bureaucratic document. The script was accompanied with a short film by Llinás called Arroyos de Buenos Aires (Streams of BA) that was made more or less along the same lines, with maps, images of the city, and a very pompous male voice speaking as if in an old newsreel. I felt excited and puzzled by the experience, and I remember asking Flavia, my wife and colleague, to give the project a look. Is it for real, I asked, or is it a kind of joke?
Ten years later, Mariano Llinás has become a major force in Argentinean cinema, although that is an incorrect statement in two opposite senses. On the one hand, Llinás—who until recently was barely known at home—has not become a world-famous filmmaker. On the other, in his capacities as director, producer, writer, editor, actor and teacher, he has opened up a new path for the country’s filmmaking community and a new direction for its cultural milieu. Let me put it another way: essentially, there are two seemingly mutually exclusive zones in Argentinean cinema. One is the commercial stuff, based in genre films (mainly comedies but also thrillers) with (sometimes) popular appeal and (sometimes) international appearances at festivals like San Sebastián, Berlin, or Toronto; names of directors associated with this space are the late Fabián Bielinsky, Daniel Burman, Juan José Campanella, and Marcelo Piñeyro. The second is what some years ago was called “independent” cinema, more art-house oriented films made by Cannes customers like Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, or Pablo Trapero, to name the best known abroad. There are people in between (Adrián Caetano, for instance), but there is a very important common ground for both categories: they are both state-funded. Even if many of these films usually also get money form foreign countries and organizations (from European or Asian co-producers, and from festivals and international foundations), a decisive chunk of the budget is covered by the INCAA, the Argentinean Film Institute. With INCAA’s money in place, the rest follows rather easily.
At the beginning, for Pablo Trapero’s Crane World (1999) or for Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad (2001), and also for people like Juan Villegas, Diego Lerman, Celina Murga, or Rodrigo Moreno, this source of financing could not be accessed. But now all of these filmmakers belong to what can be appropriately called Official Argentinean Cinema (OAC). I’m being ambiguous on purpose. INCAA is becoming more and more of a partisan institution under the government of the Kirchners, populist politicians who conceive culture as a battleground for their cause, not a territory for individual expression and freedom. That doesn’t mean that the films are censored (although political subjects are almost completely absent in OAC, not to mention any criticism to the government), but INCAA is looking more and more to be a Soviet-styled institution, the same as state television that a few days ago took over soccer broadcasting. In any event, filmmakers, whether arty or commercial, depend on INCAA to keep making films.
With a few exceptions. Some people don’t want to work with INCAA. One is Raúl Perrone, a sort of local legend who has been making artisan, very low-budget feature films since 1992. Perrone, who makes films very quickly, doesn’t have the patience to write scripts to be approved by any committee, state or otherwise, nor the will to shoot for $300,000, which is more or less the floor for OAC. While Perrone’s maverick example has allowed his name to travel to a few festivals outside of Argentina, Llinás’ case is something else: he has not only decided to do without INCAA but explicitly to defy the system, building a method and a factory oriented towards alternative filmmaking. For nearly a decade, he has been telling his colleagues and the press at every opportunity that the whole funding thing is deadly wrong: that films should not be that expensive, and to make worthwhile work in Argentina, it isn’t necessary to get money from INCAA, nor from the Rotterdam Hubert Bals Fund or Fonds Sud, run by the French government.
So far, Llinás has kept his word. He has produced almost ten films, written a few, directed Balnearios and the unique, amazing, Historias extraordinarias (Extraordinary Stories, 2008). He also wrote and produced El amor (primera parte), a film with four directors that wasn’t an episodic or omnibus film: Llinás and the four directors worked on carefully planned shooting schedule to take advantage of the equipment that was lent for a few days by a film school, the Fundación Universidad del Cine (FUC), where Llinás and many of his friends and associates began to teach after graduating. The FUC is the place where people like Alonso, Trapero, Villegas, Murga and others have studied, but Llinás is part of a different and clearly distinct group, one that was initially built around Rafael Filippelli, veteran filmmaker and professor, who injected in some of his students the idea of Godardian, experimental and non-conventional filmmaking. By now, this group has made half a dozen films, such as A propósito de Buenos Aires (2006), a collective directorial effort by a dozen students, or Manuel Ferrari’s Cómo estar muerto (2007). This year’s output includes Todos mienten (They All Lie) by Matías Piñeiro (who earlier made 2007’s El hombre robado), and Castro by Alejo Moguillansky, also author of La prisionera (2005), a serious candidate for the award of most obscure film in history. Moguillansky edited many of these films, and Castro was made with the money Llinás won by Historias extraordinarias in BAFICI.
The Buenos Aires festival is the perfect launching place for the films from the group, and there is a curious situation about this. In recent years, more or less well-known directors from OAC have been applying to Cannes, Venice, Berlin, San Sebastián, Toronto, or wherever while not even screening their films in BAFICI (nor even in Mar del Plata). So the home turf is left open for low-budget movies that may win money or, at least, an award to finish the film or blow it up to 35mm. Yet while some programmers usually visit the BAFICI on a yearly basis, also some producers, they are not very interested in this kind of filmmaking. It’s too highbrow, too elitist and, at the same time, not easily recognizable as art-house fare. To foreign professionals, films like Castro or Todos mienten (to take this year’s crop) aren’t considered kosher enough to circulate easily on the festival circuit. Some people say this is because there is too much talking in these films, and it’s not easy to follow reading subtitles, but I don’t think that’s enough of a reason.
On the other hand, local critics love these films: they are, so to speak, the Pride of the BAFICI. The contradiction is very interesting, because it involves a hidden clause. A film like Castro represents the core of young and sophisticated culture in the country, and its affiliation with cinema is somehow lateral, in spite of its director’s claims otherwise. Based on a novel by Samuel Beckett, it’s also an homage to Invasión by Hugo Santiago (1969), a cult film by the most refined of Argentinean filmmakers, written by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares (recently released in a special edition DVD set by the MALBA). But with cameos by writers and directors from the stage, it also somehow plays like a ballet, full of physical action and choreographed movements, as well as references to books and music. The film thus reflects the very active and extremely prestigious underground and not-that-underground theatre scene in Buenos Aires.
Todos mienten, on the other hand, is a film that deals with weighty issues of national history, crossed with allusions to more traditional art films. (Piñeiro is more of a conventional cinephile director than Moguillansky.) It resembles some of Rivette’s more theatrically oriented films like Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), with many long-take scenes and virtuoso camera movements. The main actress is Romina Paula, a playwright, theatre director, and novelist. In her first book (the second is about to be published), the main character resembles the one she plays in another film, Resfriada, by Gonzalo Castro (no relation). Castro, another young filmmaker, novelist (his first book, Hidrografía doméstica is almost a masterpiece) and publisher, doesn’t like Llinás’ films at all, but he shares the same connections and is also firmly set against OAC. His theory is that with the new technology at hand, a filmmaker cannot be considered an author unless he does everything by himself: from script to camera to sound to poster design. Under these guidelines he has already made two films in the last two years Resfriada (which won the prize for best director at BAFICI 2008) and Cocina, almost-documentary group portraits of high-end professionals, such as the people from his own publishing house; his upcoming third film will have as a subject Mario Bellatín, a hyper-cult Mexican writer. So, while film business continues as usual in OAC, there is a new development that speaks about a powerful cultural scene not entirely able to be described in terms of cinema itself.
But the whole movement would be very marginal if it wasn’t for the Historias extraordinarias, a piece of work that turned its maker into a local idol in certain circles. (It still screens to large houses every Sunday at the MALBA, more than a year after its release, where Balnearios also had a dedicated audience.) The film’s title is apt: it’s something of a homemade megaproduction, a four-hour movie with 40 locations, 50 actors, dozens of stories, and original music (Llinás also composed the main song), made for peanuts (less than $50,000) and completely apart from local production habits. (There is also a lion, a tank, and some scenes were shot, almost unbelievably, in Mozambique.) The film also features acting parts for famous people from the theatre scene such as Rafael Spregelburd and Lola Arias, both playwrights published by Castro’s house.
Historias extraordinarias shows Llinás’ growth since the Balnearios script. With its 18 chapters, three main stories and a handful of secondary ones, a voiceover covers almost every inch of the footage. The idea breaks the rules against redundancy that have been stressed in film courses since day one, but with a crucial catch. While the image overlaps with the text, it does not do so perfectly: in some cases the story anticipates the image and in others trails behind it, creating a sort of counterpoint between both techniques. Also, there is a consistent parody-like tone in the narration that both makes fun of the film’s genre-hybridized being (road movie, thriller, love story, adventure, war film) but still keeps the feeling of them, even through the use of some popular corny songs. And there is a literary parody as well: the text is Borgesian to the bone, solemn and verbose with a grain of self-irony. Organized like a book by Georges Perec, the goal of the film is less to tell stories than to sketch them. According to Llinás, that’s one of Borges’ lessons: it is not necessary to tell a whole story or to write a novel about it, not even a short one; on the contrary, it is enough to explain it in a few words. Translated into film language, this means shooting a couple of scenes, or maybe even showing a location and some faces that imply the rest, but, at the same time, delaying and overstating some situations simply for pleasure.
Historias extraordinarias is a thoroughly postmodern film, a narcissistic patchwork made up of all sorts of references, but in this playful and frequently nonsensical machine there is a heart. The film shows the quest of its maker, it bears the extremely amateur, but in the end very professional, mark characteristic of Llinás, as well as also some sort of strange melancholy about the absurdity of his achievement. It’s a truly crazy film—not unflawed, but very touching in the end, because it states that film itself has become an endangered species, and that such a titanic work is needed to build something remarkable, although it itself is as thin and impermanent as a house of cards. In any case, Historias extraordinarias breathes freedom, and even if it’s only a sidestep in film history it’s well worth the detour. Maybe this arrogant, domestic maverick has discovered some kind of clue to the future of film.