Compétition internationale
46th edition
NOVEMBER 15>23, 2024, Nantes - France

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Focus on Uruguay

One the most typical features of Uruguayan cinema is that it seems to go through yet another renaissance each time a film is produced, although the last three years stand in contradiction to this.

In 1923, Juan Antonio Borges’s Almas de la Costa was hailed as “the first Uruguayan film”. In 1938, Rina Massardi’s Vocación was “the first South American singing film”. And in 1979, Eva Landeck’s El lugar del humo, a coproduction with Argentina, was also announced as “the first Uruguayan feature film”. Fifteen years later, Pablo Dotta’s El dirigible was presented at Cannes as “the first Uruguayan film” yet again.

In no other country in the world has cinema gone through so many revivals. One can suspect that new film-makers do not know much about their national cinema. But one can also consider that the filmic experience just goes down the drain once each film is finished and that people have to start from scratchwith each new project.

Since 1919, Uruguay has produced feature films such as León Ibáñez’s Pervanche (this director was the current Uruguayan president’s great-uncle). Today it is hard to tell whether this film really was a feature film as it was destroyed shortly after its theatrical release by the main actress’s extremely jealous husband.

Since the beginning of cinema, which dates back to 1898 with Carrera de bicicletas, shot at the Arroyo Seco velodrome by Catalan-born shipowner Félix Oliver, about fifty feature films have been made.

Since 1993, the Uruguayan cinema has produced more films than over the last hundred years. Since Beatriz Flores Silva’s La historia casi verdadera de Pepita la Pistolera, several Uruguayan films — including the most recent and best-known 25 Watts by young directors Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella— or coproductions with other countries have won international awards; others such as Beatriz Flores Silva’s En la puta vida were great popular successes. In 2002, Corazón de fuego, by Diego Arzuaga who had previously made Otario, showed good craftsmanship. Established documentary film-maker Mario Handler’s career reached its peak with Aparte, a feature film shown in Venice and which might become a reference in our film history.

The current situation is promising: films made by members of the new generation, independent from existing production structures (25 Watts, Alvaro Buela’s Una forma de bailar and Marcelo Bertalmio’s Los dias con Ana), as well as films with definite artistic qualities from experienced authors such as Beatriz Flores, Diego Arzuaga and Esteban Schroeder with El viñedo, show for the first time ever that there is a national cinema.

Only three or four films from the previous period may be added to this list: Carlos Alonso’s El pequeño héroe del arroyo de oro (1929), Ugo Ulive’s Un vinten p’al Judas (1959) and perhaps Juan Carlos Rodriguez’s Mataron a Venancio Flores (1981).

Seen from a critical point of view, the officiai story becomes much more complex.

There never was a Uruguayan film industry and there never will be

Apart from a few previous efforts, it was not until the mid 1990s that production in general, and production companies in particular, started to operate on a regular basis. In 1919, Borges and his partner (a tailor) founded Charrúa Production to make the unfinished Puños y nobleza and Almas de la costa in 1923. Misunderstandings between the two partners and the lack of benefits compared to the investment led the company to bankruptcy.

This was the first of many attempts and as many frustrations. In the 1920s, Henry Maurice productions and Orion laboratories, which had developed and produced many films, disappeared, as well as all the companies which had most often been set up for the sake of one film.

Today the same fate may befall those companies which partly fund themselves with the making of commercials and may be affected by the economic and social disintegration which the country has been suffering from since early August 2002, leading the nation into a process which threatens the very existence of Uruguayan cinema.

There never was any steady film production in Uruguay nor, for the same reasons, a proper film industry beyond declarations of interest. Such an industry is not possible considering the small size of the country and the small number of inhabitants. These characteristics have recurrently put into question the viability of the Uruguayan state — a British creation designed as a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina.

However, although there may be no film industry, there is a national cinema which, in spite of everything, has fostered the creative expression of a number of authors.

Today, at the onset of a century of globalization, one could imagine going on making films with the help of European funds, coproductions, international aid and agreements. In Uruguay there is no specific law dealing with cinema, the Film Institute is penniless, financing is next to nothing, and there are no reciprocal exchanges that could lead to possible coproductions.

The latest films to enjoy local success did not recoup on foreign markets: El viñedo failed in Chile which took part in the coproduction; the company which made Patrón, a coproduction with Argentina, went bankrupt; Corazón de fuego, made in 2002, was not able to recoup in countries seriously hit by the économie depression; En la puta vida did badly in Spain; the Uruguayan participant in Luna, a coproduction with Argentina and Brazil, did quite badly; the Uruguayan company which produced El dirigible in 1994 went bankrupt.

However, without any industrial support and practically without any help from national funds, films manage to be made by young film-makers who, right from the start, have no other strength than their creative spirit and their need to express themselves.

Examples are 25 Watts, Una forma de bailar, Los días con Ana, Aparte made this year by Mario Handler; all of these films are works of art in their own right.

These films were neither influenced by a study of the international market, nor dependent on financung bodies which could have imposed guidelines as to the content or the form of the projects or altered the film-makers’ vision.

As the country has no resources of its own, it seems the only possibility is to restrict oneself to whatever is feasible, ie. very little, before taking risks which could lead to the disappearance of the production company.

Furthermore, Uruguay has changed and will never be the same again since the economic and social disintegration of the region and the virtual end of Mercosur started in January 2002, as a consequence of the dominant economic strategy of the IMF. The Uruguayan crisis is marked by yet another process of hardly controllable social and political instability (similar to the period leading to the 1973 coup), because decisions are made neither in our country nor even in the region. As in other periods in its history, Uruguayan cinema will exist only with the help of external factors — on top of the film-makers’ own talent — and through its potential to overcome difficulties which remain unpredictable today.

In this context, art seen from the remote Rio de la Plata has little or nothing to do with asserting our cultural identity which is essential for us to be “ourselves” and not “others”. We Uruguayans are used to this.

Manuel Martinez Carril, journalist, film critic, Director, Uruguayan Film Archive

Guillermo Zapiola, journalist, film critic, Co-ordination Officer, Uruguayan Film Archive