JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Foreign Land/ Terra Estrangeira follows Brazilian expatriates in Lisbon and Brazil in an international crime drama. Paco, living in Brazil, wants to get to Spain, so he takes a job to go to Lisbon as a courier for the underworld. Alex, living in Lisbon, wants to return to her native Brazil.

Foreign Land — Chased by the mob, Paco has been hurt and Alex is escaping with him. Alex keeps dreaming of going back home, promising Paco she’ll take him back to Brazil.

Foreign LandThis low-budget film portraying migration and international crime has captivated the public. It differs from other films in its locations—Sao Paolo and Lisbon — as well as for its use of Brazilian popular music utilized to market the film internationally.

Dias de Santiago/Santiago's Days — Pietro Sibille, a previously unknown Peruvian actor, enacts the edginess of the demobilized vet.

Dias de Santiago/Santiago's Days — The film borrows from Taxi Driver by exploring the psychology of a war veteran who is like a time bomb ready to explode any minute against the society that has alienated him. Santiago is an anti-hero who doesn’t receive the respect of his fellow citizens after having fought an internal war where he feels he saved the nation.

Dias de Santiago/Santiago's Days — Santiago works as a cab driver to earn some money since he can’t find a regular job in the depressed Peruvian economy. Clients bargain to pay him less than regular taxis.

Dias de Santiago/Santiago's Days — Santiago strikes up a friendship with a classmate from his institute, but his twisted obsession for “saving” people will later scare her and put her in danger.

Dias de Santiago takes up the aftermath of war for a young Peruvian man who fought against the Shining Path guerrilla movement in compulsory military duty.

Dias de Santiago — Santiago’s home life is difficult because of his lack of stable work. His wife supports the household, and his frustration about this situation leads him to domestic violence. The film cuts back and forth from color to black and white, representing Santiago’s different psychological moments. Black and white footage represents what's going on inside Santiago’s head while color footage represents daily life, that is, it sets up a contrast betwen the dark, ticking-bomb side of his personality vs. the daily, chaotic, urban life of Lima.

 

 

Brazil now

In Brazil there are now two laws: Rouanet (1991) and Audiovisual Law (1993). Under these two laws the government offers private citizens, businesses, and corporations the possibility of investing a portion of their income tax, so that they can actually make a profit on monies that would otherwise go to the state. Individuals can invest up to 80% and businesses up to 40%. Also under this law the distributors of imported films are allowed to invest up to 70% of their income tax into national productions (Monteiro de Carvalho, 2003). So far this has been the most sustainable manner through which many local filmmakers have been producing new work, along with entering into local co-productions or with foreign companies such as Columbia, Warner and Fox. Similarly, the current model of film production in Brazil involves the association of independent producers with foreign distributors (Johnson, 2005).

Under these new laws Brazil has seen a re-emergence of its cinema industry, and during the 1990s several films were made that had domestic box office success, in some cases outperforming Hollywood films playing at the same time (Shaw and Dennison, 2005). One such film is Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ A Terceira Margem do Rio (1994), a co-production with French Centre National du Cinema and dos Santos’ company Regina Films, an adaptation of a novel by Joao Guimaraes that centers on a man who abandons his family in order to live in a canoe in the middle of a rural river.

Other examples of successful Brazilian features are Carlos Reichenbach’s Alma Corsária (1994), a freewheeling story of an introverted Sao Paolo intellectual, Torres, obsessed with death (Variety.com); and Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’ crime-drama Foreign Land (1995), a story of Brazilian expatriates who get mixed up with the Lisbon underworld (Rottentomatoes.com). In 1996 the Brazilian government amended the audiovisual law to increase the tax deduction granted to companies for investing in national productions. After this incentive, several other films were made, gaining not only domestic success but also international recognition, including Walter Salles’ international award-winner Central Station (1998), which gained global distribution through Sony Pictures. However, despite the re-emergence of Brazilian cinema and the success of several films made under these laws, the situation of the industry as dependant on state regulation and support is problematic.

Some Brazilian filmmakers, like Carlos Diegues, for example, have accused the government of President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of manipulating policy in order to influence film content (Johnson, 2005). Another problem remains the overpowering presence of Hollywood in the market, controlling bookings in domestic theaters and distribution worldwide. This leaves Brazilian producers with not much choice except to depend on U.S. companies for the distribution of their products internationally. The films that have achieved global distribution are those distributed by the MPAA member companies Columbia, Warner, and Fox (Shaw and Dennison, 2005).

Peru now

In Peru, the Fujimori government in 1994, pressured by filmmakers and some cultural institutions, passed a film law (26370), creating the Consejo Nacional de Cinematografía (CONACINE) as the regulatory institution for promoting and overseeing the film industry. This institution, first linked to the Ministry of Education, is currently operating under the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC). CONACINE, however, did not start functioning until 1996 when José Perla Anaya became its president. CONACINE has a mandate to organize a twice-yearly competition of screenplays and give financial support to the winners, so that they can produce their films. The law stipulates that there be three prizes for each competition, and that the money be dispersed in three payments: at the beginning of the production, at the end of the shooting schedule, and once the film is completed and is ready for distribution.

The state is supposed to allocate $1.5 million annually for CONACINE to award the winning competitors. However, in a country like Peru, pervaded by fiscal instability, filmmakers competing for the awards cannot count on the fulfillment of funding promises. Between 1996 and 2001 the state had given out only 10-15% annually of the actual amount offered (Nuñez, 2002; Salomón, 2004). Representative of this situation is the independent creation of a clip circulating on YouTube. The clip is a collage of images of different Peruvian films that aims to demonstrate what could be produced in the country if only CONACINE were properly funded to disburse awards according to the law.

Since CONACINE’s creation, only about dozen movies have been completed under this law. One of the first features was Ciudad de M (2000) by Felipe Degregori, a drama about “M,” a young man living in Lima in a precarious unemployment. His only chance to get out of poverty, he thinks, is to become a “mule” for drug dealers exporting cocaine to Miami. Although this film did not have major distribution in movie theaters internationally, it was distributed in European television through Television Española.

Colombia now

In Colombia, in 1997 the government passed a law for cultural promotion  (Ley 397), creating with this the Ministry of Culture and a general law for culture under which cinema is considered a national patrimony. This law delineates the general characteristics for cultural activities that ought to receive state support, and it also provides guidelines for domestic film productions and co-productions in order to recognize them as "national cinema." Following that, in 2003 the government passed a law exclusively for film: Ley de Cine 814 [Film Law 814]. This law protects the film industry declaring in its First Article:

“Por su caracter asociado directo al patrimonio cultural de la Nación y a la formación de la identindad colectiva, la actividad cinematográfica es de interés social.”(Ley 814, 2003 as it appears in www.elojoquepiensa.udg, last accessed 2/21/06)

[“Film is an activity of social interest due to its character of direct association with the cultural patrimony of the nation and the formation of collective identity”] (My translation).

This law aims to benefit the entire chain of the Brazilian film industry—producers, distributors and exhibitors. It asks all of them to participate in the development of the industry; thus the distributors and exhibitors must contribute to a national fund with 8.5% of their total revenues, and the producers with 5% (www.ojoquepiensa.udg, last accessed 5/21/06). The collected funds are redistributed for productions and co-productions as soft loans or as contingency monies for financial institutions investing in domestic productions. A film with domestic and international success created under this law is El Rey (2004) by José Antonio Dorado, “a fictionalized account of Jaime Caicedo, Colombia’s largely unknown drug lord, a violent but Robin Hood-type figure who rose to power during the 1970s in Cali” (Pratt, 2005). (Clip: El Rey)

Apart from the laws that are allowing a re-emergence of film production, television plays an important role. Many film producers are partnering up with domestic and international television or cable networks. These partnerships provide production capital, advertising time on national television during the film’s release, and secure exhibition of films on the small screen. Television in Latin America has managed to become financially more viable than film due to its mainly commercial nature. Networks such as Rede Globo and Televisa, for example, have the financial power to produce or co-produce films in their countries and internationally. Rede Globo is part of the Marihno family conglomerate Globo, which owns newspapers, radio, television and film companies. In fact, good examples of Globo’s co-production engagements with successful independent filmmakers are Walter Salles Central Station (1998) and Fernando Meirelles’s City of God (2002).

The melodrama Central Station tells the story of Dora a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by helping the illiterate writing their letters to family or friends. She takes charge of a boy whose mother has died in an accident outside the Central Railway Station, and they both go on a journey into an impoverished northeast part of Brazil. After the film’s success in Brazil, it went on to win awards at Sundance Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, the Golden Globe, and it was nominated for two Oscars. In a different, neo-realist style, City of God offered a depiction of lumpen young men's life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and went to be nominated for four Oscars and the Golden Globe, in addition to winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the Visions Award at the Toronto Film Festival. These two films have gone on to be widely distributed in DVD.

The fact is that now film is not limited to the big screen, but it can have distribution in television, cable, satellite, VHS, DVD, and even the Internet. This proliferation of outlets opens up many opportunities for national and international collaboration. Television networks such as HBO, French Canal Plus, Spanish Television Española, British Channel 4, and German ZDF are increasingly involved in co-productions with Latin American filmmakers. In this manner, these television networks can secure a product for their international distribution networks while profiting from theatrical exhibition as well. However, distribution through most of these channels still requires engagement with those who control them. Local producers remain constrained by the agendas set by global distributors owning these outlets. Thus national cinema is still dependent on a series of factors for its sustainability.

We can say with certainty that television in Latin America has been more successful in sustaining itself as compared to cinema. As mentioned before, TV's commercial nature and its ability to sell advertisement airtime makes it more viable than film. After fifty years of existence in the region, local television networks produce enough content for domestic consumption. In fact, today most of the primetime hours are filled with locally produced shows while off primetime tends to be filled mostly with programming from U.S. networks (Martínez, 2000; Staubhaar, 2007). Large local networks export programs regionally and globally as well, especially telenovelas, comedy shows, talk shows, and variety shows (Straubhaar, 2007). Brazil, despite being a Portuguese-speaking country, has become the major exporter of telenovelas and miniseriesin the region and worldwide simply through dubbing their products to Spanish and other languages.

In many cases people watch these transnational products created within the region more than they consume CNN, HBO, or MTV (Straubhaar, 2007). Also important to take into account is the more recent Venezuelan creation of Telesur, a pan-Latin American television network created to counterweight CNN while also promoting Latin American integration. This network’s headquarter is in Caracas, but it has correspondents in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, Uruguay and the U.S. (Telesur.com). This kind of development should indicate to us that the usual global media players, although remaining leaders, are at least challenged in certain regions of the world where local producers have achieve the capacity of transnationality due to regional trade agreements and satellite and digital technologies.

Conclusion: twenty first century realities

Randal Johnson (2005) comments on Brazilian cinema that many younger filmmakers in that country have departed from and largely broken free of the ideology of their predecessors (p. 19). They are taking up new themes more in tune with their current personal, political, and social realities, while at the same time understanding that if their cinema is to survive, they must adapt to market and economic forces. Hence, Brazilian filmmakers are adapting to the new geopolitical and global economic order in which their country is submerged. They do this primarily by opting for co-productions and engaging in international distribution through local and global companies that control the markets.

In the Peruvian case the newer generation of filmmakers, with less opportunity to engage in co-productions, are opting to use digital technologies to their advantage. Those who cannot afford to shoot in film are making low budget productions by shooting in high definition video for blowing up to film. Of course, this challenges definitions of “film” per se, but certainly we need to take such low-budget shooting and editing into consideration as more filmmakers and videomakers are using new technologies to cut costs. Furthermore, many filmmakers shooting in high definition video do not even blow up to film but create DVDs ready for local independent distribution.

Those very few in Peru who are still using film shoot mostly in16mm to be blown up to 35mm. As Peruvian filmmaker Luis Figueroa[3] said to me in a conversation in 2002

“In Peru films are ‘handmade’ because we are still lacking the resources, but that does not stop us.” 

Figueroa was referring to the struggling and almost “artisan” mode of film production common in Peru where most filmmakers do not work with high-end technology or large crews. Mostly they use amateur actors, and they generally need to know how to do everything in the production process, from camera work to sound to editing, in case the budget runs short. However, Figueroa is proud of the fact that despite all the odds, Peruvian filmmakers keep on attempting to make domestic narratives that speak to local realities.

It is relevant to point out that Peruvian filmmaker Josué Méndez, director of Dias de Santiago (2005)[Santiago’s Days] has created a masterpiece that is far from merely artisan. The film’s aesthetic and technical quality are highly competitive with films like City of God (2002) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001),for example. The story of Dias de Santiago, somewhat inspired in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), uses cutting back and forth between color and black-and-white sequences to convey the edginess of Santiago’s state of mind. Although not overtly political, this film makes a sharp commentary on the politics of Peru’s internal war that took place in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s; it takes up the aftermath of war for the disenfranchised lower class young men who fought against the Shining Path guerrilla movement while serving in compulsory military duty. It's a socially conscious movie that is also commercially viable. The acting is convincing with a magnificent performance by Pietro Sibille, a previously unknown local actor.

Brazilian, Peruvian, and Colombian filmmakers have not totally abandoned making social commentary to reflect on their nations' current history. As Johnson (2005) and Shaw (2007) say, many of the filmmakers from the newer generations understand that entertainment and social commentary can go together and that despite Latin American directors' obligatory new relation with the international market, films remain a vehicle for cultural and identity affirmation. While most Latin American films are still rooted in national preoccupations (Shaw, 2007), we can also see that the pressure to compete globally, in particular against Hollywood movies, influences filmmakers thematically and aesthetically.

The inevitable and pervasive U.S., European, and to some extent Asian models of film, television, and advertisement have made their mark on Latin American cinema (Thussu 2004; Johnson 2005). While neo-realism remains one of the most influential aesthetic forms, successful films from the turn of this century are using unusual camera angles and fast editing techniques borrowed from advertisements. Crude violence, a staple of drama and action in Hollywood films, has also been widely embraced and is seen, for example, in films such as Amores Perros (2001) and City of God (2002).

These two films share domestic and international success based on their powerful stories where violence is constant. Their cinematic jolt is based on their impressive editing; and the superb acting by professional and non-professional actors deliver the stories and grab the audience. Based on their subject matter, we can say that these films are targeting primarily a young adult audience. City of God links itself to neo-realism by presenting the crude reality of life in Brazilian favelas and using real street children who, for the most part, are playing some aspects of their own lives. Amores Perros is a triptych of overlapping and intersecting narratives, exploring the lives of various characters living in Mexico City who are propelled into unforeseen and destructive dramatic situations (Rottentomatoes.com). Films in Latin America produced in the last eight years, despite all the limitations and flaws in the cinema laws in these nations, have moved far from "imperfect cinema," which characterized much of Latin American cinematography in previous decades.

The re-emergence of Latin American cinema is also stimulating the creation of international festivals aimed at creating a regional market. Festivals serve as marketing tools for national and international productions. Participating and exhibiting in festivals provides prestige. Winning or being nominated for a prize can secure distribution. In Latin America almost every country has an international film and video festival. These have proven essential for creating markets within this geo-cultural region.

While for most of the 1980s and 1990s the Havana Film Festival was the major Latin American film festival (and to a certain extent it still is), other festivals are gaining relevance in the region providing new spaces for filmmakers. Some festivals that are becoming popular destinations for Latin American films and filmmakers include

  • Encuentro Latinoaméricano de Cine in Lima — also known as Lima Latin American Film Festival (Peru),
  • Mar del Plata Film Festival (Argentina),
  • Valdivia Film Festival (Chile),
  • Rio de Janeiro Film Festival,
  • Sao Paulo International Film Festival (Brazil).

In addition, a growing number of festivals have been generated by the presence of large diasporic communities in the U.S. and Europe. A sizeable Spanish-speaking market in both continents share language, historical roots, migrant conditions, and nostalgia for the countries they left. One of the ways immigrants stay in touch with their communities is through media, both through feature film, often on DVD, and television.

Some examples of diasporic festivals significant for Latin American film and DVD distribution are these in the United States:

  • San Francisco Chicano and Latino Film Festival,
  • Chicago Latino Film Festival,
  • Havana Film Festival New York

In Europe there are

  • Huelva (Spain) Latin American Film Festival,
  • London Latin American Film Festival, and
  • Rotterdam International Film Festival, which always includes a fair selection of Latin American films.

Other international festivals that have been excellent venues for Latin American films are the

  • San Sebastian Film Festival (Spain),
  • Sundance,
  • Berlin Film Festival,
  • Cannes.

Over the past twenty years Brazil, Peru and Colombia have participated in most of the festivals mentioned above. Filmmakers such as Lombardi, Meirelles, Salles among others have been awarded prizes in some of these festivals, boosting their careers and the ability to keep producing locally and internationally.

Although currently in Peru, film no longer plays a part in state national cultural projects, the filmmakers who dare to keep producing still see this cinema as a cultural force and an important medium for shaping the evolution of society at different levels (Alberto Duran, 2004).[4] Peruvian filmmakers and their supporters have pressured President Toledo’s government (2001-2006), and most likely will continue to press the current government of President Alan Garcia to rearticulate a more viable film law that responds to current local economic needs and is more realistic about posing goals that the state can fulfill in an ongoing way.

While the Colombian state is taking a more serious stand and working towards a more comprehensive and viable film policy, with moderate success, in the Brazilian case we can say that the state does not see film as a national project but as a global business that if well-managed may bring cash and stability to the local industry. Perhaps in the future, the Brazilian film industry might not need as much state support and could primarily depend on a system of domestic and international co-productions.

After all, co-production is not new to Latin American countries, particularly in Brazil. Carlos Diegues (1982) already has commented on the fact that before state laws were set in place to promote and protect the Brazilian national cinema, co-productions were one of the modes of production. He lamented the kinds of co-productions done back then, saying that co-production used to be

"a valid alternative, but, at the same time, was defiled by bad taste and by the most sordid commercialism, representing, finally a form of cultural prostitution" (p.272).[5]

It would be naïve to think that in the 21st century Latin American filmmakers and their states could be so purist as to live and create in isolation from the rest of the world, especially while trying to sustain a certain amount of industrial growth and international distribution. We can only hope that the filmmakers who are committed to their national identities will re-vamp these impoverished film industries while using the new economic order to their advantage — without falling into what Diegues has described as cultural prostitution.              

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