A film festival is animated by an ethos ostensibly controlled by its programmers, but inevitably influenced by the city the festival calls home. So what drives the Los Angeles Film Festival, now in its 17th year? If there's any place in the world that's instantly associated with the movies, it's Los Angeles, and yet the city lacks an agenda-setting festival like Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto. Perhaps it's a testament to how thoroughly the Hollywood juggernaut dominates the agenda in every other sense. Nevertheless, Film Independent continues to foster a local festival culture with the LA Film Fest, showcasing a variety of emerging talents both domestic and international.
There are a number of intriguing threads running through the festival, and one of them is its strong focus on Latin American cinema. It's undoubtedly influenced by the position of Los Angeles as an international hub, home to a diverse host of immigrant populations and so neighborly close to Mexico. A slate of films from Latin America runs the gamut from intensive political-structural critique to heartfelt personal drama.
As nine-year-old Cayetana de los Heros (Fatima Buntinx) is being driven home by her father, she sees something out in the darkness: a fiery hammer and sickle burning on a hillside. She asks her father what it is; he tells her it's nothing, just burning trash. But we're in Peru and it's 1982, so we know that it's another act of terror by the Shining Path, one of the belligerents in the country's bloody decades-long internal conflict. Las Malas Intenciones, the feature debut of writer-director Rosario Garcia-Montero, uses the terrible violence as the backdrop for a darkly comic portrait of Cayetana's morbid childhood.
Here, the invisible yet ever-present threat of death transmutes strangely in the mind of an upper-class child. Cayetana is bombarded with Joycean levels of Catholic guilt from a firebrand priest, she yearns for affection from her absentee womanizer of a father, and ironically enough, she's obsessed with the centuries-old historic revolutionary heroes of South America's past, as befitting her name. She even envisions entire imaginary adventures with them. When Cayetana finds out that her mother is pregnant, her neuroses all converge into the belief that she will die when her mother gives birth to the child.
Buntinx carries the film on her diminutive shoulders, and her performance treads a fine line: She captures the naïveté of a young girl's flights of fancy while giving a window into her overweening, privileged narcissism, one that's just a shade away from sociopathy. A recurring comic motif of Cayetana trying to care for small animals and failing miserably takes a disturbing turn as the film progresses.
In many ways, Las Malas Intenciones is a twisted counterpoint to the 2006 Julie Gavras film Blame It on Fidel; both track young girls growing up in unstable political circumstances. But while Gavras spins a humanist tale of how resilience and an open mind can help a person connect to the world, Garcia-Montero shows how a fortress mentality and stultifying privilege can warp a child. Cayetana is a lost, lonely girl watching the walls of her mansion compound rising higher and higher; she's oblivious to the fact that she and her family are perhaps a bit reminiscent of the colonialists that her revolutionary heroes fought against.
But political acuity isn't the film's only strength. Throughout, Garcia-Montero maintains a firm control over the tone, keeping an ironic distance with pointed gallows humor yet managing to find sympathy for its troubled protagonist. Cayetana may be preoccupied with death and abandonment, and she hardly ever smiles; meanwhile, the hazy, washed-out color palette evokes the paranoid decay of 1980s Peru. But even with all that, the film never feels dour or lifeless. It's a nuanced portrait of childhood, clear-eyed yet sympathetic.
He rolls up to the cemetery every night in his beat-up blue Chevy truck, greeted by his pair of black dogs. He has a salt-and-pepper beard and a weary expression—a quiet man, as befitting his solitary occupation. His name is Martin, the titular character in Natalia Almada's documentary El Velador. Martin tends to a cemetery in the city of Culiacán in Sinaloa, a major hub for Mexican drug trafficking. As such, the small city of mausoleums that Martin looks over—in a wide variety of clashing styles unified only by the fact they're all extravagant—is home to a legion of people who were most likely involved one way or another in drug trafficking and the drug war.
A young widow seems to come to the cemetery every day with her daughter to tend to her husband's mausoleum. She goes through the same ritual: cleaning the glass doors, tending to the flowers, washing the staircase that leads up to the second story. We see her husband in photos wearing a police uniform, leaving the lingering question of how one affords such a grandiose structure on a policeman's salary.
Almada's style is quiet and observational and reserved, Direct Cinema in the purest sense. She sits back and watches the machinery of life that unfolds around her and the miniature community that builds up around death. There are the small gangs of construction workers building the mausoleums and the flower sellers with their elaborate and expensive displays. There are fruit vendors and funeral bands—an entire economy that springs from the residue of drug trafficking.
But we always come back to Martin the watchman, rolling in like clockwork. The film captures the quiet rhythm of day journeying past nightfall; even in the day there are long stretches of wordless action, but night is defined by its distinct solitude. There are no interviews, and the brief moments in which Martin speaks feel less directed to us and more the voicing of internal reflections. The chattiest of voices comes from Martin's television, often tuned to the news that's reporting on some distant moment of violence that might very well find its endpoint under Martin's watch. It's through these outlets that we sense Almada's authorial hand working on the film, noting that her country is undergoing an agonizing paroxysm of drug violence. But the cemetery under Martin's charge, so intimately connected to that violence, is nevertheless a bubble of isolation. Perhaps we hear gunshots in the distance, but here there is only quiet.
The story told in the opening moments of the documentary 108 is structured like a whodunit: In Paraguay's capital of Asunción, Rodolfo Costa was found dead and naked on the floor, his closets empty. He had an alias, Hector Torres, and his bank account contained a small, unexplained fortune. But what interests Renate Costa, niece of Rodolfo and director of the film, is not so much the circumstances of the man's death, but of his life. Costa uses her uncle as a way into exploring the weight of oppression and silence that lingers not only in her family, but in Paraguayan society, which through Costa's lens still labors under the mentality of a police state.
Costa was a gay man under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda, which brutally persecuted gays; the 108 refers to the number of names on the first of many infamous "homosexuals lists," a number which has become a slur and effacement. Costa shows us that the number has become so charged that many rooms in Asunción hotels go from 107 to 109. Even after the transition to democracy and end of official persecution, the homophobic legacy remains, personified in Renate's father Pedro. The man is utterly sincere in his Catholic condescension, telling us he truly believes he was protecting and saving his brother when they were younger by beating up his gay friends.
Costa's conversations with her father form one strand of the story, as they embark on father-daughter fishing trips and kite flights that seem quite sad in the muddy pixelated twilight captured by her camera. They're interspersed with debates that always end up with a father citing dogma and a daughter reluctant to engage, a wall of silence rising up between the two.
The other strand of the film comes as Costa finds the list of names that her uncle was on and she tries to speak to the people who were part of his shadow life, the ones who knew him as Hector Torres. They tell their own stories of marginalization and persecution, and even in the present, some of them want to remain in the shadows. They know that Costa's father speaks the truth in saying there is a difference between politics and mentality. One may have changed, but the other hasn't. Yet when presented with the list of names, these compatriots of Rodolfo's ask for copies; to them it's a badge of courage, of having made it through the worst.
Even though Costa's film delves deep into the political psychology of a police state (the homosexual roundups often came as a response to and distraction from brutal crimes, for they served as convenient scapegoats), her story is ultimately a personal one. She knows that she's a character, however peripheral, in a family drama, and she structures and shoots the piece to accentuate that. She examines old photographs and films of her uncle, trying to deconstruct the front the man put up to survive. She tries to connect to her father, to unpack the enigma through the bonds of family. But they always hit an impasse. One moment is emblematic of the father-daughter relationship: They sit across from each other, without making eye contact, and their silence stretches for what seems like an eternity until Renate breaks it with a simple observation ("It's so hard to talk to you").
Anayansi Prado's documentary Paraiso for Sale is a study in ecology, where a seemingly pristine environment is altered by one wave of migration after another. The islands of Bocas del Toro off the coast of Panama have become a haven for American retirees: a tropical paradise where they can leverage the power of the U.S. dollar. It's telling when one of the retirees says they can't afford to get sick in America anymore. The film is a master class in structure that takes Bocas del Toro and lenses it through different strata: the native resident Feliciano fighting for indigenous rights to the land, the political hopeful Dario running for mayor on a platform of resisting transnational exploitation, and the American expatriates Karan and Willy, who've made their retirement home in the province.
Karan's part of the early wave of residential tourists, people who've come to build homes and want to integrate with and contribute to the local community. But all their lives are affected by the influx of massive foreign developers, who have been lured in by tales of tropical paradise and have wrought economic and political disruption in a formerly unassuming community.
It's a complex issue, but Prado makes it accessible by finding and clinging to relatable characters that tell the story through their actions. Town hall meetings not only provide flashpoints for conflict but help the audience digest the issue at hand. Its structural and systematic approach recalls the best elements of investigative journalism in showing how the pieces all fit together and how they all matter.
The ecological lens used on Bocas del Toro makes for a compelling narrative, showing the islands in the middle of a process that has happened elsewhere: Developers pump millions of dollars into construction, causing an initial boost in the economy, but eventually traditional agriculture, fishing, and small-scale tourism become impossible, leaving only menial service jobs for locals mostly driven out by skyrocketing land prices. Prado takes us through each link in the chain; the contrast between the pristine beaches captured by her camera and the ungainly behemoth of a marina in a developer's trade-show advertisement might be funny, except as one of the activists in the film points out, it's against Panamanian law to advertise developments not yet approved by the local community.
And yet we're left with the doubt that the laws can be enforced, as Prado sketches a portrait of a government overwhelmed by forces that can win by merely spending enough money. Feliciano is stonewalled in his attempts to safeguard the rights to his land, and yet when his protests block the roads, he seems to be met with immediate police response. Dario finds that voter registration is arduous when local offices are understaffed, and even Karan is exhausted by legal battles in trying to defend her own land claims from developers.
The structural conflict is compelling because Prado never loses sight of the human level of action. She finds humor in the midst of urgent situations, as when Dario finds out that one of his supporters hasn't voted because he's busy watching The Simpsons—the most delicious example of a foreign juggernaut eroding the foundations of civic stability if there ever was one.
After Fidel Castro's ascendancy in 1959, the entire island of Cuba was swept up in a wave of revolutionary ardor: For those Cubans who didn't see the revolution as the end of the world, it was a new beginning where anything seemed possible and sheer idealism could will a new nation into existence. This idea was given form in the five ambitious Schools of Art commissioned by Castro and Che Guevara in 1961. Unfinished Spaces, a documentary by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, traces that idealism as literally embodied in the design of the schools: grand and sprawling structures designed by renowned architects Roberto Gottardi, Ricardo Porro, and Vittorio Garratti. However, the ardor quickly cooled and the Castro regime became plagued with paranoia and dogmatism. Some schools were never finished and all were left to the mercy of nature and the elements.
Using a mix of archival footage and images along with interviews with the architects and present-day exploration, the film traces a line from the schools' inception to their current status. Even as construction was underway and eventually abandoned, classes were being held and students were living onsite. Present-day scenes of student musicians playing in the middle of overgrown brick skeletons that recall ancient ruins are some of the most haunting moments of the film.
The most successful tactic Nahmias and Murray undertake is the subtle, syntactical way they form parallels from the physical structures of the school to the way the schools as institutions are run, all the way to the health of Cuban civil society at large. In the film's sweeping vision, the Cuban Schools of Art are a grand metaphor for the whole country. Built on top of nationalized land that used to be an exclusive golf course, the schools were, in architecture and ideals, the vanguard navigating new frontiers. (Much is made of Porro designing the School of Plastic Arts to resemble the body of a fertility goddess, provoking minor scandal.) But pressure for the schools to hew closer to their Soviet benefactors' ethos stifles their ambition; we see images of military-style discipline imposed upon freewheeling arts students. The buildings themselves certainly did not conform to the new dogma, and the trio of architects were driven to exile or marginalized in their field before their work could even be completed.
The film doesn't try to hide its advocacy, but it makes a convincing argument with its exquisitely photographed exploration of the schools in shambles being absorbed by the encroaching wilderness. Nahmias and Murray tell the story of an attempt to establish an artistic Eden, and the eventual expulsion from that paradise hits with the weight of biblical inevitability. It's such a shocking jump from the beautiful abstraction of the architects' designs to the reality of the present, with the detritus of squatters and roaming wild dogs. It's difficult not to get caught up in the tragedy of loss and hope for rebirth when everyone involved speaks with such great passion—even Castro himself, who is called to task in a press conference. He displays such conflicted emotion while delivering a speech that's either the resurgence of forgotten idealism or its gurgling death throes.
Written and directed by Argentine filmmaker Gustavo Taretto, Medianeras is less burdened by the questions of politics and history than the other Latin American offerings. But it can't fully escape that context, as when Mariana (Pilar López de Ayala) tells us the story of how the Kavanagh Building in Buenos Aires came to be: The impressive skyscraper was a spite-fueled project by Corina Kavanagh to obstruct the sight line of an aristocratic family who had spurned her daughter.
That's just one of the architectural observations made by Mariana and Martin (Javier Drolas), who would both agree with Unfinished Spaces that the architecture of a city reveals something about the soul of its people; so what does it say that both of these denizens of contemporary Buenos Aires are hyper-intellectual and hopelessly neurotic? They're also both young and attractive, making for a perfect romantic comedy couple—but Taretto replaces the typical romantic comedy dilemma of "What ridiculous obstacle can we throw in the way of two people who should obviously get together?" with the very real obstacle of the two people never actually meeting.
Mariana studied architecture but works as a shop window dresser; Martin works as a Web designer. She has a phobia of elevators and obsesses over a Where's Waldo? puzzle; he has a meticulously prepared backpack, which includes a collection of Tati films, in case of panic attacks. They both live in cramped shoebox apartments on the same street, and the film is a chronicle of their near misses (enough for a whole page of Missed Connections) as they deal with their own separate romantic misfortunes.
In lesser hands this material would be a deathtrap: Again, it's a romantic comedy where the leads are kept apart by cinematic fiat, and the conceit that two people are soul mates because they both cry when they watch Manhattan and sing along to Daniel Johnston songs could edge toward twee. But the final result is incredibly strong: López de Ayala and Drolas are so charismatic—and Taretto is so skilled with interpolation and juxtaposition—that they somehow mange to conjure chemistry in the space between Mariana and Martin in a process resembling quantum entanglement.
Each is having a cosmic conversation with the other without even knowing it, and there's an absence in each of their lives that crackles with electricity whenever Taretto makes a judicious cut for comedic or thematic punctuation. In an egregious display of cinematic virtuosity, there's a scene involving a mannequin that manages to be erotic, hilarious, and poignant all at once. The scene perfectly encapsulates Medianeras: It's a reflection on urban loneliness, with two people trying to break through the architecture of their city and of their lives in order to find someone they didn't know they were looking for.
The Los Angeles Film Festival runs from June 16 - 26. For more information, click here. Expanded coverage of the festival can be found at Oscar Moralde's at The Hypermodern.