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The Documentary Tango: Buenos Aires Fest Reaches Out to Latin America

By Richard Shpuntoff

Despite an important history of documentary filmmaking that dates back to the late 1950s and represents an enormous diversity of approaches and concepts, from Guzman in Chile to Solanas in Argentina, from Ospina in Colombia to Coutinho in Brazil, Latin American documentary filmmakers lack a doc festival that truly represents the diversity of their work, as well as their commonalities. Granted, there are some festivals that effectively support documentary filmmaking, but many understandably tend to emphasize local filmmaking such as FIDOC in Chile and the Bogota Film Festival in Colombia, and even the most famous of these festivals, the It’s All True Film Festival in Brazil, is more about bringing the international world of documentary filmmaking to its nation rather than providing a place for Latin American filmmakers.

And so the next best thing, even though it is not exclusively a documentary festival, may be BAFICI (the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film), which just closed its tenth edition and has in recent years placed documentary on an equal footing with narrative film in its competitions and programming.

Founded in 1999 by the Ministry of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires, the festival’s first director was Andres Di Tella, a documentary filmmaker who set the tone for the festival with an emphasis on the emerging filmmakers of Argentina and new independent filmmaking. Di Tella, who is currently artistic director of the Princeton Documentary Festival, has continued his relationship with BAFICI, exhibiting three films over the past six years, most recently this year with In the Devil’s Country.

The current and fourth director of the festival, Sergio Wolf, also a documentary filmmaker, as well as a critic who has previously served as festival programmer, defines BAFICI as part of a network of new, independent festivals. Wolf says the common factor of these festivals (which include the Directors’ Fortnight of Cannes, Gijon, Rotterdam, the Forum of Berlin and Mexico City’s FICCO Cinemex among others) is that they have an interest in dealing with the problems of contemporary cinema and supporting “a kind of cinema that is very fragile.”

But the proof of BAFICI’s commitment to documentary film is in the programming.

For starters, this year’s festival opened with a documentary: Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho’s Scene Game, an unsettling film that alternates between testimonies by women about their relationships and their experiences of losing a child and actresses trying to re-enact these testimonies. The audience is not openly made aware of this “game,” until one woman without warning stops her testimony and starts to talk about her limitations for re-enacting the testimony of another woman. The film begs the audience to question the nature and limitations of both fiction and documentary, and it set the tone for a festival that takes place in a city of cinephiles.

Not only was a documentary the programmers’ choice for opening the festival, but five of the nine films in the Argentine competition were documentaries, and one of them won the award for Best Argentine Film: Alejo Hoijman’s Unit 25 (Unidad 25), a portrait of a penitentiary unit run by former inmates who have converted to Evangelicalism, told from the point of view of a recently arrived inmate who is skeptical of the faith. The jury also awarded a special mention to Süden, Gaston Solnicki’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about the return of Argentine expatriate composer Mauricio Kagel to the Buenos Aires stage after a 35-year absence; the film also won the award for best cinematography from the Argentine Association of Cinematographers.

Although it did not win awards, Gustavo Fontan’s The River Bank that Becomes Abysmal (La orilla que se abisma) is an excellent example of the programmers’ willingness to include a diversity of approaches to cinema and documentary within the competitive sections. Fontan’s film attempts (and succeeds, in this writer’s opinion) through image and ambient sound in touching upon the essence of the work of Argentine poet Juan L. Ortiz: nature as both beautiful and terrifyingly mysterious.

The international competition was more heavily weighted toward narratives, but the three documentaries that the programmers scheduled elicited the best talk of the festival, and two walked away with top awards. Both Best Film and the Audience Choice were awarded to Mexican Yulene Olaizola’s Intimacies of Shakespeare and Victor Hugo (Intimidades de Shakespeare y Víctor Hugo), a mystery that slowly unravels about how the filmmaker’s grandmother had rented a room to and befriended a strange and talented young man whom she later realized may well have been the serial killer in an unsolved police case.

The international jury also awarded a special mention to American filmmaker John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, a film that has been largely ignored by US festivals, possibly for its aesthetic simplicity and daring and for its insistence that we never forget those within the United States who have fought and sacrificed for their inalienable rights in the face of powerful business and government interests. Gianvito’s film also shared the Human Rights Award with Mexican Lucia Gaja’s My Life Inside (Mi vida dentro), a documentary about an illegal Mexican immigrant in Austin, Texas, who is on trial for the death by asphyxia of a boy she was taking care of.

Another important section of the festival with a strong presence of documentary films was the BAL (Buenos Aires Lab). Just having completed its fifth edition, the BAL is a diverse program for emerging producers that supports filmmaking through a number of initiatives: pitching workshops and competitions, sessions for one-on-one meetings with potential foreign co-producers, and a work-in-progress competition, all of which provide awards for development, production and post-production, as well as opportunities for producers to meet festival programmers and foreign producers.

Five of the ten films presented in the work-in-progress section were documentaries and the top prize, The LaHaye Award, went to a documentary: The Argentine Ant (La Hormiga Argentina), Jose Luis Cancio’s film about his immigrant father’s return to Spain for the first time in 40 years, after receiving notice of the suicide of one of his sisters.

Carmen Guarini, co-director and co-founder of Cine Ojo, Argentina’s oldest documentary production company, talked about BAFICI’s contribution to getting documentaries to an audience: “BAFICI created a structure for documentary and essay films that would not otherwise be seen to reach audiences, and this provided help for people understanding what documentary cinema is. And while this wasn’t really something completely new—at Cine Ojo we screened the works of important documentary filmmakers like Kramer and Van der Keuken in movie theaters before BAFICI—the interesting thing is that the festival was able to concentrate this and over time offer a greater and greater space to documentary, until reaching the point we are at today, where documentary has been incorporated into the official selection.”

Richard Shpuntoff is a filmmaker and translator specializing in film; he has been living in Buenos Aires since 2002.