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Argentine filmmaker Fernando Solanas spent two years working in hiding during Juan Carlos Onganía’s military dictatorship to produce La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces), a documentary that had its international debut at the Mostra Internazionale del Cinema Nuovo in Pesaro, Italy, on June 2nd, 1968. It had been less than a month since the May ‘68 protests and the flames of Paris had begun to spread throughout Europe. In that context of political effervescence, the appearance of a Latin American film like La hora de los hornos, which was a declared call for a revolution – the opening section concluded with a lengthy fixed shot of Che Guevara, whose death had come less than a year prior – caused a commotion in the cinema world, which at that moment was questioning not only its language but also its political and social function.

Such was the shock caused by Solanas’ film, which screened at Arsenal at Wittenbergplatz soon after its Pesaro screening, that the significant presence and decidedly political character of the selection of Latin American films screened at the first edition of the Forum in 1971 was marked by the influence of La hora de los hornos. This was without a doubt the case for Argentina, mayo de 1969: Los caminos de la liberación, a collective feature-length film also produced in hiding and credited to the Grupo de Realizadores de Mayo.

The name of the group did not just seek to protect its members through anonymity, it was also a declaration of principles in response to what was then understood as the necessary abolition of the bourgeois category of the auteur, which had already led Solanas to form the Grupo Cine Liberación (“The Liberation Film Group”) and Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker the Dziga Vertov and Medvedkin groups, respectively, the latter of which was also represented in the inaugural program of the 1971 Forum.

The film by the Grupo de Realizadores de Mayo, which was able to regroup in Argentina thanks to the contributions of Peter B. Schumann, the main proponent of Latin American cinema in Berlin, is particularly representative of the era and establishes itself from the beginning as “a contribution to the Argentine and Latin American liberation process.” Its starting point is the civil uprisings of May and June of 1969 in the manufacturing neighbourhoods of the Córdoba Province, known as the “Cordobazo”, but the film tries to go further and become a tool for revolutionary action and collective debate, which was to follow at the end of the screening.

With great diversity and freedom of form, Argentina, mayo de 1969 includes many types of footage: documentary, fiction, animation and even advertising cinema. One of its most powerful segments (which is fun at the same time: a rare case of a militant film with humor) is the way in which the film instructs how to prepare and use a Molotov cocktail as if it were selling a product of mass consumption.

Equally precarious in its economic resources and technical means, but much less imaginative in its form, are the Uruguayan short Las banderas que levantamos about the 1971 founding event of the Frente Amplio party, which finally came to govern in 2004, and the Chilean short Santa María de Iquique about the massacre of 3,600 workers at the titular location by the national army in 1907. Both films, however, work in their own way to engage with the idea of “counter-information,” a concept born during that time when the media was even more concentrated than it is today – which is saying a lot – and when the circulation of ideas that contradicted the dominant discourse was imperative.

This conception of an alternative discourse – from both a political and cinematographic perspective – has always been constitutive of the mission of the International Forum of New Cinema, and it is very evident in the two Latin American fictions that made up the original programme of 1971. The Brazilian film Na boca da noite, by Walter Lima Jr. seems inspired by Brecht’s famous axiom (“What is the burgling of a bank to the founding of a bank?”) and Glauber Rocha’s cinematographic poetics, particularly that of Terra em transe (1967), one of the most influential films of Cinema Nôvo.

The alienation of the protagonist, a bank employee determined to take revenge for the youth he lost to the job he hates, turns into disdain towards a colleague in the cleaning sector, with whom he shares a deranged night. As part of the vicious cycle in which the oppressed subdue those from a lower social stratum in turn, there is the idea of a society that looks like an open-air prison with the bank as its dungeon. Beyond its allegories, if something of the film remains alive today, it is its visceral rage against the dominant system, including cinema itself, such as when the protagonist breaks the fourth wall to question the audience and “that light that hovers over their heads.”

This interrogation of the production process – of cinema, and also of a revolutionary cause – is in the heart of Voto más fusil by Chilean filmmaker Helvio Soto. Playing freely with the country’s historical milestones, such as the experience of the Frente Popular in 1936 and the banning of the Communist Party in 1947, Soto’s film focuses on the events that led to the democratic victory of Salvador Allende and the revolutionary socialism of the Unidad Popular in November 1970. The description of the different forces in conflict, which includes the different gradients of the Chilean left and right, might seem dated today in its mise-en-scène and direction of actors. But it is important to recognize that Soto’s tragic film thesis was visionary for its time.

With Allende having recently assumed office, the title (which translates as “Vote plus Rifle”) already warns that it is not enough to gain power through elections; triumph needs to be reinforced with weapons, because the right is willing to do everything in order to avoid giving up its priviledges. “For now it will be enough to applaud your fellow President,” one protagonist tells the other at the end of the film, amidst the joy of Salvador Allende taking office. “But later you will have to keep an eye on the rifle, in case the day comes.” As history teaches us, that tragic day came just over two years later, on September 11, 1973, with the bombing of the Casa de la Moneda.

During the 1971 Forum, Salvador Allende was still alive and his brand-new government was being praised by the left around the world. That is why perhaps Chris Marker mentions in his documentary La Bataille des dix millions (The Battle of the Ten Million) that “Cuba, this year, is not so in style” and that “we [Europeans] are like those old actresses, in search of younger husbands: we get married to the newest causes.” This is not the case with Marker, working with Valérie Mayoux here and reusing archival footage by great Cuban documentary filmmaker Santiago Álvarez and the Noticiero ICAIC. He focuses on Fidel Castro’s epic campaign to reach a record sugarcane harvest in 1970 that would allow the country to balance its economy in spite of the United States trade embargo.

Marker is interested in not only the superhuman effort by the Cuban people but also in their leader’s sincere admission of its failure. “Our enemies say that we have difficulties, and they are right about that,” Castro acknowledges in a surprising self-critical speech in front of a massive demonstration on July 26, 1970. Like his friend Alvarez, who had already made a controversial short film about food rationing on the island, Marker understands that accepting the problems and mistakes helps strengthen the revolutionary process. Seven years later, however, in Le fond de l’air est rouge, Marker would declare his disappointment with the decidedly pro-Soviet shift of the Cuban Revolution.

Two more conventionally-structured documentaries about Latin America took part in the 1971 Forum programme. México, la revolución congelada (Mexico, The Frozen Revolution) by Argentine filmmaker Raymundo Gleyzer – who was to disappear under the military dictatorship in May of 1976 when he was not yet 35 – unveils the successive betrayals of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional de México that had allowed it to remain in power since 1928, an unbroken reign that would continue until 2018. The peculiarity of Gleyzer’s film is that he tells the story from the inside, closely following the campaign of Luis Echeverría, the 1970 PRI presidential candidate, who believed the team of foreigners around him to be on his side, when in reality they were filming on behalf of those killed in the Tlatelolco Massacre.

The other film, Bananera libertad by Swiss filmmaker Peter von Gunten, travels to the dictatorships of Paraguay, Peru and Guatemala to narrate the brutal contrast between the landowner classes that owned each country and the miserable lives of their workers. But towards the end, without stopping its surgical descriptions, the film proposes a coda. It adds a fourth country, Switzerland, and creates a typical movie poster of the time that reads: “They work for us”, as it shows an opulent Zürich supermarket with the same bananas the viewer had just seen harvested and packed for the United Fruit by child workers in Guatemala.

Half a century later, the Forum – which since its founding has always been a model space for Latin American cinema – continues to pay close attention to cinema from that region with a political dimension, as evidenced in this 2020 edition with Responsabilidad empresarial (Corporate Accountabilty) by Argentine filmmaker Jonathan Perel. It is no longer about militant cinema as it was then conceived. The cinematic form is increasingly sophisticated, but aesthetic decisions and the courage to call things by their name continue to matter.

From the very beginning, political cinema from Latin America has had an important place at the Forum. Most of the films mentioned in this text will be screened in March at Arsenal.

Luciano Monteagudo is a journalist and film critic for Página 12. He was head of programming for the Sala Lugones at the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires and works for the Berlinale and the Forum as a consultant for Latin America.

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