The misfits and mavericks of Argentinian cinema

As he prepares for a week of reports on Latin America, Newsnight's Gavin Esler meets the new wave of Argentinian directors
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

You almost certainly haven't heard of Ariel Winograd, but you will have soon. He's a 28-year-old Argentine film director, and right now he's working on his first full-length feature film in an upper-class suburb of Buenos Aires.

He's one of the new generation of Argentine directors who are beginning to be recognised as producing some of the most creative films anywhere in the world. Winograd's first feature, Cara de Queso (Cheese Face), is, he told me, about a bunch of "losers", unpopular kids who were bullied in their teenage years just as Argentine democracy tried to recover from years of military rule.

Winograd grins as he says that his film is "an act of revenge" on those who bullied him, and also on the corrupt leaders of his country. Filming at seven in the morning, you realise how young his small team really are. No grey hairs. No time for tantrums and temper. No many of them above 30 years old. And just six weeks to get it right on a tiny budget. Winograd compensates with energy, wit and a great script - all the ingredients that have made Argentina, with its New Wave cinema, one of the hottest film-making centres in the world.

Ten o'clock in the morning, and I am on a street corner in downtown Buenos Aires waiting for one of the most successful of the new generation - Daniel Burman. He bounds up to me like the father of a new-born child, exhausted and elated in equal measure. Burman is unshaven, tie-less, bouncing on his feet like an advertisement for batteries that never run down. His mobile phone rings and rings and then only stops ringing when he is talking on it. We sit down in a tiny Buenos Aires café used as the location for one of the key scenes in his latest film, Derecho de Familia (Family Law).

"It has taken me 10 years to get to here," he tells me with a big grin. Family Law has just opened to record box office takings in Buenos Aires, critical acclaim and worldwide curiosity. Burman has built on his award-winning El Abrazo Partido (Lost Embrace), which will premiere in London on 28 April. And he is already working on his next project. Burman quickly dismisses the parallel between film-making and fatherhood. "Fatherhood is much more difficult," he says, laughing. With a film you can edit and rewrite. Real life is not that tidy, "and there are no re-shoots."

In Lost Embrace, a young Jewish man works in the family lingerie store in the district of Buenos Aires where Burman grew up. Selling knickers to old women isn't exactly what he had hoped for in life. He resents the father who deserted him to fight in Israel. Like Winograd's misfit teenagers, Burman's hero also fails to fit in to modern Argentina. He seeks a Polish passport, desperate to return to the Europe where his grandparents' generation were torn apart by the Holocaust. Confronted by a Polish diplomat as to why he wants to be Polish, he bumbles and stumbles and says, well, it's because he, er, um, admires famous Polish people. Like whom? Like, um, Pope John Paul II. The diplomat gently points out that he is Jewish. It's humour that has been compared to Woody Allen at his best.

Burman - like his contemporaries Lucrecia Martel, director of La Ciénaga (The Swamp), and Fabian Bielinsky, who wrote and directed Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) - doesn't much like the term Argentinian New Wave cinema, pointing out that they are all very different in their themes and approaches. They share no common aesthetic. Bielinsky prefers to talk of "a new generation" and "an injection of new blood".

But the "new blood" directors do have shared roots in a heavily subsidised Argentinian film industry, which produces about 50 movies a year. Roughly 30 per cent of the money needed for Burman's Family Law came from public funds. Without government backing, Burman, Bielinsky and Winograd admit, nothing would be possible.

I leave Burman in his café sipping coffee and drive down to Puerto Madero, the old port of Buenos Aires. On the way I pass dozens of posters marking 30 years since the 1976 military coup, with the slogan "Nunca Mas" - never again. Never again dictatorship, never again the Dirty War that saw 30,000 Argentines disappear. For many of the new blood directors in Argentina, such subjects are too difficult - or, more precisely, too disturbing and unpopular with audiences who want to be entertained. And the competition is tough. Other posters show Sharon Stone, legs elegantly crossed, advertising the latest Hollywood blockbuster to come to town, Basic Instinct 2.

Down in the port, Bielinsky takes me on a tour of the places where he shot his caper movie Nine Queens. It's as much fun as Pulp Fiction, full of wit and panache. Two con men try to cheat a gullible millionaire by offering to sell him nine rare stamps. One of the con men even insists his sister sleep with the potential buyer to seal the deal. Everyone is a thief or a cheat or a liar, or all three. It is impossible to decide who to trust. Maybe nobody.

Bielinsky insisted that of course not all his fellow countrymen are crooks, but he was inspired by Argentines coping with economic disaster. Simply surviving took cunning and ruthlessness. Besides, the biggest crooks are within the system itself. The swindlers get their money - only to find that the banks have collapsed and they have been screwed by the super-rich who run the country. Bielinsky says that here were "the little guys trying to eat each other" when finally a Big Fish comes along "and eats them all."

He says that his role as a director is to entertain and explain, not to offer political lectures. But politics are there, in every frame, in every swindle. Nothing, Bielinsky says, is taboo - except to bore the audiences. The Dirty War of the 1970s, he says, is not off limits but it was "a very dark time for this country... these wounds aren't fully closed," and audiences may not yet be ready for a more overtly political style of film-making.

I ask Bielinsky and Burman about the lure of Hollywood. Both have contacts there, though Burman - with his Woody Allen-style gentle humour - is perplexed that he has been offered the chance to direct Hollywood slasher and horror movies. "Me?" he asks.

Bielinsky is also tempted, but aware of the risks. "There is a trade-off," he says. The more money Hollywood puts in, the more control you lose. In Argentina he has not much money but 100 per cent control. "How much would you sacrifice for a big Hollywood budget?" I wonder. "I am thinking about that right now," he says, laughing.

Winograd, meanwhile, says that he tried everything to get Hollywood money, even working for a time with Spike Lee on a movie and wearing T-shirts every day that said: "I need $100,000 to make my own movie."

He eventually got the money, though not from America. Making Cheese Face, he says, is the dream that came true. Like a movie, maybe, with a happy ending.

Gavin Esler is presenting Latin American week for 'Newsnight' live from Lima, beginning on 3 April