Argentina: haven for independent films

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — At 72 years old, Rafael Filippelli says he likes to make the kind of films that young directors make — bold artistic films for his friends. "And since I don't have many friends," said the jovial Argentine director, "not many people like my films."

He's right. Filippelli’s "Secuestro y Muerte" ("Abduction and Death") was the opening film at Argentina’s premier independent film festival this month. It didn’t get rave reviews. "Films with lots of success — it's not my style," the director said.

Independent films are often more about a director's style than commercial success, and Argentina has become a haven for them.

While this year's Oscar win by veteran director Juan Jose Campanella for "El Secreto de Sus Ojos" ("The Secret in Their Eyes") has solidified Argentina's reputation worldwide, its talented directors and cinematographers are no secret in independent film circles. Argentine films often find success on the international festival circuit and Argentina is the only Latin American country to have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. (It's won twice.)

Government subsidies play a key role in that success, allowing both small indie films and bigger budget productions — like "Secreto" — a creative freedom that's difficult to guarantee in commercial markets.

Films that would otherwise never get made reach Argentine viewers thanks to state production subsidies and laws mandating that Argentine films run in multiplexes along with standard Hollywood blockbusters. Between 60 and 70 films are produced in Argentina every year, but most aren’t seen outside the circles of ardent cinefiles.

"People here say the more films you make, the more chances you have to make good films," said Filippelli, who also mentors new filmmakers at the Universidad del Cine, one of several prominent film schools in Buenos Aires. "I say that the more films you make, there's also a possibility to make very bad ones. Both are true."

That's also true among the Argentine films that screened at the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente this year. Among the 86 Argentine productions (44 feature-length films and 42 shorts), one could easily stumble upon the good, the bad and the ugly, yet unique.

"We're looking for the new filmmakers of the future," said the festival’s artistic director, Sergio Wolf, about the bolder choices. "The festival is both a window for new work but it's also like an octopus, with many arms. We're looking in different places for new films and trying to support them."

The prize for best Argentine film in the international competition went to "Lo que mas quire" (“What I Love the Most”), a friendship comedy drama. Best film in the Argentine competition went to "Invernadero" (“Winter-house”), about a one-armed Mexican writer tackling his own eccentricities and autobiographical transformations.

While Argentine directors stress the diversity of their films, it's hard not to miss the political undertones in many of them — if not in the foreground, then sometimes subtly in the background.

Filipini’s "Sucuestro y Muerte" is based loosely on the real-life abduction and execution of General Pedro Aramburu, who was behind the military coup that ousted Juan Peron. "El Recuento de los Danos" ("The Counting of the Damages") blends the tragedies of child appropriation during the military dictatorship, the repercussions of industrialization and the Greek tragedy of Oedipus.

"The wound is so deep and affects so many generations still that, in many ways, it's an open wound," said director Santiago Loza. "Even if you decide to do a film that has nothing to do with the dictatorship, that's actually a reaction. You're denying something."

Loza and his co-director, Ivan Fund, shared the award for Best Director in the Argentine competition for "Los Labios" ("The Lips"). Their film paints a portrait of a rural impoverished town through the journey of three public health care workers.

"Los Labios" isn't overtly political, but the film does cast the rural government and its attempts at assistance in a futile, often comically tragic, light. Ironically, Fund won a small seed grant from the city's government to make the film.

Government support for the film industry, both big and small, has buoyed Argentina’s cinema success. Much of the funding for those subsidies come from taxes on commercial television producers and foreign-owned cineplexes.

"The majority of Argentine film could not exist without support of the state," said Fillipini. "All of my films, at least in part have had state subsidies."

France and Italy, where cinema is a source of national pride, have similar systems to support independent film. In 2003, Colombia adopted a model similar to Argentina’s to jump start its domestic film industry.

While many say small countries need state support for independent film to survive in the shadow of Hollywood and Bollywood, most directors say Argentina's state-subsidized film industry is by no means perfect.

"You can have more films with artistic risk, but on the other hand, it's a problem when people make films just to get money from the state and they don't care if the film is good," said Juan Villega, director, producer and president of one of Argentina's four filmmakers' associations. He says many filmmakers regard the process as bureaucratic and politically biased so they opt to finance their films on their own.

Villega said his latest film didn't receive any subsidies. "But I can do it because I'm working on another film at the same time that is supported by state."

The government's financial support of the film industry, while imperfect, has in effect created a cinematic ecosystem. Its what's driving the film schools, the production pace, the development and the diversity that makes Argentine filmmakers successful.

"You don't need to sell a million tickets, for the movie to exist. That's the most important thing," said Fund, 25. “The film exists and everyone can go and see it."

Fund and Lazo’s film "Los Labios" will be seen by many. It was selected to screen at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival this month. It's the first Argentine film that premiered at the Buenos Aires festival to make one of the main competitions at Cannes. It’s unlikely to be the last.