You can pretty much say that Latin American documentaries were born in the midst of the political effervesce of the late sixties and seventies. With the advances in technology, film directors only needed, as Glauber Rocha said, “a camera in their hands and an idea in their heads” to make politically committed movies that showed Latin American reality much like the Italian neorealism movement did. It was a time to be brave and show the world the political crimes being committed all over the continent by an outburst of several coup d’état. Two political forces were colliding at that time, communism and capitalism, and someone had to film it.
After democracy was gained back, documentary filmmakers all over the continent had a new challenge: preserve the memory of a story that was censured by the dictatorships and reconstruct a cultural identity that is in constant movement. Documentaries of this time are less obsessed with the opposition “left and right” and more preoccupied with human rights and environmental issues and denounce the poverty and inequities in Latin America produced by a neoliberal economy. They also explore subjective aspects of life and become more personal accounts of reality. Without further ado, Here is our list of the 10 must see Latin American documentaries.
1. La Batalla de Chile (The Battle of Chile) – Patricio Guzmán – Chile/Cuba – 1974-1979
This is Praticio Guzmán’s best work to date and probably one of the most important Latin American documentaries of all times. Filmed clandestinely in Chile in the 70’s and edited in Cuba by Guzmán and Pedro Chaskel, it tells the story of socialist Chile, the overthrowing of Salvador Allende’s government and the rising of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Narrated in a three volume epic political tale (The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, The Coup d’état and Popular Power), The Battle of Chile is one of the most detailed accounts of what happened in Chile during the first months of the political coup.
In a letter written by Guzmán before the coup to his most important collaborator abroad, Chris Marker, says: “We have to make a movie of this! An extensive report made in factories, fields, mines. A movie of inquiry, whose great scenarios are large cities, villages, the coast and the desert. A film composed of many chapters, muralist, whose protagonists are the people and their leaders, on the one hand, and the oligarchy, its leaders and its connections with the U.S. government on the other. A film of analysis. A film of masses and individuals. An engrossing film made from daily events whose final duration is unpredictable…” And this is exactly what they did (the documentary ended up being 272 minutes long).
In the making of this documentary the cameraman, Jorge Müller Silva, was kidnapped by the military police and never to be seen again. Like him, thousands of Chileans met the same fate. To this day no one knows where they are or what happened to them. All of this and more is exposed in Guzmán’s Battle of Chile.
Probably one of the bravest and most heroic acts anyone could have done was walking out of Pinochet’s dictatorship with a movie like this. Thanks to the people who collaborated in making it, a part of Chilean history has been preserved, a part that very little people in Chile like to assume but everyone remembers.
2. O Prisionero da Grade de Ferro (The Prisoner of the Iron Bars) – Paulo Sacramento – Brazil – 2004
Caution: This documentary is not for weak stomachs!!! It shows the hard life of a group of inmates imprisoned in Carandiru penitentiary, a huge jail in the heart of São Paulo.
Paulo Sacramento debuts as a director with this raw tale about the Brazilian penitentiary system. The movie captures the lives of a group of inmates that are incarcerated in the largest penitentiary in Latin America, Carandiru, one year before the Brazilian government demolished it after an encounter between the inmates and the police resulted in the death of 111 inmates.
Sacramento and his team lead a film workshop in Carandiru and the result of that workshop is this documentary. Knowing about the difficulties he would encounter during his filming in the penitentiary, Sacramento thought it best to teach the inmates to film so that they could register the sordid, horrifying, but also terribly mundane reality they live in in a way that Sacramento would have never managed to do by himself, making The Prisoner of the Iron Bars the best prison film ever. Inmates are filmed by other inmates in their day to day lives and we quickly understand that their “normal” is our hell.
After the seven months the workshop lasted, Sacramento found himself with the difficult task to edit 700 hours of material into a 123 minute feature film. The end product is an amazing collage of self-portraits made by inmates that might have been movie directors in another life.
The faxina (clean-up) scene right in the middle of the film makes a pretty powerful statement: we see the cleanup squad getting ready to scrub the prison floors as one of the inmates shouts “we are human beings, we are workers and so everything the press says out there is a lie. Here we’re showing you reality, we are human beings, we are workers, we fulfill our duties and we hope that someday justice will look to us because our situation is terrible”. Now that the audience has been an hour deep in the hell hole that is Carandiru, it’s hard not to question the functioning of Brazil’s penitentiary system.
Today, all that’s left of Carandiru is its large courtyard that now serves as a community park and library; but the stories of its inmates live on through Sacramento’s Prisoner of the Iron Bars.
3. Ilha das Flores (Isle of Flowers) – Jorge Furtado – Brazil – 1989
Jorge Furtado made this short film after having to do reportage on Ilha das Flores, a landfill in Porto Alegre. It starts off by saying “This is not a fictional film. There is a place called Isle of Flowers. God does not exist”. After this declaration we go on to hear the voice of an impersonal, scientific and verbose narrator that will explain how the capitalist cycle of food cultivation works, through the life of a tomato, while the audience is bombarded by millions of strange and instructive images.
Beginning at Mr. Suzuki’s tomato field, a tomato is sold to a supermarket, where it is acquired by Mrs. Anete, a perfume saleswoman, together with some pork. At this point the narrator has already explained the concept of human being as “biped mammals, which are different from other mammals like the whale, and other bipeds like the chicken, because of two characteristics: their highly developed telencephalon and their opposing thumb”. Thus, we can infer that Mr. Suzuki and Mrs. Anete are neither pork nor tomatoes.
Each exchange of the tomato (from Mr. Suzuki to the supermarket, from the supermarket to Mrs. Anete) requires the presence of money, which is, together with the tomato and the human beings, the constant element in the story. Mrs. Anete intends to prepare a tomato sauce for the pork, but, “one of those tomatoes, that according to the highly subjective judgment of Mrs. Anete was inadequate for the sauce, was thrown in the garbage”. Together with the rest of the garbage, the tomato is taken to Isle of Flowers (Ilha das Flores), Porto Alegre’s landfill. There, the organic material considered adequate, like tomatoes, chicken, pork, flowers and paper, are selected as food for pigs. What is not eaten by the pig is given to poor women and children to eat.
This short film follows a tomato from the moment a farmer picks it to its ending in a landfill so as to expose human misery in capitalist society. Poor and exploited people are not people; they’re put after the pigs in this economical system we live in. This is the point Furtado wants to make in Isle of Flowers. This is another really good Brazilian documentary you must see and I guarantee Furtado’s use of found footage will blow your mind!
4. La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces) – Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino – Argentina – 1966-1968
The Hour of the Furnaces is an amazing Argentinean documentary and classic of the Tercer Cine movement. Conveying a discourse that has been at the heart of revolutionary Latin American movements, The Hour of the Furnaces, in three volumes that in total add up to 225 minutes, addresses the problem of neocolonialism in Latin America, and specifically in Argentina, and represents one of the most lucid manifestos of the late 60’ against colonialist forces. If you don’t like dense, agitprop long documentaries, I suggest you not to watch it.
The first part, Neocolonialism and violence, is a dynamic collage, abundant in philosophical quotations and statistics, that makes fun of the Argentinean bourgeois society and its ridiculous aspiration of being “European” while also showing how this ideology is at the service of dominating el pueblo (the people). The second part, Act for Liberation, which is itself divided into two parts, invites the audience into the debate and ponders about the peronismo movement and the workers resistance movement in Argentina. The third part, Violence and Liberation, consists of interviews with syndical leaders. The Hour of the Furnaces discusses the juxtaposition of two political, economical and cultural ideologies that are in constant battle (colonialism vs self-determination, Capitalism vs Communism, North vs South) and gives the viewer certain guidelines to overcome neocolonialist ideology.
Sarcastic, acid, super critical, and formally innovative, The Hour of the Furnaces, a complex documentary not fit for everyone, is a small treasure of Latin-American militant cinema. As Ruffinelli says “there has not been, in Latin America, an experiment like the one proposed here by Solanas and Getino: committed, awareness-raising, formally innovative, a call to be a part of history”.
5. Santiago Uma reflexão sobre o material bruto – (Santiago A consideration on the raw material) – Joao Moreira Salles – Brazil – 2007
In 1992 film director Joao Moreira Salles shoots what was supposed to be a movie about Santiago, his butler. But after seeing the footage in the editing room he realized it couldn’t be done and the footage was locked away for thirteen years. It was the director’s only unfinished movie. In the midst of an existential crisis, Moreira Salles returns to the footage shot of Santiago to find out what went wrong and why the movie never got done. The result of that exploration is a very honest and open recount of his experience as a director on the set of an unfinished movie.
A skeptical incidental music comes and goes from scene to scene and it fits perfectly with the critical tone of the movie: a film director scrutinizing every inch of the forgotten footage once shot by him. With tremendous sense of humor and irony, Moreira Salles makes the spectator an active participant in the movie, inviting him to question the movie’s methods, the things it shows and the things it doesn’t and even the director’s intentions. After taunting the viewer with images of situations that might (or might not) have been real – a leaf that falls perfectly inside a swimming pool, clothing hangers that move subtly due to a supposed breeze – he says: “today, 13 years later, it’s hard to say how far we were going to look for the perfect portrait, the perfect line. Did we interfere to the point where we put makeup on the boxer? Or exaggerated his sweat?
Looking at the raw material it’s clear that everything needs to be looked at with a certain level of distrust. Later on Moreira Salles understands that the failure of the movie has less to do with the “manipulation” of certain situations for the sake of the movie and more to do with his vision as a director when faced with the difficult task of making a documentary about a character so close to him. This movie definitely problematizes the role of the filmmaker in an unique way.