10 Essential Latin American Documentaries You Need To Watch

6. Suite Habana (Havana Suite) – Fernando Pérez – Cuba – 2003

Suite Habana

Fernando Pérez makes an amazing ode to La Habana and its inhabitants in this observational documentary full of sounds, colors and rhythms. We follow a group of Cubans throughout what supposedly is the lapse of a day (the movie starts with the sunrise in La Habana and ends when the sun comes down). They are peculiar characters that constantly alter the city’s fabric and each and every one of them represent a social group that wanders around the Cuban capital. There are no actors; the characters are average people that carry on their everyday chores: a boy with Down syndrome, an old lady that sells peanuts, a doctor that dreams of being an actor. We don’t know who these people are (apart from knowing their names) until the end of the movie, where their story and dreams are revealed, making us fall in love with them and their day to day routine in this amazing city that is La Habana.

The city, on the other hand, is presented to the viewer as a magical sonorous place that is always remembering the revolution with statutes of Che Guevara and neon signs that spell out the word revolution, where the characters live normal lives, like the survivors of a chaotic and exiting time.

Note: The movie has no dialogue (hence the observational character of it) but I guarantee you will not be bored!!


7. Noche Sin Fortuna (Unfortunate Night) – Alvaro Cifuentes and Francisco Forbes – Colombia/Argentina – 2010

Noche Sin Fortuna

The movie introduces you head on to the Cali group scene. The Cali group was a cultural movement born in Cali, Colombia, that allowed for a space to share ideas about movies, literature, music and theater. One of its emblematic and mythical characters was the young writer, Andrés Caicedo. He wrote thousands of stories, three finished novels, and one unfinished novel and killed himself at the age of twenty five. This documentary is about him.

Unfortunate Night is an account of Adrés Caicedo’s life and work seen from the perspective of the former members of the Cali group that knew him. It uses interviews, photographs, reenactments, music and Caicedo’s stories and memoires to tell a bizarre story of a bizarre time.

The movie is about Caicedo but it’s also about a cultural movement, a moment in history where young people thought anything was possible. Mayolo’s interview captures this idea as he contrasts it to the present state of things, to a world after Caicedo’s suicide, full of obligations and taxes and poor of cultural innovation. “The enthusiasm is gone” he says, “I don’t know about young people now, but we really enjoyed everything. We enjoyed sex, we enjoyed drugs, we enjoyed May 1968, we were the most beautiful of all, young people were the ones who were right…”

Nostalgic at times, but mostly a tribute to the myth, Unfortunate Night transports us to the Cali group, it makes us feel young and foolish and eager to get to know Andrés Caicedo.


8. Edificio Máster (Master) – Eduardo Coutinho – Brazil – 2002

Edificio Máster

Coutinho and his crew enter a building in Copacabana. We see his entrance through one of the building’s security camera; this will be a constant throughout the movie. They spend three weeks living in this building as a film crew, visiting the neighbors and interviewing them. They’re not in any building; this is Master, a huge traditional building in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, which shelters almost 500 people. In other times it was a slum where drug addicts and men would go to to get a fix or a prostitute. Now it’s recuperating itself from that reputation.

Even though the people of Master live in Copacabana (an upscale neighborhood) they are mostly lower middle class. They come from everywhere and are all diverse in many ways. They almost never talk to each other and hardly ever come out of their apartments.

The crew is always silently walking through the dark hallways, capturing intimate moments of lone neighbors that wander through the building. They not only interview the people, they interview the building, showing us kitchens and windows, bedrooms with unmade beds, elevators and hallways, doors, living rooms, etc. We can definitely appreciate the hugeness and decadence of the Master.

Coutinho manages to capture not only the decadence of the building in Master, but he also manages to capture the neighbor’s most intimate secrets, their drama, their loneliness, their aspirations, their dreams. Master shows us that these people who seem so different are actually very similar in that they are all human beings and thus cannot escape their human condition. In fact, two things seem to be constant in the neighbors: their fascination of music and their hatred towards the Copacabana sidedwalk.

Master is a movie that confirms that no one can deliver an interview better than Coutinho.


9. Cortázar (Cortazar) – Tristán Bauer – Argentina – 1994


This emotional, nostalgic and perfectly composed documentary is a tribute to Julio Cortázar, one of the most influential writers of Latin American and Argentinean literature. Bauer shows an interesting and poetic use of the archival material (photographs, old voice recordings, interviews, homemade movies, etc.) mixed with evocations of Cortázar’s stories and personal life. The movie starts off brilliantly, showing us a hopscotch grid drawn on the ground with chalk (alluding to Cortázar’s masterpiece, Hopscotch) and a boy (supposedly Cortázar himself) hopping on it. We hear Cortázar reciting Torito and the tune of a typical Argentinean tango, and we are immediately transported into his personal life.

The interviews with Cortázar, featured in Bauer’s documentary, introduce us to his political opinion and literary career with an authenticity you don’t see every day. Cortázar’s more political side is very much exposed as he talks about the Cuban and Sandinist revolution and refers to Che Guevara as “his brother”. As he remembers these times we see images of Cuba and Nicaragua in the sixties and seventies.

But it’s only with the French interview excerpt that the viewer feels like Cortázar is sharing a deep secret with him or her about his relationship with reality. He describes a walk through the streets of Paris or Buenos Aires and explains the feeling of being out of this world, “in a situation that the surrealists like to call privileged”. Midnight walks and their magical disposition of reality are the substance of Cortázar’s books.

Cortázar is revived in this poetic documentary that peels off all his layers and lets us see the man, and the writer, behind the myth. Bauer definitely does justice to Cortazar’s life and work.


10. María Sabina, Mujer Espíritu (María Sabina, Spirit Woman) – Nicolás Echevarría – Mexico – 1979

María Sabina, Mujer Espíritu

In 1955 R. Gordon Wasson, an American researcher, discovered María Sabina, a Mexican woman who happened to be a shaman, and wrote an article about her in Life Magazine. She then became a legend and throughout the years many people visited her in Huautla to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms and have a spiritual journey guided by her. Well, it just so happens that one of these adventurous souls is Nicolás Echevarría, a man that, years after the experience, decided to go back and film a portrait/biography of María Sabina, the spirit woman.

Echevarría manages to make a very personal account of María Sabina’s life using a voiceover that narrates her oral story, and footage of her day to day life: braiding her hair, sharing with her children, curing the next door neighbor of a foot injury through a shamanic ritual. The documentary takes us first into the mundane world of María Sabina; her two marriages and her early widowing of both men, her born and unborn children, her suffering from hunger and poverty. The niños santos (this is the sacred name of the mushrooms) appear very early on in María Sabina’s life, at the age of eight, and became an important part of it, just as the ritual scene in the documentary shows.

The ritual is filmed in an ethnographic style very similar to Margaret Mead’s style, showing the audience every detail of it like a fly on the wall. María Sabina lights a couple of dozen candles while she prays, then she eats a potful of roasted mushrooms and waits to hear the voices of the gods. The patient must vomit or else the sickness will not leave the body. If the sick person is not able to vomit, María Sabina does it for them, she is the vehicle. This is the scene we’ve all been waiting for: María Sabina as a shaman showing us her supernatural powers.

María Sabina died in 1985. She was one of the few people who still knew how to execute the mushroom ritual of the ancient mazateca. Echavarría has at least captured a part of that culture in Maria Sabina, Spirit Woman.

Author Bio: Amanda is a 26-year-old Chilean sociologist and is currently finishing her studies in documentary filmmaking. She volunteers at an NGO that works with children, teaching them math and Spanish, taking photos, and giving them a lot of love. She love movies, football and travelling. Follow her on vimeo (www.vimeo.com/arutllant) and flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/arutllant/).