Films confront painful past at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival

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      With a real-life villain like Augusto Pinochet, Chilean cinema will never be at a loss for a bad guy.

      Not surprisingly, the former dictator of Chile casts a long shadow over the country’s memory. This is nowhere more apparent than in the Chilean selections at the seventh annual Vancouver Latin American Film Festival, which opens today and runs until September 20.

      Chile, a country whose film industry has enjoyed a renewed creativity in the past 10 years, steps up as the spotlight nation for this year’s program. “We chose Chile because Chilean films have been making a very strong mark in international festivals around the world,” says VLAFF media coordinator Jorge Amigo. “We’re bringing in a very good selection, many feature films and some historically important films as well. Also, short films directed by female Chilean directors.”

      Watch the trailer for Arrancame La Vida.

      With Pinochet’s repressive era (1973 to 1990) of murder, torture, disappearances, and other harsh human-rights abuses still within memory for most Chileans, the healing process involves some very frank cinematic work. A number of the festival’s Chilean films relate directly to this period, including El Diario de Agustin (about a pro-Pinochet newspaper), Archeology of Memory—Villa Grimaldi (a documentary about a notorious concentration camp), and Tony Manero (the story of an obsessive loner and his efforts to win a late-’70s-style Saturday Night Fever dance contest). Pinochet’s influence is so pervasive that he even turns up in one of the Brazilian entries, Condor, a documentary about anti-leftist collusion between the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

      Talking about Pinochet’s legacy, Amigo explains: “It’s a very, very important theme for Chilean cinema. The country’s going through a period of trying to remember what happened and trying to come to terms with the period of dictatorship.”

      That era of repression and fear is reflected in the ages of many of the filmmakers as well, with almost half having been born in the 1970s. “It was a decade of resistance,” says Amigo. “Because you had all these dictatorships in Latin America and because you had all these social and government problems everywhere, there was a critical mass of people being born into this climate of repression and control.”

      Brazil’s Condor screens at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival.

      With many governmental and societal controls now relaxed in Latin America, this generation of filmmakers finally feels able to explore the dark stories of the 1970s with a newfound depth and clarity. “I think,” Amigo continues, “it’s almost a natural development for them to react to that and say, ”˜We’re going to focus our films on stories and developments that affected us when we were younger.’ ”

      Not all of the festival’s fare is political, however: there are comedies, dramas, and even some campy 1966 science-fiction fun with lucha libre star El Santo in Santo Contra la Invasión de los Marcianos. With films drawn from countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Peru, as well as many others, the festival offers a wide cross section of films for every taste.

      Mexico’s film industry supplies a number of interesting choices, including the festival’s opening-night film, Arráncame la Vida. A period piece set in the postrevolutionary 1930s and ’40s, the film is an exploration of gender and class roles in the story of an ambitious general and the young campesina he takes as his wife. It’s a lushly appointed costume drama and one of Mexico’s most expensive productions ever. Also from Mexico is Chevolution, a finely crafted documentary about Alberto Korda’s iconic 1960 photograph of Che Guevara. The story of the photo, and its remarkable transition from revolutionary image to ubiquitous hipster T-shirt graphic, unfolds in an arresting blend of archival film, stills, and modern interviews.

      Along with the 29 full-length features and 33 short films (there’s even a festival-within-a-festival called Reel Journeys: Shorts by Chilean Women, showcasing the work of three emerging female directors), the festival also offers a number of workshops with industry professionals. Seminars include detailed information on film equipment and legal issues, and an all-star lighting workshop featuring master cinematographers Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Roberto Schaefer (The Kite Runner), and Jack Green (Unforgiven). “It’s a great opportunity,” Amigo says, “for new filmmakers and for people already working in the industry to harness new skills.”

      Enthusiastic about local support, Amigo reports that the vast majority of festivalgoers are interested not only in the films but in the development of Latin American awareness and community. And although the VLAFF’s catchment area comprises two continents and numerous countries, there’s a great deal of shared culture: “There’s a lot of common denominators that unite the countries,” Amigo says, “especially in terms of the arts—there’s a lot of cooperation.”