Argentina's actors' union is to look into limiting the number of amateur actors allowed to be cast in feature films in response to protests by local actors against the trend in the New Argentine Cinema to use non-professionals.

At a heated meeting between representatives of the Asociacion Argentina de Actores and local film-makers at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, actors lined up to complain about the practice, seen by them as film-making on the cheap.

Mimi Arduh, who appeared in Pablo Trapero's acclaimed Cannes' Un Certain Regard title El Bonaerense, demanded to know why the directors agreed to work with such "non actors", as she termed them.

However, the head of the Argentine film institute, INCAA, Jorge Coscia, a film-maker himself, defended the practice, and emphasised that this was not a new phenomenon as film-makers such as Vittorio De Sica had also used non-professional actors in films such as The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di Biciclette).

He said that even though he preferred working with trained and experienced actors, sometimes an amateur was better suited to a particular role. He added that if they then appeared in another role then by definition they themselves become professional actors. "Non-actors play one character, like in Trapero's first film Mundo Grua or De Sica's The Bicycle Thief," he said. "In order to work again, playing a different character, they must become actors, they have to study."

Actor Edgardo Nieva, who starred in Leonardo Favio's Gatica, El Mono, visibly angry, attacked the New Argentine Cinema (Nuevo Cine Argentino) - a label increasingly used by local critics and journalists to describe the recent wave of Argentine films that have found favour at festivals and at the box office around the world.

Nieva argued that those films have, in fact, no actors, script, story or directors. He added, "And when we say that a non-actor did a good job, well, we know that a real actor would have been able to do it far better."

Needless to say the film-makers at the stand-off saw the situation differently. "In a film, the director doesn't work with actors, but with characters," said director Eduardo Espagnuolo. "Sometimes you don't find an actor - be they amateur or professional - who satisfies your needs. Non-professional actors don't replace actors, they just play a role."

Actress Emilia Mazer said that actors should ask themselves why this was happening, and what do they lack that leads directors to choose non-professional actors over professionals. "Maybe, it is because of the way we have to work, with so little time for rehearsals; conditions that don't let us develop the characters as well as we would like."

Noemi Frenkel, an actress and lecturer at a film school in Buenos Aires, quoted one of her students as saying: "It is difficult to deal with actors, because of their narcissism." She said that such prejudices are partly to blame for the use of non-professionals.

Responding to the points raised by her members, Rita Terranova, general secretary of the actors' association, said that a film is a collective creation and that every role is important, and pledged to look into trying to limit the number of amateur actors in Argentina films.

Speaking later to Screen International in Mar del Plata acclaimed director Fernando Meirelles defended his choice of non-professional actors in City Of God, a film set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. "Professional actors are great," he said, "but for this project we were dealing with an environment that no professional actor in Brazil had any knowledge of. We needed the expertise of the boys and it was intrinsic to my work that we use them. It gave the film an authenticity that would have been lacking if we had used professional actors."

Meirelles set up an acting school in the district in which the film was set while he was preparing the script and his co-director, Katia Lund, coached 200 local boys in basic acting skills for six months from which Meirelles then selected the cast.

Those selected had a further six months of rehearsals, during which they were encouraged to improvise and make suggestions as to how the dialogue and the character development could be made more authentic. The suggestions were then faxed back to scriptwriter, Braulio Mantovani, so that he could adapt the script. By the time the film came to shoot the screenplay was on its 12th draft.

By allowing non-professional actors to draw on their own experience in this way, Meirelles says films such as his are not only improved but also avoid being voyeuristic and exploitative as the actors are allowed to tell their own story in their own way.