Mar del Plata, Latin America's only A grade film festival, unspooled yesterday (March 6) with the screening of Fernando Meirelles' City Of God.

Launching the event, new festival director Miguel Pereira dedicated the event to a celebration of peace. "At a time when we may soon see bombs falling on Iraq, the biggest applause should be for peace," he said.

The audience responded with rousing applause; almost as popular with the Argentinian public was the observation by the governor of Buenos Aires province, Felipe Sola, that as Argentina prepares for its presidential election, film-makers had more influence on the public than the politicians.

In the past year, the Argentinian film industry has witnessed a palace coup within its institutions, which has seen film professionals replace politicians and their placemen within the major state film organisations.

At the Mar del Plata opening Sola stood on stage alongside culture minister Ruben Stella, who is an actor, and the head of the Argentinian film institute, INCAA, Jorge Coscia, who is a film director. Pereira, an award-winning film director himself, replaced film academic Claudio Espana, in November.

Pereira also warned against the dangers of a nationalistic approach to cinema, reminding his audience that when the Falklands War started between the UK and Argentina he was studying in London and that the British Film Institute backed his first feature Veronico Cruz, which won the Berlin Silver Bear in 1988.

The festival competition section kicks off today with Yossi Madmony and David Ofek's The Barbecue People. Screening in competition alongside the Israeli film are David G Green's All The Real Girls (US), Fernando Sarinana's Amarte Duele (Mexico), Nils Malmros' Facing The Truth (Denmark), Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi's Bug (US), Ebrahim Hatamikia's Low Heights (Iran), Damian Szifron's El Fondo Del Mar (Argentina), Matti Ijas' Blue Corner (Finland), Hugo Santiago's Le Loup De La Cote Ouest (France/Portugal), Jeff Erbach's The Nature Of Nicholas (Canada), Daniel Macivor's Past Perfect (Canada), Domingos De Oliveira's Breaking Up (Separacoes) (Brazil), Horst Krassa's Over The Night (Uber Nacht) (Germany), Alejandro Agresti's Valentin (Argentina/Netherlands), Antonio Chavarria's Volveras (Spain) and Yong-Gyun Kim's Wanne & Junah (South Korea).

Spanish director Ventura Pons heads the jury and is joined by Argentine director Carlos Sorin, Brazilian film-maker Suzana Amaral, French writer/director Pascal Bonitzer, US director Ulu Grosbard and the Indian-Canadian writer/film-maker/producer Deepa Mehta.