MAR DEL PLATA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
March 8 - 17
Argentina's Mar del Plata International Film Festival has bounced back after mismanagement and a local film industry boycott forced a hiatus last year. A new executive team led by film critic and historian Claudio Espana has promised to provide a more organised festival this year. Espana plans a more rational spend of the festival's $2.4m budget, with a focus on film-makers rather than stars.
Long touted as Latin America's only A-list festival, Mar del Plata had just been revived in 1996 after a 26-year absence. Founded in 1959 by the local film critics' association, the festival grew to become the most prestigious film-related event of the region during its first decade. The likes of Maria Callas - who screened her singular film Medea - Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Vittorio Gassman, Toshiro Mifune, James Mason, Sophia Loren, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Tati and Anthony Perkins graced the seaside resort.
Since Mar del Plata's official dates have been moved forward from November to March 8-17, festival organisers admit these new dates have pitted them against Cannes for some films. Despite these difficulties, they have managed to compile an interesting selection of features from as far afield as South Korea, Iran and Papua New Guinea, alongside European, Latin American and US entries.
In addition, the festival will include a workshop that will focus on digital film technology and cover the potential legal problems inherent in the new distribution and exhibition trends.
ARGENTINIAN CINEMA IS UNDERGOING A RENAISSANCE
The upsurge of fresh young talent in Argentina has transformed the face of its film industry. In the last couple of years, graduates from the growing crop of local film schools have infused Argentinian film-making with a style and vibrancy that is propelling them to the forefront of the international film industry.
There are an estimated 7,000 students at Argentina's film schools, including the prestigious Universidad del Cine, which has nurtured some of the more interesting directors, including Pablo Trapero, Bruno Stagnaro and Ariel Rotter.
New film-makers are also emerging from the advertising sector and other film-related professions. An increasing number of editors, cinematographers, screenwriters and other film professionals are directing their first full-length features. Many have formed a loose co-operative of friends in the industry, working for free or for deferred payments on each other's films.
According to Andres di Tella, director and former head of the Buenos Aires Film Festival, what is making the difference is that the new generation is "telling more original stories, with scripts based on better social and personal observation, with more spontaneous and realistic acting, sometimes with a documentary feel.
"It is film-making that shows greater respect for the audience," says di Tella, "whereas Argentinian films of the past were often aimed at the lowest common denominator audience."
For many of the new film-makers, the making of their film is a "do-or-die" project, sometimes with little or no initial funding. Such was the case with Pablo Trapero's Crane World (Mundo Grua), which kicked off principal photography with a $40,000 subsidy from the Rotterdam Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund, and subsequently acquired further funds from Argentina's National Film Institute (Incaa) as well as a small distribution advance to complete it.
In the end, the black and white film cost $600,000 to make and enjoyed moderate box office success in Argentina. It went on to reap awards from international film festivals including best film at the Critics' Week at Venice 1999, both the Tiger and the Critics' award at Rotterdam 2000, best director at Buenos Aires 1999 and the Special Jury Prize in Havana 1999.
Martin Rejtman's Silvia Prieto, shot at weekends with a borrowed camera, was also made for next to nothing. Prieto was another festival hit, although it did not fare as well as Crane World at the local box office.
Lucrecia Martel is another young film-maker creating a buzz. Her debut feature La Cienaga was chosen for the Berlin competition section this year and took home the Alfred Bauer Prize for a film debut. Many are now predicting a box office bonanza for Martel's vision of decaying middle-class society in the remote province of Salta.
Like many of her peers, Martel jump-started her project outside Argentina - in her case by winning the Sundance/NHK best script in 1999.
Established in 1996, the award includes a $10,000 cash prize as well as a guarantee by NHK to acquire Japanese broadcast rights upon completion of the film. This year's prize was won by another Argentinian, Daniel Burman, for Every Stewardess Goes To Heaven. Burman's previous film, Esperando Al Mesias, was also a festival favourite. Rotter's Solo Por Hoy, which participated in Berlin 2001's Panorama sidebar, was a semi-finalist for the coveted award, and also backed by Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund.
While critically acclaimed, not all these new "artistic" films have performed well at the box office. One exception is Fabian Bielinsky's directorial debut Nueve Reinas, which ranks among the highest-grossing films of last year with 600,000 admissions - very high by Argentine standards.
An interesting aspect of Argentina's renaissance is the number of film, TV and commercials professionals tempted by the mood to make their theatrical directing debuts. Oscar-winning art director Eugenio Zanetti will direct his first feature film, The Burning Tree, this year. According to producer Julio Corsaro of Grupo Creativo, Anthony Quinn is attached to star.
Lucho Bender, whose debut feature Felicidades is Argentina's foreign-language Oscar entry, is a prominent TV commercials director. "I actually dislike advertising and have always wanted to direct my own feature," he confesses. Bender himself financed the bulk of his picture.
"While Incaa has been the main source of funding, its scant resources have made the relatively limited aid of the Hubert Bals Fund and the French Fond Sud Cinema, plus Ibermedia [a fund assembled by Spain and various Latin American governments], crucial to the production of many significant films," says di Tella, who has just finished directing his latest feature, Television And Me.
Post-production costs are sometimes covered by having labs play a role as associate producers, a smart strategy adopted by many local film-makers. Digital video cameras are also proving a godsend for Argentina's cash-strapped film-makers.
Alternative avenues of production financing are also opening up. "Taxes collected from free and pay-TV transmissions of feature films are now converted into subsidy funding. These amount to a modest return on investment for film-makers and have allowed us to churn out more films at a faster rate," explains Rodrigo Furth, whose directorial debut Toca Para Mi screened in Berlin's Panorama section last month.
International sales are often handled by the producers themselves, although there are exceptions. La Cienaga is being handled by World Sales Christa Saredi, which began selling the film in Berlin and will continue in Cannes. The main markets for Argentinian films are in Europe - particularly Spain, France and Italy.
Local marketing and distribution remain the stickiest problems for these young film-makers. As in the rest of the world, US product dominates th