Essays on Latin American Films

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 31, no. 2 (Fall 1995)

This review continues the regular column on teaching-related issues, sponsored by the CLAH Teaching Materials Committee.

Essays on Latin American Films

This essay on films and videos continues the regular column on teaching-related issues, sponsored by the CLAH Teaching Materials Committee.

The increase in the number and variety of films and videos for use in the classroom has greatly enhanced the teaching of Latin American history. The availability of videos through CD ROM has even greater potential. Space permits mention of only a handful of films which members have used with success in stimulating class discussion and portraying those aspects of Latin American culture best portrayed visually. This essay excludes Mexico, which merits an essay on its own.

Many of the current films on Central America reflect the themes of guerrilla warfare and indigenous cultures. Refugees in Our Backyard (Icarus) examines the violence and poverty causing flight, as well as public reaction to the entrance of undocumented aliens in the United States. Maria’s Story (Film makers Library) demonstrates daily adversity on a personal level by following the mother of three who doubles as a leader of the country’s guerrilla movement. Filmed on site, it shows Maria’s commitment to social change in the face of rural poverty. Icarus Films offers A Question of Conscience which treats the highly publicized and shocking murder of 6 Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, in 1989, as well as El Salvador The Seeds of Liberty which deals with the 1980 murder of three nuns and lay missionary, Jean Donovan. The feature film, Romero, starring Raul Julia, shows how reality transformed this country pastor into a defender of El Salvador’s oppressed, leading to his martyrdom.

Contemporary life in a Guatemalan Mayan village is documented in the two films from Icarus: Todos Santos Cuchumatan: Report from a Guatemalan Village (before the 1980s violence) and Todods Santos: The Survivors (how the violence changed the village and led to the flight to Guatemala City and Mexico). Both films were Blue Ribbon Winners at the American Film Festival in 1983 and 1990 respectively. On this same theme is Rigoberta Menchu: Broken Silence. This new release from Films for the Humanities and Sciences works well when coordinated with I, Rigoberta Menchu, ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray.

Films on Caribbean countries are more difficult to locate than for the rest of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba. Particularly effective is Cuba–In the Shadow of Doubt (Film makers Library) an historical treatment of Castro’s rise to power and dominance. It is one of the few films shot on location at La Plata. Also useful is the two part documentary filmed on site: Cuba: The People. Part I aired in 1974 while Part II covers events into the 1980s. With the increasing attention on Haiti one can hope for more films on that country. Two useful ones are Bitter Cane depicting the poverty, class, turmoil and economic difficulties (The Cinema Guild) and Voodoo and the Church in Haiti. The latter is available from the University of California Extension which provides numerous films with an anthropological perspective.

A number of recent films focus on the violence of guerrilla movements and drug mafia. Rodrigo D: No Futuro is an excellent Colombian film dealing with the life of a sicario or assigned killer. Lines of Blood The Drug War in Colombia (Film makers Library) shows the impact of cocaine traffic on political, social, and economic life in Colombia and criticizes U.S. methods used to halt the drug traffic. An excellent film on Peru’s Sendero Luminoso is La boca del lobo/The Lion’s Den, (Facets Videos in Chicago). Fire in the Andes (Icarus) also depicts the political violence of the Shining Path, particularly in the villages.
An increasing number of films are available on daily life in the Andean countries. Alpaca Breeders of Chimboya focusses on a small Andean village marketing alpaca fleece and Icemen of Chimborazo shows Indian peasant ice cutters working in the glaciers for $4.00 a week to supply ice to a nearby market town. Both are available through Icarus. Also of interest is I Spent My Life in the Mines, an autobiography of a Bolivian miner. For the urban scene, see Growing Up in the South, a documentary of street kids in Cusco, Peru, and Villa El Salvador: A Desert Dream, an optimistic portrayal of a squatter settlement in Lima. The last three films are available from Cinema Guild.

Military governments and the desaparecidos in Argentina and Chile have attracted many film makers. The Official Story poignantly relates that grim period in Argentina. Veronico Cruz, with stunning photography, details the life of a small boy growing up in Salta during the years of military repression just prior to the Malvinas War. It also demonstrates the problems teachers face in remote parts of Latin America (Facets). Also useful is Funny Dirty Little War (Facets), a black comedy about leftists and Peronists battling in a provincial town at the onset of the Dirty War. For a good documentary on Argentinean’s conflict with Britain, try Battle for the Falklands (Facets). General Pinocet is the focus of Chile: Hasta Cuando? with flashbacks to 1973 and the violence which followed the coup (Film makers Library). In Don’t Threaten Me (Icarus) Chilean film maker Juan Andres Racz documents the years 1988 to 1990 and the return to democracy. On the lighter side is El Abrazo which puts the tango in historical context with some of the finest tango artists (Films for the Humanities). Also entertaining is Tango Bar (Facets) with Raul Julia.

Films on Brazil emphasize a variety of themes. Bye Bye Brasil is a wonderful satire on city slickers who try to exploit “backwards” rural folk and indigenous people, only to have the tables turned. Pixote is a gripping, accurate film about the life and death of street children. Hour of the Star features a socially deprived girl from the Northeast trying to make a life for herself in Rio. The Story of Fausta is particularly good in its portrayal of contemporary life in the favela. The above are available through Facets Video. The Cinema Guild offers several films on many of these same themes: Favelas, depicts the slums of Sao Paulo and The Children’s War chronicles the plight of homeless children.

Brazil’s Amazon and frontier have fascinated U.S. film makers. A few years ago, PBS Frontline sponsored a five part series on the Amazon, The Decade of Destruction, written by Adrian Cowell and Michael Kirk and directed by Cowell. An excellent documentary on road building in Rondonia and the role of the World Bank is Banking on Disaster (Bullfrog Films). This latter film has good footage on Chico Mendez, the focus of a PBS Frontline special, Murder in the Amazon. Film makers Library offers Contact: The Yanomami Indians of Brazil, a documentary of the once isolated tribe. Bahia: Africa in the Americas treats the rich culture of Brazil’s northeast while Hail Umbanda depicts Brazil’s growing religion with roots in Catholicism, and African and Native American religions (U. of California).

The changing status of women in developing countries has attracted the attention of several film companies, particularly women’s transition from rural to urban life. One of the leaders in this field, with a large number of titles, is Women Make Movies. For a complete listing on selections for Latin America, write to Women Make Movies, Inc. 462 Broadway, Suite 500, NY, NY 10013.

Two Cuban films show the change in gender relations over time: Humberto’s Sola’s classic Lucia (1969) and Pastor Vega’s Retrato de Teresa (1979). Lucia is particularly good for its perspective on women in three periods of Cuban history (Independence, the Machado years, and the coming of Castro in 1959). A fine example of women in both urban and rural settings is Double Day (the Cinema Guild) which includes Domitila Barrios de Chungara as a spokesperson for Andean women in the mines. Using her book LET ME SPEAK! adds to a student’s understanding of the issues. Simplemente Jenny (The Cinema Guild) is a compelling film of the trauma that young women suffer in their efforts to survive. Although an older film, the issues are current.

Feature films are always popular with students and can effectively convey important themes. Here are a few favorites in addition to those interspersed above. El Norte, depicts the flight of Guatemalans to California; The Mission (incredibly beautiful for its photography and sound track) dramatizes the Jesuit entrance and expulsion in Paraguay; Black Orpheus places the myth within the context of life in a Brazilian favela at carnival time; Gabriela (Sonya Braga, Marcello Mastroianni) a bawdy film comedy based on Jorge Amado’s novel and filmed in the coastal town of Paragi. Several films focus on military governments and repression: Kiss of the Spider Woman based on Manuel Pluig’s novel takes place in a prison cell someplace in Latin America; Missing treats U.S. intervention in the Chilean coup of 1973; and State of Siege, views Uruguay in the repressive 1970s. For excellent examples of magical realism see Erendira, based on a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the Colombian backcountry; and Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, based on a novel by Jorge Amado and providing a hilarious commentary on bourgeois mores in Brazil.

In the last few years, several television series have focused on Latin America. The PBS ten part Americas is offered as a college credit telecourse. But if one cannot justify showing all ten episodes, one can choose those which are most appropriate to the course. Program 4, Mirrors of the Heart, is especially good in explaining ethnic and racial lines which are often difficult to convey in lecture. The five-part series by Films for the Humanities and Sciences, Columbus and the Age of Discovery is excellent and can be used selectively depending on the nature of the course. Part 4, The Columbian Exchange, works well and may be used in conjunction with Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange. The Buried Mirror, a five-part series hosted by Carlos Fuentes, covers the cultural differences in the Hispanic world. These films can be used individually land are available from Insight Media. They may be supplemented by the beautifully illustrated monography by Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (Houghton Mifflin, 1992). National Geographic and Frontline specials on PBS have provided excellent programs which may be purchased for classroom use.

This essay does not attempt to categorize films, but is an effort to indicate what is available and list a few of the favorites of professors and students. The inclusion of documentaries, feature films, foreign and domestic films demonstrates the need for a catalog of films appropriate for use in Latin American classes. Films could be annotated and cross referenced giving information on cost, themes, chronological period, length, format, supplier, etc. Perhaps this essay will generate interest in this larger project or at a minimum encourage an exchange of film titles over the internet.

Janet E. Worrall, University of Northern Colorado