BAFICI, Day 11

Raya Martin’s Autohystoria

BAFICI, Day 11
By Robert Koehler

What does a film culture look like? Is it even apparent when it materializes in a certain place, a certain country? Even more important, when it disappears in a certain place, a certain country, does anyone notice?

The issues around this circulate in the context of BAFICI in Argentina (which has some kind of film culture), particularly as it is showing the films of Raya Martin from the Phillippines (which supposedly had no film culture). It centers on a community, and the crucial matter that a local film culture simply doesn’t exist without one. (This is why, when one attends REDCAT or Filmforum especially, one can conclude that there is an alternative film culture in Los Angeles.) There’s growing concern–at least as I’ve heard it in conversations here–that the much-vaunted Argentine cinema (remember when it was the toast of every serious film festival?) may be in serious crisis; at the very least, there’s great worry that the various filmmakers in the lead of the country’s cinema are all off on their own projects, with little actual community to hold it together. “They don’t even want to be around each other, let alone together,” says one BA film observer. BAFICI’s own “meeting point” (a phenomenon that I described in yesterday’s post) is the festival’s fine and lively effort to foster a community, and the healthy state of Argentine film production is a matter of record. The only nexus, however, of a real group of filmmakers—filmmakers who share ideas and labor (and possibly much else)–appears to circulate at the UniversitÈ del Cine, and the film program there run by the director of the superb M˙sica Nocturna, Rafael Filippelli. It’s obvious that at the screenings of M˙sica, or at those for Matias Pineiro’s El hombre robado (The Stolen Man) (both of which, ironically, are in the official Argentine competition), the circle around Filippelli and the university is friendly and supportive, and extends to such exceptionally talented former Filippelli students as Santiago Palavecino. This could prove to be the proving ground for a second wind of the more radical, leading edge of the country’s cinema, where a palpable (inevitable?) sense of exhaustion has settled in.

When the most interesting new work here is from a nearly 70-year-old veteran director (Filippelli), there’s something afoot. “Waves” are called such for a reason; they rise, crash and recede, and I tend to avoid the term, not least for its excessive overuse in critical writing. I would hate to think that this is happening in Argentina, and I would counsel patience to some of my Argentine friends who perhaps have a sound basis for feeling skeptical about the near-future. Their sense is that too much festival and critical success too soon has swept once-radical artists into a new mainstream. I’m not sure that I would include someone like Lucrecia Martel in that mainstream (it’s hard to imagine that she’ll ever make anything approaching even a mainstream Argentine film, let alone a mainstream film for the international market), but the Daniel Burmans and Adrian Caetanos? Standing on the corner of Av. Corrientes and Anchorena tonight after trying to absorb the utterly astounding revelations of Raya Martin’s A Short Film about the Indio Nacional, Quintin, his friend and I were joking about the future Hollywood projects of Burman, for whom a New York family comedy produced by Miramax seems just a matter of a few phone calls and signing documents.

At the same time, I’m not sure what it means when an audience seems to enjoy a film like Federico Leon’s and Marcos Martinez’ Estrellas (in the international competition, which I’ll be commenting on only after my jury has arrived at its decisions)–and my puzzlement continues after seeing it a second time today with a public audience. Or, in a different vein, that the audiences here seem to be going in a big way for a forgettable bit of trivia like the previously noted UPA! Will they also go for a film like Raul Perrone’s Canada? (The likely answer–if it’s like Perrone’s other personal and intuitively structured films–is “no.”) Is a BAFICI even possible if there’s no film culture in Argentina, as some make a powerful case? When, as I mentioned previously, I witness the audiences in sheer mass in BAFICI vs. the relatively paltry crowds in Mexico City and Guadalajara, I have to think there is one. But what if they support only bad films–as is almost always the case in the U.S.?

And what of Raya Martin? How to even fathom this indefinable artist, each of whose three films are works of art of the highest order, each entirely different from the others and each made with a rigorously personal aesthetic? Having noted his first film, Island at the End of the World, which I now understand he may have made as a teenager, I happened to see his next two films–A Short Film About the Indio Nacional and Autohystoria–in the reverse order they were made. I’m too fresh to Indio to even write about it coherently; I’ve emailed Martin (who’s currently at home and unable to attend BAFICI) to help explain such details as the peculiar and possibly unprecedented nature of the film’s score, which is actually different each time the film is projected, played with a set of CD tracks selected by Martin. (For example, tonight’s screening had a strangely compelling ultra-romantic score that sounded like something out of the 1930s, including what sounded like Tagalog vocals. One 2006 screening, possibly in Rotterdam, had a score that was more Chopinesque.) Closing credits citing two Filipino historical texts were impossible to scribble down in my notes, though I suspect that the texts are helpful to provide further historical context to the film. I await Martin’s reply.

But in the meantime, I’m overwhelmed with the sense that I’ve seen something like the future of cinema. To watch Martin’s films, combined with the mind-altering experience of drinking in (one doesn’t merely watch) Lav Diaz’s epics like Evolution of a Filipino Family and last year’s John Torres triumph,Todo Todo Teros (which should be at BAFICI but isn’t)–while not having seen the films of Khavn, who’s also a prolific musician–it’s impossible not to conclude that not only is the rising talk of a “new Filipino cinema” not hype, but the term tends to be reductive. Watching this group–and they ARE a group, working on each other’s films,even playing in each other’s bands–has to closely match the sensation of being a filmgoer in 1959, and watching the French nouvelle vague explode. In the absence of a formal film culture (the only film journal of note, and a very fine one, is Criticine (, to which the aforementioned filmmakers have contributed articles and interviews), genuinely independent filmmakers have decided to make one instead.

Martin’s Autohystoria is easily the year’s most radical and astonishing film at this point in the calendar, and it’s beyond imagining to think that anything at Cannes will touch it. (Of course, we did have, at Cannes and in competition last year, Martin’s favorite film of 2006, Costa’s Colossal Youth.) So let’s just call it the film of the first half of 2007, and then see what happens. It starts with a 37-minute handheld tracking shot, looking across the street at a man walking several blocks down the sidewalks of two noisy boulevards in Manila. The duration is Diaz-like, but the conception is entirely more sinister, and, in the greater context of the film as a whole, deeply tragic. Walking ever so steadily and without barely a pause, he seems to be on a mission, but when he arrives at the apartment building that was his destination, no one is home and he appears stuck. The camera itself keeps several yards away–it never even crosses the street with him–lending the mise en scene the quality of stalking prey, and the darker sense that what we’re seeing is a death march. The film’s soundtrack overwhelms the ear with traffic noise, which reaches a fever pitch in the next shot (lasting twelve minutes),observing a major roundabout intersection in the city and a large war monument in the center island. (The visual pun of a frozen battle scene in a concrete island seems altogether pointed for a film set in an archipelago.) Traffic flows by uninterested in the monument itself, and police cars scream past. Two shots follow (six and three minutes, in that order) inside one of these cop cars, showing the first close-ups of two arrested young men who seem to be brothers. They’re both visibly terrified–too terrified to utter a sound.

Autohystoria then makes one of the more dramatic elliptical jumps in recent cinema, in which the brothers are cuffed together by strips of cloth and being followed by an unseen force or menace (soon, it’s apparent that these are state security police), whose point of view the camera adopts. Indeed, until a startling shot in the jungle that happens several minutes on, each shot has carried with it some weight of having been viewed by a menace, surveillance or police authority, and here the film has interesting connections with Todo Todo Teros, which also ponders and visualizes the activities of a state security apparatus, and the paranoia that flows from this set of visual constructs. The danger is further heightened by the sight of blood on both brothers, and obvious signs of torture and beating. At one point in the jungle–the traffic noise is a long-distant memory at this point–one of the brothers faces the camera and asks: “Are you going to shoot us?” It has to be the most disturbing line of dialogue in any film I’ve heard in some time, deepening the gnawing sense that the camera itself is a weapon.

And yet, just as Martin appears to be making a larger inquiry into the uses and abuses of the camera as a tool of invasion and even murder, he throws his gaze to nature, and a series of landscapes drenched in impossible beauty. His gaze pauses, allowing the eye to watch how a wave of misty clouds curling over the cliffside of a ridge dissipates as the day’s sun takes hold. Like Albert Serra granting the viewer access and temporal liberty to watch the moon actually rise and move through the night sky in Honor of the Knights, Martin takes measure of nature as it is, and places it directly adjacent–and abutting–the human savagery just witnessed. More mysterious (and perhaps Martin can shed light on this as well) are the film’s final graphics and images; one graphic notes: “Aguinaldo’s Navy, 4/18/1902 American Mutoscope and Biograph Co.” and the final images are the newsreel footage that graphics identifies, of a naval force and land army marching. The clips are from one of three Biograph-produced films, all shot in 1900. Martin selected shots of the force led by Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy, who declared an independent Filipino republic on January 1, 1899. War soon broke out between the new republic and the U.S., which had been governing the islands for some time like an American colony. Autohystoria thus ends in revolution, albeit a revolution that failed.

The film language and syntax here is something entirely new. Each shot is a discrete element unto itself, and yet provides connective tissue to the next shot. It contains both montage and what one might call “panels” rather than conventionally edited shots. It collapses documentary and narrative, not only in terms of questioning what’s actual and fiction on screen, but in terms of history: Are we seeing something in the present, or perhaps something from the past? As in A Short Film, history is used as a character in an wondrously nuanced fashion–Quintin agreed with me that Hou Hsiao Hsien’s incorporation of history into his narratives is the only comparable model, but here, the expression of that incorporation is much more radical. Drama, just when it feels completely drained from the film, delivers a stunning blow. Beauty, just when it seems the last thing possible, floods the eye and ear. The film, in a matter of some twelve shots, has taken us from contemporary Manila to the primordial forest and back in time. I can’t fathom how this was achieved, but it’s sheer astonishment is one of BAFICI 2007’s great gifts–and a suggestion that Rotterdam (where the film premiered) still very much matters…..

(Day 10 entry.)

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