Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Carlos A Gutiérrez, together with Monika Wagenberg, launched Cinema Tropical on February 19, 2001, with a special screening of Martín Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto at the (now-extinct) Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York’s East Village.
Since then, Cinema Tropical has incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and expanded to create a national non-theatrical circuit that would also hold regular screenings in 13 of the most important cinematheques around North America, including Facets Cinémathèque in Chicago, the NW Film Center in Portland and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.
Today, Gutierrez’s non-proft is at the heart of Latin cinema distribution in the United States, and it continues to thrive as dynamic and groundbreaking media arts organization. In the interview below, Carlos Gutiérrez looks back at the almost 10 years of his organization, talks about the future of Latin American film distribution in the US, and discusses some of the possibilities in store for the art-house film business in the next years.
Rodrigo: It's been almost 10 years now since you started Cinema Tropical in early 2001. Can you remember (and if so, describe) a specific moment before 2001 that made you realize that there was not only a need, but also the space, for an institution like Cinema Tropical to exist?
Carlos:Yes, totally. The idea behind Cinema Tropical dates from 1997 when I met Monika (Wagenberg) at Robert Stam’s Brazilian cinema class at NYU. We as Latin Americans (she being Colombian, myself Mexican) realized how little we knew about the larger history of the cinema of the region beyond the obvious references (i.e. Cinema Novo, the Mexican melodramas, post-revolution Cuban cinema, etc.). Back then –and it wasn’t that long ago, there were practically no outlets for Latin American films in the city and very few directors had access to the country’s most respectable film festivals. So with those two ideas in mind we started discussing ways in which we could help change those contexts, and timing ended up playing an important role for the genesis of the project. The second event we organized as Cinema Tropical was the NY premiere of Amores Perros with the presence of the then unknown Alejandro González Iñárritu and Gael García Bernal, that film ended up being the one that opened the interest for Latin American cinema in the US.
Rodrigo: It seems that Cinema Tropical has worked on several fronts in these last nine years: from curating film series to facilitating debates, making films available in the educational markets and even, bringing films to NY that would otherwise remain unknown to the American public. But can you give us a more detailed experience of how Cinema Tropical has affected the distribution of Latin American cinema in the United States? What are some of the particular interventions that you think, have caused the most positive effects?
Carlos: Looking back in retrospective, one of the strengths of CT has been the ability of working in different capacities (as theatrical/non-theatrical distributors, film programmers, advocates, publicists and marketers, among other roles.) This in turn has allowed us to see the larger scope of our endeavor, realizing all of the issues pertaining the promotion of Latin American cinema and in this sense working strategically in order to improve things all across the board. In these few years, CT became the largest theatrical distributor of Latin American cinema having released 16 films, which of course has had some impact in the life of these films –or at least we hope so. On a daily basis it’s hard to asses the impact of our work as it’s been a very empirical and in most of the cases working in collaboration with different organizations and people, so in this sense Cinema Tropical has been totally a team effort, a communal project. The exhibition of Latin American cinema in the US has grown a lot in the past few years (it’s still far from perfect though), I think CT can claim some credit for it.
Rodrigo: What I find particularly impressive about Cinema Tropical is the fact that it managed to work both on audience development and on the curatorial side of Latin American film distribution. And in the last years, we've seen Cinema Tropical develop a number of film series with MoMA, BAM and the Lincoln Center, while continuing to expand its ability to communicate with Latino and Latin American audiences in NYC. Do you believe that there's a irrefutable connection between these two sides? That audiences don't develop and grow unless there's a consistent and mutual relationship between curators and the public?
Carlos:This relates to the previous answer in the capacity of CT in acting in different roles. In this sense, we see a pressing need to rethink the traditional categorizations and create new and more accurate paradigms for the context for our work. For example, the typical dichotomy of film as art vs. commerce has a tremendous impact in how the work gets categorized and seen. However it is a very obsolete categorization as most of the film production (at least in Latin America) falls in between. Yet because the films are spoken in a foreign language automatically they get placed in the context of arthouse cinema which remains largely Eurocentric and with a rigid set of rules. So the challenge is how to engage with the films in a larger scope, contextualizing it using different academic and critical tools and at the same time connecting with different audiences. In many instances I see my job as a interpreter, how to come across the value of the films we show –first to our colleagues and film professionals, then to journalists and writers, and to the audience at large.
Rodrigo: What are some of the areas that you think still need to be worked on in the immediate future? My take is that the number of Latin American films that make to the US market are still pretty low... How do we work towards further introducing subtitled and Latin American films to the US public?
Carlos: Contexts are difficult yet the landscape has greatly improved in the last decade. These days 15 Latin American films or more are getting a theatrical release per year. The fight is to create more diverse filters that can understand the richness of the film production and can help attract a larger audience. Looking back in retrospective ,what we’ve witnessed in Latin American in general and in particular in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, is unprecedented. It goes beyond me; the current critical platforms are very short-sighted in how to appreciate this impressive body of work. It will be a huge revisiting task to understand the creative explosion of the past 10 years. No one, and I mean no one, ever imagined these cinemas would expand for so many years –and based on the promising work by the younger filmmakers, I think it’s here to stay for a while. I hope the process of revisiting this extraordinary decade in Latin American cinema happens sooner than later.
I think the main battle is, and will be in the next few years, in the validating process. One of the crucial issues is that the recent cinema of Latin America has not been yet fully acknowledged in all of its diversity and richness, and in the few cases it’s been accepted, it’s mostly been for odd reasons (like the cyclical fads for “exotic” cinemas in i.e. Iran, Romania, etc.) The ‘history of world cinema’ has still been one sided, tremendously Eurocentric and hasn’t taken into consideration the vast contribution of non-western cinemas, so I would advocate for a type of democratization of the the history of world cinema. In this sense film programming and audience development becomes crucial, yet I believe film programming is currently in a big crisis. It’s preposterous that in 2010 most of the programs are still focused on the filmmakers (auteurism) or by country/region of production (national cinemas). It’s a very reductive perspective on cinema and for the characteristics of the city I think we deserve more creative and engaging film programming.
Rodrigo: You've recently did a survey of the best Latin American films released in the United States, and the list was dominated by Argentinean art house fare and some select films that received wide distribution by larger studios, showing that the so-called gatekeepers are successfully shaping up a dominant (some would call it mainstream) idea of what Latin American is. But as you know maybe better than anyone in New York City, Latin American audiovisual production is incredibly diverse. Do you think it's important to try to introduce other sides of Latin American film production?
Carlos: Indeed, one of the strongest aspects of current Latin American film production lays on its diversity and actually I think the top ten list was fairly diverse. The fact that in the same list there were more ‘arthouse fares’ such as Reygadas or Martel’s work along with more ‘mainstream’ work along the lines of Y tu mamá también and City of God talks about that diversity in the current production of Latin American cinema which is very healthy. Sure, there’s much more diversity than that, and we need to work harder in showcasing those different narrative trends from the cinema in the region, but compared to other similar best of decade lists I think it’s as diverse as possible.
Rodrigo: There has been a lot of talk about how the internet and the VOD market is changing film distribution in all areas - even in the blockbuster arena. Can Latin American cinema use this moment of change and use new technology to increase its audience in the United States? In your opinion, what are some of the pros and cons of this change in the paradigm of film distribution? Are you afraid that the new media would be even less inclusive of some non-English speaking works?
Carlos: I actually think distribution is becoming less and less the issue. I can tell you about numerous films that are totally at hand through the current distribution platforms but that the audience at large (or at least an audience that could be interested on the work) doesn’t know it. If we don’t create value for all of the great content that we’re working with it won’t matter if the films are easily available for screening, downloading, renting, streaming or whatever the outlet is. Creating visibility and value for the films that are already available is a titanic endeavor yet more pressing than trying to create new distribution platforms. Until we unknot this tie any technological debate I think is futile.