20 on 20: Essays in Celebration of FLEFF


Two Decades of Latin American Cinema by Carlos Gutierrez

Carlos A. Gutierrez


It has been almost 20 years since Latin America emerged as an epicenter of international cinema.

       The region has experienced an unprecedented boom. This explosion of Latin American cinemas has enabled a solid, eclectic film production, fostered the careers of countless filmmakers, and created an incommensurable artistic and political body of work.

       The so-called New Argentinean Cinema of the late 1990s inaugurated this transformation. A group of young filmmakers like Martín Rejtman (Silvia Prieto, 1999), Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga, 2001), Pablo Trapero (Mundo Grúa, 1999), Adrián Caetano (Pizza, Birra y Faso, with Bruno Stagnaro, 1998; Bolivia, 2001), and Lisandro Alonso (La Libertad, 2001) broke with the narratives of the previous generation.

       They replaced intense political allegorical themes with more minimalistic approaches. They found new ways to finance their low-budget films with the support of new and progressive local cinema laws.        

       As a result, Latin America has witnessed a cinematographic reinvention.

       Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant, 2015; Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, 2014) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) became the kings of Hollywood. Remarkably, two Mexican filmmakers won the Academy Award for Best Director for three consecutive years.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín could be next. Inconceivably, Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas won the Venice Film Festival’s historic Gold Lion for his debut feature, From Afar (2015), a first for a Latin American film.  

       There is ample evidence of a major cinematic resurgence in Latin America, which boasts record-breaking production statistics, producing more than 600 feature films in 2015. From Costa Rica to Peru, local productions have also generated record-breaking box office gross receipts. 

       Yet, despite all of its influence, accolades, and artistry, cinema from Latin America remains overlooked and underrepresented. Various intersecting vectors help to explain why. 

       First, the creative explosion in the region has been heterogeneous, defying simple classification. In order to be marketed as a national auteur movement such as the Iranian New Wave, Romanian New Wave Cinema, or Korean New Wave, a group of films needs relatively unified aesthetic and narrative strategies.

       Except for what is called the “New Argentinean Cinema,” it has been counterproductive to attempt a unifying, overarching narrative for productions encompassing the entire Latin American region.

       Geographical location further complicates the categorizing of Latin American film movements. In the largest countries, cities beyond the nations’ capitals have emerged as influential film capitals, such as Recife in Brazil, Córdoba in Argentina, and Guadalajara in Mexico. Such cities typically lack the international notoriety that draws notice beyond national borders.

       In this context, it is arguably more constructive to start talking about Latin American cinemas in the plural in order to deconstruct the false unities of larger national cinemas in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, or Mexico. Eclectic modes of production coexist in these countries, mobilizing different types of cinematic themes, narratives, and aesthetics.

       First, the international film circuit has shown signs of opening up to the cinemas of Latin America. However, the number of films that leading international festivals program from the region is very low.

       In many cases, film production remains largely validated around archaic and exoticizing neocolonial narrative tropes such as poverty, post-apocalyptic imaginaries, or magical realism.  Many film programmers and other film professionals consider Latin America within two unproductive binaries: either as an exotic ideal of revolution in the aftermath of the Cold War, or as post-apocalyptic, underdeveloped societies lacking rule of law.

       Second, as a direct consequence of limited validation in the film festival circuit, theatrical distribution is becoming more and more difficult to secure. This high barrier to theatrical exhibition confronts most foreign cinema as it attempts to enter the U.S. theatrical market. In the past several years, an average of 30 feature films from Latin America were released in U.S. theaters, representing a mere 5% of the production total.

       Third, as an academic endeavor cinema studies remains largely Eurocentric in its theories, scope, and publications. Academic training has a direct influence on the formation of film professionals who work as critics, programmers, distributors, publicists, and beyond. An obsolete binary Latin American film theorists once categorized as First and Second Cinema obscures the new cinemas of Latin America. First Cinema largely represented Hollywood. Second Cinema embodied the Western European art-house tradition, with the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most important film festival in the world, its leading showcase.

       With recent geopolitical changes that recalibrate relationships between the Global North and the Global South in terms of funding, distribution, and exhibition, an enormous body of cinematic work awaits scholarly and festival validation.

       To avoid the binary between first and second cinemas, it might be useful to revisit the notion of “Third Cinema,” a term coined by Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.[1] Their 1969 aesthetic and political manifesto deconstructed neocolonial traits in film. It called for a militant filmmaking of ideological struggle that was resolutely international. This revisited Third Cinema would not operate as a filmmaking manifesto. Instead, it would function as a theoretical tool to understand and validate the production of the region and other cinemas similarly at the margins.

       A revisited Third Cinema analysis would not revive the archaic construct of the Third World. “The West is painfully made to realize the existence of a Third World in the First World, and vice versa,” scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha once argued.[2] A revisited Third Cinema would not summon nostalgic impulses of militancy.

       Instead, the notion of a revisited Third Cinema offers a more fluid, political notion of cinema. In the past two decades, Latin American countries have experienced many political reincarnations, propelling these wide-ranging cinemas to engage more nuanced, complex political contexts and representations. 

       To fully understand the amazing, plural cinemas Latin America has produced in the past 20 years, we need updated scholarly, conceptual, political, and curatorial tools. The current ones are inadequate to generate a rich understanding of the great, complex artistic achievements of contemporary Latin American cinemas.


[1] Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Hacia un Tercer Cine: Notas y Experiencias para el Desarrollo de un Cine de Libertad en el Tercer Mundo” [“Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World”], Tricontinental 13 (October 1969): 1-54.  For an abridged version in English, see Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema,” Trans. Julianne Burton, Afterimage 3 (1971): 16-35.

 [2] Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1989), 98.