THE U.S. PUBLIC NEEDS A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
They are our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, but the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean do not get as much attention in the U.S. press and in U.S. public affairs as do other parts of the world. Often, when attention is given to the region, the focus is more distorted than illuminating. As the percentage of the U.S. population with origins in the region keeps growing, and globalization brings down economic and social barriers within the hemisphere, the risks to U.S. society and public policy of a biased or incomplete understanding of our southern neighbors are becoming more and more evident.
FILM CAN BE A POWERFUL MEANS TO PROMOTE UNDERSTANDING
Films can often show the richness and variety of life in Latin America and the Caribbean more vividly and dramatically than other media. The film industries of Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and other countries date back to the beginning of the 20th century and have produced many films that have told gripping stories about life in the region. In the right setting, their showing can lead to discussion and further study of the history and cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean. Improved understanding can help promote better public awareness in the U.S. of issues related to the region.
One of many examples of films that can promote discussion and understanding is Presumed Guilty (Presunto culpable), a controversial 2008 documentary on the criminal justice system in Mexico which was the most-watched documentary in Mexican film history despite almost being blocked by lawsuits, but which has received only limited exposure in the US.
The 2009 Argentine film The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de sus Ojos), directed by Juan José Campanella and based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, relates the story of an Argentine rape and murder investigation during the period leading up to the military dictatorship of the late 1970’s, which is revisited years later by a judge and judicial employee. The film won an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Foreign Language Film, and also won a Goya Award for best Spanish-language film.
City of God (Cidade de Deus), a Brazilian film released in 2002, directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Kátia Lund, describes the growth of organized crime in the favela Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro from the 1960’s to the early 1980’s. It won numerous awards and received four Academy Award nominations in 2004.
The 1968 Cuban film Memories of Underdevelopment (Memorias del subdesarrollo), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, tells of a wealthy bourgeois writer who decides to stay in Cuba after the Revolution and lives through the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis and social changes that leave him with a sense of alienation. Sight and Sound included the film in its 2012 listing of the greatest films of all time.
Fatal Assistance (Assistance Mortelle) is a 2013 documentary directed by Haitian born filmmaker Raoul Peck, on the rebuilding efforts in post earthquake Haiti, and the difficulties in obtaining effective assistance from the international community. The film required two years to make, and describes the consequences to the Haitian people of conflicting institutional priorities of various foreign governments and international aid agencies. The film was an official selection at several film festivals, including the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
NEW YORK IS THE BEST STARTING POINT FOR PROMOTING BETTER INTER-AMERICAN UNDERSTANDING THROUGH FILM
New York City has the largest potential audience for a Latin American film center in the U.S., because it has the country’s broadest and richest cultural life and the most highly developed art house cinema culture, with a long history of interest in foreign films. Although traditionally most such films have originated in Europe, the number of films from and about Latin America and the Caribbean shown in New York-area theaters has been growing rapidly in recent years, helped by the energetic efforts of Independent ventures such as Cinema Tropical, the Havana New York Film Festival and festivals dedicated to films from individual countries. The evident interest in films from the region, when combined with the growing percentage of the city’s population whose roots are in Latin America and the Caribbean and the large number of university programs in the New York area devoted to studies of the region, together make New York an unequaled location for an institution devoted to films from and about the other Americas.
If a Latin American film center proves to be successful in New York, it may serve as the starting point for establishing similar centers in other U.S. cities, particularly in those with significant numbers of people with roots in or family ties to Latin America and the Caribbean.
"Every year over 500 films are released in Latin America and the Caribbean - but we only get to see a handful in New York"
John Rogers | november 2016
FILM FESTIVALS IN DISPARATE LOCATIONS PROVIDE USEFUL, BUT LIMITED AND INTERMITTENT, UNDERSTANDING
The last few years have seen a growing number of film festivals in the New York area devoted to films from Latin America and the Caribbean, which have taken place in various venues. Most such films are recent productions, that illuminate some aspects of the peoples and cultures of the region. However, documentaries and classic (including silent) films are only occasionally featured, if at all. For filmgoers, students and scholars enthralled by the films featured in those festivals it is difficult to further explore the rich cinematic tradition of Latin America because of the lack if a permanent center devoted to films from or about the region.
SIGNIFICANT FILMS DESERVE STUDY, INTERPRETATION AND DISCUSSION
In order to achieve a deeper and more enduring understanding of films from and about the region, a permanent institution devoted to such films should be established, where films can be shown, studied, interpreted and discussed. A film center devoted to such activity can develop ongoing relationships with New York-area universities and their Latin American and Caribbean studies programs and film programs, and through them organize periodic lectures by experts, panel discussions, film restoration and preservation efforts. Providing links with cinema scholars and centers throughout the region and other activities will help advance the goal of understanding Latin America and the Caribbean through film.
MANY FILMS FROM THE REGION HAVE CAPTURED THE IMAGINATIONS OF U.S. AUDIENCES
A growing number of Latin American and Caribbean films have been well received in the U.S., and in many cases have won Academy Awards and/or prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and other international festival. Some examples, in addition to the films described above with posters and links to trailers, are: Black Orpheus (Brazil, 1959), an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a modern favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval; The Official Story (Argentina, 1985), portraying a family crisis during the 1976-83 military dictatorship; Como Agua para Chocolate (Mexico, 1992), a magical-realist look at a dysfunctional family in early twentieth-century Mexico; The Harder They Come (Jamaica, 1972), a crime film with a memorable reggae soundtrack, No (Chile, 2012), on the Chilean plebiscite in 1988 over whether the dictator Pinochet should stay in power; The Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, 2015), a study of encounters by German and American scientists with native peoples of the Amazon region; and Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000), an early film by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has gone on to win multiple Academy Awards for films made in the U.S.
LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN FILMS NEED A PERMANENT HOME IN NEW YORK
Films from the region have attracted attention from the public from time to time, whether through showings at scattered film festivals or through independent runs; but there has been no central location in New York where such films can be seen on a regular basis. A film center with multiple screening rooms could run such films continuously. Such a center could host series of films on various themes, such as documentaries on human rights issues, the films of the beloved Mexican comic Cantinflas, films depicting slavery in 19th-century Cuba and other countries, films focusing on the Mexican Revolution, the Argentine “Dirty War”, LGBT stories, themes and challenges, and other important and timely topics. A central location would signal the importance of the region’s film culture and facilitate the presentation of lectures, interviews and panel discussions in conjunction with the screenings of significant films. Without such a permanent home, public attention to such films will continue to be intermittent and limited. A film center with a Latin/Caribbean “flavor” can be a vibrant permanent addition to New York film culture as well as providing an ongoing boost to inter-American understanding.