Thursday, August 13, 2009

NYFF 2009 - Latin American Films MIA

Last year, the NYFF included a bountiful offering of Latin American films but when this year's selections were announced earlier in the week, Almodovar's "Los abrazos rotos" ("Broken Embraces") was the sole, entirely predictable entry in the lineup. If you want to get technical, Almodovar is European not Latin American so let's just say his is the only Spanish-language film out of 29 selections.

Speaking to indiewire, Festival Director Richard Peña lamented the fact. "Last year, there was a heavy Latin American component. I was personally very happy about that because [that region] is of particular interest for me, but unfortunately there’s nothing this year," he said. I believe him. I know first hand that his commitment to Latin American cinema runs deep. He is the son of Spanish and Puerto Rican parents and he once personally handpicked one of my documentaries for an edition of "Latin Beat," the Film Society's yearly showcase of Latin American fare. So I can't imagine that the omission was intentional. But it still begs the question - why couldn't the selection committee find any worthy titles?

At the beginning of the year, Latin American films enjoyed great exposure in many of the world's major fests. Back in February, Berlin had Adrián Biniez's "Gigante" ("Giant"), and Claudia Llosa's "La teta asustada" ("The Milk of Sorrow") in its main competition slate. They actually won the Silver Bear (Jury Grand Prix) and the Golden Bear (Best Film) respectively. In March, New Directors/New Films unveiled 5 quality films (out of 25) from Latin American directors, including one of my favorite films of the year, Sebastian Silva's "La Nana" ("The Maid"). Tribeca had a slimmer slate of Latin American fare (4 out of 125) but their selections were nonetheless pretty high-profile. They included Lucia Puenzo's "El niño pez" ("The Fish Child") and Carlos Cuarón's "Rudo y cursi." So there's definitely been lots stuff out there this year but it's entirely possible that by the time the NYFF selection committee started looking at films the well had dried out.

But then I looked at Toronto's slate (which runs in September, slightly earlier than New York) and I realized the well hadn't run dry at all. TIFF has, by my count, 9 films by Latin American directors, including "Gigante," Ciro Guerra's "Los viajes del viento" ("The Wind Journeys"), and Alejandro Amenebar's "Agora." Granted, these nine films are included in a lineup of 199 features (to date) but still...

Since I haven't seen any of those tiles, I'll give the folks at the NYFF benefit of the doubt and I'll consider the fact that maybe these films are not up to par. Also, the NYFF has a much smaller slate of 29 films, which makes the selection process a lot more difficult. But to pick Catherine Breillat's undercooked "Bluebeard" over Gaspar Noe's (he's Argentinian) visionary "Enter the Void" definitely raises eyebrows. Seems to me they're playing it safe.

The NYFF is the Film Society's most important event of the year and it draws many of their biggest patrons. Considering the financial hardships that many similar organizations across the country are going through and the ambitious expansion of their film complex currently underway (at a cost of $40 million dollars), my theory is that the selection committee wanted to maintain a sense of continuity to assure the money keeps coming in. Indeed, this year's slate is mostly comprised of established directors and that's a big let down from a festival that last year promised a more, dare I say, maverick vision.

If this is true, then we also have to look at the other side of the equation - why is it that Latin America has so few established directors? Other than Almodovar, is there a Latin American director whose mere name will guarantee him/her a spot in Cannes or New York? I'm not sure there are. And this speaks to the fact that Latin American cinema is still, in the eyes of film programmers, a burgeoning movement. So I guess we'll still have to wait some years before Latin American directors are a mainstay in prestigious fests.

One last thought - Peña also told indiewire that they were considering certain films that were not finished in time for inclusion. With all the changes being instituted over at the Film Society, why not consider doing what Toronto does - stagger the announcements and buy yourself a little bit more time? Food for thought.