Guggenheim UBS MAP

Tropical Uncanny—Curating Latin American Film in the Twenty-First Century

Video still: Ebb and Flow (2004), Gabriel Mascaro

Video still: Ebb and Flow (2004), Gabriel Mascaro

Film programming today is still largely trapped between auterism and national cinema: most film series revolve around retrospectives of specific filmmakers or are mere showcases of films from a particular country. So when I was asked to program Tropical Uncanny: Latin American Tropes and Mythologies—the upcoming film series that accompanies Guggenheim UBS MAP curator Pablo León de la Barra’s splendid and provocative Under the Same Sun exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum—I was pleased with the opportunity not only to challenge the notion of a “Latin American cinema,” but also to rethink some of these curatorial habits.

Since the so-called New Argentinean cinema of the late 1990s, Latin American cinema in general has undergone a significant revitalization. At that time, a group of young filmmakers decided to challenge traditional modes of narrative and production, aiming to establish a more independent type of cinema. The Argentinean example was rapidly emulated elsewhere in the region; now, more than 15 years later, practically all of the countries that compose Latin America have seen the emergence of filmmakers committed to rethinking local, national, and global cinematic tropes.

One of the most striking characteristics of recent work from the region lies in its overall diversity: its aesthetics, production, and reach are all greatly varied. In this sense, it defies easy categorization under a unifying banner, posing a knotty but interesting challenge to film programmers and critics. A common faux pas for many film programmers is to treat Latin America as a single, homogeneous entity, reducing its artistic, cultural, political, and social experience to outdated stereotype. In this sense, and despite its long-lasting influence and accomplishment, the cinema that has emerged from Latin America this century remains largely underrepresented and overlooked on the international circuit. The academic, critical, and curatorial validation of the region’s recent output remains a collective task at large. An extensive reevaluation thus seems inevitable, as the region’s cinema shows no signs of deceleration.

Through Tropical Uncanny, I wanted to contribute to the way films produced in Latin America are discussed and validated. In its most basic proposition, the series is a modest attempt to spark a creative dialogue among contemporary Latin American artists and filmmakers. Though the border that separates filmmaking from visual art is shrinking rapidly, it is surprising how little direct dialogue yet exists between the two sides, particularly in Latin America. This is true despite the fact that many artists—including some of those featured in the program, such as Cao Guimarães—move seamlessly between both the worlds of the gallery and the movie theater.

With a playful tone and no preconceived agenda, Tropical Uncanny is structured around nine different programs, each exploring different themes particular to Latin America. These topics include reconsiderations of the ideas and projections of the “New World”; the awkward and complex figure of the maid; ethnographic cinema and its pitfalls; the subversiveness of popular culture; and television and the society of consumption.

The series attempts to capture some of the diversity of the region’s cinema by mixing genres, formats, and narrative styles. Tropical Uncanny features fiction, documentary, and experimental work from recent, repertoire, and archival material, shown in 16 mm, 35 mm, and digital formats. The series mixes some classic films, such as Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo’s Colombian Agarrando pueblo (1978)—a critical satire of what they characterize as “poverty porn,” or the exploitation of poverty for art-house consumption—with very recent films such as Rodrigo Moreno’s Reimon, which premiered this year. Reimon (2014) is a poignant portrait of a young woman who works as a maid in a liberal Buenos Aires household whose occupants read Das Kapital to each other.

Tropical Uncanny highlights works that have mostly had very limited exposure in the United States. In some cases, the Guggenheim series will constitute the film’s New York City premiere. That is the case with the outstanding Hiroshima (2009), a silent “slacker” film made by Pablo Stoll, one of Uruguay’s leading filmmakers—he was co-director of 25 Watts (2001) and Whiskey (2004)—which, regrettably, has never been screened in New York. The film is paired with Gabriel Mascaro’s short Ebb and Flow (2012), and both filmmakers push verbal language to its cinematographic limits. Another film enjoying its New York debut is the documentary-fiction hybrid The Palace (2013) by celebrated young Mexican director Nicolás Pereda.

Other highlights of the series include The Magic Gloves (2004) by Martín Rejtman, one of the key filmmakers of the aforementioned New Argentinean Cinema, which is marked by a distinctive deadpan humor. Rejtman’s film and Cold Tropics (2009), a short by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho, director of the acclaimed feature film Neighboring Sounds (2012), both use a fictitious plunge in temperature—the former in Buenos Aires, the latter in Recife—as a starting point to comment on globalization and late capitalism.

One can only hope that by providing the space for these works to be in dialogue with each other on specific issues, and by mixing filmmakers and visual artists as seemingly dissimilar as Ximena Cuevas, Juan Downey, Julio Hernández Cordón, Dante Cerano, Carlos Motta, and Alexandra Cuesta, we can recognize the diversity of the region’s filmmaking. Perhaps, with this series, we can begin thinking about Latin American cinemas, plural.

Tropical Uncanny opens at the Guggenheim’s New Media Theater on Friday, August 8, and runs on Fridays (1 pm) through September 26, with an additional screening on Saturday, September 20 (6 pm). For more information, see our calendar.