Since 1990

views updated

Since 1990

The 1990s was a period of boom and bust in Latin American film industries. In Argentina, President Carlos Menem's neoliberal economic program encouraged multimedia television conglomerates to apply for state subsidies to invest in national cinema. These companies created commercial hits based on television shows such as Comodines (Cops, 1997) and La furia (The Fury, 1997). Two animated films for children, Dibu: La película (Dibu: The Movie, 1998) and Manuelita (1999), were national chart toppers. In Brazil Fernando Collor de Mello's government dismantled Embrafilme, the nation's film institute. In Mexico the Carlos Salinas government gutted what little state funding was available via the Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía (IMCINE), the Mexican film institute.


In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a series of global hits emerged from Latin America, made possible by the availability of co-production funding and private investment. These films displayed a hip, youth-oriented style well-suited to the global aesthetic of the international film festival market, while at the same time maintaining a commitment to local storytelling. Examples of films with well-honed scripts and high production values that translated well in international venues include the British-Latin American co-production Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), directed by Walter Salles; Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros; Nueve reinas (Nine Queens, 2000), directed by the Argentine Fabian Bielinsky; and Secuestro Express (2005), a Venezuelan hit that was shot digitally and directed by Jonathan Jakobowicz.

Concurrently, younger, first-time filmmakers made low-budget independent films, some shot in black and white, and some using new technologies such as digital video. In Argentina the prevalence of many private and a few state-run film schools have helped to train new directors interested in making small, intimate films rather than big-budget, commercial ones. Since the end of the Cold War, and the decades of trauma inflicted by military dictatorships, civil wars, and other forms of national strife, Latin American filmmakers have moved toward the telling of micro-histories rather than grand, sweeping narratives. Rather than make bold ideological films, they are making films that address social issues, but in a less polemical form than their 1970s predecessors. With the support of European film festival funds, such as the Rotterdam festival's Hubert Bals Fund, the Toulouse festival's Cine en Construccion, and the French foundation Fonds Sud, new filmmakers have attained the money and exhibition platform they need to screen their completed films. Uruguayan directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll were supported by the Hubert Bals Fund in producing the gritty 25 Watts (2001); later, Ibermedia helped them complete a more aesthetically polished Whisky (2004), which won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. After making the critically acclaimed black-and-white film Mundo grúa (Crane World, 1999) Pablo Tra-pero made three more features, each premiered at Rotterdam. Mexican first-time director Fernando Eimbcke's Temporada de patos (Duck Season, 2004), shot in black and white, concerned young people facing alienation in the modern city.


Unlike other Latin American film industries, especially those of Brazil and Argentina, Mexico's has not been able to push the government to create a strong funding mechanism to work as an incentive for production. Since 1997 production figures have been low. Although state support exists under the auspices of IMCINE, private film companies have increasingly produced both critically acclaimed films and box office hits without government funding. From 1997 to 2004 between one-half and one-third of all films produced in a given year were financed entirely with private monies. It is these film companies, mostly funded by wealthy entrepreneurs, who are waking up the close-to-moribund film industry. For example, the Mexican conglomerate CIE (Interamerican Entertainment Corporation) partnered with the venture-capital arm of the Grupo Financiero Inbursa (owned by billionaire Carlos Slim Helú) to create Alta Vista Films. Another company, Anhelo, is funded by CEO Carlos Vergara, who made his fortune through Omnilife, an herbal supplement company. These production companies worked with such film directors as Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, who made films in Mexico, then became successful in Hollywood, and later returned to make more films at home in Mexico. Iñárritu achieved success by making a hit film in Mexico and then directing in Hollywood. Cuarón's Y tu mamá también (2001) and del Toro's El espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone, 2001), both produced by Anhelo, and Iñárritu's Amores perros (Love's a Bitch, 2000), produced by Altavista, gained critical acclaim in art-house circles abroad but were equally successful at the domestic box office. The three directors are friends and have remarked in interviews that they feel ostracized by the traditional Mexican film community because of their work in Hollywood. They do not lament the loss of state funding for films. In 2007 each one had a film nominated for an Academy Award, causing critics to herald a "Mexican film renaissance." Only del Toro's film, El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006) had partial financing from Mexico.


In 1998 Walter Salles's Central do Brasil (Central Station), achieved worldwide recognition with a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and two Academy Award nominations. But it was not until after 2000 that Brazil made a comeback in terms of critically acclaimed, box-office hits. The film Carandiru (2000) brought in 4.5 million viewers, Cidade de Deus (2002) 3.3 million, and Deus e Brasileiro (God Is Brazilian) 1.6 million. All of these films benefited from provisions of the Lei do Audiovisual (Audiovisual law), legislation passed in the mid-1990s that gave incentives to corporations for investing in national cinema. These incentives also spurred investment by Hollywood studios that distributed and coproduced star vehicle films such as children's superstar actress and singer Xuxa, as well as for the comedian Renato Aragão. These stars, as well as television actors made famous on the Globo television stations, boosted the box office for commercial movies in partnership with TV Globo.


The Andean region of Latin America has had some success in cultivating young directors in directorial debuts. Since 1999 a spate of high-quality films have been produced in Peru. Paloma de papel (Paper Dove, 2003), directed by Fabrizio Aguilar, addresses the issue of the recruitment of children by the Shining Path guerrilla movement; in Josue Mendez's Días de Santiago (Days of Santiago, 2004), a young man experiences psychological trauma after serving as a soldier in the Peru-Ecuadorian border war; and El destino no tiene favoritos (Destiny Has No Favorites, 2003), by first-time director Alvaro Velarde, offers a send-up of telenovela culture starring Angie Cepeda, a well-known Colombian actress. New film journals have also sprung up in Peru, such as La gran illusion, Butaca sanmarquino, and Tren de Sombras, published by young film critics with university support.

The Colombian government passed legislation in 2003 earmarking 10 percent of box-office receipts for reinvestment in film production. This gave a boost to the fledgling industry and led to national hits such as Emilio Maillé's Rosario Tijeras (2005), based on a novel about a sicaria (hitwoman) in the underworld of narcotic trafficking, and Rodrigo Triana's Soñar no cuesta nada (Dreaming Costs Nothing, 2006; released in the U.S. as A Ton of Luck), a comedy based on a true story of military men who stumble across forty million dollars. The film's release coincided with the soldiers' trial and sentencing.

A surge in production has also occurred in the Bolivian film industry. Rodrigo Bellott's Depend-encia sexual (Sexual Dependency, 2003), shot digitally, was lauded at film festivals for its stylistic and narrative innovation. Fernando Vargas's Di buen día a papá (Say Good Morning to Dad, 2005), a Bolivian-Argentine-Cuban co-production, examines Che Guevara's death in Bolivia and explores his last days; the film resonates with the countries' decision to capitalize on the tourism potential of Guevara's death in the countryside. Juan Carlos Valdivia's American Visa (2005), a co-production with Mexico, deals with the frustrations of U.S. immigration.

The first film by Ecuador's up-and-coming director, Sebastián Cordero, Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (Rodents, 1999), which was shot digitally, is the highest-grossing Ecuadorian film of all time. Cordero then raised co-production funds to make a higher-budget film with an international cast called Crónicas (Chronicles, 2004), starring the Colombian-born American actor John Leguizamo. It grapples with the ethical dimensions of crime reporting and international tabloid journalism.


In the Central American and Caribbean regions, film production is still emerging. Some forms of funding have been made available through the film fund Cinergia, created in 2004 with funds from a private Costa Rican film school called Veritas, the Dutch foundation Hivos, and the Foundation for New Latin American Cinema (founded by the Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez). Cinergia has been called a Central American version of Ibermedia. Member countries include Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Cuba. Cinergia has helped Central American filmmakers financially, but another of its main goals is to help train young screenwriters and film technicians via workshops led by Latin American and European professionals. This fund encourages the creation of a regional pan-American source of collaboration. Films such as Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti's Viva Cuba (2005) won twenty-seven prizes, including one at Cannes; Panamanian director Pituka Ortega directed Los puños de una nación (The Fists of a Nation, 2005), a documentary about the life of a boxing champion. Entre los muertos (Between the Dead, 2006), by El Salvadorian director Jorge Dalton, explores the cultural meanings of death in El Salvador. The film was screened at festivals in Malaga, Spain, Biarritz, France, and Viña del Mar, Chile.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Cuban film industry, formerly dependent on Soviet funding, struggled to survive. During what is known as the "special period," film production was diminished to two or three films per year, depending on whether directors could obtain co-production grants. Some Cuban films achieved international recognition: Fresa y chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, 1994), co-directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, one of Cuba's finest directors, confronted Cuba's legacy of discrimination against homosexuality. Fernando Pérez directed Madagascar (1994), La vida es silbar (Life Is to Whistle, 1998), and Suite Habana (Havana Suite, 2003), all of which were lyrical films that also showed the everyday lives of Cubans. Other Cuban filmmakers have managed to cut costs by using digital video. Humberto Solás made the first digital Cuban feature film in 1999 with Miel para Oshún (Honey for Oshún, 2001). A lower-budget film, Mañana (Tomorrow, 2007), by Alejandro Moya Iskánder, was shot digitally but featured veteran actors Mario Balmaceda and Enrique Colina. Some independent films have been made independently of ICAIC, the state-run film institute. Directors Gloria Rolando, Esteban García Insausti, and Arturo Infante are among those who have raised funds on their own, typically working in video.


In 1997 the Ibero-American co-production fund Programa Ibermedia was founded as a film finance pool headed by and housed in Spain, to which each member country contributes a minimum of $100,000; director-producers can enter annual competitions to win co-production funding from this pool. Filmmakers in Peru, Uruguay, and other countries have depended in large part on these funds, often lobbying their governments to ensure payment of dues. In 2002 and 2005 respectively, Puerto Rico and Panama joined this co-production fund to spur filmmaking activity.

A novel co-production treaty was announced in January 2005 between the Argentine Film Institute (INCAA) and cultural entities in Galicia and Catalonia, two autonomous regions of Spain. The Fondo Raices de Cine (Roots of Cinema Fund), to which each partner contributes equally, totals $600,000. Two notable films have benefited from this fund: No sos vos, soy yo (It's Not You, It's Me; released in Argentina 2004, in Spain 2005), an Argentine-Catalan coproduction directed by Juan Taratuto, and Cama adentro (Live-in Maid; released in Spain 2004, in Argentina 2005), directed by Jorge Gaggaro. Both films performed well at the box office, but No sos vos defied expectations by playing to packed houses in Madrid for two months, thus earning the status, in terms of audience figures, of one of the top ten films in Spain in 2005.


In many European as well as Latin American countries, particularly Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the film industry and television. Many television channels have chosen to produce or co-produce films to gain prestige, to advertise their product at minimal cost, and finally, to provide content for their stations. Television channel investment and distribution have been an important addition to smaller film industries, such as in Uruguay, where such participation began in the 1990s. Channel Ten of Uruguay agreed to donate technicians, goods, and services to a few low-budget films. Cable television companies in Uruguay were also asked to support local film production by contributing a "tax" toward production in Montevideo. The result is a small fund called FONA that has supported low-budget films shot on video. This television-film partnership has paved the way for stronger integration between television, a wealthy and resourceful enterprise, and the film industry, which is usually in need of financial support.


Newer film exhibition outlets include the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, founded in 1999. This festival, founded by Eduardo "Quintin" Antin, creator of the independent film magazine El Amante, obtained funding from the city of Buenos Aires to bring independent filmmakers from all over the world to show their work and showcase those of Argentine and Latin American directors. Only first- and second-time directors may show their work. Veteran Cuban director Humberto Solás founded an independent film festival, Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre, in the city of Gibara, Cuba, in 2003. The festival is an attempt to give filmmakers on the margins a chance to exhibit their films; most are shot digitally with budgets under $50,000.

Spaces for Latin American film exhibition expanded in the mid-1990s with the surge in transnational investment in new multiplex cinemas. Multinational companies principally from Australia and the United States built lavish movie theaters with stadium-style seating and American-style concessions, all within the confines of upscale shopping malls that have been built in suburban areas and wealthy neighborhoods of Lima, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, among other major cities. Filmmakers hoped that the presence of more screens might translate into additional spaces to screen national works, but this did not materialize.

Historically, Hollywood movies have supplanted national ones in theaters because of exhibitor preference. The Latin American film market continues to be dominated by Hollywood films. In 2004, to counter Hollywood's long-standing domination, the Argentine congress passed legislation to strengthen national exhibition: This new screen quota measure was meant to legally ensure that national films gain a fair share of screening space. Mexico also passed a screen quota (Article 9 of the 1999 law modified from 1992) dedicating 10 percent of theater space to national cinema, but the practice is rarely, if ever, enforced. Both Brazil and Colombia also have the screen quota on their books, but it is unclear how much enforcement exists.

Another trend has emerged in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, perhaps in response to the screen quota: The Hollywood majors have invested in coproduction and distribution deals with Latin American film producers in these nations. Rather than relying solely on state funding or co-production funding from Europe (usually Spain), more collaboration is taking place between the Hollywood studios represented by the Motion Picture Association (MPA; the overseas arm of the Motion Picture Association of America) and Latin American producers. Latin American co-producers stand to gain from Hollywood involvement. In addition to money invested, they also gain greater exposure with the wider distribution that the Hollywood studios command.

In the case of Mexico, the MPA, via studios such as Disney, Warner Bros., Fox Universal, and Columbia TriStar, has produced, co-produced, and distributed film and television programs. The films co-produced with Hollywood studio money generally have very low budgets by Hollywood standards (typically between US$1-2 million). The majority of Mexican films that receive co-production funding from Hollywood studios are relatively more expensive by Latin American standards, but they tend not to be "quality" productions, but rather popular movies that appeal to younger, upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class audiences who enjoy comedies and trendy urban youth culture. These films make money at the box office but are not exported to film festivals for world recognition. Buena Vista International/Disney has actively coproduced and distributed films that have commercial potential, such as Marcelo Piñeyro's Kamchatka (2002) and Daniel Barone's comedy Cohen vs. Rosi (1998), both films from Argentina. In Brazil, films starring the pop star Xuxa were produced with investment by Warner Bros., and the art-house film Casa de Areia (House of Sand, 2005), by Andrucha Waddington, was co-produced by Sony Pictures Classics in addition to Brazilian corporate financing given under the auspices of the Audiovisual Law.

Latin American cinema in the twenty-first century is gaining recognition both in domestic venues and on the world stage. Latin American nations are teaming up with private and state sources of funds, as well as international partners from Spain and the United States. This has helped elevate the production values of the films and has provided some access to wider distribution outlets. The larger industries remain Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, but emerging industries are blossoming slowly in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and a few nations in Central America. Some countries with smaller home markets, such as Cuba and Uruguay, cannot sustain a viable industry without the support of co-production funding from wealthier nations.

See alsoCuaron, Alfonso; García Márquez, Gabriel; González Iniarritu, Alejandro; Gutiérrez Alea, Tomás; Radio and Television; Salles, Walter; Solas, Humberto.


Chanan, Michael. Cuban Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Cortes, Maria Lourdes. La pantalla rota: Cien años de cine en Centroamérica. Mexico: Taurus, 2005.

Elena, Alberto, and Marina Díaz López, eds. The Cinema of Latin America. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Falicov, Tamara L. The Cinematic Tango: Contemporary Argentine Film. London: Wallflower Press, 2007.

Getino, Octavio. Cine argentino: Entre lo posible y lo deseable, 2nd edition Buenos Aires: Fundación CICCUS, 2005.

King, John. Magical Reels: The History of Cinema in Latin America, new edition. London: Verso, 2000.

Martin, Michael T., ed. The New Latin American Cinema, 2 vols. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1997.

Mora, Sergio de la. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Nagib, Lúcia, ed. The New Brazilian Cinema. London and New York: I. B. Taurus, 2003.

Noble, Andrea. Mexican National Cinema. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Shaw, Deborah, ed. Contemporary Latin American Cinema: Breaking into the Global Market. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.

Shaw, Lisa, and Stephanie Dennison, eds. Latin American Cinema: Essays on Modernity, Gender, and National Identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005.

                                   Tamara L. Falicov

About this article

Since 1990

Updated About content Print Article