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Latin American Films at Toronto's Film Festival

Bill Meyer: A fanatic racist vigilante with his attack dog and pickup truck gleefully tracks down and shoots immigrants illegally crossing the Mexican border in this suspenseful action thriller.


It's been quite awhile since the Toronto International Film Festival has shown films from Cuba. But it's not lacking in films from Latin America, including some gems from Argentina, Chile, and Mexico.

Popular Mexican actor and film producer, Gael García Bernal seems to be everywhere. He appeared in two starkly different films shown at TIFF. Desierto plays like an old classic Western, but the story is contemporary and deadly. A fanatic racist vigilante with his attack dog and pickup truck gleefully tracks down and shoots immigrants illegally crossing the Mexican border in this suspenseful action thriller. Bernal plays the guide who unknowingly leads a large group of people into the crosshairs of this fanatic. The nail-biter has a deep stroke of humanism as the desperate hikers painfully meet their tragic ends. This is the second film by Jonás Cuarón (Year of the Nail), who also co-wrote last year's Oscar winner, Gravity, with his famous father director Alfonso Cuarón, and who also wrote and co-produced the short film on Naomi Klein's book, The Shock Doctrine. This short film is available on YouTube.

Eva Doesn't Sleep

Eva Doesn't Sleep

Bernal also appeared at TIFF in a curiously poetic experimental film about the beloved former First Lady of Argentina, Eva Perón. Eva Doesn't Sleep is the strange story of what happened to her body after her death in 1952. Because her husband, Juan Perón, was forced from office, the body never got a proper burial and was removed from the country for years, until his return in 1974. The cryptic film is structured in three parts that chart Argentina's history after her death. The monotone acting and directing styles create a hallucinatory atmosphere, where no actor stands out from another, including Bernal. It's more of a filmic experiment than a presentation of the facts of Argentine history, but still unique and memorable.

The prolific Bernal has also found time to produce a couple of other socially relevant films during this time period -El aula vacía,a doc about the dramatic rise of high school dropouts in Mexico, now rising to almost 50%, and The Chosen Ones, a drama about an organization that kidnaps girls, enslaving them to a life of prostitution. He's also acting in famed German director Werner Herzog's new film Salt and Fire, in addition to Chilean director Pablo Larraín's new film on Pablo Neruda, covering the time in the great Communist poet's life when he was exiled from his beloved country in the late 1940s.

Prolific director Larraín (No, Post Mortem, Tony Manero) was born in 1976, missing the epoch of Allende and the brutal Pinochet coup. But his growing body of films reference the tragic history of his country, including his newest provocative tale, The Club, which addresses child molestation by Catholic priests, a similar theme portrayed in another TIFF release, Spotlight.

Chile is also the focus of an astounding German production, Colonia, that at first would seem to be a concocted tale of a fanatic German Nazi-type cult leader who runs a secret private community in a remote area of the country where the government sends prisoners to be tortured and eliminated. The story tells of a young German couple who come to help Allende's campaign, but when the CIA-backed coup takes place, Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is one of those rounded up and sent to this remote torture chamber. His fiancée Lena (Emma Watson) finds out where he's been taken and attempts to join the cult to get him freed, but gets in deeper than she expected. The physical and sexual abuse of the cult members, the maniacal German cult leader and the torture that takes place in the bowels of the "Dignity Colony" seem too extreme for even a horror film. But the real shock is, that the film is based on real people, places and events. The crimes of Chile during the Pinochet regime are beyond believability.

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No filmmaker is more dedicated to revealing the truths about Chile's mournful history than the tragically affected exiled director Patricio Guzmán, now living in Canada. Every film he has made, starting with the classic epic Battle of Chile, deals with the country he was forced to leave in his vibrant youth, and his latest is yet another pensive love letter to his homeland. His films have become more reflective and philosophical;The Pearl Button, like his previous Nostalgia for the Light, tells an emotional story at a thoughtful, calculated pace. It won the Best Screenplay Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival, rightfully so, considering the beautiful poetic musings that are becoming the trademark of this committed director.

He reflects on the comparison between nature and politics and history, the primal connection between mankind and water. He ruminates on the early history of the Patagonian Indigenous people, and the first English sailors who came to conquer the "primitive natives" to make them slaves. Guzmán meditates on the relation of water to the history of the region, stating, "We are all streams from one water." He remembers a childhood friend who drowned and became the first "disappeared person" in his life.

Lamenting that he's never seen his long, narrow country in one long piece, Guzmán constructs a paper replica rolled out on the floor used as a reference map for the rest of the film. Referring to the long coastline, he points out that "everything is water but Chileans don't use the sea." It was lost in the colonial extermination of Native culture. In metaphors and images he implies that Native people's thoughts that were removed from the history of the land, departed and were turned into stars, creating a heaven of lights that represent the nostalgia for family, captured in its intensity through telescopes.

He presents a long exposition of Native history offering comparison to the present-day military coup. Settlers ruthlessly wiped out the Natives, and stole their language, culture and land. The complete elimination of Southern Natives and their cultures was followed by 150 years of rule by the white man. He tells the tale of explorer Jeremy Button who was kidnapped to England, later returning as a hero, as he weaves the theme of the "button" through the story.

Years laterAllende began to give back the Natives' land. But the U.S.-inspired coup sponsored torture and killing, and sent many prisoners to the Dawson prison camp, where many met their death. From there, between 1200-1400 government opponents were dropped alive from airplanes into the ocean. These victims were tied to iron rails, wired and wrapped in burlap bags before they were dropped into the water. These bodies were never returned to the family for a proper burial and to many this was an impurity, like dying twice.

But Guzmán implies that just finding the guilty is not the end of the road. In 2004 sea divers found rusting rails and two small pearl buttons in the deep graveyard. One was traced to the early natives, and the other to a victim of the present-day massacre.

Director Guzmán said he relates to the kidnapped Jeremy Button. "They took away his land, his life. When he returned he never retrieved his identity. He became exiled in his own land. Both buttons tell the same story, the story of extermination. They say water has memory. I say it also has a voice." The poignant and deeply affecting film opens in New York on Oct. 23.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer
People's World