Three Filmmakers from Central America in La Semaine de la Critique at Cannes 2019

Fernando Chaves
Apr 22 · 5 min read

La Semaine de la Critique’s 2019 line-up has been announced and it brings good news for followers of Latin America cinema. And for those attentive to what has been happening under the radar down in Central America, the Cannes sidebar brings a couple of delightful surprises.

The Critic’s Week, founded in 1962 and dedicated to first and second time directors, will include films by Sofía Quirós, Valentina Maurel, and César Díaz.

On the short-film slate, Valentina Maurel (Costa Rica-France) returns to Cannes, this time with Lucía en el limbo. Maurel previously won top honours at the Cinéfondation competition with the quirky, touching Paul Is Here. In Lucía en el limbo, ‘a teenager deals with lice and a stalker on a bus,’ as described by Charles Tesson in the announcement video.

On the feature competition, first-timer Sofía Quirós (Costa Rica-Argentina) will present Ceniza negra (Land of Ashes), which grows out of her dreamy 2016 short Selva, shown at the 56th Semaine de la Critique. Ceniza negra is set on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where 11-year old Selva tries to keep her family together as her brother drifts away and the ever-raging waves threaten their small house. The film is a co-production of Costa Rica, Chile, and France. César Díaz, the editor of Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul (2015) and Temblores (Tremors, 2019), will also be in competition with the Belgian production Nuestras madres (Our Mothers), about the desaparecidos (missing) during his Guatemala’s military rule.

Such a selection is historic for Central American cinemas, which have always struggled with the lack of financing, erratic or non-existent state funding, and few options for distribution. However, since the mid-2000’s, international co-production schemes (Ibermedia, Cinergia) and intra-regional cooperation (mostly in terms of personal networks, not institutional platforms), along with the lowering of production costs with digital technology, have fostered what can now be appreciated as a fully-formed, ever-growing generation of filmmakers who seem poised to further international success.

Some questions about the nature of these networks and co-production schemes merit attention. We cannot forget how fragile enterprises of this kind have proven to be in the past, regardless of their results (Cinergia is currently in a hiatus, for instance, and when Spain’s crisis broke, support for other platforms dwindled). What would a map of collaborations between artists and filmmakers of the region look like? Where is the new money coming from and how can the region attract more financing?

The issue of distribution, as is the case in other emerging cinemas, will remain crucial if the present boom in production is to continue. Whereas individual filmmakers may continue to enjoy a certain prominence and attain funding from festivals and institutions in Europe, little attention is paid to audiences back home, where few spaces offer alternatives to transnational conglomerates that dominate the market. There are reasons to remain hopeful that the International Film Festival Panama or the Costa Rican CRFIC can take the lead and become forums for debating these issues, but as it happens in other fields of culture, there is always the danger that political issues derail whatever efforts rise in our countries.

‘Ceniza negra’ by Sofía Quirós Úbeda

Each individual state, from Panama to Guatemala, has so far walked different paths, as policies change with every political turn and few projects last longer than two administrations. A market for Central American productions will require stronger local box office results, more consistent channels for distribution, and further cooperation between the different state agencies (where they exist) that deal with audiovisual production.

As for the films themselves, researchers, critics and programmers interested may find a renewed interest in Central America in the coming years. Take the case of women directors and producers in Costa Rica. After works such as Ishtar Yasin’s El camino (2008), Paz Fábrega’s Agua fría de mar (2010), a Tiger-winner at Rotterdam, and Laura Astorga’s Princesas rojas (2013), filmmakers such as Quirós and Maurel, as well as Alexandra Latishev, have recenlty featured in prominent international festivals; films by Patricia Velázquez, Paz León, Natalia Solórzano will also come later this year. Or look at Guatemala, where filmmakers such as Díaz are consistently creating a critical portrait of their nation that merits further attention as well, far beyond the mere representation of thorny issues. Their diverse strategies for questioning identities and politics range from Julio Hernández Cordón’s grim tales to quieter,also biting films such as La casa más grande del mundo (2015, Ana Bojórquez & Lucía Carreras).

Can we appreciate trends or similarities? Can these disparate efforts be grouped somehow beyond their national origins? Although certain topics are common to other film-making traditions in Latin America (memory and trauma, women’s and indigenous people’s rights), some recent films do not fit comfortably in neighbouring countries’ trends and frameworks at all. Few international film histories include more than a few paragraphs on Central American films, much less give detailed accounts of how these small cinema cultures have given place in recent years to a cadre of young filmmakers bent on opening doors for their concerns and styles. A handful of international festivals that have broadened their outlook to include the ‘cinema of small nations,’ so further Central American presence is to be expected in the coming years. How will this newfound prominence be interpreted by local and foreign commentators? Will it be read in parallel to, say, the cinema of Colombia or Ecuador? I would argue that we need to articulate a response that considers the specificity of our political histories and cultural policies, in which the issue of fragility — of institutions, artistic expression, and even livesmust feature prominently.

All of these issues need to be discussed more prominently in local media and academia; publications about regional film-making art remain scarce, and the turn of the tide after the 2010’s means that the amount of productions already outruns critical responses. Perhaps this astounding selection of three works by Central American filmmakers at Cannes will be seen as a turning point in the future… if proper attention to triumphs that cannot be taken for granted. One wonders whether silence will again be the default reaction to this announcement.

Writer and programmer (formerly Costa Rica International Film Festival)

Fernando Chaves

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E de Espinach. Productor audiovisual, periodista en @nacion_viva (los tuits son personales), melómano y lector sin freno.