A Real Festival That’s Extremely Online: Márgenes
Márgenes is a streaming and distribution platform for movies. Every year in November and December they organize a film festival with a focus on Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American cinemas, which takes place half on their platform (the online version) and half in Madrid (their offline version). Their competitive main slate is free to stream for a few weeks and usually gravitates towards films that are exceedingly independent, sometimes even self-made or made by small groups. Márgenes favors family narratives and found-footage films a lot, and Latin American politics even more. Their selections seem to go with the idea that the personal is political, and this is what makes history move backwards and forwards. Even if the online version of Márgenes is widely popular outside of Spain, their offline, regular film festival version is not so famous in Argentina, where I’m from. So I hardly knew anything about it when I landed there as part of their project development and residency programs, which included two criticism and research projects (one was mine) and three films in development.
The festival’s virtual component included a retrospective of the Gira de Documentales Ambulante, which is a series of screenings that has been traveling around Mexico for 15 years. Though somewhat famous because two celebrities are among its founders (actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal), the series should really be known for translating Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art and filling the country with cutting-edge films. The Ambulante retro also spread to the offline portion of the festival with six screenings. A Lisandro Alonso retrospective, including four of his films and three he worked on as a producer, a Spanish cinema competition called Scanner, the El Presente (The Present) section, featuring films with larger reverberations in the festival world, such as João Nicolau’s Tecnoboss (2019) and Romina Paula’s Again Once Again (2019) — all were at the actual, physical festival as well. Lastly, rounding it out was an Antirrealismo section, with Adirley Queiros’ Once There Was Brasília (2017), Niles Atalah’s Rey (2017), María Paz González’ Lina from Lima (2019), and Santiago Loza’s Brief Story from the Green Planet (2019).
Since the online version of Márgenes is free, and you don’t have to go anywhere to watch movies, you spend no money on an activity (attending film festivals) that is usually reserved only for those who can afford it. If you were there and had time, you could watch a few films online at home and be done by 6:30 PM, when the screenings took place all over the city. I wish they had been more communal; that’s the one thing that cannot be fully replicated in the online version, the collective that happens around films: conversations about them, observations that place them in a contemporary cinema landscape, verbal fights, and random encounters. On the other hand, unless you compulsively open tabs on your browser, there are no contingencies for watching the films, such as getting lost between venues and missing showtimes (which happened to me when I wanted to see Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever ). The venues are spectacular, especially the main headquarters, Cineteca. The theater is in Matadero, a gigantic former slaughterhouse and municipal market turned cultural center. You can spend hours walking its grounds without seeing every corner of it, and as I was lost and felt a little like a cow, I remembered this article by Luc Moullet about bovine and the privilege of their neutral gaze. Maybe all festival attendees are a little like cows.
The big offline event was the Lisandro Alonso retro that included presentations and a masterclass. For Argentine filmmakers who went to film school, Alonso’s films are in every syllabus, as much as Lucreia Martel’s are; they’re a piece of film history that my generation got to live, both inside the community and as an element of change in contemporary world cinema. But as the retrospective began, I wondered if I genuinely had ideas about Alonso’s films from that time or if I was repeating something I half-learned a long time ago. Re-watching La Libertad (2001), I realized I remembered it as a documentary, which it’s not. You know the story: the actor is Misael Saavedra, a worker on Alonso’s family farm, and the film is about a man who lives alone in La Pampa, cutting wood and earning a little cash for the gas and cigarettes he needs. La Libertad exists in the ever-increasing world of contemporary indetermination, but was made almost 20 years before and has none of the relativist shenanigans of film today. Its indetermination is nothing but possibility. Is this freedom? It is, and it isn’t. The double existence of this answer is not only in Misael’s living conditions but is also in the shape of the film itself, the fantastic implications of how this fiction is organized. This is one day in the life of a woodcutter that wakes up, has something to eat, cuts and peels many trees, takes a nap, waits for a friend to lend him a truck to sell the wood, buys a few things, leaves the truck at his friend’s house, walks home, hunts, eats a mulita (which is what we call an armadillo), and goes to bed. During the nap, he may be dreaming, and in his dream, we float around the fields until the friend comes. The end could be the beginning, with the same shot of Misael eating by the fire, the same thunder and bolts of lightning breaking around him. Is he trapped in the same day forever? Is that what we’re watching? This is not a metaphor but a possibility brought by fiction.
From one film to the next, Alonso’s craft of fiction and its emotional power increase sharply. There’s a moment in La Libertad in which Misael walks home after returning his friend’s truck. A brief panning shot shows him walking around bales of hay in a field of flowers. As Misael walks, the camera tilts up and loses him slowly to the cloud-filled sky. The slight irony is suddenly suspended, and so are all double meanings, as freedom may be up in the clouds. It may sound a little corny, but isn’t everything good always a little like that? Corny joins us if you are not made out of stone. The sky always brings us together. That shot could easily segue into Los Muertos’ (2004) first, which starts exploring the light that goes through the treetops. The shot then takes a turn, capturing a darker situation: a man has just killed his younger brothers and will serve time.
Once the offline festival was nearly over — and with it, the Alonso retrospective — the prizes were distributed. Between the winners, there were two that caught my attention in how they both resonated with the differences between the online and the offline: Raúl Vallejo, Claudia Negro, Lucía Touceda, and Javier Moreno’s Los Pilares (2018), which won a special jury prize, and Karin Cuyul’s Historia de mi nombre (2019). The former features the recordings of husband, father, and grandfather Antonio García Zarandieta in his family home between 1971 and 2018. The film takes particular interest in the pool, articulating a narrative about this fundamental familial space. The children grow, their children grow, and the grandparents celebrate New Year’s Eve alone together. Family archives become a work chronicling 40 years of an upper-middle-class clan: the varying light over the years, the seasons, the snow, everything that life is made of. A happy, seemingly uneventful life full of small miracles. This life is lived again by footage that might otherwise have gotten lost, as so many homemade recordings typically are.
Like Los Pilares, Karin Cuyul’s Historia de mi nombre is a found-footage film crafted with videos documenting a family’s life. It tells the story of Cuyul’s search for the meaning behind her name, which she tracks to a childhood anecdote. When she was little, during a family vacation, her parents bumped into a man and told him that they had named Karin after his daughter. The man took a picture of her to take to his daughter. Cuyul realizes that not only does she lack images of her past, as her family neither have a camera nor take many pictures, but she is also missing a sizeable part of her parents’ relationship to Chile’s recent history. Cuyul fills this void with footage loaned from a girl she knew from her primary school days. The lack of records provokes a constant stream of thought that Cuyul navigates.There’s a reason for all of this: the skimpy records, her name, and the fact that her parents don’t want to talk about it. For our generation — people around 30 who were born after the dictatorships in our countries — a step back seemed impossible. That’s part of the conflict between her and her parents, so are their diverging ideas about what the future will bring. Today, as we watch her film, the step back is not only possible but real in Chile (and in Brazil, Bolivia, and many others). It made me think about the actual and the virtual. There’s a difference between our parents and us, which is that now the presence of the virtual is real. We have seen it in Chile, in the images of violence that circulate globally and their effect in the struggle, and we see it also in how Historia de mi nombre was available online for a few weeks. The virtual and the actual are both tools. We are learning to use them, but we also need to keep records and learn how to prevent them from instantly becoming part of a forgotten past.
In the final moments of the film Cuyul gets some peace of mind and thinks of the sky, her sky in Chile. And it looks a little like Misael’s sky in La Libertad. They both become ours for a few seconds. Isn’t a serene sky always beautiful?
Top image: Historia de mi nombre (Karin Cuyul, 2019)
The Márgenes film festival took place between November 20 and December 20.