Scenes From Buenos Aires

Does the "New Argentine Cinema" Really Exist?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 15 2006 12:27 PM

Scenes From Buenos Aires

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While we've spent a lot of time in Buenos Aires talking to people about the New Argentine Cinema—and whether it still exists—we've also come across people who think the entire debate is, well, beside the point. Midway through our stay, we met Daniel Burman, one of Argentina's leading directors, for tea at his production company offices in a nondescript building at the edge of Palermo Hollywood, the neighborhood where we were staying. (A subsection of Palermo Viejo, it allegedly got its name when film companies started to move there in search of cheap rents.) Burman—a 33-year-old who has directed four features while also running a production company—made it clear from the start that he had little patience with labels."New Argentine Cinema—that's just a term the critics came up with," he scoffed.

Burman acknowledges that there was a cinematic boom in the late 1990s. But while he thinks plenty of good movies were made over the last 10 years, they weren't aesthetically unified the way the French New Wave was. He explains, instead, that the boom is due to changes in governmental legislation and the advent of new state-subsidized film schools, which made it easier to make movies. "During the '90s, there was a process of liberalization of the economy in Argentina—a loosening of union rules," he explained, referring to a mid-'90s law that helped galvanize film production. "The changes left a lot of people on the street, but it was very good for making movies. That was one of the paradoxes."

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Burman likes to be contrarian. He is of Polish-Jewish descent, but he insists that his movies don't deal with Jewish themes. They do, however, deal with people living as outsiders—young men who feel stranded between cultures—and he himself once said that he keeps both a Polish and an Argentine passport, like one of his own characters, just in case he has to leave the country quickly.

Daniel Burman. Click image to expand.
Daniel Burman

He got his start in films early. In 1995, after studying law and working on short films, he started a production company, BD Cine, with Diego Dubcovsky. With the advent of new cinema schools, he said, the "sons of the bourgeois middle class realized that we would prefer not to continue studying law or becoming doctors. Instead, we could go to cinema school and find girls." Shortly afterward in 1998, at 24, he released his first feature-length film, A Chrysanthemum Burst in Cincoesquinas. It did well on the festival circuit, and he went on to make even more commercially and critically successful films. Today, Burman is not only one of Argentina's leading directors but also one of its leading producers, having also co-produced one of the most successful South American films to reach the United States in recent years: Walter Salles'The Motorcycle Diaries.

A Lost Embrace, which Burman directed and co-wrote, is the most recent film available in the United States. We watched it before meeting with him. The second in a loosely autobiographical trio (including Waiting for the Messiah and Derecho de Familia, which was released in Argentina in April), it tells the story of an eclectic group of storeowners in a mini-mall—a shoemaker, a lingerie saleswoman, a stationer, two Korean experts in feng shui who have come to Buenos Aires because they can't legally marry at home—struggling to make their way. At the core of this group is Ariel Makaroff, a twentysomething failed architect whose mother owns the lingerie store and who has no idea what to do next with his life. In trying to figure out his future, Ariel is wrestling with his past—notably, with the absence of his father, Elias, who abandoned the family decades before to return to Israel and serve in the army.

Despite its explicit thematic concerns (immigration, identity, nationhood, the fracturing of family), A Lost Embrace is anything but a sociological treatise. Its pleasures are rooted in the idiosyncratic rhythms of everyday life at the mall—a foot race between two store clerks, the flirtations conducted among glassy shop windows, and the minor misunderstandings as different generations collide. As Ariel puts it: "Behind our counters, we have our stories. Maybe not shattering ones, but worth telling." The cinematography is casual and inviting; the result is a charming, off-kilter film that has won Burman comparisons to the Woody Allen of Radio Days. Like Allen's characters, Burman's are neurotically preoccupied with their place in the world and the small wrongs (or large ones) they perceive to have been done to them. ("My hope is to give Woody Allen a tape of one of my films one day," he told us.)

Like Allen, too, Burman sees comedy as a form of subversion. In a festival panel about the New Argentine Cinema, he complained about the pigeonholing of national cinema. Moviegoers in Europe and the United States, he argues, have a hard time accepting movies from the "developing world" that aren't, in some way, about oppression or suffering."There's a need in Europe to keep seeing images of economic misery in Argentina," he said. "But it's far more subversive to show images of the Argentine upper middle class: 'People are driving? Are you kidding me?' "

If anything, though, Burman is even more troubled by how hard it is to get Argentines to go see movies made by their countrymen. "We have a subsidized cinema because we don't have a market. Argentines like American movies too much," he said. Even so, Burman is, as we mentioned yesterday, one of few constituents of the New Argentine Cinema whose films are shown in multiplexes. It's not hard to see why he's found success: His movies aren't as self-consciously arty as Lucrecia Martel's, and they deal with mundane problems of assimilation in a country where nearly everyone is descended from an immigrant. Also, they're funny. But he doesn't take government subsidies for his films—like a handful of the other filmmakers, he thinks not taking the money leaves him freer to make the movies he wants—and you get the sense that the only way to succeed commercially in this environment is to hustle all day long. When we ask what kind of impact he thinks the New Argentine Cinema has made, if any, in Hollywood, he shakes his head. "They pay attention. But so far it's only that—attention. Everyone smiles, invites you to dinner, says, 'I want to work with you.' But they have to go through so many levels that at the end of the day, someone usually says no. You realize it's all a show. For Americans today, 'Latino' means Ricky Martin. It will be that way for 20 more years. But when our sons grow up, hopefully it will mean something different."

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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