Focus on Chile 2019

Focus on Chile 2019 provided an excellent introduction to Chilean cinema and culture, from the repressive 1970s and 80s to the present day.

Focus on Chile 2019 was Cinemaattic’s final event before its summer break. In association with Edinburgh Chilean Society, the evening saw Edinburgh’s Lauriston Hall transformed into a mini Chile, with street food and live music (courtesy of the Red Trio).

The first of the evening’s five films was CARMEN, a documentary about police brutality in the country following Pinochet’s 1973 coup. The focus of Carlos Arredondo’s short film is Carmen Quintana, who was doused in petrol and set alight by Chilean police, disfiguring her face. Carmen actually came to the University of Edinburgh in the 1980s to speak at an event organised by Amnesty International and the Chile Committee for Human Rights. It is this talk around which the film revolves, with the aid of archival footage.

CARMEN brings attention to the thousands of executions, disappearances and acts of torture carried out by the military junta over the course of its 17-year rule. Because of its reliance on an oral account of these atrocities, the film is at times hard to follow, and the Scottish accent of Carmen’s interpreter, Andy McEntee, could have benefitted from subtitles. The film ends on a note of hope with the 1988 referendum, which saw a majority of Chileans vote against Pinochet’s rule. Mention is made in the credits of Margaret Thatcher’s support of the Chilean dictator, but it’s a shame this wasn’t a part of the film itself because it’s an important and often overlooked issue.

Felipe Gálvez’s RAPAZ (Raptor) explores to what extent the brutality of the Pinochet years lives on in modern Chile. A teenage boy (Andrew Bargsted) is caught trying to steal a phone – except, it’s unclear whether he actually did attempt to steal it. An angry crowd of people debate what should be done to him, and with the mood growing increasingly violent, Katy (Claudia Cabezas) steps in to defend the boy.

The film’s latter scenes are reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s M, which also explores crowd mentality and the ethics of mob rule. Unlike in CARMEN, the repressive apparatus of the state are absent in RAPAZ; instead, the focus is placed on the viciousness in all of us, or at least many of us. It’s just disappointing that it relies on gendered clichés of male violence and female clemency, of masculine cynicism and feminine naïvety. The film’s apparent lead, Ariel (Benjamín Westfal), disappears into the background for most of the second half, and the ending provides no clear message or meaning, other than the danger of making a snap judgement and jumping onto a bandwagon.

The most unusual, and therefore most memorable, of the evening’s films was BERTA, by Claudia Robles. Best described as an arthouse horror short, there is a clear influence from Guillermo del Toro on this twisted fairy tale. Any hint of a narrative meaning is elusive, but that doesn’t matter when the visuals are so gorgeous. The music, too, is expertly creepy – at least one member of the audience had to hide behind their hands for the duration of the film.

Imagine if David Lynch directed LABYRINTH (the 1986 film with David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King), with a flavouring of Latin American magical realism, and you’ll maybe get some idea of what to expect from BERTA. Really, however, it needs to be seen to be understood. After the harsh realism of CARMEN and RAPAZ, it was a relief to escape into the dreamworld of BERTA.

Samuel Sotomayor’s HOMERO is in contrast to BERTA a tame affair, but although its narrative of an old man confronting death is not thematically ground-breaking, it is nevertheless a well-made and well-acted film, starring Sotomayor’s own father Homero Sotomayor as the central character. Arguably there is little need for another film about an old white man, but the personal connection between star and director adds a new layer to this slow and reflective short, which explores themes of memory, illness and ageing.

The most strikingly modern, and by far funniest, of the evening’s five short films was SNAP. Consisting almost entirely of Snapchat videos, it tells the story of Alexa Soto and her transition from male to female. Although she at first comes across as rather vain and annoying, she grows endearing as we get to see her vulnerabilities.

SNAP touches on contemporary issues such as gender, identity and consumerism, all filtered through the lens of an iPhone camera. Directors Felipe Elgueta and Ananké Pereira should be celebrated for leading the vanguard in a new wave of handheld cinema, as well as for shining a light on an important story in a time of escalating transphobia. It is unclear how much of SNAP is real footage and how much was staged for the film, but it appears to all be true. SNAP ends on an ambiguous note, and Alexa’s ultimate fate is uncertain. What is clear is that there need to be more films like SNAP.

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