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European Support for Latin American Cinema

Many Latin American filmmakers rely on European co-production finance. Deborah Shaw considers the social and aesthetic implications of this funding support on the work of Peruvian director Claudia Llosa.

There is a story behind the credits for many ‘world cinema’ films that are reaching international markets initially through the international film festival circuit, and through DVDs, Blu-rays and Video-on-Demand platforms, if these films are lucky enough to be picked up in sales markets. That story in the specific context of Latin American film is what my recent research has focused on, and I have grown interested in what the credits reveal about the production journeys of low budget non-English language art films and how they come into being.

film festival rotterdam

European film festivals and funding bodies are an important source of financial support for Latin American filmmakers

An increasing number of filmmakers from around the world rely on finance from European film funding bodies. Important bodies aligned with film festivals offer a lifeline to these filmmakers: these include, among others, the Dutch Hubert Bals Fund; the French Cinéfondation programme; Aides aux Cinéma du Monde; the German World Cinema Fund of the Berlin Film Festival; and the Spanish-led, Hispanic Programa Ibermedia.

A film selected by one of these funds will have other co-production finance in place, often including support by national film institutes (at least in many Latin American films), and funding from European television companies that have ventured into art film production such as Arte France Cinéma, Canal Plus and Televisión Española.

As can be imagined, academic film critics, myself included, have with some relish attempted to theorise the social and aesthetic implications of Europeans funding filmmaking in countries that they had previously colonized. The debates can be summed up in the following questions: is this a new form of (post)colonial intervention with Europe co-opting film production from around the world and fostering film languages that have a Eurocentric artistic vision? Or, is this important development work, welcomed by filmmakers from around the globe, without which many important films would simply not exist?

My approach has been to try to avoid generalisations and partial conclusions based around a handful of texts. Academics can and always have selected texts and rejected others to suit arguments. Film funding bodies do very important work on very little money (the Hubert Bals fund, for instance, had a budget of €800,000 in 2015). Yet, there are types of festival films (in terms of themes, approaches and aesthetics) that they have supported which can be seen to exclude filmmaking that does not conform to these models.

The case of Claudia Llosa

While I have in my work spoken out in favour of a new queer women’s filmmaking from Argentina that has been, in part, enabled by European funding bodies, Claudia Llosa’s first two films provide a gift for critics who seek to link troubling representations of indigenous Latin Americans with European sources of production funds and exhibition at European festivals.

Her first film Madeinusa (2006) features a faux ethnographical gaze at Andean customs and festivities, invented by the writer/director, but that appear to the uninformed viewer to be entirely authentic. Despite its national and regional focus it was ‘Made-in-Europe’ as well as ‘Made-in-the-USA’ as it received support from the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab in addition to Spanish production funding; it was also supported by the World Cinema Fund. This clearly branded it a festival film and ensured it was set itself up for festival circulation, where it won a number of awards.

The film takes place in the fictional village of Manayacuna and focuses on the inhabitants’ interpretation of the Easter celebrations of Tiempo Santo (Holy Time) in which God (Jesus) has died and has yet to be resurrected, and the villagers are obliged to sin through a range of means, including consuming vast amounts of alcohol, committing incest, stealing from each other, desecrating tombs and generally breaching all social conventions. The mayor of the village Don Cayo has been waiting for this time to have sex with his teenage daughter who carries the ideologically loaded name of Madeinusa. Images of ignorant Andean peasants joyfully indulging in depraved acts for the pleasures of European art cinema spectators understandably caused controversy and outrage in international and in Peruvian critical circles.

milk of sorrow

Milk of Sorrow (2009)

Llosa’s second film is La teta asustada (2009), literally translated as ‘the frightened tit/breast’ (it is given a more poetic rendition of The Milk of Sorrow in its English language release). As with Madeinusa, a film funded by Europe, and acclaimed in Europe and the US comes to Peru where it is both a box office hit, and, like Madeinusa, the subject of controversy by cultural critics.

The narrative has at its centre the relationship of Fausta and her wealthy employer, Aída, the operatically named celebrated pianist/composer, who shamelessly pays her servant in pearls for her Quechua songs which she, Aída later claims as her own compositions at a public performance. Yet, while this premise would seem to suggest a sensitive exploration of class and ethnic divisions in Peru, it can be argued that Fausta and her culture are represented as backward, superstitious and ignorant.

Milk of Sorrow (2009)

Milk of Sorrow (2009)

Plagued by the traumas of the rape of women during the war between the state and the Shining Path fighters in the 1980s and 1990s, Fausta inserts a potato in her vagina to prevent rape, and suffers from an inflamed uterus as a result of the bacteria. This storyline generates images of exotic disgust as Fausta’s (‘exotic’) beauty is tainted by its juxtaposition with the sprouts that grow and protrude from her vagina, that she is shown clipping. The urban Euro-Peruvian Llosa creates two ‘others’ in her film: a indigenous ‘other’ to generate disgust and alienation for implied, sophisticated audiences, and an upper class, heartless Criolla (a Peruvian of Spanish ancestry) to provide us with the villain of the piece.

The festival film harnesses a middle class urban gaze that will produce a judgement on the primitive and exploitative classes we are presented with, and the absence of any middle classes in this film is significant in this regard. Also significant is the fact that Aída’s house ‘la casa grande’ is at the top of the hill, while the urban shanty town where Fausta and her family live is at the bottom of the hill, positioning the urban cinephile audiences who watch the film at an imaginary centre point, occupying the space of the diegetically absent middle classes.

While this is just one example, and is not applicable across the board, an analysis of Llosa’s work does point to some of the dangers for directors who make films for their European paymasters without paying enough attention to communities back ‘home’.

Dr Deborah Shaw is Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries, University of Portsmouth, as well as course leader for the MA in Film and Television Studies and a founding co-editor of the journal Transnational Cinemas. This blog post is base on the forthcoming article: “European co-production funds and Latin American Cinema: Processes of othering and bourgeois cinephilia in Claudia Llosa’s La teta asustada,” Diogène: Revue internationale des sciences humanise.

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