Summer School Spotlight: Introduction to Latin American Film

Release Date: 6/29/2012

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. This spotlight focuses on HUM 2783/4783 - Introduction to Latin American Film.

Film class explores Latin American themes across time and space

"I am convinced that memory has a gravitational force. It is constantly attracting us. Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don't live anywhere."

These words, spoken by Chilean astronomer Gaspar Galaz during the closing scenes in the 2011 documentary Nostalgia por la luz, allude to the incredible power of memory…not just the power of our individual memories, but also the power of the collective memories of a culture.

Some memories are happy and uplifting. Others are very dark and painful, the malevolence and sorrow of life preserved in our consciousness. But whether they are good or bad, and whether we like it or not, our memories become a part of who we are. And because they are a part of "us," memories often become the underlying themes used in our writing and art.

This summer, students in Dr. William Clary's class Introduction to Latin American Film went on a three-week journey of exploration, analyzing "memories" from Latin American culture. While some may think of films as being simply a form of entertainment, Clary's class used them to answer some a very different question - what can films show us about a culture? "Films move you, the viewer, in certain directions," Clary explained. "[They] can be a very effective means of stimulating conversation."

Clary's own experience with Latin American culture began back in the 1970s, when he first traveled through the region, exploring its history and culture. Drawing on his experiences throughout the region and his knowledge and research on Latin American culture, he chose six films which spanned a broad time period and varied widely in theme. "I chose films that moved me when I saw them," he said. "Technically, and artistically - in terms of acting, and thematic exploration - they are very well-done films. I guess some people would call them "art films." They're not Hollywood films - they're not Hollywood films. They're pieces of art."

"Why would an artist approach these problems?" he asked. "Because they're relevant…issues that are important today. [I want my students] to gain an understanding and an appreciation for how film works as an art-form. It's not only aesthetic; it's also the subject matter…Latin America. You put the two together and you come away with quite a bit."

The journey began in Mexico City, with Luis Buñuel's film Los olvidados, released in 1950. The film depicts a young Mexican boy, Pedro, as he is gradually drawn into the gang culture in the slums of 1940s Mexico City. "I thought it was an appropriate film," Clary said, "because it explores the phenomenon of gang culture at a very early point in Mexico City's development as a modern city, in the late '40s. It has certain resonance today in Central American and Mexico with the drug trafficking and gang problems."

Skip forward 40 years to the 1980s. "We moved to John Sayles Men with Guns, which explores the problems of Central America kind of through the lens or the optics of the 1980s," Clary said. In the film, a wealthy physician travels to an impoverished area in Latin American to visit his former students, only to be awakened to the stark politics of a world filled with guerrillas and soldiers. "Everything Sayles does gets some recognition because he's so well known," Clary said. "[Men with Guns] is, I think, one of his more interesting efforts. It's a very, very well-conceived film."

"We then went to a film, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Fresa y chocolate, or Strawberry and Chocolate, from Cuba," Clary said. "[Alea] was probably Cuba's best known director throughout the revolutionary period until his death. It's a very, very interesting film on the issue of tolerance for gays in revolutionary Cuba. We went into that, and talked about the Cuban revolution - the position of the Cuban revolutionary government in the early '60s and how it has evolved up to the present. The film explores some of those issues in a very engaging way."

A 1998 Walter Salles' film, Central Station, was the next stop. This film took the students to Brazil, where they explored the contrasts between the city life of Rio de Janeiro and the culturally rich northeast. "It's a very nice film about bonding between an older woman and a younger boy from the lower classes and how they go on a search together to find his father…a really beautiful film," Clary added.

"Then we did the film Maria you are full of grace which is the Joshua Marston film from 2004 which deals with 'mules' and drug trafficking - women from Colombia swallowing pellets full of cocaine and coming to the United States," Clary continued. The film is based on real stories which Marston researched as he prepared to make the film. "It deals with some very interesting issues of push and pull - mainly push," he said. "Why do Colombians come to the United States? It is a nice portrait of the country in Colombia and then a part of their lives in the United States is problematic - trying to fit into the United States culture from Colombia. What kind of safety nets are there, or [what kind of] transitional nets exist, in the context of drug trafficking. A very nice story - the students really liked it."

The final stop on the journey was the Atacama Desert in Chile. "The final film was the documentary [Nostalgia por la luz] by Patricio Guzmán, one of Chile's most spectacular directors," Clary said. "I highly, highly, recommend this film. It's able to conflate different themes, different topics - the quest for human rights forty years after the coup in Chile, with astronomy and archeology. An extraordinary film…one of the best I've seen in a long time. The images in it are absolutely spectacular. Some of the photographs from the best telescopes in the world in the Atacama Desert in Chile - photographs of constellations, stars - they just look incredibly other-worldly. But the way he's able to evoke the problematic of memory - personal memory with collective memories on a nationalist scale, and the importance of recovering memory - is very effectively done in the film."

Clary said that throughout the course, his main emphasis was on exploring the themes being portrayed. "It's really an introduction to Latin American problematics in film, because the themes that came up are themes that are still very relevant," he said. "I give them a little bit of background - I don't like to give them too much because I don't want to interfere with, or give them pre-conceived ideas about what the film could or should be. We watch the film then the next day we spend taking it apart."

Clary said the discussions were pretty far-reaching. "We discussed everything," he said. "We discussed plot, symbols, potential allegories, casting, cinematography, score, possible readings of the film - different readings of the film - situated in place and time. Just the general analytical tools you use to analyze any text."

And while Clary said that his primary emphasis during the discussion was on theme, he and his students took time to delve into some of the technical aspects of each film. "We do complement the course with a book on how to watch films," he explained. "It takes apart some of the mechanics of film-watching. It goes into camera angles, different kinds of settings, casting, things like that…the constituent parts of a film that we have to take into account. "

As their final project for the class, Clary asked each student to select a Latin American film and give their own interpretation of the film to the class. "They had to pick a film, view it, get to know it, write on it, present it, using the same analytical tools that we used in the class," he said. "I [also] asked them to put in a couple of scenes that will help those who haven't seen the film to understand it."

Did the students have a favorite film? "The students liked all of them," Clary said. "They were all very powerful films - very different in their particular ways." He pointed out that the students had picked up on a very important thread that ran through all of the films. "None of these films really portrayed the upper classes. They're all about marginalized classes," he said, "which is what most of Latin American art is about - it's about social issues, social justice issues, ethnicity, gender relations, class…."

"These films are about the theme…that's what they're about," Clary said, "and they have a lot to say."