Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with Fernando Solanas on the Social Power of Film

by Chuleenan Svetvilas

Fernando Solanas has not only been a filmmaker but he has also served as a representative in Argentina’s national parliament. In 2002, the veteran director began filming A Social Genocide, which was released in 2004. The Dignity of the Nobodies, his second documentary about Argentina, screened in the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2006. Chuleenan Svetvilas interviewed Solanas in San Francisco. This interview originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of DOX the magazine of the European Documentary Network.

Nearly 40 years ago, you directed The Hour of the Furnaces and then you and Octavio Getino wrote your manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema.” In your manifesto, you say that documentary “is perhaps the main basis for revolutionary filmmaking.” What do you think is the role of the documentary filmmaker today?

He plays a great role, culturally, socially, and politically. The majority of our countries live in “mediated” democracies, where the media has an importance greater than universities or political parties in the formation of public opinion and in the public imagination. That is a society where the majority of public opinion is very strongly informed by the news media. And the media are responsible for some great tragedies. It is a very violent machinery of censorship. And the vast majority of the media are private firms financed by advertising.

In this country [the United States], like Argentina, the advertising is actually inside of the news stories, that is to say that they have financed the programs and they determine the content. In Europe, it’s not so much that way, there’s a stricter division between advertising and content. In Argentina, it’s really a tragedy, the media have made the public believe some enormous lies. To put it in a phrase, the public doesn’t have a good source of information from the news media. And that is why today there is a growing audience that goes to a movie theater to see a documentary. This was not the case ten years ago. Because they are finding information that they cannot find anywhere else. So, I think that good documentaries are treating issues that have been censored, social themes or historic social occurrences and stories that have essentially been censored out of existence, themes of social reality and of war.

In “Towards a Third Cinema,” you also mentioned that “revolutionary cinema is not passive,” but it “attempts to intervene in a situation providing thrust or rectification.” How involved were you with the people you filmed in The Dignity of the Nobodies?

This is an open film in that it helps those who intervene, but there is no end to the dignity of these people. There is no resolution of their situations. When you look at the end of the film, some have been resolved and some haven’t. In the characters of the Dignity of the Nobodies, there are people of all stripes. Some people belong to no political party, they are just social activists. There are some activists who belong to different leftist groups. For example, some were just social activists like the two women hospital workers are union activists and that’s about it.

As to the relationship that I have to the people in the film, people like me, everybody likes me. I’m a public figure. They all know me. “Ciao, Pino,” they say. So when I tell people I want to film them, they are very happy and they invite me to have mate (tea) at their house. It’s not so much because they are relating to me politically. They know that I defend their interests in a general way. And they know that I make films that represent what they think and feel.

The Dignity of the Nobodies is your second film about Argentina and you intend to do three more films about your country. What inspired you to do this ambitious project?

Fernando Solanas: As I got deeper into A Social Genocide, a film about the exceptional crisis that the country was experiencing, I saw it would be impossible to make one film with all that material. So the concept was born that the first one would be about the politics of power--how did we get into this situation? The second film was born out of the ending of the first one. The ending of the first film is a synthesis of ten years of a popular struggle against the situation. So but for the audience, what remains, what they see is the masses of people in activities like demonstrations. So what was lacking there was humanity. Who are all these people? How do they think? What do they feel?

So that’s where the idea was born of putting a magnifying glass on the people that formed the individual parts of this mass. And in this first film I got to know some people who were playing a huge influential role in these uprisings but were anonymous. I was tempted to make an advocacy film based on some of those stories. But then people would ask, “What am I seeing here, is this reality or is it fiction?”

So what this has actually turned into is a great testimony about the life of my country in this era. I did not invent the stories of “the nobodies.” This is a film made by someone as a historian, a chronicler of this struggle. I know that these films are going to stay around as references of a social reality. And now, because this is my profession as a filmmaker I have also attempted to make a good film. However, it could maybe not be a great film but still have the same value as a testimony. So working like this. five ideas came about. And that’s as far as I can say.

What is the audience response in Argentina to your documentaries?

Solanas: The audience is divided. The people who are in the film and the people who agree with the film, they love it. It is their expression; it’s their film. And the people who don’t agree with it, despise it, and they won’t go see it. This debate started even way back with The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) where some people were saying we should make a film to inform everyone, to inform the public but we knew that that was not what we were going to make. We were going to make a film of opinion. We were going to state our case and it would be signed. People would know that it was our opinion, just like an article in the newspaper is signed. Society is divided. There are a large number of people who are undecided. And they hear that a film like this is a good film, [The Dignity of the Nobodies] won prizes and so they overcome their prejudice against the film and they go see it.

How did you find the people in the stories in The Dignity of the Nobodies?

Solanas: I found them while I was filming A Social Genocide--in the neighborhoods. Everyday I get 10 or 15 invitations to show the film and talk about it in this or that neighborhood, which I could not possibly do or I couldn’t be making films. I have been getting to know these people and their wonderful stories. I had about 40 or 50 stories to choose from and there were probably another 100 that were just as good that were lying around. So I tried to choose stories that were a little different from one another. There are not only just picketers without work. Since I already have a story about unemployed picketers, I had to also get a story about workers that were employed and very well organized. But the whole story of my country is not just [about] the unemployed and the unionized but there are the workers in the public sector. You have the story of the teacher who lives in poverty and yet he’s a public school teacher or the middle class guy who writes and delivers packages on his motorcycle.

Then there are the women in the countryside who own small parcels of land – the typical rural petite bourgeoisie. They do not have a good education. They are not cultured. Women in a situation like this never get involved in social issues. But when their husbands got sick, and they realized their land was going to be sold out from under them, they defended what they had. So a woman like Lucy, back in ’94, she started to fight the auctions of the bankrupt farmers and I filmed her in 2004 and 2005. A person like that really emerged in that ten-year period. In the film you will see them singing the national anthem. But there’s something else you don’t see in the film. In the beginning, they tried to disrupt the auctions by praying out loud—“Our Father who art in Heaven”— but since they don’t really believe in God anyway, it wasn’t very effective, so they started singing the national anthem to disrupt the auctions. It was out of total naïveté. It’s not because they had such a well-formed political strategy.

Where did the footage of the farm auctions come from?

Most of the auctions are archival footage. The only auction I filmed is the one that’s at the very end of the film. Mid-April last year when the film was already edited and I was just getting into the final cut, somebody called me on the phone about another auction. I could never go to the auctions because they are in such remote areas. But on this occasion there was an auction 150 kilometers from where I lived. My first reaction was, “Well what do I need this for? The film’s already over.” But the women insisted, so I went and that is the final sequence 27 April 2005. I went into the auction just like any other TV station in the town. We filmed the whole thing. It was such a powerful scene that it ended up as the finale of the film.

Some of the stories in Dignity of the Nobodies are of people who are surviving everyday.

I observe them a lot and spend a lot of time with them. I taped them in preparation for filming and sometimes when I come back to film, it’s not as good as what I got when I was just observing. In something like this, things are never really prepared--that’s why you always have to take your camera. Sometimes you take your camera not because you are going to film but just because what you observe with your camera is so amazing.

For example, in the death of Darío Santillán, the unemployed man that the police shoot and kill. The beginning and the end [of that part of the film] are archival. And the images of him at the train station where he was dying, they were archival. There were probably 50 video cameras there for that event and probably another 200 still cameras. The police commissioner made an official statement that they had nothing to do with the death of Darío Santillán and it was other unemployed people who had shot him. But because we have freedom of the press, the following day, every daily newspaper showed a series of photographs that clearly showed that it was the police that shot him to death, not to mention the video footage. So in that particular chapter of the film, that was what was archival and everything else I shot myself.

The following day I went to the memorial observance in the neighborhood where Darío Santillán was from. I was the only person with a camera that they allowed to go inside and film the funeral. All the footage of him in the coffin is unique. I went around and filmed his friends and his girlfriend. His story was born with the event of his death. Starting with the enormity of that event is what made me go to the funeral. I went back to film another day to see him, not only through the eyes of his activist friends, but through the eyes of his girlfriend. And I got a little more and a little more and I kept going back day after day. I didn’t know those people before but they received me with great affection.

What’s happening with your other films on Argentina?

The third, fourth, and fifth films are pretty far along. And the third [Argentina Latente (Latent Argentina)] will be finished in September or October. The fourth one [La Tierra Sublevada (The Roused Land)] six or seven months later. The fifth one perhaps May or June next year.

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. Her writings on film have appeared in Dox, Documentary, and Release Print magazines.