The Three Lives of Fernando Solanas

By Jorge Ruffinelli

FIRST LIFE: THE CLANDESTINE FIGHTER

In 1969, Fernando Ezequiel Solanas (b. Buenos Aires, 1936), in collaboration with other Argentine filmmakers, filmed a chapter of Argentina, mayo de 1969: los caminos de la liberación. The film has never been restored in its entirety, and few have seen it. Nevertheless, it remains a legendary testimony to collective political unrest, particularly influential for its promotion of cinema as a new vehicle of protest against a ruling regime.

Solanas’ filmic inspirations were not exclusively cinematic: his earlier studies in literature, music, dance and law led him to pursue theater arts at the Conservatory of Dramatic Arts (Conservatorio de Arte Dramático), where cinema would eventually seduce him. His career in cinema began at age 26, with the filming of Seguir andando (1962). Another short film, Reflexión ciudadana (1963), followed a year later.

Like his friend Octavio Getino, Solanas was a Peronist, and in 1968 the two men directed the most influential political documentary of the era: La hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación. Divided into three parts, the 255-minute documentary managed to be many things at once: instrument of leftist political and social protest; manifesto; educational cinematic debate; essay of cultural interpretation of Latin America in general and of Argentina in particular; a filmic collage, collecting and juxtaposing fragments from other films of the period; active artifact in the democratization of images; unofficial history. It was also the most controversial film of the 1960s.

Solanas and Getino also founded the Grupo Cine Liberación and developed the theory of “Third Cinema”: a cinema that is neither commercial nor authorial, emerging instead from the public at large. Meanwhile, the two kept in close contact with Juan Domingo Perón during his exile in Madrid (1955-1974), following his removal from power in the so-called Liberating Revolution (Revolución Libertadora). The relationship resulted in their 1971 film, Perón: Actualización política y doctrinaria para la toma del poder.

Solanas’ second full-length film, Los hijos de Fierro (1972), appropriated a well-known literary character in order to experiment with combining scenes of fiction and documentary. This innovation achieves an extremely personal reading ofMartín Fierro, the classic “gauchesco” poem of 1872. Adding to the film’s unique ambition, much of the dialogue is written in the same octosyllabic meter as José Hernández’s poem. Given the poem’s fundamental role in Argentine culture, it becomes a poignant frame of reference and brilliant backdrop for a complex film that oscillates between epic and lyric, realist and mythic, allowing the poem’s “characters” and scenarios to articulate a political allegory of the 1970s in Argentina.

In 1975, the military executed another coup d’etat in Argentina. The following year, Solanas went into exile.

SECOND LIFE: EXILE AND NOSTALGIA

In France, and later upon his return to Argentina, Solanas’ work underwent substantial changes. Without losing his political mission, the filmmaker started to develop fictional stories, mixing present realities with the political and cultural myths of Argentina, as he had begun to do with Los hijos de Fierro.

Music, mise-en-scene, and concern with the plastic and the visual assumed primacy in his work. This new combination of elements produced a masterpiece of intense emotional force: Tangos, el exilio de Gardel (1985).

Tangos is the great film of South American exile. It was filmed in France, paying tribute to the significance of that country in Argentine cultural roots, to France’s pivotal role in the historical acceptance of the tango (given its origin as a music and dance of brothels), to the supposed birth of Carlos Gardel in Toulouse, and alluding to the two and a half decades of exile the caudillo San Martín spent in Boulogne-Sur-Mer. Paris provides the “natural” scenery for Tangos, such as the handsome “Cortázarian” bridges where the pairs of dancers choreograph their dances. Solanas avoids touristy and cliché Parisian scenes, favoring the dense and rich presence of the city, its streets, and its old buildings, a presence that bestows a certain charm on the lives of the exiled protagonists and corresponds with the musical, literary, visual, and filmic culture of these years of “mythic” reality of Argentina for one who lived abroad, in exile.

In Tangos, Solanas directs a film that is both personal and representative of the era. This aesthetic is risky, but at the same time participates in a musical tradition that is well established both inside and outside the cinema. The splendid choreography displays a variety of tango styles, from traditional to modern, allowing the dance to shine. The progression also shows that the narration, too, is mobile, and should not remain paralyzed in a simple realist telling.

When democracy was restored in Argentina in 1983, Solanas returned.

After Tangos, Solanas portrayed the other side of exile: “in-sile.” Situated in Buenos Aires, his film Sur resumes the theme of the mythology of tango with the same talent and creativity on display in Tangos. Divided into four sections (“La mesa de los sueños,” “La búsqueda,” “Amor y nada más,” and “Morir cansa”), the film expresses the author’s willingness not only to be attentive to the direct experience of his characters, but also to turn to metaphor, myth, and poetry. The sets and cinematography achieve a ghostly atmosphere, with lights curiously multiplied by mist, smoke, and rain-wet ground. Sur does not employ the choreography of Tangos, but the two films share the aesthetic required to tell a subjective story in an objective manner. Sur is the story of love for a woman, for a city, and for a country.

Democracy is supposed to permit and promote political and cultural criticism. In the years following his return to newly democratic Argentina, Solanas produced a variety of films and articles which criticized successive Argentine governments, especially that of Carlos Saúl Menem, president of Argentina from 1973-76 and 1983-89. Although Menem was also a Peronist, he ended up destroying the Peronist movement, “selling” the country by privatizing the state’s resources and signing agreements of pardon and amnesty for the militants of the Dirty War.

El viaje (1992) and La nube (1998) satirized the government, and not without consequence. Though one might expect the personal safety of citizens to be more secure in a democracy than under a dictatorship, Solanas’ criticisms were met with violence: as he left a studio on May 21,, 1991 unknown gunmen made an attempt on his life.

THIRD LIFE: THE STREETS ONCE AGAIN

Argentina, 2001. Economic, social and labor conditions became insufferable under the administration of De la Rúa. In Buenos Aires, people took to the streets in massive and irrepressible protests. The president declared a state of siege, which only aggravated the situation. The more police that were sent to the street to repress the uprising, the more hopeless the battle for control became. The expression “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with them all!”) signaled a collective will that was difficult to stop or contain. On December 21, De la Rúa resigned ignominiously, fleeing the Casa de Gobierno in a helicopter.

These events energized Solanas, as they did thousands of other Argentines. He was inspired to capture on film a historical milestone that, while it had plenty of antecedents, would have far-reaching consequences. Solanas felt that current events should be explored in order to understand the historical moment, as well as the ones that would follow. Above all, he wanted to put in perspective a long history of governmental corruption, on the one hand, and the history of popular resistance on the other.

Three decades had passed since La hora de los hornos, when Solanas rediscovered the cinema of the street. Cinematographic techniques had changed in these years, and heavy 16mm cameras were traded in for camcorders and high-definition digital. With these innovations, the cinema of Solanas regained its youth. The filmmaker hit the pavement to record the events that shook the country, directing four notable documentaries in just five years: Memoria del saqueo (2004), La dignidad de los nadies (2005), Argentina latente (2007) and La próxima estación (2008).

With youthful energy, Solanas returned to a cinema of activism and exposé, but this time with four decades of cinematographic experience, allowing him to assume a resounding and authoritative first-person account. Indeed, Solanas narrates each of these films himself, speaking on camera with his protagonists. Memoria del saqueo, as its title implies, is the “story” of how Argentina was looted by politicians who privatized public services (airlines, telephones, and others), and of the misdeeds surrounding the financial and economic disaster and popular revolt of 2001.

La dignidad de los nadies gave voice to these “anonymous” people that fomented the uprising of 2001, as well as those that have agitated against the continual abuses in Argentina. Inverting the perspective of Memoria del saqueo, which relates the abuses of the system, La dignidad de los nadies tells the story of popular resistance.

The trend continues in Argentina latente and La próxima estación. This last film undertakes a sharp illustration of the looting with just a single example: the state railroads. In some sections of the film the thefts described are nearly unbelievable: looters make off with not only thousands of steel rails, but also with the warehouses that stored them. As in all of his films, Solanas points directly to the names of the accused. In this sense his films are also escraches, a colloquial and untranslatable word that describes physical acts of denunciation, peaceful but effective actions of the victims themselves, that is, the citizens. Accompanying these acts is the cinema, the means of communication most feared by the System.

Jorge Ruffinelli, editor of Nuevo Texto Crítico, is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Stanford University and a recognized authority on Onetti, García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, and Latin American literary history. His critical work has recently focused on Latin American cinema.

This article was translated from the Spanish by Adam Morris.

See also: Argentina, Film