Film still from 1976 of Aline Küppenheim looking at something from her car.
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Lorena Pino UWE MA Curating Student

on Fri 24 March 2023

Contemporary Chilean Film Directors in UK Cinema

Posted on Fri 24 March 2023

UWE MA Curating student Lorena Pino reflects on recent trends in contemporary Chilean cinema with a focus on some exciting new releases in the UK and highlighting the work of a group of young female filmmakers that are telling stories from a fresh point of view.

Contemporary Latin American cinema has a limited presence in UK cinemas - mainly screening at film festivals and, in the instance of a cinema release, throughout the independent exhibition sector. The major film producing countries of the region such as Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Chile are the exception, having traditionally been better positioned in international markets.

Of these, Chile is one of the countries with a consistent presence in UK cinemas. Patricio Guzman (b.1941) is particularly prevalent, with critically acclaimed films exploring the impact and legacy of the 1973 military coup through titles such as Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010), Cordillera of Dreams (La Cordillera de Sueños, 2019) and My Imaginary Country (Mi País Imaginario, 2022). 

Occasionally, the experimental and cult work of Alejandro Jodorowsky (1929) returns to independent cinemas in the UK - Santa Sangre (1989), for example, was part of Cinema Rediscovered in 2019.

 

Five Female Filmmakers from Chile in UK cinemas

A new generation of female film directors from Chile have been making their way into cinemas in the UK over recent years, with distinctive and original approaches illustrating their perspectives on Chilean society, history and culture. Dominga Sotomayor, Maite Alberdi, María Paz González, Manuela Martelli and Francisca Alegría have the highest international profiles of this emerging generation. Coincidentally, they were all born in the 1980s during the last years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, a period that profoundly shaped Chilean society which still informs much of Chilean cinema’s cinematic landscape today. This is a younger generation who are dealing creatively with the past and its echoes of repression, fear and censorship.

 

Dominga Sotomayor Castillo (b. Santiago de Chile, 1985)

A writer, producer, educator and film director, Sotomayor’s debut feature film, Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves a Domingo, 2012) was developed at the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence, winning the Tiger Award at the 41º Rotterdam Film Festival. Since 2006 she has made several short films including her most recent, Correspondence (2020) which is a 19-minute documentary co-directed by Carla Simon (Alcarràs).

Sotomayor has produced a significant number of feature films including  Manuela Martelli’s 1976.

Film still from Too Late To Die Young

Her second feature film, Too Late to Die Young (Tarde para morir joven, 2018) was released in the UK in 2019. The film won the Leopard for Best Direction at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018, making her the first woman to receive the award.

Interviewed by Christopher Small for Notebook, Mubi, Sotomayor explained some of her influences in making Too Late to Die Young:

 I was very young when Pinochet was kicked out in 1989. I was four years old. But I remember my parents talking a lot about this change. In 1989, we moved to a community much like the one in the film and even though I asked my parents, “Are we moving because democracy has arrived?” they said no. I think basically it was a need to look for hope, for another beginning - to be free. Free from the city, which I remember was very grey. Santiago was grey. There were no spaces for artists, etc. My mother is an actress, but at that time she was almost exclusively in soap operas.

From that time, my images are mostly blurry. For the film, I didn’t want to make it that concrete, to base it on my own experiences exactly. I think it embodies the spirit of the 90s but I didn’t want the first layer to be political. It’s a political film but it’s not about concrete things. More about the spirit of change”.

 

Maite Alberdi (b. Santiago de Chile, 1983)

Maite Alberdi is a writer, director, producer and educator. She is recognised as one of the leading voices of documentary in contemporary Chile with films such as The Lifeguard (El Salvavidas), Propaganda (2014), Tea Time (La Once, 2014), The Grown-ups (2016) and God (2019). Alberdi became the first Chilean woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2020 for The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo), which portrays life in a care home with tenderness, humour and compassion. Previously, in 1995, Chilean/Canadian director Vanessa Schwartz was nominated for Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards for her film, The Janitor (1995).

Film still from The Mole Agent

Alberdi has been recognised for her uniquely intimate approach to her characters and her special interest in the challenges of ageing and people from everyday life. Her new feature documentary, The Eternal Memory (La Memoria Infinita, 2023) explores the life of a couple who have been married for several years and now face the husband’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The film won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and came second in the Panorama Audience Award for documentaries at the Berlin International Film Festival 2023. 

María Paz González (b.Temuco, 1981)

Trained as a journalist, Paz Gonzalez completed her debut feature documentary,  Daughter (Hija) in 2012. Lina from Lima (Lina de Lima, 2019) is a musical comedy drama, co-produced between Chile and Argentina, which has won international awards. In the UK it was released by curated streaming platform MUBI.

The film was praised for its originality in presenting an empowered  migrant woman, changing the familiar ‘victim’ approach, as the director highlighted in an interview for ‘Al Dia

The film was born out of an investigation in which I immersed myself in the reality of many migrant women. What I found was a world of strong, funny and luminous women who also find, in the distance, and perhaps for the first time, a space of their own where they can see themselves. For me, it was very important to rescue that energy to give life to a multifaceted female character.”

Film still from Lina From Lima

Manuela Martelli (b. Santiago de Chile, 1983)

Photo of director Manuela Martelli in Watershed Cinema 1

Martelli began her career as an actor in the film, B-Happy (2003), directed by Gonzalo Justiniano, when she was only 18 years old. The film went on to receive a good reception at the domestic box office and win awards internationally. This work led her to the role of Silvana in the award-winning 2004 film, Machuca (Dir: Andres Wood), where she portrays a young woman from a deprived background who establishes a strong friendship with two younger boys in a coming-of-age drama set in the tumultuous days of 1973 prior to the military coup.

Film still from Machucha starring Manuela Martelli

Her first steps as a writer/director were with her short films, Apnea (2015) and Land Tides (2016, Marea de Tierra). After almost a decade of work, she premiered her debut feature film, 1976 as part of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight programme 2022, which   went on to win the First Feature Category at the BFI London Film Festival 2022, among other international accolades.

1976 is a co-production between Chile/Argentina with Andres Wood and Dominga Sotomayor credited in the list of producers. The central figure in this intriguing personal/political drama is Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) a middle-aged woman from the privileged social class, inspired by Martelli’s own grandmother.

Film still from 1976

In an interview, Martelli explains how she decided to tell the story from that specific time in history,

1976! One of the most cruel and dark years of dictatorship! Before we even start talking about depression, let’s have a look at the big picture. Then another transversal question was arising to try to understand that period in Chile’s history and not just my family issues: How could we live thinking that what happens outside the walls of our home won’t infiltrate our domestic space?

(...) After various script versions I understood that the film was a character observation. I think that Dominga Sotomayor, the film producer, helped me a lot during the development phase to interpret this idea. From then on I understood that I was looking through her eyes, and this became my guideline.”

 

Francisca Alegría, Chile (b.1986)

A graduate in Screenwriting and Film Directing (MFA) from Columbia University, Francisca Alegría won several awards for her short film, And the Whole Sky Fits in a Dead Cow’s Eye (Y Todo el Cielo Cupo en el Ojo de una Vaca, 2016) including the Best International Short Fiction Film at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Previously she wrote and directed the shorts Agua en la Boca (2015), Francisca Valenzuela: En mi memoria (musical, 2011) and Sobre la mesa (2010).

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future (La vaca que cantó una canción hacia el futuro, 2022) is her debut feature film and is to be released in the UK on 24 March 2023. The film was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs and premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It also sees Andres Wood among the producers.

Film still from The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future

The film centres around the character of Cecilia (Leonor Varela), a middle-aged doctor with a family and a respectable status. In an unexpected turn of events, Cecilia is forced to travel back to her family home when her father (Alfredo Castro) suffers a heart attack after the sudden reappearance of his deceased wife, Magdalena (Mia Maestro), who passed away several years ago. Magdalena is now emerging from a river in the middle of an ecological catastrophe. In an attempt to find reconciliation with the past, the two women, mother and daughter find peace and transform the future.

Film still from The Cow Who Sang A Song Into The Future

Despite the notable differences between genres and narratives, both debut films -  1976 and The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future - explore some interesting common threads. The strong female main characters in each, both middle-aged women from privileged social classes, are forced to temporarily move away from the routine of the city and return to their houses in the country, where they will have to cope with situations beyond their control. This leads to a dramatic turning point. In one case, motivated by clear political reasons, in the other by an emotional debt with the past - and perhaps a political connection in addition. Both films are marked by death, grief and the stamp of profound paternalism. 

The themes, aesthetics and approaches of this new generation of filmmakers suggest there is a need to overhaul the traditionally male dominated narratives of Chilean cinema. In an interview in Sundance, Francisca Alegría, separate herself from the magical realism and define her style in a different way:

I don’t see my film as ‘proper’ magical realism (..) I think this film (her debut feature) oscillates closer to the fantastic realm and because it brings Chilean idiosyncrasy into its DNA, it is considered a magical realist tale”.

Meanwhile, Martelli has mentioned her process when writing 1976, there was no chance that I would do anything without it being political”. In this case we see the story from Carmen's perspective changing the traditional representation of the female character.   

These are definitely new creative voices to keep an eye on from Chile and Latin America at a time a new feminist movement has taken force since 2019 in Chile. It is a perfect time to see Manuella Martelli’s 1976 and Francisca Alegría’s The Cow Who Sang Into the Future, which are now screening until at least Thu 30 March at Watershed.


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