Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Reel trouble: The battle to make Latin American film

By Simon Atkinson
Business reporter, BBC News

Screen shot from Perro Come Perro
Carlos Moreno's film became the first Sundance nomination from Colombia

Standing in front of the audience at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, south London, film director Carlos Moreno pulls his dark blue duffel coat a little tighter around him.

It is 5,400 miles away and 20C cooler than his home town of Cali in Colombia - where his latest movie is set.

But the onlookers are feeling a little closer to the violent side of that city after sitting through 106 minutes of his thriller Perro Come Perro (Dog Eat Dog).

"It has become known as one of the most popular films on pirate DVDs in Colombia," he says, proudly. "I've had moderate box office success, but at the traffic lights, where people buy cheap DVDs, I'm doing very well."

No co-ordination

After this year becoming the first Colombian director to be nominated for a Sundance Award, Mr Moreno has secured distribution deals for Perro Come Perro in parts of Europe and Africa.

But in his home continent, things are more complicated.

For while there is a shared language and geography, films from the region tend not to get widely seen in other Latin American countries.

"Colombia and Venezuela may share a border and the audiences may both speak Spanish, but there are no joint launches, no joint promotions," Mr Moreno says.

It is just one quirk in the region's film industry which directors discussed as they gathered for the Discovering Latin America Film Festival in London.

And given the global economic downturn, inevitably its impact on their industry is a hot topic.

Crisis, what crisis?

With seven films - and a string of awards - to her name, Argentine Lucrecia Martel is among her country's most celebrated modern writers and directors.

Lucrecia Martel
We can give a lot of information to Europeans about crisis. We are experts on crisis and how to live and survive
Lucrecia Martel

Her latest effort, La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) was nominated for the prestigious Gold Palm at this years' Cannes Festival - and has just had its UK premiere.

And the 41-year-old is philosophical about the impact financial turmoil will have on her.

"If you are born in Latin America, you are born into crisis," she says.

"We can give a lot of information to Europeans about crisis. We are experts on crisis and how to live and survive. With all the money we could make in consultancy fees, we could make some great films."

And Carlos Moreno is equally dismissive. While acknowledging the economic situation is getting trickier, he says that talk of film in his country being hit is "panic".

"It's a paranoia. Colombia has always been in crisis," he says. "The economic crisis is being used as a justification to stop projects that were running, but were always going to be difficult anyway."

Artistic value threatened

The issue of funding is never far from the minds of the vast majority of film-makers - wherever they are in the world.

Ms Martel remembers well how Argentina's film industry was rocked by the economic crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s as domestic funding dried up.

And in the last few years, the proliferation of global cinema chains has seen the number of small independent cinemas close down, and with it, she says, the opportunity for home-grown, other Latin American films and smaller European movies to get an airing.

The idea of making films has become more focused on the money that was going to come back instead of the artistic value of the film
Carlos Moreno

"The number of film screens has increased, but in spite of that, you see less diversity than before."

Mr Moreno nods in sympathy, explaining that output of Colombian films has increased since a change in the law gave firms tax breaks to fund domestic films.

This has seen domestic television channels becoming key investors, attracted by both the financial benefit and also the chance to back the kind of content they hope will draw in viewers.

"The idea of making films has become more focused on the money that was going to come back, instead of the artistic value of the film. To make that happen, films have been modelled on soap operas," he says.

"One channel is investing $10m (6.8bn) in a film about the rescue of [former Colombian hostage] Ingrid Betancourt, but 15 films could be made for the same amount."


Ms Martel says that she is already seeing foreign investment begin to wane as would-be backers get nervy in tumultuous times.

Latin American film has regularly been made in joint ventures with overseas producers, primarily from Spain - a country which most economists say is now in recession, largely on the collapse of its construction industry.

But she says there is reluctance to invest in films - especially if "you are someone not known outside your own country".

Screenshot from My Name Ain't Johnny
Films such as Brazil's My Name Ain't Johnny got UK premieres at the festival

Her latest film had a budget of about $2.5m, but even with her relative success, usual sources of funding are becoming harder to get.

Pre-selling a film's broadcast rights to international television stations has been another useful revenue stream but this is now "impossible", she says.

And getting promotion for new releases on domestic television is a prohibitively expensive business.

In exchange for 2,000 seconds of air time, Ms Martel says she would have to sign away all broadcast rights to her production.

"You have to choose. Some accept it and go along with those terms, but I have always refused. It's slavery."

Spanish imposition

Ms Martel's last two films have been co-productions with Spanish investors. And while her partners have not meddled with the content, other film-makers have been compromised, she says.

The problem is not making films. The problem is the kind of films that we are making
Lucrecia Martel

"The film-maker may have put exotic things into the film to seduce the foreign producer, and you end up making a film that is not the one you wanted to make, one that is more likely to form ideas of prejudice and reinforce stereotypes about the region."

Sometimes foreign investors look to appeal to audiences in their own country - for example, a Spanish financier insisting that a Spanish actor plays a lead role.

"My last film was set in a small city in northern Argentina. If suddenly a Spanish actor appeared with a Spanish accent, it would seem very strange. To the Latin American audience, it is something that would have needed explaining.

"When co-productions are more than just a financial arrangement, when they have artistic input, problems arise.

"The problem is not making films. We are here [at the festival] because we are making films. The problem is the kind of films that we are making."

Alternative outlet

Arturo Santana is another who feels that the economic crisis is relative to other things going on in his native Cuba.

A well-known face in the capital, Havana, Mr Santana is one of the country's most famous directors of music videos which, he says, have become "a way of expression".

The downturn is just "another crisis" in recent times, after a series of hurricanes and the continued political and economic isolation from the US, including more than 40 years of sanctions intended to topple the governments of Fidel and Raul Castro.

Budgets for films flows thorough a state body - the Cuban Film Institute - meaning government censors can step in to stop production making it to state-run cinemas or on television.

Arturo Santana
I'm not doing everything that I want, but I'm doing everything that I can do
Arturo Santana

Therefore music videos have become "our cinematographic language", he says, shown round-the-clock on television, with the best showcased in festivals.

"They have a high value and so that is where a lot of the directors work."

Mr Santana has made about 100 music videos with many of the top Cuban recording artists - including Omara Portuonda from the Buena Vista Social Club.

And with those videos have come about 100 negotiations, contracts and post-production sessions - all with the problems these can bring.

"Making a three-minute music video in Cuba is equal to a three-hour feature film elsewhere," he says.

Production conditions are getting worse, he adds, with tight budgets meaning he often has only 12 hours of filming time.

"But while I'm not doing everything that I want, but I'm doing everything that I can do. My country has its problems, but you can always be behind a camera, and just hope that things will improve."

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