EVENT REVIEW Festival Ambulante 2011
In 2005, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, and Pablo Cruz founded Ambulante, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to cultivate and disseminate international documentary filmmaking. Every year, for three months, Ambulante travels across Mexico to bring together filmmakers, films, and small communities through workshops, panels, and screenings. The objective is to stage encounters between people and media, equip communities with the knowledge and means to represent their experiences, and exchange histories and dialogues, as steps towards social consciousness, if not social transformation. For the first time, Mexican actor, producer, and filmmaker Luna and Festival Ambulante director Ricardo Giraldo brought Ambulante to Los Angeles to screen a series of striking documentary films produced in the last two years.
The University of Southern California (USC) hosted the first of Ambulante Film Festival in Los Angeles, which consisted of four documentary films, discussions with the majority of the filmmakers who made these works, and a group panel titled ‘Documentaries Without Borders’. Following the tradition of Ambulante in Mexico, all screenings of Ambulante Los Angeles were free. An informal, community-based atmosphere permeated the screenings and conversations, even familial, as Luna’s son was sometimes found traipsing through the halls and screening room before and during the panel.
‘Documentaries Without Borders’ is a fitting description for the documentary films showcased and some of the filmmakers’ backgrounds, moving from Colombia, the USA, the Congo, France, to Argentina, and El Salvador by way of Mexico. Alongside “documentaries without borders,” the word ‘collaboration’ also describes this particular group of documentary films. Of the four films, three were directed by two or three filmmakers. All four films deal with movement in a certain sense, that is, a journey, be it through football, music, filmmaking, or the reconstruction of a disappeared town.
Brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist kicked off Ambulante with The Two Escobars (2010), one of the thirty films commissioned by ESPN for their 30 For 30 series (in celebration of ESPN’s 30th anniversary). The film deftly weaves the connection between the one-time football star Andrés Escobar and the one-time head of the international drug trade Pablo Escobar, both of whom were Colombian. Both of these men represented a particularly dangerous and damaging period in Colombia’s contemporary history, the 1980s and 1990s. While Pablo was putting his country on the map through drug trafficking, his cartel’s excessive violence aimed at Colombian government officials and civilians alike, and lavish millionaire lifestyle, Andrés was putting Colombian football on the map of international competition. Yet, if the gap between these two Escobars is as wide as that between darkness and lightness, they were nevertheless connected due to the fact that Colombian football’s rise to the ranks (to the point of becoming 1994 World Cup favourites) was due to none other than Pablo’s drug money.
Through archival footage and talking head interviews, the Zimbalist brothers present this history in a captivating way. They use proverbial documentary film vocabulary and rise above it by respecting the story’s inherent dynamic quality and by structuring the issues of nation, belonging, nationalism, and US imperialism in which the story is located without being didactic.
Frenchmen Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye’s Benda Bilili! (2010) rounded out Ambulante’s first night of screenings, and brought spectators to Kinshasa, Congo and France, as they followed a band of street musicians in their journey from the streets, to the recording studio, to a tour that takes them to France, and the hardships in between. The band, Staff Benda Bilili (meaning “look beyond appearances” in Lingala), is composed of four homeless men who are stricken with polio, which has left them paraplegic; they are joined by three other performers.
Filmmakers Barret and de la Tullaye immerse themselves and the spectator in the poor, urban spaces of Kinshasa to bear witness to Staff Benda Bilili’s efforts to become an internationally renowned band, despite physical hardships and other incidents beyond their control. A true labour of love of the band and filmmakers Barret and de la Tullaye, who took five years to complete the film. Halfway into their project, they ran out of funding and had to return to France. When they returned to Kinshasa, they had difficulties tracking down a crucial member of the band. The film’s structural unevenness, perhaps due to the above reasons, is mitigated by the infectious energy and spirit of the Staff Benda Bilili’s music, which obviously features prominently, and its founding members Ricky Likabu and Coco Ngambali.
If any film incarnates Ambulante’s mission, spirit, cinephilia, and mobility, it is El Ambulante (or The Peddler, 2009), co-directed by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich. The ambulante in question is Daniel Burmeister, a 67-year-old man who travels from town to town in Argentina to create his cine artesanal (artisanal cinema) in collaboration with the town’s inhabitants. In exchange, the town provides Daniel’s lodgings and food (his profits come from tickets to the screenings and tape sales).
As Marcheggiano mentioned before the screening, showing El Ambulante in a film school has its own share of rewards because it provides such an alternative approach to filmmaking from the kind students learn. Daniel is a school unto himself, not only as a filmmaker but as a screen presence. He approaches everyone and everything with such a can-do attitude that folks cannot help but go along for the creative, extremely funny, and honest ride. If he is not scouting actors, he is setting up locations; if he is not directing his amateur cameraman, he is fixing his car; if he is not constructing makeshift film equipment/shooting strategies, he is directing his actors; if he is not editing footage, he is setting up the makeshift screening room with a sheet as the screen… His energy is boundless and so are the effects on the community that he makes through the filmmaking process.
Tatiana Huezo’s film El lugar más pequeño (The Tiniest Place, 2011) was one of the recipients of the Gucci-Ambulante grant, which provides post-production assistance. But credit ultimately belongs to Huezo and the inhabitants of Cinquera, El Salvador.
During El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) between the US-backed military government and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, Cinquera was a disappeared town, the subject of heavy bombing that left nothing standing but ruins and bodies. In 1991, former Cinquera residents began to return to the area, despite military resistance. Since then, survivors of the war, who were from Cinquera, have reconstructed the town to combat the traumas left by the war and forgetting.
Huezo, who studied film in Spain and grew up in Mexico, but whose paternal grandmother is from Cinquera, presents the day-to-day living of some of these survivors and their memories. One notable characteristic is its collage of scenes with the survivors while one hears their voices recount their experiences and memories. This visual-aural disconnect calls attention to their faces, bodies and movements, and to the grain of their voices simultaneously, in a heightened way. One doesn’t see them cry, one hears them; the difference in emotional tenor is keen. Huezo also focuses on the physicality of the place, which tells its own story. Another notable characteristic is thus its tactile, haptic quality. Huezo’s camera lingers and caresses Cinquera’s thick grasses, dirt roads, animal life, to account for what is there and no longer there, without resorting to archival footage. Apart from awkward moments of simulating the climate of war via camera flourishes, it’s an impressive debut.
During the ‘Documentaries Without Borders’ panel, Luna and Giraldo advocated for the creation of Ambulante centers across the world, including Los Angeles. If the spectator response to Ambulante’s debut in Los Angeles and the high quality of documentary films are any measure of things to come, then one can hope for a follow-up Ambulante Los Angeles, at the very least.
This event ran from 24th to 25th September 2011.
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