Government aid, vibrancy jumpstarts local cinema

Buoyed by a vibrant film scene and savvy government aid, the tiny South American nation of Uruguay has started to draw international attention.

In February, Adrian Biniez’s debut feature “Gigante” (Giant) sharedthe Berlin film fest’s jury grand prix and the helmer took the Alfred Bauer Prize. Other festivals are also taking notice of the caliber of films emerging from this nation of just 3.5 million people.

The latest showcase is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has programmed a selection of Uruguayan cinema Oct. 16-18.

“It struck me last year that Uruguayan cinema was not getting all the attention it merited,” says Carlos Gutierrez, curator of the Go Uruguay! showcase and co- founding director of nonprofit media arts org Cinema Tropical.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art is including Carlos Ameglio’s “La Cascara,” in its Ibero-American Film showcase in November.

Meanwhile, Gotham-based Film Movement picked up North American rights to “Gigante” and 2007’s “El bano del papa” (The Pope’s Toilet).

Uruguay’s film production output remains modest at around five to six a year, but that’s already double the tally of just six years ago. In 2008, the number of narrative and docu features released rose to 10 after a new film law kicked in.

Since last year, Uruguay’s government has budgeted $1 million toward a film fund meant to support pics in all phases of production, distribution and promotion. A second fund of $750,000 finances audiovisual endeavors such as the five-month-old film commission and promotion office. Average pic budgets are in the $500,000 range.

Tax incentives include a VAT exemption for production services and co-productions.

“Given that 90% of Uruguayan films are co-productions, that covers just about everyone,” says Uruguayan Film Institute director Martin Papich. A fledgling tax incentive for private investors in film has yet to yield results.

“Government support has been an important step but is just one more step,” in the right direction, says “Gigante” producer Fernando Epstein of Control Z.

Despite their appeal overseas, local arthouse pics are having trouble catching on at home. “I think they’ve lost their novelty factor,” says Epstein. Control Z’s much-lauded pic “Whisky” totaled 65,000 admission in 2004 after it took home awards from Cannes and other festivals, while “Gigante” only tallied 15,000 admissions.

“Our goal is to get more people into the habit of watching films,” says “Cascara” producer Mariana Secco of Saladomedia, who points out that there are only 85 screens in the country, mostly in the capital, Montevideo, where nearly half of its population resides. Two mobile cinemas ply rural areas.

The more mainstream comedy “El bano del papa” has attracted some 80,000 admissions, but has yet to reach the heights of 2001 hit “En la puta vida” (Tricky Life) which drew up to 130,000 viewers. Hollywood blockbusters like “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” corral up to 200,000 admissions.

In the past two years, docus have reigned at the box office. Gonzalo Arijon’s docu “Stranded,” about the 1972 Andes plane crash that forced its survivors into cannibalism, has outperformed local fiction pics this year.

The new film commission is hoping to tap Uruguayan cinema’s growing prestige to lure international filmmakers to the country.

“Aside from filmmakers, we’d like to attract creators of videogames, musicvideos and advertising,” says film commissioner Ivan Ibarra.

“Montevideo has a wonderful decadence … and poets, soccer coaches and directors in every corner … so when you work with an Uruguayan crew, you should be open to receiving creative and passionate tips 24/7,” says “A dios momo” helmer-scribe Leonardo Ricagni.

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