It’s been a banner year for Latin American cinema where 18 countries, including newcomer Suriname, have submitted films to vie for the international feature Oscar. Half of this year’s crop are by women, many of them debuts. Several entries focus on the plight of Indigenous people and other marginalized groups.
Despite the region’s chauvinistic societies, female cinematic voices have grown in strength in recent years. Some credit the #MeToo movement for the shift in attitudes and the growing number of femme directors in the region. In Bolivia, 85% of the producers are said to be women.
In some nations, private and public initiatives encourage more aspiring Indigenous and other marginalized filmmakers to create their visions. Mexico’s film institute Imcine, run by filmmaker Maria Novaro and her mostly female team, introduced a film fund for Indigenous and Afro-descendent filmmakers in 2019.
Strong female-led debuts hail from the likes of Peru, which submitted Melina Leon’s “Song Without a Name,” a drama about a young Ayacuchana who is tricked into giving up her baby at a bogus clinic. The film had its world premiere at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight and has won multiple awards in the festival circuit. Peru has yet to score an Oscar although Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” was nominated in 2009.
Costa Rica sent Sofia Quiros’ first feature, “Land of Ashes,” a lush coming-of-age drama that world premiered at Cannes Critics Week in 2019. Variety’s Jessica Kiang described it as “a coming-of-age story that unfolds like the dreamy incantation of a spell, or a bedside prayer murmured over clasped hands.”
For the first time, Brazil sent a documentary, “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die.” Barbara Paz’s debut feature-length doc is a love letter to her late partner, helmer Hector Babenco, whose “Kiss of the Spider Woman” earned William Hurt his first Oscar nom and win.
But the female gaze prevails even in some of the films by male directors. Guatemala has only participated twice at the Oscars and both films have been by Jayro Bustamante, named by Oscar-winner Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”) as one of 20 directors who will shape the cinema to come. Bustamante’s political horror film “La Llorona” has been generating considerable buzz and amassing awards since it won best film at the 2019 Venice Days. The titular Llorona (weeping woman) is a mysterious Mayan who shows up to work at the besieged home of a general who has been accused of genocide. Her presence further spikes the tension in the household. Variety has predicted that it could make the cut for either or both the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
Also tipped to make the shortlist is multi-laureled Mexican submission “I’m No Longer Here” by Fernando Frías de la Parra. It follows a Cumbia-dancing youth who flees from a local gang to the U.S. where he struggles to fit in, even among fellow Latinos. Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are among its many supporters.
Ecuador also has sent an immigrant drama, “Emptiness,” described by its director, Paul Venegas, as “an emotional journey of a woman struggling to overcome a corrupted male-dominated society.”
Meanwhile, Suriname’s “Wiren,” by Ivan Tai-Apin, is about a deaf boy who takes on the government to fight for his rights as a disabled person.
At least three entries are documentaries, or in the case of Chilean Maite Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent,” a docu-drama that tracks an elderly man who’s hired to spy on the welfare of a nursing home resident. Chile’s had recent success at the Oscars, with Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” snagging the big prize in 2017.
The number of docs reflects a robust trend, spurred by the growth of streaming services, which provide more distribution opportunities and subsequently, a growing appreciation for them.
Venezuelan doc “Once Upon a Time in Venezuela,” by newcomer Anabel Rodríguez Ríos, world-premiered at Sundance. It centers on the coastal village of Congo Mirador and its struggle to survive the impact of climate change and endemic corruption.
Other films, such as Leticia Tonos’ “A State of Madness” (Dominican Republic), Cuba’s “Buscando a Casal,” by Jorge Luis Sanchez and Colombia’s “El Olvido Que Seremos” (Memories of My Father) by Oscar-winner Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoque”), center on real-life heroes.
Family issues roil Argentina’s “Sleepwalkers” by Paula Hernandez and Uruguay’s dark comedy “Aleli” by Leticia Jorge Romero. Among its multiple nominations since 1961, Argentina has had two Oscar-winning films to date, “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “The Official Story.”
Past political turmoil serves as a backdrop in a few: Bolivia’s historical drama “Chaco,” Panama’s “Operation Just Cause” and Paraguay’s “Killing the Dead.”
Honduras, meanwhile entered an anthology, “Dias de Luz” by six directors.