World premiering in Fantasia sidebar Documentaries from the Edge, Emilio Silva Torres’ feature debut “Straight to VHS” takes you down the rabbit hole of his investigation into a rare film that spawned a cult following in Uruguay.
The documentary, co-produced by Uruguay’s Tarkiofilm and Argentina’s Trivial Media, delves into the mystery behind the making of the quirky film “Act of Violence on a Young Journalist,” released straight to video in 1989, and its even more enigmatic filmmaker, Manuel Lamas. Both films are presented as a double bill in Canada’s 25th Fantasia Int’l Film Festival, marking the first time “Act of Violence…” has ever screened outside of Uruguay.
In “Act of Violence…,” a journalist named Blanca, who is also adept at reading Tarot cards, interviews various experts on the theme of violence. Meanwhile she introduces an older woman to a man who becomes the woman’s fiancé and makes her abandon her spoiled adult son.
The son finds out that Blanca was responsible for introducing his mother to the husband-to-be and swears to kill her and people close to her. So, while Blanca investigates violence, she too becomes a victim of it, as well as her new beau and his cousin, her best friend. The Tarot cards warn her but to no avail. The VHS film is grainy, incredibly camp and the performances equally camp. “Action.. Romance… Mystery… Sex… Magic…,” proclaims its trailer. As one talking head in “Straight to VHS” says: “I think it’s the movie that taught me most about film” …as in it’s the movie that taught him how not to make a film.
In his attempts to find Lamas who seems to have vanished without a trace, Silva Torres manages to track down some of the actors who ultimately refuse to participate in the documentary. He does find some other people who knew him to speak on the record and he also finds some of Lamas’ lost VHS cassettes. The lines between reality and fiction begin to blur as the docu spirals into a fantasy where an actor playing Silva Torres plunges deeper into the enigma of Lamas.
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Silva Torres discussed his documentary with Variety:
“Straight to VHS” comes in three parts. What made you choose this structure? What motivated you to make the second part more surreal?
Silva Torres: I felt that the research and the story itself called for that structure as I had gone through those three stages myself. The first part is more classic and more innocent to start with then it is followed by a more personal second stage and a much freer third. As for the second part, at some point the film began to ask for it, perhaps influenced by “Act of Violence …” which in itself is a film that also plays with this duality of fiction and documentary as two parts of the same story where one, as a spectator, is never too clear about whether what is happening is scripted or not.
What made you decide to track the origins of this cult video and its director?
It was a super personal process. I started the investigation as a fan because every time I saw the movie, I kept having more questions about it. During the first stage of the investigation and as I came across more obstacles, I discovered, along with my producers [Juan Alvarez Neme and Virginia Bogliolo], that there was a film here, that in this journey where I met people who had known him, spoke on the phone with strangers who referred me to other strangers and so on, that behind all this scrutiny, there was an interesting story.
Tell us how long the investigation lasted. I notice that you also used phone directories (which I thought were already extinct!) to find some of the people in the video. But social media was the most useful tool, right?
The investigation has never really ended. In a way it continues because there are always questions to be answered, although at some point you have to stop. Until we filmed it, the research went on for about four or five years, but the investigation continued during the filming. To this day I receive messages with stories about Lamas. And in the investigation, we used everything: Obviously social networks were a great tool but phone directories, press clippings of the time, old yellow guides to find video stores; I used everything.
Why do you think the actors didn’t want to be involved in the documentary?
I think that each one of them had more than valid reasons, more than 30 years had passed since the film was made and not all of them have stories that they want to retell; it is more than understandable.
Has your documentary been released in Uruguay? If so, how was it received by both the audience and the critics?
Not yet, we look forward to its premiere in Uruguay in November. But we were at Argentina’s BAFICI where we had a very good reception from both the public and the critics. We won the Fipresci Award for best feature film in the Americas competition and it was something that made us extremely happy.
I see you wrote and directed episodes of the animated series “Anselmo Wants to Know.” What is it about? Where is it seen?
‘Anselmo Wants to Know’ was an animated series that we did together with producers Alvarez Neme and Bogliolo and other friends. It was an educational animated series where we took a lot of liberties to tell the story of some friends on their way to learn how the world works. The 10 episodes are on YouTube and broadcast on public television in Uruguay. ‘Anselmo Wants to Know’ was my first experience as a screenwriter and I directed some of its episodes. From there I went directly to making this film.
Do you have your next project in mind?
Yes, we recently started working on a new project that is still a bit green, but it will try to blur the lines between documentary and fiction and be about the need to persist in memories, self-fiction and some real-life crimes.