Chile’s is not the only emergent national cinema to suffer from a seeming dearth of female voices at its internationally recognized cutting edge, but if there’s one director who seems most likely to change the boys-club feel in the near future it’s Alicia Scherson. She’s been honing a meticulous and confident approach to stories of offbeat interpersonal relationships — their tentative beginnings and their breakdowns— since 2005 when her debut feature, “Play” picked up the Best New Director award at Tribeca as well as the Independent Camera award in Karlovy Vary, and then was selected as Chile’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar lottery. Four years later she returned with “Tourists,” a witty dissection of a female midlife crisis which, like “Play” starred Aline Kuppenheim, who also appears in Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” this year and was something of a talismanic presence for Scherson in these early films.
Scherson’s next film, however, proved her most ambitious. A four-country co-production set mostly in Rome and starring Rutger Hauer, “The Future” is based on a novel by Scherson’s countryman Roberto Bolano, and details the derailment of a twisted but oddly touching grieving process. The film is not wholly successful — its enigmatic mood and shifts intone from noirish mystery to relationship drama can feel a little too oblique — but it is very singular, mining the same rich vein of off-kilter emotional intelligence that Scherson, who is an associate professor at the Universidad de Chile, brings to all her work. This year, Scherson returns to the festival circuit with possibly her most complete and satisfying film to date: “Family Life.” Co-directed with Cristian Jiminez (whose 2009 film “Optical Illusions” Scherson co-wrote), and based on a story by Alejandro Zamba, it’s an unusual tale of a genteel home invasion that becomes a string of cuckoo-in-the-nest deceptions, and when it found its natural home in Sundance this year, we enjoyed the hell out of it, calling it “strange, funny and caustic” (it went on to pick up the Grand Jury Prize at the Miami International Film Festival). Despite the privations of its shooting (it’s a low-budget title, shot in Scherson’s own home just after she’d had a baby) the nimble, droll film marks Scherson’s best-ever balancing of dark themes with light touch, and we can’t wait to see what she does next with the greater exposure it will hopefully bring her.
José Luis Torres Leiva
Of all the names here, Torres Leiva’s is the most unfairly well-kept secret. Since his debut he’s been programmed in festivals like Rotterdam, Locarno and Valdivia, and maintains a style that’s a mixture of profound and experimental, as influenced by slow cinema pioneers such as Béla Tarr and Lav Diaz, but working with much more approachable lengths and a constant combination of fiction and documentary. His films are either hyper-naturalistic fiction, using non-actors in real settings and telling a minimal stories like in “Summer” (2011) and “The Sky, the Land and the Rain” (2008). Or he makes documentaries that show the reality of people within the places where they live, such as “See and Listen” (2013) about blind and deaf people coming together to describe their different and complementary impressions of the world, or “Three Weeks Later” (2010) which documents the people, structures and landscapes in the aftermath of 2010’s devastating earthquake.
His latest film, “The Wind Knows That I’m Going Back Home” (2016) is a docudrama, starring Agüero himself, as a filmmaker who travels to the islands of Chiloé to investigate a story that he never finds, but instead is confronted with the social realities of children and old people, existing in circumstances of poverty and austerity. The film manages to be poetic as its title, with imagery that feels authentic due to its documentary nature, but it’s the performance of Agüero that adds a dimension, and allows the film to also become an investigation into the motivations behind telling stories that aren’t yours to tell. How important is the voice of the “author” compared to that of those who are silenced simply because they are not calling the shots behind a camera? That Torres Leiva is willing to explore such complex questions so uncompromisingly suggests he deserves to be better known than he currently is.
Another veteran documentary filmmaker, Agüero has a immense and powerful history of political documentaries, but unlike Patricio Guzmán’s, his were made in the midst of the military dictatorship, and thus their distribution was mostly through illegal, clandestine showings done in secret hideouts in Chile. His films weren’t necessarily incendiary, but they were immensely critical of the government, and of the lack of freedom of speech that filmmakers and artists experienced in general. One of his most famous films is the highly regarded “One Hundred Kids Waiting for a Train” (1988), a short (under one hour) wonder that takes a close look at a film workshop done for small kids in an impoverished area of Santiago, where the teacher, Alicia Vega, among other things, lets them draw their own films, teaches them camera placements and takes them to the cinema for the first time in their lives. A profound work of beauty that has haunted Agüero’s cinema since, here he captures an iconic image of the magic of cinema: the face of a kid watching a film being projected onto a wall for the very first time.
His most recent film, “The Way I Like It 2” (2016) is a documentary sequel to a short film he made under the military dictatorship, “The Way I Like It” (1985), in which he interviewed filmmakers who were in the middle of shooting, to ask them about their approaches, especially regarding the censorship laws at the time. In the new installment he takes the same approach, but asks a new generation of filmmakers whose answers are much less provocative, in keeping with the times perhaps. At the same time Agüero tries to answer for himself, transforming the film into an exploration of his own visual grammar and voice. But perhaps his loveliest recent movie is “The Other Day” (2012), where he also adopts a personal tone, and in which he films every person that knocks on his door and asks them if he can visit them at their home the next day, which encourages some beautiful, soulfully human interactions. He is a Chilean treasure who is not well enough known outside the country’s borders, but with luck, the recent blossoming of Chilean cinema will bring him to wider attention.
Here’s hoping this sampler menu of the delights that Chilean cinema has to offer has tempted you to seek out the work of these and other rising filmmakers from the region, such as Matías Bize, Marialy Rivas, Isidora Marras and Marcela Said. Larrain’s “Jackie” is on Blu-ray now, Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” will be out later this year and Scherson’s “Family Life” will no doubt continue on the festival circuit throughout 2017.