Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

Children of the »Missing«

A discussion with Gabriela Massuh about the new realism in recent Argentinean cinema and theatre productions

Katrin Klingan, Hortensia Völckers

Since the end of dictatorship in 1989, the city of Buenos Aires with its 15 million inhabitants has been under the influence of a neoliberal economic regime. The state is withdrawing more and more from its traditional areas of responsibility. Today, Argentina is going through the greatest cultural changes in its history on its »way to globalization.«

Young theater directors and filmmakers - children of a generation of the »missing« - react to this situation with low-budget productions on a small scale. Their work is scarcely noticed in Argentina, while they are treated as shooting stars in European theater laboratories. The philosopher and German specialist Gabriela Massuh has observed the work of these artists over the past few years, and opened up contacts to the European art scene for them. Massuh, who has been the program manager at the Goethe Institute in Buenos Aires since 1989, has written books about Walter Benjamin and Jorge Luis Borges among others, and published numerous articles on the transformation processes taking place in Argentinean culture under the influence of unbridled capitalism.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] In recent Argentinean theater and cinema, the reference to contemporary models of reality seems to have replaced experimentation with language and images as an esthetic guiding principle. Is it possible to speak of a new form of realism? And what stylistic devices are used by the artists?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] It is certainly true that recent theater from Buenos Aires has abandoned a model that existed in the eighties and nineties. However, although certain parallels in the areas of film and theater are very evident, the process was different in each of these two fields.

Let us begin with theater. Here, it was not an esthetic model, but an »estheticizing« model that was superseded. I must explain that a little: traditionally, theater always contained a very strong element of social criticism, even if it was not expressly »realistic« like, for example, the grotesque theater of Discépolo in the thirties and the work of Griselda Gambaro, who put on a sort of local »theater of cruelty« from the sixties onwards. Parallel to this there was always a realistic style of theater, which became very political towards the mid-fifties. Brecht’s influence cannot be overlooked here. Bertolt Brecht is still the most-performed German-language author in Argentina. After this came the dark years of the military dictatorship, from 1976 to 1983. In those years, it was not only people that went missing: the whole art and culture scene disappeared from sight. It was as if the military dictatorship had left behind a tabula rasa. It took many years for cultural production to take shape again.

The military dictatorship represented a clean break in many respects. It was astonishing, however, that the next generation »cultivated« this break very consciously: people abandoned the political side of things, and thus also text, ideology, and realism. Young theater in the eighties came from the underground scene, where a movement had developed in the last years of the dictatorship that experimented a great deal with images, movements, sound, and music. These works were not intended to convey meaning, but to work on the senses. People didn’t want to shout out collective slogans, they wanted to let individuality come to the fore. Influences of international pop culture, such as punk, were very noticeable. The works dispensed with words. If there was any text at all, it was a mixture of cabaret and dada. This was also the era of the great performances by the »Organización Negra«, a group that put on real happenings in public for the first time.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] In this context, how is one to assess the era of Menem, who came to power in 1989 to liberalize the economic system and guaranteed to take the Argentinean nation towards globalization?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a turning point for Argentina as well. That was when the world-wide neoliberal globalization process began, which sold itself as a triumph of capital - a model that the then President Menem adopted uncritically and without reservations. This meant there was a much more extensive withdrawal of the state than in other Latin American countries. The whole telecommunications network, most public transport facilities, a large part of educational and health services, the pension system, the motorways, etc. were auctioned off to private, mostly foreign corporations. This new model caused a profound change in the process of collective identity construction. It seemed like expropriation, like an incursion into everything that had formerly been called »public space.« New public spaces were formed: the shopping centers, television, the internet, the »country club,« and all those institutions of consumption in which the definition of what is public - and what is private - is reformulated.

This structural change is the subject of the new plays. In the theater this is shown by the resistance to those esthetic forms of capitalism defined by Catherine David as »mega« and coming under the rough heading of »entertainment industry.« And this resistance, which, by the way, is never proclaimed as such, makes it necessary to use means of expression that now have less to do with images than with words. Buenos Aires is a city overladen with advertising images, it is a noisy, dirty, dangerous city. To quote Habermas, there is a »new confusion« on the urban level. Under these conditions it is almost logical that the reaction will be to create a quieter, smaller space to be able to understand reality at all. What drives the new realism is the urge to reflect incomprehensible reality on a small scale, in its separate parts.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] You mentioned parallels between film and theater. Is that which you call »small-scale« also to be found in recent films?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] The development was somewhat different in film. Just as new theater is to be seen as something separate from the performances of the eighties, new film consciously dissociates itself from fiction, from ordered narrative forms. Most of the films which young filmmakers try to distance themselves from were very bound to narrative literary forms. The stories presented were meant to be parables of the everyday world. Even a politically engaged filmmaker like Solanas fell back on elements of magical realism. In Subiela’s films this magical realism became unbearably kitschy; they fulfil the clichéd expectations people have of Latin America. When these filmmakers take a look at the city, they almost always show the idealized city of the tango, the picturesque, the exoticism for tourists.

Young filmmakers like Pablo Trapero, Martín Rejtmann or Adrián Caetano, on the other hand, use documentary devices very explicitly. They work with amateur actors coming from the worlds in which their films are set. As a viewer, one often feels like a voyeur.

The new filmmakers - and Lucrecia Martel is an outstanding example of this - don’t hide behind a fictitious reality. They present their own milieu. Their guiding principle seems to be »depiction instead of narration.« Biography and autobiography play a large role in this regard. The family in Lucrecia Martel’s film »The Morass« (»La Cienaga«) could well be her own; »Pizza, Birra, Faso« is set in the same milieu bordering on criminality in which Caetano grew up. The films are »objective« biographies, but leave out the ego and personal subjectivity.

Of course, this picture can not be extended to cover all films. The films we are talking of here usually have no more than 150,000 viewers. That’s not many, but enough to make a profit. These films have their own audience, a fairly young scene that sees themselves reflected in them. The conventional films continue to exist as well. The new cinema has not yet had a breakthrough to a wider audience, and I don’t know if it can really be expected to do so. It makes great demands on viewers - viewers who, like everywhere else, are only used to North American films.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] Why have the disciplines of theater and film played such a large role in Argentinean art since the nineties?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] That’s a difficult question which perhaps has more than one answer. So as not to go too far back, I would make one reason the form of the productions themselves: today, both theater and film are the product of collective work processes. These collaborations are very consciously carried out under conditions where there is not the pressure of a conventional production. Many of the theater works and films made like this go through very unusual production phases. This is explained not only by the lack of money, but also by the fact that many authors and directors need to experiment over a long period of time. Adrián Caetano generally works on several films at the same time. His projects seldom have enough financial support. He collects different materials, experiences, notes, observation, and video recordings for months before he is in a position to film new scenes. Federico León works in a similar way: his last play, »1500 Meters above Jack’s Sea Level« came out after more than a year of experimenting. He used to get together with his actors at his home. And because he has a tiny apartment, they could only rehearse in the bathroom. The material was gradually developed until the play was completely finished - like a collection of fragments that are put together very carefully after a long process has taken place. This is an important characteristic of these productions: there is an unbelievably careful construction hidden behind their seemingly documentary nature. This way of working is common to both film and theater. In addition, the economic situation plays an important role in this context: none of these artists live from their works. All of them have another job, so the works are created on the periphery of normal everyday life, so to speak.

It may sound cynical in Europe, but it is precisely this creative activity on the periphery that makes these works so relevant. In Argentina, people always have the impression of living in a state of emergency, quasi homeless, without any direction, on a temporary basis. This peculiar method of production reflects the general situation of people in a globalized world. I am reminded of the wonderful words of a psychoanalyst in São Paulo, Sueli Rolnik: »Under globalization we are all homeless.«

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] The young generation of the nineties is again including reality in their works. Questions about the social and political contexts in which the works are created would seem particularly important in order to understand this contemporary form of montage at all. But the artists claim not to be interested in politics, quite contrary to the generation before them. How can one explain a phenomenon like this?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] Yes, that’s very striking: these artist reject politics, and in a fairly radical way. On the one hand they are convinced that their fathers - the generation of the missing, during the dictatorship - were defeated by politics. On the other, there is a very understandable sense of disillusionment as regards politics and politicians. After all, political life has uncritically adopted show business tactics.

But, in addition, many artists have a strange aversion to political interpretations of their work. For someone of my generation this is sometimes disconcerting. I’ll give you two examples: when I wrote an article about Argentinean theater last year for the Vienna Festival, I had a fierce argument with Federico León. In the figure of the absent father in »1500 Meters,« a diver, I had seen an allusion to those »missing« people who were drugged, then thrown out of planes into the Rio de la Plata to die. Federico was thoroughly indignant at this interpretation. When the same article appeared in the program booklet at the Hebbel Theater in Berlin for a performance of the play there, he asked Nele Hertling, the manager, to take out the passage, which of course she didn’t...

Something similar happened with Lucrecia Martel when her film was advertised at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. In every article it was said that her film clearly showed the decline of the Argentinean middle class. She was also outraged by this. I believe that these artists fight against any form of traditional interpretation. It’s as though they can’t stand being pinned down. That’s understandable, because every interpretation that claims to be definitive doesn’t allow any further interpretations. If we always stick to the past, we won’t see the present.

Personally I find an attitude like that very interesting. The artists seem to demand that a large number of possible interpretations aren’t expressed. It is also a sort of rejection of the way the work of critics and intellectuals imposes restrictions.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] The abolition of the traditional division of work into writing, directing, and acting is characteristic of many of the theater productions. The acted texts are sometimes written by the actors themselves, while the director occasionally takes on a role as an actor. Even as a viewer one can hardly overlook this concentration and directness.

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] The »concentration« you mention results from the thought-out construction of the material. If you read one of these plays, this becomes even clearer; for instance, in the case of Beatriz Catani’s »Cuerpos a banderados.« Catani works with a very associative language, as if the text had started out as improvisations. This can often barely be translated into other languages. Moreover, very different, or even contradictory, actions happen simultaneously on all levels - gestures, facial expressions, sets, props, role play - that seem to constantly go beyond the scope of the play. You get the impression of a Baroque score in which every pentagram has its own meaning, but at the same time serves as part of the whole. The impression remains of a »tonal atonality« which is very exciting, yet at the same time very hard to understand. Catani really doesn’t make things easy for the audience.

What you call »directness« also has to do with language. People are used to words being »proclaimed« as in traditional theater. In these plays the actors do not really »act,« but go on as if no one is watching them. The auditorium is like a camera that follows them and has to amplify their speech with an invisible microphone. The actors mustn’t create the impression that they have to be heard. The influence of film also plays a large role: the actors dispense with the »visible« gestures that are necessary in traditional theater and appeal to the technique of film, which is much more economical in this regard. This certainly brings about the impression of directness.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] Recent Argentinean theater productions have enormous pull in Europe. What is the cause of their strength in the theater field, and how can you explain their attractiveness for Europeans from an Argentinean point of view?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] I don’t know the situation in Europe very well, but I could see the attractiveness of Argentinean theater productions being a result of production conditions and methods that are unknown in Europe. Contemporary European theater still hangs on to Schiller’s concept of a »moral institution« for the upper classes, now even more than in the fifties and sixties. Theater in Germany, France, and Spain is - fortunately - heavily subsidized. These big subsidies for large theaters have certain disadvantages, however: the theater managers are under pressure to prove to the authorities that the support is worth it. In this regard, the state theaters are under the same sort of pressure as commercial theaters, but perhaps even more, because they have to prove popular successes without entertainment value. This is difficult and forces them to stick to traditional forms. Innovation and experiment appear to have declined in Europe. To have them, you need a certain freedom that the system of subsidies, which once made these things possible, no longer permits today. To develop new forms you need freedom, independence. And this independence is always accompanied by a certain meagerness of means.

I also don’t know if Argentinean theater could function in Germany or Austria outside of the festivals. These works are performed in a very special way in Argentina: they are performed in small theaters once or twice a week. That means that the risk of a flop is avoided from the start so that no concessions have to be made.

[b]Klingan/Völckers:[/b] Both the theater productions that can be seen during »you are the world« take the dramatic events in recent Argentinean history as their central theme. What status does »memory« have in contemporary art productions? How can one explain why the »blind spot« in Argentinean history, the military dictatorship, has become a principal subject almost 20 years after the event?

[b]Gabriela Massuh:[/b] The theme of memory, »memoria« in Spanish, has a very important place in Argentinean art productions. In the last five years there has been an enormous increase in the analysis of recent history, and stereotypes have been formed, clichés. It is sometimes repulsive how often, and how uncritically, this theme has been used. Everything is thrown together. The military dictatorship is put on a par with the holocaust and treated identically. This fetishizing of the dictatorship is like a wall preventing the comprehension and reappraisal of history. The cruelty of state terrorism wasn’t invented by the last military government. Bloody terrorism has been a leitmotiv throughout Argentina’s history. This is exactly the problem: people only talk about the dictatorship and are so caught up with it that they disregard the atrocities of earlier times as well as those happening today.

The most interesting thing about the two plays now being performed in Vienna is that the dictatorship is mentioned in a »fragmentary« fashion. There are more or less concrete allusions here and there, but ones that can also be read as interpretations of our entire history. The play by Tantanián is about a guided tour of a gallery that concentrates on a non-existent picture. That could stand for the dictatorship, but if you look at it in a larger context, it could stand for our whole history as we were taught it at school: the lives of great heroes who are sacrosanct ? so sacrosanct you could even doubt whether they really existed.

Something similar happens in Catani’s play. An unbelievable picture just occurs to me that happens in the play. One of the women wants to put on an photo exhibition. She can’t find a wall to hang the pictures on, so she simply attaches her photos to the edge of the table. That’s magnificent. That says something about the present situation of artists in Buenos Aires.


Translated by Tim Jones