This month’s Numéro Cinq at the Movies post brings us another entry from Sophie M. Lavoie on the provocative and fascinating film work of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martal. Lavoie has analyzed two of Martel’s other short works for Numéro Cinq: her experimental short “Pescados” and her disturbing, beautiful fashion film for clothing company MiuMiu, “Muta” (click the links to check out those articles, too).
“La ciudad que huye” is a more documentary turn for Martel and Lavoie’s reading here lends us essential socio-economic and historical filters to understand this short documentary and understand it in relation to Martel’s other work. Lavoie also turns this analysis back to us, gives us pause to ponder Martel’s film and reflect on our own increasingly absurd ideas about how to plan cities and build walls.
—R. W. Gray
Twenty-five years ago, while on a location scout in the sprawling city of Buenos Aires, Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel filmed what seemed like an endless wall. At the time, she remarked “What an absurd idea!” and thought gated communities would never work. However, upon seeing the expansion of these upper-class sanctuaries in the Argentinian capital, in 2006 Martel directed this informative short (whose title would be better translated as “The City That Flees” in English) about the more than 600 gated communities that can be found in Buenos Aires alone, an area of real estate totaling 360km2, roughly the size of the Gaza Strip.
The documentary short seems to be meant as a warning against one of the most important urbanistic transformations taking place in Argentina and throughout Latin America and the world: the move towards gated communities. These compounds have become playgrounds for the rich, featuring country clubs with golf courses, polo grounds, shopping malls, bilingual schools, and medical centres, as the film points out. They provide the illusion of an oasis for the wealthy, allowing them the freedom to circulate freely within the confines of their fences.
Martel’s short documentary juxtaposes the steady, foreboding view of the wall with shots of the neighbours across the street, emphasizing the fact that her film crew was not allowed into the neighbourhoods, in spite of their many attempts. The outsiders, like the film’s viewers, are left to muse about the wonders contained within.
Calgary writer Marcello Di Cintio’s recent award-winning travel reportage on the subject, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, puts the existence of this divisive phenomenon in its global context. While Di Cintio’s project examines many different walls, from his privileged position he naively claims: “My nationality grants me access anywhere. Nowhere in the world bars my entry. No place claims I am not wanted or not worthy. No one has ever built a wall for me.” Di Cintio has probably not attempted to enter one of Canada’s prestigious gated communities, a phenomenon which is developing as inequalities further widen the gap between rich and poor.
The most important feature of these new walled neighbourhoods is clearly exclusion, keeping out people who do not belong. Only those people who are (pre-)approved can enter. Although he does not mention them specifically, French anthropologist Marc Augé would surely qualify these gated communities as one of the non-places that breed solitude and alienation, and this is captured in the lens of Martel’s short film.
For Augé, in Non-Places: Introduction to Anthropology in Supermodernity, “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or with the powers that govern it). He is reminded, when necessary, that the contract exists. (…) the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only on entering or leaving.” Martel’s film emphasizes the contract. We see the gated communities from outside the walls, from the gates leading into them, and, thanks to modern technology, we are even able to see them from above, using a satellite view, perhaps Google Earth. These wider views, unavailable to the naked eye, reveal large grassy expanses and enormous mansions with pools, all hidden behind the walls. We see where we might go, but have no ticket to enter.
As with most of Martel’s films, we hear lots of puzzling ambient sounds and partial conversations. The only human beings we see up close are security guards. The off-camera dialogues of the security underlings with their bosses illustrate the seclusion and secrecy of the communities as well as the strict hierarchies of power upon which these communities are built. Indeed, the film’s narration points to the secretive, ruthless military dictatorship in the seventies as the culprit for the construction of the extensive highway system that now allows for the movement of personal vehicles out of the dense city centre and into the peripheries. This construction, coupled with decreases to publicly funded transportation, has made the greater urban centers what they are today: places where each social class has its neighbourhood and where, in Greater Buenos Aires at least, close to two million poor (of a population of over 14 million) live in and around the city in precarious slums.
The upper echelons of Argentinian society supported the dictatorship that was responsible for the killing, torture and disappearing of thousands of people during the period known as the Dirty War (1976-1983). Structurally, the elite Argentine society has shifted little since the dictatorship; many of the same families and their descendants now live behind the walls of these gated communities.
They fear the violence which they perceive comes from the lower levels of Argentinian society, from the so-called villas or villas miserias, the Argentine equivalent of Brazilian favelas or shantytowns that now surround every major city in the country.
Films from South America often focus on the differences in social class stemming from the inherent inequalities present in most Latin American countries. If this class disparity is not explicitly on the screen, it is often there between the frames. Most of Martel’s feature-length films display these inequalities in Argentinian society: her award-winning films La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) all portray upper-class families leading seemingly pointless and secluded lives.
Although for her full-length feature films, Martel herself has not incursioned into these gated communities to tell the stories of their inhabitants, many recent Latin American films have touched upon this problem. Costa Rican director Hernán Jiménez made a perceptive documentary in 2004 about the change he saw in his native city of San José called Chains and a City Lock/Doble Llave y Cadena.
The 2009 feature length film La nana/The Maid by Chilean director Sebastián Silva showed the life of a family in such a community, told from the point of view of the domestics. In many cases, these modern-day slaves live in the gated communities far from their loved ones. These are but two examples amongst many.
Martel’s film was made with the help of many prominent figures including award-winning architect Juan Manuel Borthagaray, his frequent collaborator, Maria Adela Igarzabal de Nistal, a leading authority on urbanism in Buenos Aires, and Pablo Martorelli, President of the Argentinian Railways Institute (IAF), among others. Their presence is not seen or heard in the film, except in the information they provide regarding the changes to Argentine society. The ingenious geographic map animations in the film illustrate the changing urban landscape and perfectly contrast with the meek austerity of Martel’s chosen scenery: slowly passing walls, fences, hedges and other fortifications. These visuals help us go beyond the dominant inert image and cumbersome idea of the wall.
Lucrecia Martel’s La ciudad que huye demonstrates once again the director’s keen eye and ability to tell a story that is much greater than what we succinctly observe on the screen.
—Sophie M. Lavoie
Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.