Latin American cinema reckons with the region’s traumatic past through magical realism

Lisandro Alonso Martínez’s ‘Eureka,’ screening at the Gijón International Film Festival this week, is the latest in a wave of films that address Indigenous massacres and brutal dictatorships through fantastical elements

Actor Viggo Mortensen and director Lisandro Alonso on the set of 'Eureka.'Esteban Szczipnyj
Caio Ruvenal

A dying Indigenous man arrives at a healer’s hut deep in the Brazilian Amazon. He has fled from a gold mine in 1974, amid the economic debacle of the military regime. The healer rubs potions on him, strikes him lightly on the stomach with a green branch and spits water all over his body, which is apparently lifeless. The corpse disappears, leaving only the man’s belongings, and at the same time a jabiru enters the room; the long-beaked bird with a stately posture seems to have received the Indigenous man’s soul. History and fantasy go hand in hand in this scene of Eureka, Argentine director Lisandro Alonso Martínez’s new film, which is being screened at the Gijón International Film Festival in Spain this week. The movie forms part of a new wave of Latin American films that revisit the region’s painful past — dictatorships, guerrillas, legacies of colonialism — with surreal, fantastical twists that are influenced by magical realism.

Representative of these movies are the fantasy-horror version of the Chilean dictatorship, as told with Pinochet as a vampire in Pablo Larraín’s El Conde (2023); the conversation between a filmmaker and Hernán Cortés in a scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022); a revolutionary messiah who returns from the dead to lead a sect during the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic in Nino Martínez Sosa’s Liborio (2021); the appearance of a mythological being in the form of a woman in front of chewing gum extractors during the 1920s on the Mexico-Belize border in Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle (2020); the manifestation of a specter before the late-19th-century genocide of the Selknam people in Tierra del Fuego (Chile) in Theo Court’s White on White (2019); and the spirits that warn of Colombia’s 1970s marimba bonanza in Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage (2018). This Latin American cinema rejects period pieces and biopics in favor of fusing reality and supernaturalism to tell the region’s past. “The fantastical, the break in the space-time continuum, give me playful elements to try cinematographic tools and broaden my range as a filmmaker,” Lisandro Alonso Martínez, whose Eureka premiered at Cannes, told EL PAÍS.

Latin American film production seeks stories from the region’s past because of the wounds that remain open in its historical memory in the present. Justice and accountability for the military governments’ crimes — for which there have been exemplary solutions in Argentina, while those responsible have not been tried in countries like Guatemala and Brazil — and the unpunished slaughter of Indigenous communities in the name of “modernity” are among those wounds. “For there to be reconciliation, we must talk about that traumatic past that many people and governments do not want to see or seek to erase,” argues Paul Schroeder Rodriguez, a professor of Spanish at Amherst College (Massachusetts) and the author of the book Latin American Cinema: A Comparative History. The last chapter focuses on the 21st century and is entitled “Shared Memory.” In it, he writes: “What has been happening in Latin America around the recovery of historical memory is a regional phenomenon (...) The study of memory in the latest cinema has a great deal to tell us about these processes in the region and helps us to answer why no Latin American country has yet managed to fully face the fears and myths that still generate their traumatic pasts.”

An image from Jayro Bustamante’s film 'The Curse of La Llorona.'
An image from Jayro Bustamante’s film 'The Curse of La Llorona.' La casa productora

In The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante draws on a local horror legend about the spirit of a woman crying for her children to settle the score for the massacre that the military perpetrated against Quiché Mayans in the 1980s. A fictionalized version of Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto president who ordered the killings of over 200,000 Indigenous people because he believed that they were helping communist guerrillas during Guatemala’s civil war, is haunted by the ghost of one of the mothers he murdered along with her children. “Genocide is a subject that still causes a lot of pain among the descendants of the victims. Dealing with it as realistically as possible meant sticking my finger in a wound. However, by dressing it up as a legend, I made it more accessible to the victims; magical realism allowed me to tell it in a palatable way,” says Bustamante.

In White on White, Chilean-Spanish director Theo Court portrays the late-19th-century massacre of the Selknam Indigenous people committed by English landowners interested in Tierra del Fuego. The extermination is seen through the eyes of a photographer hired by an English landowner. Before he immortalizes the slaughter with his plate camera, a feathered being associated with the community’s rituals appears to him. “To me, it seemed contradictory that something as magical as that element could give rise to the massacre, a kind of fear of what we don’t know and have to annihilate. I didn’t want to do something attached to reality because that somehow constricts you as a creator,” Court says via video call.

The feathered being that appears before the slaughter of the Selknam in Theo Court's  ‘White on White.’
The feathered being that appears before the slaughter of the Selknam in Theo Court's ‘White on White.’ El Viaje Films

Colombian director Cristina Gallego concurs: she couldn’t shoot a realistic film if she wanted to tell the main characters’ view of the boom in marijuana trafficking in Birds of Passage. The same was true for Dominican director Nino Martínez in his depiction of local resistance against the invasion of the U.S. Marines in Liborio. Both the Wayúu, the Indigenous group in Colombia that experienced the misfortune of drug trafficking in the 1970s, and the Liboristas, the peasant followers of a healer/leader in Liborio, Dominican Republic, have different perceptions of their surroundings. As Gallego explains, “Birds of Passage went from being a historical story to one of magical realism when we began to follow the codes of the Wayúu culture, which is magical, dreamlike and mystical.” For his part, Martínez notes that “the Liboristas, like much of the peasantry in the Caribbean, construct reality in a different way than urban people, who have a more Cartesian and objective mentality. They don’t differentiate between the lived world and the dream world.”

Indigenous stories told by Indigenous people

By showing how they perceive life, Indigenous peoples and native communities do not just participate in these films as actors; they also construct their own history. In Birds of Passage, Wayunaiki is spoken throughout the film, and Gallego says that stories from the oral tradition allowed her to get to the heart of the matter. Over 300 extras in The Curse of La Llorona are Mayans, seeking justice for their ancestors, while Liboristas are also part of Martínez’s film.

In Eureka, Alonso Martínez focuses on the Pine Ridge Native American reservation and its inhabitants in the second of the film’s three stories. In the first tale, a cowboy played by Viggo Mortensen searches for his daughter in the Wild West in the 19th century. “I wanted to continue with the native theme that was already in my previous work. The first thing was to know who portrayed them and the western [genre] came to mind. Then [in the second story], I take the audience to a place where they observe the consequences of the colonization of the West: a community that lives in confinement, without documents or law, where the average life expectancy is 50 years and the suicide rate is rampant,” Alonso Martínez says. In his last film, Jauja (2014), the Buenos Airess native had already waded into the region’s past, introducing fantastical elements.

Schroeder Rodríguez points out that, historically, native peoples’ experiences and perspectives have been told by others. “Indigenista [a pro-Indigenous movement] cinema, which took off in the 1930s, focused on these communities but [the stories were] told by mestizo and Creole authors. They were called ventriloquists,” he explains. With the advent of digital cinema and its concomitant democratization, the scholar says, Indigenous peoples are now the creators of their own films, which circulate among them and are valued according to their own criteria.

One of the premonitions in the form of dreams in Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s 'Birds of Passage.'
One of the premonitions in the form of dreams in Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s 'Birds of Passage.' Emanuel_Rojas

The Colombian film Kings of the World (2022), which won the Concha de Oro prize, does not go back to a specific episode in the region in the 20th century. But it does reflect the consequences of a historical event — the Colombian armed conflict — to depict the victims of forced displacement: five street kids seek to recover the land of one of their grandmothers through the Victims and Land Restitution Law. The actors are natives; they come from disadvantaged and conflictive environments, and they are fluent in the language typical of the streets of Medellín. “According to the descriptions of the characters, we selected native actors. They all come from difficult and humble backgrounds,” says director Laura Mora. She is currently directing three episodes of the series Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

For Mora, the “crucial point” of the Colombian conflict is land. “There has been an absurd number of people who have lost their land to landowners, elites or drug traffickers. When the Havana peace accords came about in 2016, land was one of the most difficult issues; [it’s] an issue that very few people want to take responsibility for,” she observes. Her film is full of magical and dreamlike moments, where reality imitates the hypnotic nature of Bajo Cauca, Colombia.

Magical realism, a controversial term

Although it originated in German post-expressionist painting, magical realism has always been associated with Latin American fiction, primarily literature. Some consider the term to be a trivializing, export-oriented label. Martínez does not believe that the word magic has a positive connotation: “I would not denigrate these ways of understanding realities that are different for others by using the word magic, because that implies a trick, a deception.” For his part, Court prefers to speak of the “marvelous strange” or the “everyday strange.”

Actor Vicente Santos as the titular character in Nino Martínez's film 'Liborio.'
Actor Vicente Santos as the titular character in Nino Martínez's film 'Liborio.'timothy k fitzgerald

On the other hand, for Bustamante, magical realism — beyond being an artistic movement — seems to be a “way of life that we Latin Americans use in our daily lives.” Gallego agrees that the esoteric and the magical are typical of the region, an inheritance from Indigenous peoples. Mora says that it’s a form of survival, a way to face the painful and bloody reality that the region is experiencing, because “without imagination and beauty, existence becomes impossible.”

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