¡Viva! 2017: Best of the Fest
The curtain came down on HOME's annual Spanish and Latin American festival of film, theatre and visual art earlier this week. We look back at the best of the film and theatre on offer
Attending this year’s ¡Viva! Festival, Manchester’s annual celebration of Spanish and Latin American film, theatre and art, has been quite a surreal experience – its opening week coincided with former Tory leader Michael Howard insinuating PM Theresa May is ready to declare war against Spain, a notion that’s been egged on by the juvenile antics of The Sun newspaper. The suggestion is clearly pathetic and embarrassing, but it feels even more so while surrounded by the compañero of ¡Viva!, which celebrates its 23th edition this year.
You didn’t even need to buy a ticket for one of the events from the bursting programme to feel ¡Viva!’s warm pull. There’s been a sense that the festival has been trying to find its feet since moving to HOME from the more intimate surroundings of Cornerhouse, but this year the event seemed to bloom, filling the roomy three story art centre with an energy that bubbled nicely over 18 days – and spilled over into a tent on Tony Wilson Square over the festival's three long weekends with fiestas that were filled with music, dance and the odd rave.
The heart of this year’s ¡Viva!, as has been the case for the last 23 editions, was the film programme, which this year featured 30 titles, the majority of which being mint fresh movies that give a snapshot of contemporary Spanish and Latin American filmmaking. Such a wide array of films from a relatively small pool of filmmakers is always going to throw up a mixed bag, but our quixotic sampling of the programme offered up more good than bad.
Things got off to a tepid start, however, with festival opener Cien años de perdón (To Steal from a Thief), a slick but pretty braindead heist thriller. We assume we’re meant to identify with the robbers because they’re taking on the banks and corrupt politicians, but it might have helped if screenwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarria made at least one of the gang members at least charming, if not likeable. The closest we get is Luis Tosar – aka the Jason Statham of Spanish cinema – but in the end even Tosar proves to be as brainless and sexist as his fellow macho Robin Hoods. The best we can say is that we basically forgot about the movie as soon as the credits rolled.
Things improved immensely with tender social drama La Puerta abierta (The Open Door). It’s a film bursting with life, although the lives on show are by no means easy. Action centres on a small apartment block where most of the residence make a living in the sex trade, and specifically on Rosa, a prostitute well into middle age who lives with her hostile mother Antonia, a grande dame long retired from the street walking racket. Their bickering is interrupted when a young Russian girl from two doors down seeks refuge with the foul-mouthed pair after her drug-addled mother overdoses. Marina Seresesky’s rough hewn and deeply humanistic film is at its most alive when it’s showcasing the community these women have created for themselves on Madrid’s fringes, and the curious, handheld camerawork that explores this milieu makes it all the more intimate.
At the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum was the assiduously designed Pikadero, a slyly political gem from the Basque country. This bittersweet romance follows a pair of broke 20-somethings tentatively trying to start a relationship, and the film plays out in sharply observed and deliberately-paced scenes. The courtship proves problematic. Both still live with their parents, so opportunities to get intimate are limited, although the local pikaderos (hotspots where couples go to have sex in their cars) recommended to them prove even less private than their childhood bedrooms at home.
Curiously, the Basque tragicomedy comes courtesy of Scotsman Ben Sharrock. This culture clash might explain the film’s dislocation: like the fastidiously framed fairy tales of Aki Kaurismäki and Wes Anderson, Pikadero feels like it’s taking place in a world a degree or two off from our own reality. Despite the eccentric characters and absurdist aesthetic, the stranglehold Europe’s stalling economy has on these young not-quite-lovers is all too real, a fact that’s emphasised during the Q&A when it becomes clear a large proportion of ¡Viva!’s audience are Spanish expats who’ve moved to Manchester for work. [JD]
Tierra Roja (The Red Land’s) early scenes evoke the vision and movement of pure cinema, honing in on the mechanisms and processes of everyday life in the Argentine rainforest for a company of lumbermen, and starkly documenting the real-life suffering of local inhabitants, whom the use of certain pesticides has afflicted with birth defects and horrific diseases. This social issues film is clearly informed by profound moral outrage at this ongoing atrocity (look up ‘agrotoxins’) but unfortunately its social conscience is let down by a clichéd plot that takes for its protagonist alpha-male Belgian logging boss Pierre. After far too many sympathy-garnering scenes of him overpaying his workers, coaching a young rugby team to victory, building a swing for the children of the village etc. comes his inevitable peripety, after which (rather than, say, turn whistleblower) he feebly attends a couple of demonstrations before the film shuffles to its predictable climax. A morally ambiguous protagonist is a difficult thing to handle; here the mistake is to concentrate on Pierre’s own suffering, which is entirely avoidable and thus impossible to sympathise with. This subject matter is Patricio Guzmán territory and you can’t help but wonder, had it been set just across the border, what the Chilean documentarian might’ve achieved with similar material.
Since his previous feature (high-spirited 2015 octogenarian road movie One For the Road) Jack Zagha Kababie has retained both his flair for tragicomedy and his partnership with veteran Mexican TV star Jose Carlos Ruiz. Otherwise his latest, Almacenados (Warehoused) could hardly be more different. The sparse plot plays out inside a warehouse, where sole employee Mr. Lino has five days before retirement to train his young replacement Nin, who listens to thrash metal and asks too many questions. Lino’s institutionalised sticklerism reveals the absurdity of the world of work with its self-serving logic and purposeless rules. Paradoxes and perversions of reason recall Kafka or the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, though the strongest literary influence might be Samuel Beckett in this tale of nothingness, and of waiting for nothing, with time marked only by a clocking-in machine set to the wrong time for all of Lino’s thirty-nine years in the job. Originally a stage play, the understated script shows how much can be done with elements as prosaic as a chair or an ant, before shifting gear to deliver a tender contemplation on how we find dignity and purpose in our work, even when there isn’t any. [TH]
Another ¡Viva! highlight was the Barcelona Now strand, which showcased some extraordinary theatre from the Catalan capital. We were blown away by Agrupación Señor Serrano’s Birdie, a hugely innovative multimedia performance by Alex Serrano, Pau Palacios and Fernando Dordal that utilised text, narration, video and models, as well as thousands of kids’ toys, to create a compelling and urgent visual treatise on globalisation and immigration. We begin by flicking through a Spanish newspaper (headlines on the refugee crisis, the spread of an ebola epidemic, bird migration) then we move to a golf course in Melilla, Spain’s gated enclave on Africa’s north coast, and a photograph that tells a multitude of stories, which are all illustrated live using a scale model on stage that’s a perfect simulacrum of the scene.
Hitchcock’s The Birds also figures prominently. The classic thriller’s premise of birds randomly swarming on a coastal town is suggested to be a metaphor of some terrifying ‘other’ attacking polite society. By removing the birds from the picture – Hitch once intimated the film would still work as a horror if the creatures weren’t on screen – we see a very different film about Western paranoia of a nonexistent threat.
The performance’s showstopper involves that aforementioned litany of kids’ toys. A menagerie of plastic animals (sheep, cows, lions, zebras), dinosaurs, soldiers and babies are lined up. Serrano and Dordal follow these inch high huddled masses with their cameras on a long and winding migration across the stage, which has been transformed into a giant golf course. The cumulative effect of Birdie is that it makes a compelling case against the absurdity of the walls we build on our imaginary borders. [JD]
Two scratch performances of work by 39-year-old Barcelona playwright Josep Maria Miro Coromina – Smoke and Archimedes’ Principle – were similarly concerned with paranoia, fear and characters closing themselves in from perceived external threats. Smoke centres on a hotel in an unnamed developing country where two Spanish couples find themselves trapped inside their luxurious digs while a political uprising is happening on the streets. Archimedes’ Principle, the performances for which were so electric you soon forgot the cast had scripts in their hands, meanwhile, takes place in a swimming centre where a cocky young swimming instructor has been accused of comforting an upset young boy in an inappropriate fashion during a lesson.
The cryptically mysterious situation of the former play and the sharply shuffled chronology of the latter, where several scenes play out of order, combined with dialogue imbued with a barely concealed menace called to mind the work of Harold Pinter. Coromina confirmed the playwright's influence at his In Conversation event when he recalled a conversation he had with Walter Meierjohann, HOME’s artistic director of theatre, the day before. “What I love about Pinter is that he doesn't describe the epic, but the intimate,” said the playwright. “And he uses these intimate spaces to talk about politics. What I did say to Walter yesterday was, ‘for me, Pinter is God.’ It’s the only religion I believe in.”
At its worst, stage theatre can be crushingly square and middle-class, but the work of Agrupación Señor Serrano and Coromina open the theatre space up, delivering works that are both playful and political. It’s an approach to be cherished in these troubling times.