It’s a brisk and rainy day and the Plaza Belgrano R is overcast and lusciously green, the perfect setting for an opening scene. Andrés Di Tella arrives at Bistro Jolie and slides into a seat at one of the outdoor tables, looking out from under his fedora to see if he knows anyone there. He prefers English for the interview, he says, because “otherwise you’ll be able to make me say whatever you want.”
Di Tella, a documentary filmmaker, is the founding director of BAFICI, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, one of the most important film festivals in Latin America. He is known for his feature documentaries, including ‘La televisión y yo’ (2003), ‘El país del diablo’ (2008) and ‘Hachazos’ (2011). Documentary cinema expert Paulo Antonio Paranaguá has placed Di Tella among the fifteen most significant documentary filmmakers in Latin America.
To talk about the beginnings of BAFICI, we go back to late 1998. That was when the cultural secretary of the City of Buenos Aires, Darío Lopérfido, contacted Di Tella to discuss the possibilities for organizing a film festival in the city. Lopérfido and Di Tella had met a few years earlier at the Centro Cultural Rojas, where Di Tella had screened his first documentary film, ‘Montoneros: una historia’.
“In his mind – and in my mind as well – it was very important that I was a filmmaker, because this meant that I would actually be able to ‘produce’ the festival. In fact, at the beginning, I would say that 90% of my tasks were related to organising the festival, as opposed to viewing films or talking with filmmakers. Again, this was very close to filmmaking because I had to start with an idea and then find a way to make it happen.”
Di Tella knew he couldn’t organise a festival all alone, and contacted two other local filmmakers, Esteban Sapir and Eduardo Milewicz, to help. “I think people are often unaware that BAFICI is a film festival created by filmmakers. I think it would have been a very different festival if it had been created by critics or curators. We wanted to create a space for local and independent filmmakers, a place where any of us would be able to show our films, meet filmmakers from other parts of the world and find markets for co-productions. We were also one of the few festivals to invite short film makers to the festival and pay for their expenses. Rosa Martínez Rivero curated the short film section, and she is currently responsible for the general production of the festival.”
The focus of the festival shifted when the next artistic director, Eduardo “Quintín” Antín, took over. “When Quintín took over as the artistic director of the festival, BAFICI became more of a festival for the critics. That was a very smart move because it put the festival on the international critics’ radar. He was also able to do this without shifting focus away from the filmmakers, and that was really important. In fact, Sergio Wolf—the current artistic director—is a filmmaker himself.” Over the years, BAFICI has expanded by leaps and bounds: while the first edition attracted 120,000 spectators in 1999, last year’s selection brought in an astounding 300,000 movie goers. As the quantity of viewers has increased, so has the number of films, venues and new sections like the free outdoor films and this year’s fulldome screenings at the planetarium.
Another important issue at any festival is programming: how do the organizers go about choosing the hundreds of films that will be included? “My priority was making sure that every film chosen for the festival was there for a reason. One of my sole critiques of the current festival is that in my opinion, there are just too many films. We programmed 120 films for the first BAFICI and there are now over 400. I really think it’s a little extreme because part of what is important to me at a film festival, is that a group of people can gather, very intensely, to watch films together for ten days. And it’s hard to watch more than two or three films a day. So let’s say that in ten days, each person sees 30 films, at least some of which are also viewed by others attending the festival. So these people have shared these films, and that’s really an essential part of the festival.” Di Tella acknowledges, however, the excitement of such a myriad program. “It is sort of amazing to be able to choose from among this ocean of films.”
As for the documentary filmmaker himself, how does he decide which films to see? “I read about films, I go to festivals, and I hear rumors about films. Then there are people who post lists, write up films on blogs. And of course, there are filmmakers I follow—for instance, Miguel Gomes, a Portuguese filmmaker who will be here this year to present his new film, Tabu, which was hailed by many as the best film in the Berlin film festival. There is a section of the BAFICI called Careers, which is for established filmmakers. This is an interesting development, because at the beginning, we focused on young filmmakers. This was slightly strategic: we thought it would be easier to get little Sofia Coppola than Francis! Though we got both, in the end. So I would definitely go see the films from the Careers section, because they are always interesting.”
“I also make it a point to see Argentine films. The last ten years or so have truly been a Renaissance for Argentine cinema.” Argentine film production has flourished over the past decade. Before 1994, the country was producing around eight feature-length films per year, now it produces around 100. Young Argentine filmmakers like Pablo Trapero (Carancho, Mundo grúa), Daniel Burman (El nido vacío, El abrazo partido), Juan José Campanella (El secreto de sus ojos, El hijo de la novia) and Santiago Mitre (El estudiante) are now recognised both in Argentina and abroad. Campanella’s last film, in fact, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2010.
This resurgence in local cinema has not been lost on BAFICI’s organisers, who chose an Argentine film, ‘El último Elvis’ (directed by Armando Bo, the grandson of the mythical Argentine director of the same name) to inaugurate this year’s featival.
Although Di Tella is no longer involved in organising the festival, he still attends almost every day. “As a film buff, I just love the festival. I look forward to those ten days in April all year. I love walking into a theatre and not knowing even what language the film is going to be in, not knowing what it is – a documentary, fiction, or what. That is a real privilege, because normally you see a film because you’ve heard about it or you’ve read about it, or you’ve seen the trailer. What fascinates me about BAFICI is that it always gets me thinking about all that film can be – not just ‘popcorn films’ or certain kinds of art films—French art films, for example. You really get to see some strange films at BAFICI.”
For Di Tella, BAFICI is also the city’s chance to get its fill of avant-garde cinema. “What Buenos Aires is missing is good art movie houses. It hasn’t had them for thirty or forty years. There used to be several cinemas on Av. Corrientes in the 60s—there was the Lorraine, Loire, Losuar, they all started with “Lo” and were owned by the same guy—and they would screen Godard and Bergman and sell out! That was the highest point for cinephiles in Buenos Aires. Now, luckily, we have BAFICI. These are fragile films, so they need to be screened in the best conditions. To see these films in a crummy theater, or on a laptop—it just doesn’t work.”