Monday, 23 February 2009

Amores Perros

Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu, which was released in 2000, was a commercial and critical success both in Mexico and internationally. It became the fourth highest grossing Mexican film of all time and won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, a BAFTA and best film awards at a host of international festivals including Cannes, Chicago, Tokyo, Sao Paolo and Moscow.

The film's director is one of a new wave of Mexican film makers that also includes Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. ‘Los tres amigos’ as they are known have all made the transition from Mexican national cinema to Hollywood in recent years. Of the three directors, Guillermo del Toro is arguably, the best-known following his success with the Hellboy series and Pan’s Labyrinth. After making the steamy road-movie, ’Y Mamá También’ in 2001, Alfonso Cuarón was offered the chance to direct the third Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was released in 2004. The third of the trio of amigos, González Iñárritu, made the move to Hollywood in 2003 to make the edgy 21 grams and then Babel for which he won the 2006 Best Director award at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Amores Perros is an ambitious, roller-coaster of a film that touches on a broad range of themes including dogs, love, violence, sub-culture, social-class, the family in contemporary Latin American society, money and politics. The style of the film owes much to Quentin Tarantino with its use of flashbacks, parallel stories and, as one reviewer put it, “lots of people pointing and waving guns at each other”.

Structurally, the film is made up of three more-or-less true stories linked by a car crash. The dog fighting scenes, which drew heavy criticism from animal welfare organisations, come in the first story. The realism and dramatic impact of the illegal fights is due to scrupulous research on the part of the director. To ensure that the vision of the dog-fights was as accurate as possible, González Iñárritu used real people from the dog-fighting world and real fighting dogs in the film. In an interview in the Guardian (August 22, 2000) to coincide with the film’s UK release, he said:

"the dogfights are shown the way they do it, in empty swimming pools and backlots. The people can be dangerous – there are drunk people, druggie people, violent people and some of them take their children of four, five years old. But I don’t judge them. For them it’s like bullfighting or going fishing- for them it’s natural, something you do on a Saturday.”

The fights themselves are an obvious metaphor for life on the mean streets of Mexico City, where there are no rules and you have to be ruthless to survive. Just like the dogs, the characters in the film show no mercy as they fight to make their way in the harsh urban landscape that shapes their lives. No more is this the case than in the first story where the two brothers are portrayed as violent rivals for both Susana’s love and control over the family pet and champion of the dog-fighting ring, Cofi.

One of the most important themes in Amores Perros is its portrayal of fatherhood. All the main characters in the film are linked together by the absence of their fathers or their inability to assume their own parental responsibilities. This again is seen most clearly in the first section of the film, where Ramiro, whose own father obviously left the marital home some years ago, is portrayed as an unfaithful wife-beater, with little interest in his infant son. It can also be seen in the last section where after a long period of absence, the ex-revolutionary turned hit-man, El Chivo, tries to re-establish contact with his daughter, Maru. The absence of fathers is also a theme in other recent Latin America films such as The Journey by the Argentinean director, Fernando Solanas or Central Station by the Brazilian, Walter Salles.

The other issue that you might want to pick up on is the portrayal of the city. Mexico City is represented as a complex reality in which poor areas and wealthier neighbourhoods merge into one another. The film jumps backwards and forwards between these two worlds from the harsh reality of the barrios to the immaculate, but sterile homes of the rich. This juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty, particularly in urban centres, is a seemingly immutable feature of social reality in the developing world. Amores Perros is one of the few films that try to portray these two worlds and the relationship between them. Danny Boyle’s, Slumdog Millionaire is another.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Seumas Milne’s article in the Guardian, which I discussed in the previous post to the blog, has generated considerable reaction and debate. The most critical response has come from those who oppose Milne’s positive appraisal of Hugo Chávez and his role in reducing poverty and inequality in Venezuela.

Vanessa Neumann’s article, ‘No Chávez is not the answer to Venezuela’s poverty and inequality’, which also appeared in the Guardian, is typical of this criticism. In it, she argues that the recent reduction in poverty owes more to the oil boom than it does to Chavez’s economic and social policies. These, she argues, have had much less impact on poverty rates than Chávez claims, and have fuelled inflation and food shortages across the country.

As the articles by Milne and Neumann demonstrate, opinion about Chávez, both inside and outside the country, is extremely polarised. This is a theme addressed by the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan in a short video titled, ‘Chavez’s Revolution 10 years on’. The other key issue addressed in the film concerns the role of the poor in Venezuelan politics, which has increased significantly since Chávez came to power in 1998.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Seumas Milne

Seumas Milne’s, ‘The seeds of Latin America’s rebirth were sown in Cuba’, in Friday’s Guardian is one of the best articles on Latin America I’ve read in recent years. As the title suggests, Milne’s main argument is that the progressive political and social changes sweeping Latin America draw their inspiration from the Cuban Revolution 50 years ago. Milne also emphasises the impact that the failure of market reforms has had on radicalising politics across the region. He argues that Latin America was both the first region in the world to undergo neoliberal transformation, and the first to break away from an approach to policy-making, which is widely seen as responsible for some of the highest levels of poverty and inequality in the world.

Interestingly, Milne also raises the possibility that Latin America represents a model for what might happen in other parts of the world. Given the events in recent weeks in places as diverse as Iceland, France and Russia, where millions have protested against their governments’ handling of the financial crisis, there seems to be increasing evidence to support this view. I believe that we will see even more protests of this nature as ordinary people take to the streets to demand protection from their governments against the worst effects of the crisis.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

5oth Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution

The most important event in Latin America this year is undoubtedly the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. This revolution, which was as much a nationalist uprising against foreign intervention in Cuban affairs as it was a social and political revolt, has endured since 1959 in the face of continued pressure from the United States and its allies.

Arguably, the biggest threat to the revolution came with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s. Consequently, Cuba lost its main economic partner and source of support in international forums such as the UN. Communism's fall also struck a considerable blow against the marxist/leninist ideology that had inspired the leaders of the Revolution such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

The other threat to the Cuban revolution is domestic. Since 1959, there has been constant pressure from dissident groups seeking recognition of their political rights and civil liberties. This has been fiercely resisted by the regime on the grounds that such measures would undermine the revolution. The regime has also accused dissidents of being stooges for the US government and anti-Castro movement in Miami.

Many of the regime's most ardent opponents felt that the hand over of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl that took place in 2006, would fuel calls for political change in Cuba. However, this has proven not to be the case. Since Raul assumed the presidency, he has introduced a number of measures that have proven popular amongst ordinary Cubans such as releasing political prisoners, lifting travel restrictions and increasing access to consumer goods.

What then for the future of Cuba? One interesting area to watch is whether President elect Obama will have any significant impact on US/Cuban relations. Although Obama has expressed his readiness to enter into dialogue with the Cuban regime and lift some of the restrictions on Cuban nationals wishing to enter the US, he appears unwilling to lift the trade embargo that has done so much to harm Cuban economic development since 1959. Consequently, there is likely to be little change to the underlying dynamic of relations between the two countries, which will remain conflictual.

For those of you interested in finding out more about the Cuban Revolution, there is a ‘special report’ on this important event in Latin American history on BBC Mundo. Also, you might try to get to see Che by Steven Soderbergh.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Mexican Minister of the Interior dies in mystery plane crash

Take a look at the following report into the mysterious death of the Mexican Interior Ministry, Juan Camilo Mourino, and other senior Mexican officials. Given Mourino's high profile role in the fight against the powerful Mexican drug cartels, there are rumours that this was no accident. Since 2006, the Mexican government has intensified its efforts against the cartels by deploying the army and through closer co-operation with the USA. A number of commentators have suggested that Mourino's death should be seen within this context, and that it constitutes a warning to the Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, that there will be a very high price to pay if his government continues with its crackdown on drug trafficking.

The other Latin American story in the news at the moment is the conflict in Nicaragua over disputed local election results. This has led to violent outbreaks between supporters of the governing Sandinistas and the opposition political parties in which a number of people have been killed.

Finally, it's also worth mentioning China's attempts to increase its influence in the region. A number of Latin American countries have signed trade and co-operation agreements with China recently including Chile, Venezuela and Costa Rica.