Cannes 2019

A Filmmaking Family Takes to the Streets

A Filmmaking Family Takes to the Streets

While politics has never been a stranger to the Cannes Film Festival lineup, this year’s offerings have proven to be even more charged than usual. And one of the more lively and notable premieres on the Croisette so far has been director Juan Solanas’s out-of-competition documentary Que sea ley (Let It Be Law), which follows Argentina’s struggle to pass a law guaranteeing women the right to safe, legal, and free abortions. A confluence of events—including recent laws passed by some states in the U.S.—converged to make its red carpet premiere an intense, emotional affair, animated by chants, tears, and a sea of waving green handkerchiefs symbolizing the abortion rights movement in Argentina.

Perched between call-to-arms and testimonial, the film allows activists and others to directly address the camera with their experiences. In some cases, the subjects are parents talking about the harrowing deaths of their daughters from illegal abortions, or through professional neglect. We also hear from doctors who recall that they were instructed to treat women seeking abortions as criminals and to report them. Intercut with these interviews is footage of ferocious street protests, shot with propulsive immediacy, as well as on-screen text that flies at us with agitprop velocity, citing key statistics about the realities facing women in Argentina and Latin America in general.

Amid the activists onstage and on-screen was a face perhaps familiar to those who have followed the history of political cinema: Juan Solanas’s father (and a producer on the film), Fernando Solanas, the legendary Argentine dissident and director of the seminal militant documentary The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) as well as powerful, eclectic fiction narratives such as Tangos, the Exile of Gardel (1985) and Sur (1988). Fernando Solanas’s pivotal essay, “Towards a Third Cinema” (written with his Furnaces codirector Octavio Getino), was also instrumental in helping establish the touchstones of an engaged form of Third World political filmmaking that rejected the conventions of the Hollywood studio system and European “auteur cinema.” The theory of a Third Cinema wasn’t just about aesthetics but also about bypassing traditional modes of distribution, and using cinema as a tool against neocolonialism and dictatorship. It contains the memorable line “The camera is the inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons; the projector, a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”

Once an exile, now a senator, Solanas père is the rare case of a politically engaged artist who has followed his convictions into office—focusing on issues such as income inequality, the environment, and antimilitarism. (He has paid for those convictions, too: In 1991, an attempt was made on his life and he was shot six times after he filed charges of corruption against then-President Carlos Menem. Indeed, this incident helped spur his decision to enter elected politics.) With Let It Be Law, Juan and his sister Victoria, who executive produced the documentary, continue in the footsteps of their father. I talked to the three of them about this new film, about living a life where politics was everywhere, and about the challenges of putting thought into action.

Tell me what the current situation is in Argentina, regarding the attempts to pass a motion to make abortion legal, secure, and free.

Juan Solanas: More than one woman a day dies in Latin America following an illegal abortion. In one week, the National Campaign for Legal Abortion will present, for the eighth time, this law to the Parliament. This year, we have a presidential election, and Argentina is in a very bad economic situation, so it’s difficult for them to have visibility. People dismiss them by saying, “You lost. Don’t you remember you lost three months ago? Relax a little bit, we have more ‘important’ things to talk about.” What’s even worse, when people vote for president, they reelect one third of both chambers, and we are afraid that the percentage of pro-life members will be bigger in the two chambers of Parliament. But the film’s screening at Cannes, and what’s happening in the United States, has brought new attention to this subject.

Victoria Solanas: When the Deputies [the lower house of Parliament] voted, it was really half and half; early that morning, we knew that we would win, but it was really close. But the Senate [which voted afterward] is more conservative. It represents every province, and there is a big division between Buenos Aires and the other provinces. And there’s another division between young people and the older generation; you see a lot of young feminists.

Juan Solanas: We grew up in a very political reality. For us, politics has very concrete consequences. We know a lot of people who died because of politics—friends of my father’s. So, everything is political in our life. Maybe you don’t always see it in the movies that I make, but at the origin of every movie there is a political grain. Last year, the reality in Argentina was so strong that I felt the necessity to take my camera and just shoot, with no plan. I didn’t know what it would eventually become. All I knew was that I would try to show reality. I didn’t want to be a pamphleteer.

But you’re not necessarily trying to be fully objective or “balanced” either in this film.

Juan Solanas: No, the movie has a point of view. The title is Let It Be Law, so that is clear. And I had that title in my head from the first day I started shooting. Maybe it would be a short, maybe it would be long-form, maybe it would be an installation. But I set rules for myself: “Juan, you will take your camera and you will register reality. You will not interfere with it.” I did lights, sound, everything myself. That helped create this intimacy. And when I asked someone, “Can I shoot you?” if they said, “No,” I didn’t insist. I would ask people, “If you know someone who wants to testify, I will shoot them.” I did not choose who to shoot or not shoot. And my final rule was that I would give myself fifteen, twenty minutes maximum to shoot.

So, say Julia says she wants to testify. “Tomorrow, five o’clock. Address.” I take my taxi, I arrive, “Hello, Julia. I’m Juan.” I put the mic on. I ask her where she wants to speak.  And I say to her, “The camera is here for you. You will tell the audience whatever you want to tell them. I will not interfere. If you can’t look at the camera, if it’s difficult, that’s okay, just look at me.” I had only one light, so it was easy for me to choose where to put my one light. Boom, fifteen minutes. If I hadn’t set these rules, I know that I would have arrived and looked at everything and spent an hour trying to move tables and putting lights here and there. But I wanted to speak to the urgency of this situation.

In the past, most of your films have been fictional narratives. Now, you’re making a political documentary and playing in your father’s sandbox a little bit.

Juan Solanas: The white typography that comes toward the camera at the beginning of the film is my tribute to him. But even that just happened because I know his work. I didn’t think, “I want to make a tribute.” What is culture? Culture is taking and then redoing whatever you want. So, when I started to make my movie, I saw these white words coming—and I knew where they came from.

At the film’s Cannes premiere

Fernando, you were one of the key figures of the emergence of activist cinema in the 1960s, both with The Hour of the Furnaces and your essay “Towards a Third Cinema.” How do you see the state of activist filmmaking today?

Fernando Solanas: I am very proud of this film, but it is Juan’s film beginning to end. I don’t see that many movies to be able to say what is activist cinema today. If there is a category we can call activist cinema, it should always be a category that is creative and trying new things. I always took a lot of inspiration from silent cinema—for example, the Soviet silents. But things were different when I started. The first movie I did, The Hour of the Furnaces, was a militant manifesto. It was made as a weapon against the military dictatorship of Ongania in Argentina in 1968. It was four hours long and in three parts. We didn’t intend it to be four hours, but because of the impossibility of showing the whole thing, we had to screen it secretly in many segments. In those years, all the screenings were still 16 mm, and on one reel you could have fifty minutes maximum. So, because of this technological reality, we had to screen it in forty-five-minute segments. We had to change the film, put the lights on and everything, and at that moment a blackboard appears saying, “Espacio abierto para companero narrador”—“Open space for the narrator,” who was a person who would lead a discussion and debate and then start the movie again.

But beyond just activism, you were always interested in issues of form. Your films—both documentaries and narratives—demonstrate a keen understanding of music, photography, rhythm. They have a real sense of style.

Fernando Solanas: I first studied music, and I had a very diverse arts background. I have also been a political activist since I was sixteen years old. So the movies I wanted to make were ones wherein I could use the multiplicity of languages within cinema: There is always music, and other different forms that reflect my background. My desire to use all these languages was in a way linked to the opera, which was the most important art form of the nineteenth century, because it combined music, poetry, theater, graphic arts all together. Cinema allowed me to do a version of that. And this idea of using all these distinct artistic languages, I think you see it most clearly in the two films that I call my tanguedias—a mix of tragedy and tango—which were Tangos, the Exile of Gardel and Sur.

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