Visible Evidence 2021

Poking Fun: Humor in Latin American Documentaries

Jesse Lerner
Juan Antonio Suárez
Jessica Gordon-Burroughs
Respondent: Juana Suárez
Thu, Dec 16
90 Min
Mousonturm (Theatre), Online
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Enrique Colina's Documentaries of Laughter

Many have speculated that humor in authoritarian societies often revolves on the subversion of power; Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1941), for example, was written in the Soviet Union during the darkest of during WWII, when the nation faced the Nazi advance, pervasive hunger, malnutrition and starvation, and widening Stalinist purges.

The humor in the Cuban filmmaker and critic Enrique Colina’s short documentaries derives from a variety of strategies, including slapstick, parody, satire, and incongruous and unexpected juxtapositions. One of Colina’s last films, La vaca de mármol (The Marble Cow, 2013), is clearly a parody of Soviet-style production quotas, the cult of Alexey Stakhanov, the Stakhanovite movement and its Caribbean equivalents, through the figure of Ubre Blanca, the Cuban cow that set a world’s record for milk production. But Colina’s state-sponsored, experimental documentaries often use humor as what Terry Eagleton, in his book Humour, described as a “social corrective.”

Far from subversive laughter imagined by Bakhtin, or something gratuitous and non-functional, it serves as a force of social reform and influence. “If men and women cannot be scolded into virtue,” Eagleton writes, “they might always be satirized into it.” Using three short documentaries by the late Cuban filmmaker—Estética (1984), Chapucerías (1986), and El rey de la selva (1991)—this paper analyzes the cinematic strategies and ideological functions of humor in the late Colina’s documentaries.

Jesse Lerner

Jesse Lerner is a filmmaker, curator, and writer. His documentaries Frontierland/Fronterilandia (1995), Ruins (1999), The American Egypt (2001), Atomic Sublime (2010), and The Absent Stone (2013) have screened at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and the Sundance, Rotterdam, and Los Angeles Film Festivals, among many other venues. Washington’s National Gallery, the Anthology Film Archives, and Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional have presented mid-career surveys of his films. His books include The Maya of Modernism, F is for Phony, The Shock of Modernity, Ism Ism Ism, and The Catherwood Project.

Humor and Politics in Luis Ospina's Documentaries

“Our working method is laughter,” affirmed Colombian filmmakers Carlos Mayolo (1945-2007) and Luis Ospina (1949-2019) in 1978, as their documentary Agarrando pueblo (1977) was reaping awards in festivals around the world. Humor was a prime ingredient in their film, a satire of the commercial exploitation of poverty that drives much social documentary. Humor characterizes as well Mayolo and Ospina’s Oiga vea (1971), a reportage on the Sixth Pan-American Games from the perspective of those who could not afford to attend the competitions, and it remains a constant in Ospina’s subsequent work.

Ospina’s documentary output includes biographies, explorations of the city of Cali, mockumentaries, and autobiographical essays. The structuring role of humor in his work has been noted in passing, but has yet to be systematically explored. Humor may have been relegated by Ospina’s declaration that “death, the city, and memory” are his main obsessions, and by the prominence in his work of concerns, such as cinephilia and social critique, that are dearer to scholarship on Latin American independent cinema.

To redress this oblivion, my presentation will characterize Ospina’s comic strategies and will explore their political efficacy. It will show that rather than on the presentation of explicitly political views, the political effect of Ospina’s humor resides in a discursive style that undermines stable perspective, grounds abstract issues in concrete material embodiment, and incorporates vernacular expressiveness. While centered on Ospina, the presentation will place him in dialogue with contemporary documentarists and will highlight the relevance of humor in political film.

Juan Antonio Suárez

Juan Antonio Suárez is a Professor of American Studies at the University of Murcia. He is the author of Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars, Pop Modernism, and Jim Jarmusch and the co-editor of Culture, Space, and Power, The Spatial Politics of Contemporary Fiction, and Reimaginar la disidencia sexual en la España de los 70. Recent essays have appeared in Screen, L’Atalante, The Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and in several edited collections. He is currently completing the book Experimental Film and Queer Materiality.

What's the Moral, Son? Jaime Barrios' Film Club

This paper argues that the 1968 documentary Film Club, filmed in New York City and directed by soon-to-be exiled Chilean filmmaker Jaime Barrios, constitutes a polyphonic exploration of the politics of viewership and representation. As the documentary employed for promotional use by the Young Filmmakers Foundation (YFF) weaves through a labyrinth of symbolic investments and variables (ranging from funding organisms, community uplift, and the principles and values of the Lyndon Johnson-era “War on Poverty”), the student filmmakers portrayed in Film Club reinscribe their own vision of the self through a complex matrix of visual, performative, and rhetorical relations.

The subjectivization produced in this operation frustrates any straightforward liberatory identitary narrative. At the same time, the uncertain nature of the film’s authorship, declared proposals, and even archivization, complicate Film Club’s place in established canonical domains, ultimately opening up the possibility of a new critical and spectatorial horizon of expectation for the documentary, in which visual and moral relations and exigencies are configured, reordered, even refused, and the restrictive “expectations” of diasporic canon(s) and deployments of the self may be reconsidered and decentered through the strategic maneuvering of humor, drawn as much from the anti-establishment impulses of early Hollywood comedy as it is from a Caribbean tradition of comic evasion of authority (otherwise known as el choteo).

Respondent: Juana Suárez

Juana Suárez is an Associate Arts Professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and Director of its Moving Image Archiving & Preservation Program. She combines careers as a scholar, film critic, and media archivist/preservation activist. Her research interests include Media Preservation, Film Archives, Media Archeology, Administration of Memory Institutions, Film Studies, Latin American/Latino-a Cinema, Cultural Studies and Literature, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Immigration Studies.

She is the author of Sitios de Contienda. Producción Cultural y el Discurso de la Violencia (Iberoamericana-Vervuert, 2010), and Cinembargo Colombia. Ensayos críticos sobre cine y cultura colombiana (Universidad del Valle, 2009), published in English by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. She is the co-editor of Humor in Latin American Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Currently, she is forwarding a research project entitled Audiovisual Archives, Cultural History and the Digital Turn in Latin America.