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Short Films From Latin America

Feature-length movies are costly to make, so the short format helps movie industry stay alive

NOT so long ago, short films played a regular role in the lives of American moviegoers. Although the "featured attraction" was the main event of a night at the movies, most theaters teamed this with a "short subject" of some kind - a fictional "featurette," perhaps, or a current-events report or travelogue - as dependably as they presented newsreels and cartoons.

While this practice has faded in the United States, the importance of short films in world cinema should not be overlooked. Movies began as celluloid snippets less than a minute long, and later "shorts" have often served as laboratories for experimentation in style and content.

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The importance of shorts has been particularly clear in places far from the wealthy Hollywood studios, such as Latin America, where a lack of Hollywood-style resources has often led inventive filmmakers to express their ideas in movies of modest length. The rich history of such filmmaking is now being explored in a program called "Short Films From Latin America," which recently premiered at the Museum of Modern Art here. It is organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and slated for extensive in ternational touring over the next several years.

Latin American cinema has developed largely "as a response and/or challenge to mainstream practices imported from abroad, especially but not exclusively from Hollywood," writes scholar Ana M. Lopez in a catalog article for the AFA program.

"In fact," she adds, "writing a history of the Latin American short film would be tantamount to writing a history of the Latin American cinema." There are several reasons for the privileged place of Latin American shorts. These include their comparatively modest cost, their flexibility as vehicles for political statements, and their value as training grounds for aspiring feature-film directors.

The amazing variety of Latin American shorts is vividly shown by the AFA exhibition, which comprises 36 fiction films, documentaries, and animations, from a dozen countries. These have been organized into six programs, the titles of which tell their own story about the priorities of Latin American cinema.

The first two, "The Land" and "People at Work," focus on basic concerns of daily life. Then come "Change and Conflict" and "Masculine/Feminine," calling attention to social and historical issues. The final programs, "Heroes and Healers" and "Creativity and Expression," deal with such matters as art, folklore, and religion.

A few examples indicate the range of the exhibition:

* "Island of Flowers" (Brazil, 1989) is a hilarious and horrifying film-essay about social inequity. Beginning as a boisterous parody of educational filmmaking, it takes on overwhelming force as it points out sad realities of poverty and hunger, ending its 12-minute odyssey in a privately owned garbage dump where destitute people are free to scavenge for food deemed unfit for the proprietor's pigs. Jorge Furtado directed.

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* "An Island Surrounded by Water" (Mexico, 1985) is the exquisitely photographed story of a 14-year-old girl searching for her mother after being abandoned. The film compresses so much material into its 25-minute length that some details will be puzzling for non-Mexican audiences. Yet many of its references to the troubled and violent Mexican heritage are readily comprehensible, evincing the complexities that underlie so much Latin American history. The drama was directed by Maria Novaro, who has gone on

to a major feature-film career.

* "Miss Universe in Peru" (Peru, 1986) juxtaposes two events: a Miss Universe beauty pageant and a Conference of Indigenous Women, both held in Peru's capital. The pageant gets most of the film's attention, revealing itself as a crass and exploitative attack on feminine dignity. Grupo Chaski, a cooperative organization, produced and directed this documentary.

* "Holy Father and Gloria" (Chile, 1987) also focuses on two simultaneous events: visits to Chile by Pope John Paul II and by a recently exiled Chilean woman named Carmen Gloria, who is recovering from an attack on her life prompted by her political activism. Estela Bravo directed this powerful documentary on Chilean public life under Pinochet.

* "Hatmakers" (Brazil, 1983) is an evocatively edited look at a hat factory. It was directed by Adrian Cooper, who captures the deadening nature of noisy, repetitive work and implicitly raises the question of why conditions can't be more humane.

* "Filmminutos" (Cuba, 1982-3) are minute-long cartoons with gibberish instead of dialogue. Noel Lima and Jose Reyes directed these witty confabulations of brevity and levity, which are widely seen on Cuban television and theater screens.

Not every film in the AFA program is completely successful. "The Land Burns," for instance, a 1968 documentary made by Raymundo Gleyzer in Argentina and Brazil, effectively relates the naturally caused devastation of a drought to the politically caused devastation of unfair land-ownership policies; yet its classic-documentary approach seems heavy-handed compared with today's cinema-verite styles.

"Missing Children," a 1985 documentary made by Ms. Bravo in Argentina, also seems sentimental and unsubtle at times, despite the importance of its revelations about youngsters and pregnant women who are "disappeared" by the authorities.

Yet the exhibition does an impressive job of demonstrating the variety of Latin American short films and introducing new filmmakers to non-Latin audiences. This accomplishment is all the more important since prospects are not encouraging for the immediate future of Latin American cinema. Julianne Burton writes in the show's catalog that Argentine feature-making has recently ceased; the governments of Brazil and Venezuela have curtailed film-related funds; important film organizations in Mexico and Cuba a re in precarious condition; and political developments in Nicaragua have hurt alternative media throughout Central America.

Hope for the future comes from a recent upturn in video activity and from the continuing existence of short-film production as an outlet for moviemakers. The AFA show performs a valuable service by highlighting the tradition and possibilities of this still-essential format.

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