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A Journey Into Latin American Cinema

Lumière cinematography was introduced to the fast-growing Latin American cities like, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro in 1896 and other Latin American cities soon after. By the 1910s all countries were making films locally, but Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil eventually develop to become large film industries in Latin America. Unfortunately, little remains of Latin America’s earliest films due to poor storage and climatic conditions. The social upheaval is another reason some films could not be archived and are lost.

The first Cuban film was the one-minute short film titled El Parque De Paratino directed by Enrique Diaz Kassala that was released on March 25th, 1906. The Havana Film Festival of New York called it, “The inauguration of a new center in the neighborhood El Cerrro in Havanna.” This film was made before the second occupation of Cuba which involved President Theodore Roosevelt ordering military forces to the island. This one-minute short film represents a single moment of freedom for Cuba which, even to this day is relevant to most Cubans.

Joris Ivens, a Dutch filmmaker, visited Cuba in 1960 to document the U.S. invasion. As a part of his project was to train military camera operators, Ivens trained 50 to 60 peasants and workers for the purpose of military filming within a couple of months. He also shot two films, Carnet de Viaje (1960) and Cuba, Pueblo Armado (1961). Founders of the Cuban film institute ICAIC, Jorge Fraga and José Massip, worked on Carnet de Viaje as assistant directors.

Fraga’s feature La odisea del General José (1968) is an exemplary interplay between nature and humans. Massip in his journal, described Cuba as, “The green of the Cuban countryside which is so beautiful to the human eye is not so to the mechanical eye of the photographic lens. With black-and-white film, the different shades of green are lost in a dark and undifferentiated mass. The solution to this problem probably consists in finding an appropriate relationship between the landscape and the sky. Cuba’s sky could be the salvation of its countryside is astonishingly rich plasticity comes not only from the marvelous shade of blue but above all from the extraordinarily varied shapes of its clouds.”

Argentine’s cinema owes its beginning to a collaboration between two accomplished still photographers Eduardo Martínez de la Pera and Ernesto Gunche.  In the film titled, Nobleza Gaucha, they describe the dual reality of Argentina and the cultural and political conflict which had deep roots in Argentinean society. A sound version of Nobleza Gaucha was released in 1932 by Francisco Mugica who also directed the country’s first sound feature titled Tango! in 1933.

 Another early collaborator of Argentian films was José González Castillo a poet-playwright whose 1914 play about homosexuality, Los Invertidos , was way ahead of its times in Buenos Aires. His second film about the repression of the country’s anarcho-syndicalist movement titled Juan Sin Ropa was well received world over.


The first animated picture, El Apóstol, had various legendary talent of that period like, tango singer Carlos Gardel, Alfredo de Laferrere, co-scriptwriter was a popular playwright who became a foreign minister in 1958, Diógenes Taborda, leading political caricaturist. Quirino Cristiani was the director and principal animator. El Apóstol was a satire of president Hipólito Yrigoyen (1916–22 and 1928–30), the country’s first president. Critics described the film as a “Dantean spectacle with Jupiter’s lightning bolts raining down on the city, producing a direct hit on the congress building”.

The Brazilian film Salão de Novidades Paris was shot on a boat in 1898 and was the first official film that was released in Brazil.  A silent film titled Vista da Baía da Guanabara , directed by Italian filmmaker Affonso Segreto was the first film screened in Rio de Janeiro. Between 1908 and 1912 it was called the La Bella Epoca, the golden age. The films were being produced at the rate of one hundred films per year. At that time Brazil was producing posed films and the first film was directed by Francisco Marzullo in 1908. Following that sung films were introduced and were phenomenally successful. But due to lack in originality Brazilian cinema noticed a significant downfall as North American films got more popular. 

O Pagador de Promessas, directed by Anselmo Duarte won the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival became the only film by a Brazilian director to achieve that feat. It also became the first Brazilian and South American film nominated for the Academy Award for Best International feature propelling an upward trend in the Latin American film market which continues till today.

Animation houses in Latin America too are bringing forth films that depict the indigenous myths and legends, exotic locations of South America, and universal themes that have a worldwide appeal.