A poet and a filmmaker, an ironic anarchist inspired by an unshakable faith in the future, a politically committed artist and, above all, a great utopian: Fernando Birri
is a unique character and the film Ata tu arado a una estrella
(lit. Tie your plough to a star) help us know deeply. Thanks to images and interviews from 1997 to the present day, the film is a magical encounter with a 92-year-old man who seems to have his own glow, a lucid and light artist who gets fascinated by a GoPro minicamera as if he'd still be about to start working again.
Birri is of Argentinian origin but is well rooted in Italy, when he moved in 1950 to study at the National Film School until 1953. He is considered the godfather of the new Latin-American cinema as he was also the founder of the first film school of the continent, the Film Institute of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in his hometown Santa Fe. His work influenced coeval and younger filmmakers, from legendary documentary Tire dié
, with his working-class poetic inspired by the Neorealism, to his first feature film Los inundados
(awarded in Venice in 1961), to the manifesto "For a national, realist, critical, and working-class cinema".
Argentinian filmmaker and anthropologist Carmen Guarini
has made an intimate and enthralling film. It starts in 1997, whem Fernando got back to Argentina to make a film about Che Guevara for the thirtieth anniversary of his death. That sort of backstage (Compañero Birri, diario de una filmacion
) went unreleased and got lost eventually. In those newfound images we see South-American intellectuals like Ernesto Sabato, Osvaldo Bayer, Leon Ferrari, and Eduardo Galeano. There are theorical reflections, convivial moments (like the lunch at the Rincon ranch) and official events, including the opening speech at the Escuela de San Antonio de los Banos, inaugurated by Birri on 15 December 1986, and the embrace with Fidel.
The National Film School is in the film, too. There we can still find the application form filled in by the then 25-year-old Birri, who already had clear in mind what making cinema meant for him. In Mar del Plata, we met Carmen Guarini who told us about the long development of this film which we hope to see soon in Italy as well.
When and how did you meet Fernando Birri?
It was at the end of the 1980s. To me, it was already a mythical figure. I met him at the Latin-American Film Festival in Trieste. I was interested in the school he founded in Trieste in 1957, the first one of that kind in the whole Latin America. We bonded immediately. I am an anthropologist and during the dictatorship I moved to France, where I studied with Jean Rouch. I asked Ferdinando why he wasn't going back to Argentina and he replied: because they're not inviting me. So I ask them to invite him over for a seminar.
That's how the Che Guevara film project was born.
Yes, Ferdinando started working on this documentary produced by the Germans, Che, muerte de una utopia? It was a very modern film for the time, totally anarchic. With interviews, reflections, and so on and so forth. I was following him, shooting him myself.
You also went to Cuba to the Escuela International de Cine y Tv in San Antonio de los Banos. How was the atmosphere there?
It was a free, creative, and chaotic space, just like Ferdinando. Not everyone could understand and defend their method, neither in Cuba. But that spirit inspired many people. I had the chance to interview the doctor of the school: his office was full of objects and references to the 'other' medical sciences: agopuncture, olistic medicine, stones. The health of these students coming from all over the world, from Africa and from East Asia, was entrusted to totally alternative methods. It was an open environment, books too were available for everyone, were lent to everyone. According to Ferdinando, the school should have been a true community.
The presence of Fernando today inspires a sense of immanent sacredness, something mystical although totally eathly.
We might say, he holds a godless mystic originated by his great faith in humanity, a faith that he treasured against all odds.
You also went to the National Film School in Rome on the trail of Birri.
Yes, I went to the Film School and in Cinecittà, two places I love very much. I got help both from the School and from the Aamod, the archive of the workers democratic movement. We shot at the School and they made the Fondo Birri available for us, the one also including Fernando's application form. He was the prodigal son who took the school to Latin America.
Is his legacy still meaningful in contemporary Argentinian cinema?
Today we are fighting the harshest battle against the cuts for culture and cinema sanctioned by Macri's neoliberist government. Cuts are motivated by the fact that art cinema is seen just by a limited number of people. Although supporting politics in the last ten or twelve years resulted in a blooming Argentinian cinema, producing 150 films per year and scoring good results in international film festivals, now they want to cut this all down and produce only a handful of mainstream films. Last spring, there has been a great mobilization against the new INCAA regulations, and part of the measures have been resized. However, you can still feel the crisis here at festival as well.
Utopia is necessary more than ever. And as the documentary says, utopia is not about where but about who.
Yes, Fernando is an embodiment of utopia to me. Utopia helps you go on, go forward, and he helped many filmmakers walk on their own two feet.