Ottawa's Latin American Film Festival Starts Today

Colombia's Oscar nominee Embrace of the Serpent is a LAFF must-see.
Photo courtesy of Northern Banner Releasing
Ottawa’s Latin American Film Festival kicks off today and boasts a whopping 22 films from countries south of the border. One downside to moving away from Ottawa is missing out on some of the great festivals that were the backbone of this blog, especially events like this one that offer hard to find gems of world cinema, but Cinemablographer will nevertheless be at LAFF in spirit whilst shivering in the lines at Hot Docs! This year’s LAFF looks like a particularly hard one to miss, since the line-up offers a strong programme of Oscar contenders (including a terrific nominee), docs, co-productions, and other films that inspire one to cry Olé! Olé! Olé!

Here are some top picks for the festival:


Dir. Fernando Molnar | Argentina | 76 min.
Wed, Apr. 27 at 7:00 PM

The films from Argentina are often among the strongest offerings from Latin America at this festival or elsewhere. They do commercial films right and their industry is on the rise with hits like The Secret in Their Eyes and Wild Tales making it big over here. Proof of this success is evident in director Fernando Molnar’s crossover from documentary to drama for LAFF’s Opening Night film Showroom. Molnar’s best known for the disability/music doc Mundo Alas, so this quirky dramedy about a man re-inventing himself following the economic downturn should, at the very least, bring the same spirit of his last film for an enjoyable kick off to the fest.

Michaëlle Jean: A Woman with Purpose

Dir. Jean-Daniel Lafond | Haiti/Canada | 52 min.
Thurs, Apr. 28 at 7 :00 PM

One nice thing about the CFI’s global scope is that the mix of international stories helps put Canadian content into perspective. This NFB co-pro, for example, offers a portrait of former Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who was the first black woman to hold the prestigious position as the Queen’s representative in Canada. This biography of the Haitian-born former GG look’s at Jean’s commitment to activist causes during her tenure and shows how she transformed a role that Canadians often dismiss as outdated and ceremonial. The doc recently screened in Toronto to a positive response at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. (No review, unfortunately, since another POV writer said he’d cover it… but then didn’t! Dommage.)

***Note: director Jean-Daniel Lafond will attend the screening!

Embrace of the Serpent

Dir. Ciro Guerra | Colombia | 125 min.
Wed, May 4 at 6:30 PM

If there’s a must-see film at LAFF this year, it’s Colombia’s spectacular Oscar nominee Embrace of the Serpent. Catch it for the novelty of being the dark horse in the recent Best Foreign Language Film race, but it’s one of the strangest films ever to catch the Academy’s attention. This two-pronged snake bites with a dual narrative that looks at Colombia’s legacy of colonialism through parallel narratives that brings Amazonian shaman Karamakate back through troubled waters as he takes two foreigners on separate trips through down the river. This strange and impressionistic film is a surreal odyssey that calls to mind the early Cinema Novo films of Brazil with its artful black and white cinematography and powerful images.

Review: Embrace of the Serpent becomes stranger and dreamier the further one goes into the forest, for the deeper one goes, the darker it gets. The strangeness of the film increases as Karamakate “heals” his passengers, particularly Theo who suffers some sort of near-fatal ailment, by blowing a powdery smoke up his nose. The effect injects the viewer with hypnotic reverie—Embrace of the Serpent is like licking a hallucinogenic frog and eating some popcorn—as images and sounds whirl, putting jaguars, reptiles, and birds as intense symbols of folklore, roots, tradition, and corruption. Don’t try to make sense of it in a linear fashion, but rather drink it down and swim in its intoxicating waters. [Read the full review here.]

The Pearl Button

Dir. Patricio Guzmán | Chile/France/Spain | 82 min.
Sat, May 14 at 2:00 PM

Moviegoers who find themselves under the spell of Embrace of the Serpent will want to check out this equally odd documentary from master filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. The Pearl Button explores the dark waters of Chile’s history of colonialism through two disparate stories that the filmmaker connects with the coincidental fastener of a pearl button. The film begins as a philosophical meditation of the existential nature of water and its relationship with humans, but rather than tread the ripples of an eco doc, Guzmán dives deeper to look at the dark underbelly beneath the surface. The Pearl Button screens as part of the CFI’s South ßàNorth: Cinema Across Borders sidebar, which invites festivalgoers to plunge into the films with in-depth panel discussions.

Review: “They say that water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice,” muses filmmaker Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia for the Light) in the philosophical voiceover that flows atop The Pearl Button. This poetic film recalls the work of Chris Marker, Peter Mettler, and Jennifer Baichwal with its awesomely stirring visuals and images of the natural landscape. Guzmán wades deep into the complex colonial history of his native Chile as he explores the failure to capitalise on, or adequately cultivate, the immense shorelines that border the nation. 2670 miles of coastline is a lot of area to cover, as is the history of the annihilation of the indigenous groups who first inhabited Chile’s shores, yet Guzmán all but plunges to the depths of Marianas Trench in The Pearl Button’s search for answers. [Read the full review at POV.]


Dir. Jayro Bustamante | Guatemala | 91 min.
Fri, May 13 at 7:00 PM

Here’s one that I caught at TIFF last year that’s worth another look. Ixcanul, which was Guatemala’s first-ever submission to the Oscars last year, does something totally different for documentary and drama alike by creating a narrative around the people who dwell on the hills of an active volcano and asking real villagers to play roles comparable to themselves in a parable about the tenuous relationship between indigenous communities and settlers. The film is especially strong for its striking visuals as Bustamante harness the foreboding power of the landscape with the volcanic ash that sweeps the hillsides. Oh, and it’s pronounced Ish-can-ewl, as noted by the helpful TIFF volunteer who had a handy guide ready for any festivalgoer who garbled the title in the rush line. (Which was everyone.) Other Latin American Oscar bids at the festival include Panama’s official submission Box 25.

Review: The volcanic landscape of Ixcanul is awesome. This visually sweeping film, Guatemala's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film in this year's Oscar race, evokes a mode of ethnographic filmmaking that fuses smartly with drama. Ixcanul offers beautiful scenery as director Jayro Bustamante gives an uncontrived portrait of life for a family of coffee farmers living nearby a volcano. (Ixcanul translates to 'volcano'.) [Read the full review here.]

The 2016 Latin American Film Festival runs April 27 – May 14.
All screenings are at the River Building Theatre, Carleton University.

Please visit www.cfi-icf.ca for the full line-up.