A Filmmaking Family Takes to the Streets

While politics has never been a stranger to the Cannes Film Festival lineup, this year’s offerings have proven to be even more charged than usual. And one of the more lively and notable premieres on the Croisette so far has been director Juan Solanas’s out-of-competition documentary Que sea ley (Let It Be Law), which follows Argentina’s struggle to pass a law guaranteeing women the right to safe, legal, and free abortions. A confluence of events—including recent laws passed by some states in the U.S.—converged to make its red carpet premiere an intense, emotional affair, animated by chants, tears, and a sea of waving green handkerchiefs symbolizing the abortion rights movement in Argentina.

Perched between call-to-arms and testimonial, the film allows activists and others to directly address the camera with their experiences. In some cases, the subjects are parents talking about the harrowing deaths of their daughters from illegal abortions, or through professional neglect. We also hear from doctors who recall that they were instructed to treat women seeking abortions as criminals and to report them. Intercut with these interviews is footage of ferocious street protests, shot with propulsive immediacy, as well as on-screen text that flies at us with agitprop velocity, citing key statistics about the realities facing women in Argentina and Latin America in general.

Amid the activists onstage and on-screen was a face perhaps familiar to those who have followed the history of political cinema: Juan Solanas’s father (and a producer on the film), Fernando Solanas, the legendary Argentine dissident and director of the seminal militant documentary The Hour of the Furnaces (1968) as well as powerful, eclectic fiction narratives such as Tangos, the Exile of Gardel (1985) and Sur (1988). Fernando Solanas’s pivotal essay, “Towards a Third Cinema” (written with his Furnaces codirector Octavio Getino), was also instrumental in helping establish the touchstones of an engaged form of Third World political filmmaking that rejected the conventions of the Hollywood studio system and European “auteur cinema.” The theory of a Third Cinema wasn’t just about aesthetics but also about bypassing traditional modes of distribution, and using cinema as a tool against neocolonialism and dictatorship. It contains the memorable line “The camera is the inexhaustible expropriator of image-weapons; the projector, a gun that can shoot 24 frames per second.”

Once an exile, now a senator, Solanas père is the rare case of a politically engaged artist who has followed his convictions into office—focusing on issues such as income inequality, the environment, and antimilitarism. (He has paid for those convictions, too: In 1991, an attempt was made on his life and he was shot six times after he filed charges of corruption against then-President Carlos Menem. Indeed, this incident helped spur his decision to enter elected politics.) With Let It Be Law, Juan and his sister Victoria, who executive produced the documentary, continue in the footsteps of their father. I talked to the three of them about this new film, about living a life where politics was everywhere, and about the challenges of putting thought into action.

Tell me what the current situation is in Argentina, regarding the attempts to pass a motion to make abortion legal, secure, and free.

Juan Solanas: More than one woman a day dies in Latin America following an illegal abortion. In one week, the National Campaign for Legal Abortion will present, for the eighth time, this law to the Parliament. This year, we have a presidential election, and Argentina is in a very bad economic situation, so it’s difficult for them to have visibility. People dismiss them by saying, “You lost. Don’t you remember you lost three months ago? Relax a little bit, we have more ‘important’ things to talk about.” What’s even worse, when people vote for president, they reelect one third of both chambers, and we are afraid that the percentage of pro-life members will be bigger in the two chambers of Parliament. But the film’s screening at Cannes, and what’s happening in the United States, has brought new attention to this subject.

Victoria Solanas: When the Deputies [the lower house of Parliament] voted, it was really half and half; early that morning, we knew that we would win, but it was really close. But the Senate [which voted afterward] is more conservative. It represents every province, and there is a big division between Buenos Aires and the other provinces. And there’s another division between young people and the older generation; you see a lot of young feminists.

Juan Solanas: We grew up in a very political reality. For us, politics has very concrete consequences. We know a lot of people who died because of politics—friends of my father’s. So, everything is political in our life. Maybe you don’t always see it in the movies that I make, but at the origin of every movie there is a political grain. Last year, the reality in Argentina was so strong that I felt the necessity to take my camera and just shoot, with no plan. I didn’t know what it would eventually become. All I knew was that I would try to show reality. I didn’t want to be a pamphleteer.

But you’re not necessarily trying to be fully objective or “balanced” either in this film.

Juan Solanas: No, the movie has a point of view. The title is Let It Be Law, so that is clear. And I had that title in my head from the first day I started shooting. Maybe it would be a short, maybe it would be long-form, maybe it would be an installation. But I set rules for myself: “Juan, you will take your camera and you will register reality. You will not interfere with it.” I did lights, sound, everything myself. That helped create this intimacy. And when I asked someone, “Can I shoot you?” if they said, “No,” I didn’t insist. I would ask people, “If you know someone who wants to testify, I will shoot them.” I did not choose who to shoot or not shoot. And my final rule was that I would give myself fifteen, twenty minutes maximum to shoot.

So, say Julia says she wants to testify. “Tomorrow, five o’clock. Address.” I take my taxi, I arrive, “Hello, Julia. I’m Juan.” I put the mic on. I ask her where she wants to speak.  And I say to her, “The camera is here for you. You will tell the audience whatever you want to tell them. I will not interfere. If you can’t look at the camera, if it’s difficult, that’s okay, just look at me.” I had only one light, so it was easy for me to choose where to put my one light. Boom, fifteen minutes. If I hadn’t set these rules, I know that I would have arrived and looked at everything and spent an hour trying to move tables and putting lights here and there. But I wanted to speak to the urgency of this situation.

In the past, most of your films have been fictional narratives. Now, you’re making a political documentary and playing in your father’s sandbox a little bit.

Juan Solanas: The white typography that comes toward the camera at the beginning of the film is my tribute to him. But even that just happened because I know his work. I didn’t think, “I want to make a tribute.” What is culture? Culture is taking and then redoing whatever you want. So, when I started to make my movie, I saw these white words coming—and I knew where they came from.

At the film’s Cannes premiere

Fernando, you were one of the key figures of the emergence of activist cinema in the 1960s, both with The Hour of the Furnaces and your essay “Towards a Third Cinema.” How do you see the state of activist filmmaking today?

Fernando Solanas: I am very proud of this film, but it is Juan’s film beginning to end. I don’t see that many movies to be able to say what is activist cinema today. If there is a category we can call activist cinema, it should always be a category that is creative and trying new things. I always took a lot of inspiration from silent cinema—for example, the Soviet silents. But things were different when I started. The first movie I did, The Hour of the Furnaces, was a militant manifesto. It was made as a weapon against the military dictatorship of Ongania in Argentina in 1968. It was four hours long and in three parts. We didn’t intend it to be four hours, but because of the impossibility of showing the whole thing, we had to screen it secretly in many segments. In those years, all the screenings were still 16 mm, and on one reel you could have fifty minutes maximum. So, because of this technological reality, we had to screen it in forty-five-minute segments. We had to change the film, put the lights on and everything, and at that moment a blackboard appears saying, “Espacio abierto para companero narrador”—“Open space for the narrator,” who was a person who would lead a discussion and debate and then start the movie again.

But beyond just activism, you were always interested in issues of form. Your films—both documentaries and narratives—demonstrate a keen understanding of music, photography, rhythm. They have a real sense of style.

Fernando Solanas: I first studied music, and I had a very diverse arts background. I have also been a political activist since I was sixteen years old. So the movies I wanted to make were ones wherein I could use the multiplicity of languages within cinema: There is always music, and other different forms that reflect my background. My desire to use all these languages was in a way linked to the opera, which was the most important art form of the nineteenth century, because it combined music, poetry, theater, graphic arts all together. Cinema allowed me to do a version of that. And this idea of using all these distinct artistic languages, I think you see it most clearly in the two films that I call my tanguedias—a mix of tragedy and tango—which were Tangos, the Exile of Gardel and Sur.

How have audiences seen your films in Argentina?

I returned to making politically charged documentaries in 2002 with Memoria del saqueo (Social Genocide). By that point, I felt that ideally these movies should be shown on television. Today, my movies are screened in universities, because teachers take them as examples of the art form, but many people don’t go to college, and I want them to be able to see these films, too. I don’t think they will see them in the cinema. People don’t want to go to the cinema on a Friday night with their girlfriend or boyfriend to see a politically charged documentary. They would rather go to a romantic comedy. As long as the movie is asking the public to think too much, there’s no commercial interest in it.

Are you disappointed at all in that? This seems to be far from the world you envisioned with the engaged filmmaking of The Hour of the Furnaces.

Fernando Solanas: I’m not disappointed at all. In 1984, when I returned to my country from exile in France, I came to a democratic country. It has its issues, but it’s a democratic place. There are also parallel circuits—cine clubs, unions, universities—where my films can be seen. Even if you don’t give your movie to them, they will find it anyway on Google! So thousands can see my movies without paying for them. That’s just the way it is. At least those movies allow them to see a counter image of my country.

You yourself have made the transition from a filmmaker to a politician when you ran for office and when you were elected senator in 2013. It’s very rare that an artist will actually enter politics and try to make concrete progress on the issues they have made films about. Did politics require any sort of adjustment on your part—did you find yourself revisiting your own positions or attitudes?

Fernando Solanas: As a senator, I am still fighting the battles I was fighting in my movies, and I have put forward legislation around these issues. Most of them are not laws yet, because we’re in a minority still. But as a senator my position in the senate is probably among the most left wing.

Victoria Solanas: My father’s life has crossed both film and politics since he was young. His whole life, he has been a political person, even though his work has been in the cultural arena. The assassination attempt on him [in 1991] was a moment that changed his life. After that, he decided to really engage himself as a politician. But I don’t think it was difficult; it was his identity. In that moment he thought it was important to take his place. Now, the movies he made, he has taken these issues into his political life.

Fernando Solanas: It’s important to note the difference between each political moment in Argentina. During the dictatorship of Ongania, people were tortured or put in prison. They didn’t disappear people, but that came after, with the dictatorship that followed. This next dictatorship [a military junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla] would sequester people, torture them, and, once they could not get any more information, they would just throw them into the sea. Afterward came democracy. It’s a limited one, but it is different. There are individual freedoms in the country. Today, if we find out that there is a crime against humanity, or we find out the police are involved with narcotrafficking or the mafia or anything like that, people can actually talk about it out loud. They can take action. People can go on trial. Argentina is one of the only countries where the law was able to judge those responsible for the previous military coup and the dictatorship—today there are 300 generals and people from the military that are in prison, with trials still ongoing. This was not the case before. 

There is clearly a very vital and massive feminist protest movement right now in Argentina. Juan, I was quite taken with the energy of the street protests you depict. It’s not easy to effectively convey that kind of real-life dynamism on the screen. How did you approach filming them?

Juan Solanas: I was in love with these women and their energy. When I was a teenager I wanted to be a guitarist—I ended up making movies, but I’m also very sensitive about music, and I started my career as a director making videos. So, I feel like I know where to put the camera with that energy. But making this film, I was alone, with one camera. And with only a couple of minutes to shoot, because they weren’t going to do it again for my benefit so that I could shoot different angles or whatever. So, I was editing and directing in my head. “Okay, I have ten seconds from this angle, I think that’s okay. Run, run, run. Now put it here. Another ten seconds.” So, it was fast. But I was mesmerized by these women. I didn’t know about this before. I knew a lot about the issue, but not about the street protests.

Watching them, one senses that there’s no way they’re going to lose.

Juan Solanas: Absolutely! They will resist, they will keep going until this law passes. But in the meantime, women will still die. And this is the tragedy.

Victoria Solanas: This is a generational phenomenon. These women have a lot of power. Even if they are not winning in parliament, society has changed, and they’re winning there, in the streets. So if they seem optimistic, it is because they know the future is on their side.