Listen to this article
In Colombian film-maker Ciro Guerra’s new movie Embrace of the Serpent, he intercuts the stories of parallel journeys into the Amazon, inspired by the travel journals of a German and an American explorer, written in the 1900s and 1940s respectively.
The hallucinatory black-and-white film shows the explorers searching for a plant sacred to the indigenous people, with the sometimes reluctant help of Amerindian guides. You might say that European and North American audiences have been on their own journey into Latin American cinema: Embrace of the Serpent won the top award at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2015 and yesterday it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Guerra’s earlier garlanded features, The Wandering Shadows (2004) and The Wind Journeys (2009), were made with European and Colombian backing, but Embrace of the Serpent was “turned down by all the funds in Europe”, he says. They are “playing safe” in their choice of projects to support.
But, thanks to a Colombian law of 2003 that taxes cinema distributors and exhibitors and uses the proceeds to support film production, and Argentine and Venezuelan backing, Guerra was able to fund the film.
The movie is a mesmerising journey into other forms of knowledge and ways of seeing. It makes us question the very core of what we know, or think we know.
What Guerra’s experience shows is how, even without backing from Europe or the US, artists from Latin America, Africa and Asia have found creative ways to tell their own stories.
Given current trends, says Guerra: “It is difficult to make movies that are not blockbusters or for teenagers. The risk is that cinema is going to lose its soul, stop being an art form or medium for expression and become the equivalent of a carnival attraction, a rollercoaster ride.”
But while that predicament may be common to film-makers elsewhere, Guerra argues that Latin American cinema is forging its own exciting identity. Among his seminal influences are Glauber Rocha of Brazil, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea of Cuba, and the Colombians Victor Gaviria and José Maria Arzuaga. These “masters of Latin American cinema,” he says, “are not well known because our cinema has travelled very little”.
It is not just Latin American cinema whose global exposure is on the rise. When the Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin wrote her bestseller Please Look After Mother, about an elderly woman who goes missing at Seoul’s central station, she was concerned about society trampling on its own cherished values in pursuit of economic growth. The view she expressed in 2014, that “values have gone missing as we turned to modernity”, was clearly shared as the novel sold 2m copies in Korean. It was South Korea’s Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, and the national soul-searching about mislaid values that followed in its wake, that confirmed the prescience of Shin’s novel.
It struck a chord more widely too, finding readers across Asia after its English translation won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. That helped South Korea to recognise literature as part of Hallyu — the lucrative “Korean wave” of cultural exports that began in east Asia at the turn of the century and spread. Joining K-pop and Korean cuisine, South Korea’s literature is arriving on distant shores.
Sometimes it takes an entrepreneur to carry art out into the world. Touria El Glaoui, inspired by the difficulties her Moroccan painter father Hassan had in pursuing his career, founded 1:54 in London in 2013, an annual art fair during Frieze Week devoted to contemporary artists from Africa’s 54 countries. It had 15,000 visitors last October and there is now a New York edition too.
When her father — who turned 92 in December — was struggling against a conservative family to become an artist, he had an unlikely ally. Winston Churchill knew Hassan’s father, the last pasha of Marrakesh or Lord of the Atlas, and during visits to north Africa in the early 1940s, it was Churchill, a keen amateur painter, who persuaded this Berber warrior-politician to abandon his misgivings and let his talented son pursue his dream.
After art school in Paris, El Glaoui returned as a pioneering modernist whose oil paintings of horsemen and landscapes have since been auctioned at Sotheby’s and shown around the world. But when he held his first exhibition in Morocco — under a tent — in the early 1960s, “there was no infrastructure,” according to his daughter. “An artist had to promote himself. Now every city has a gallery.” More than that, last autumn saw the landmark opening of the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the capital, Rabat. It no longer takes foreign patronage for local artists to emerge.
Achieving recognition is still by no means easy. Despite a vastly improved environment for artists in many African countries, fresh obstacles arise. The oil price slump has hit the art market, notably among Nigerian collectors. Access to parts of the continent is another inhibiting factor, as in Mali, with its Islamist insurgency. “Many collectors won’t make the trip,” Touria El Glaoui says, “so art fairs abroad help get artists into international institutions and raise their market value.”
The threats to creativity are many — from oil prices in Africa to war in the Middle East — but the arts of the global south have a power of their own. As Ciro Guerra says: “We can offer audiences a different perspective on history — stories with an exciting, alternative point of view.”