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The Pampero Cinematic Universe: 20 Films in 20 Years

Alejo Moguillansky, Laura Citarella, Mariano Llinás and Agustín MendilaharzuAlejo Moguillansky, Laura Citarella, Mariano Llinás and Agustín Mendilaharzu

Trenque Lauquen opens with a mystery. Laura, a biologist cataloging plant species in the eponymous town, has gone missing and her husband and a driver she used to work with team up to track her down. The two men share stories and tour the doldrums of the Las Pampas area while beginning to unravel the mystery behind Laura’s disappearance, discoveries that lead to other discoveries and even more questions. Told over the course of 12 chapters and screening in two parts, Trenque Lauquen  unfolds like a large map—sprouting stories within stories in a labyrinth of genres, characters and vivid flashbacks. At turns detective caper, thriller, sci-fi tale and romance, Trenque Lauquen changes perspective in its second part and introduces sci-fi elements into its drama. 

Laura Citarella’s latest movie is the latest installment from the radically experimental film collective El Pampero Cine, founded in 2002 by Mariano Llinás, Alejo Moguillansky, Agustin Mendilaharzu and Citatella herself, who have been creating a counter-example for film production and distribution against the dictates of dominant international festival and financing systems. The four members collaborate and work on each other’s films as producers, editors, writers, actors and cinematographers, sharing credits across over 20 different films in the past 20 years. Owning their own equipment, refusing to apply to the state funds and finding idiosyncratic and unique distribution methods, El Pampero Cine has carved out a niche audience in the international festival circuit and a cult following within Argentina itself. The company is known for using the resources readily available to them: actors from a theater group that Alejo Moguillansky is involved in; pro-grade Canon cameras owned by the studio themselves; costumes and props they borrow from friends. Although the films are decidedly low-budget, they never sacrifice the possibilities of fiction filmmaking. Typically, microbudget films embrace their own precarity as a narrative or emotional crutch (see: mumblecore) but at El Pampero, the limits of production value only widen the cinematic horizon. Each film presents itself as a puzzle waiting to be solved, nesting stories within stories in a multitude of genres and styles. They lean on the side of adventure and mystery with a literary twist, as if the Indiana Jones franchise were re-written by Borges or Bolaño. 

Mariano Llinás, the director of Trenque Lauquen’s gargantuan cinematic cousin, La Flor (2018) a 14-hour episodic journey on which Citarella served as producer, leads the pack. He studied anthropology upon entering university, and the academic discipline continues to run through his films, as well as his colleagues’: maps, studies of flowers, foreign languages, hidden treasures and shots of vast landscapes permeate through the collective’s oeuvre. In 2002, Llinás won a screenplay competition to make a film for $15,000. Armed with a DV camera, he set out to capture images at the beaches of coastal towns surrounding Buenos Aires, using friends as actors for a few staged scenes. Part mockumentary and part surrealist essay, Llinás’ feature film debut Balnearios (Spas) looked at beach vacationing near the Buenos Aires area through an anthropological lens. It used a sardonic voice-over, the type you hear in infomercials, to render the beaches in the provinces of Buenos Aires as an alien landscape, barren with consumerism and middle-class hedonism; think John Wilson in Mar Del Plata, with a surrealist bent. It unexpectedly became a hit in Argentina, running for 30 weeks in theaters and causing an uproar with film critics; the film’s humor seemed to put its finger on the pulse with a country that had become complacent in post-dictatorship neoliberalism, and it announced Llinás as a perverse provocateur. Beneath the waves of laughter and controversy, however, was an experimental and idiosyncratic voice being developed—most Argentinians remember the film’s absurdist tics and breezy jazz score, but in between the lines of irony the film laid ground a form of circuitous fiction filmmaking that was both playful and literary, low-budget yet ambitious. 

Llinas’ approach introduced an entirely new model of filmmaking and distribution to Argentinian independent film. For starters, Llinás refused to apply to the newly-established state funds in Argentina: “At that time, the big trend in Latin American films was to use non-professional actors, a certain crude approach to reality, even disbelieving a certain cinematic grammar—in other words, making very, very direct films with handheld cameras. Balnearios was quite the opposite. It was a deliberate film, with a very present narrator, with a voiceover and a sense of humor on the front line. I wanted to expand the field, so to speak.” The independent cinema of Latin America at that time was grounded in a gritty naturalism: Filmmakers like Adrian Caetano and Pablo Trapero set their cameras in the present-day, on realistic characters, and typically told stories about the plight of the working-class. Most importantly, they were financed by National Film Institute (INCAA), and went on to raise funds through co-production funding (Hubert Bals Fund at the Rotterdam film festival and the Visions Sud Est program from Switzerland, among others). These films, while some of them were excellent, did not set out to radically revolutionize the dominant cinema but instead replace it; as Llinás characterizes it, indie films at that time were the emperor’s new clothes, liberalism and not socialism. El Pampero proposed independent filmmaking as a way of doing, not as a path to cross to arrive at something bigger. Although Llinás admits to receiving funding from niche investors and grants across the seas to complete their vision (“We use the Dutch for getting money as South Americans; people from the third world go to the Dutch”), it stands that El Pampero refuses to receive help or financial support where most people would turn first: “I was very, very, very militant, very radical and I wanted everything to change on a profound level. So, with Balnearios I made a whole series of decisions with that attitude.” 

One of those decisions was to change how the film was distributed and exhibited. Rejecting the idea of a traditional premiere or a theatrical window—and with no distributor to tell him off —Llinás got in contact with the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (MALBA) and asked if he could show his film there. Up until that point, the MALBA only had showed repertory cinema in its theater; through some mutual friends, Llinás managed to screen Balnearios as the first movie to ever premiere at the museum. Furthermore, Llinás’s and MALBA’s way of screening the film was also revolutionary: the movie screened every other day, or twice a week with one month minimum, with the possibility of extending. Balnearios played in one theater, every other day, for five months, to packed audiences. Since then, MALBA has become a sort of ally in El Pampero’s cinematic offensive and a big part of its radical approach to distribution; Trenque Lauquen continues to play at the museum after 13 weeks. Llinas’s mischievous and idiosyncratic language, combined with his revolutionary production and exhibition models, set the stage for the future of El Pampero. 

Matias Piñeiro, an Argentine filmmaker based in New York, remembers taking a screenwriting class from Llinás at Universidad del Cine, the film school in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, soon after he had finished Balnearios: “I would see him in the halls running from the classroom to the editing room to do the sound mix, and running from the sound mix to another production, and back to the classroom. He was always working in between classes. There’s something familiar about seeing a filmmaker always run to and fro, from the classroom to the editing room, to the street.” Although Piñeiro is not a member of El Pampero, he is friends with each of the four members and has become part of the family—hiring Alejo Moguillansky to edit some of his films, giving and receiving notes to and from Laura Citarella, and collaborating with Mariano Llinás on several projects. Piñeiro described Llinás as a mentor and friend of his, and as a hero for the independent cinema of Argentina, considered a kind of captain Ahab for his mad ambition: “Mariano will have two dollars to make a movie and he will set it during the Second World War, use helicopters, and make it four hours long.” . In fact, that is just what he accomplished with Historias extraordinarias (2008), which Llinás worked on for five years while teaching classes at the university. The film features scenes shot in Africa, reconstructions of World War II and epic scenes with lions in the middle of the Provinces of Buenos Aires; not to mention the plot itself: a series of largely non-overlapping stories and parallel characters that unfold through an interplay of voice over and narrative exposition. 

It was also the film that brought Laura Citarella into the fold as producer. Like Piñeiro, Laura Citarella was Llinás’ student at film school in Buenos Aires; he was then teaching a production class and had just finished Balnearios. At that moment, Llinás had already met Alejo Moguillansky and Agustín Mendilaharzu, and while the three men shared a sensibility and the cinematic quest for adventure, they were not solidified as a group yet. “After the audacity of Balnearios, I had this momentum,” Llinás says. “But I knew that it wasn’t a film that I needed to make next but a group, and that the group was going to make a difference [for] the lone director who is out there at the mercy of his producers,” As his student, Citarella proved herself to be proactive and fearless, qualities central to the ethos of El Pampero. “I was also good at doing production and Laura was the only one who all of a sudden I didn’t have to tell her anything, and she had already done things before I had told her to,” Lliinás said. “It was the first and last time anybody had ever done that for me.” It took some convincing, but Citarella agreed to sign on as the producer for El Pampero, and thus the collective was born: Alejo Moguillansky the editor, Agustín Mendilaharzu the cinematographer, Mariano Llinás the director and Laura Citarella the producer. At least, that is how it played out in Historias extraordinarias. After Historias, roles would begin to cycle from film to film: Mendilaharzu and Llinás would write together and Mendilaharzu would shoot on Mario Donoso (2005); Moguillansky would write and direct, and Llinás would edit on Castro (2009); eventually, Citarella would write and direct on Ostende (2011). If the films themselves, which constantly shape-shift characters, perspectives and genres, are any indication of the El Pampero psyche, they demonstrate that the group can never sit still for too long: they morph from writers to producers to actors and have the constant itch to keep shooting.  

The name “El Pampero” comes from a time when Mariano Llinás and Augustin Mendilaharzu were taking a trip to the Pampas area, in the South of Argentina, to sleep at a farm. The group’s logo, a kind of inverted swoosh, is inspired from a harsh, dry wind that blows through the South. It’s an apt metaphor for their relentless work ethic; as Llinás told me, “Since its founding, there hasn’t been a member of El Pampero who has gone more than two months without shooting.” “The key to our production is two-fold,” Citarella says. “On the one hand, it starts with the core belief that there is no ‘standard’ way of making a film. Films are not static and repeatable structures, and our job is to believe a lot in the possibility that each film reinvents not only its fictional universe and its internal logics, but also its own way of being produced, of being thought of, and ultimately getting made.” The second part of the equation is the horizontal structure of the collective: “Nobody makes a film at Pampero without the rest seeing it and without the rest being able to give their opinion, so it is set up as a form of work, of constant exchange.”  

The mystery of where the money comes from, however, remains. Members of the group dodged the question; Llinás, in typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, said that El Pampero owns several oil wells off the coast of Guyana, and covertly sells the oil to the United States government. Speculatively speaking, the group makes films in the below-$300,000 range, scraping together funds from different equity investors and pooling together money from commercial shoots. Of course, they apply to grants and funds like other filmmakers, but refuse to take any notes or make changes if the money threatens to sacrifice their aesthetic vision: “We do not submit to funds that are going to give us conditions or changes to the project,” Citarella said. “I’m not going to get tutored by someone I don’t know on my own script. I don’t do this because I already have a group of collaborators. If I want advice, I go to Mariano Llinás or Agustín Mendilaharzu, or Alejo Moguillansky, Santi Ezequiel, all of whom make movies, or Laura Paredes…I can say that there are funds that are friendlier than others, because specifically you present a project and they give you money, which is what works for us. Because if they start to tell us, ‘You have to put in this specific actor, you have to use this crew who are union, you have to give them accommodation, etc.,’ we can’t work like that. If a fund or financier puts together a structure with many obstacles, we can’t exist. No, we can’t make movies that way.” In other words, the collective will always take money from whoever gives it to them, but they will never budge to the conditions of the financier. 

 To date, the collective have released over 20 films in the past 20 years, and show no sign of stopping: in the midst of Lauquen’s theatrical release in New York, Alejo Moguillansky released the featurette Un Andantino alongside a live performance at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) and Mariano Llinás released the documentary Clorindo Testa at the same festival (Mendilaharzu shot it; Citarella produced). Currently, Llinás is shooting a project set between Argentina, Cuba and New York; details are scarce, but I hear it’s about the Argentine Civil War. Although their films are far from box office hits, their success is measured in other ways: namely, their ability to continue making films the way they intend to, and getting them seen. “They’re no box office blowouts,” Piñeiro admits, “but each film allows for the next one to be made. They maintain a certain stability, a kind of ecology. As a filmmaker, how do you measure success? For me, it’s the ability to keep making films.”   

One of the tenets of El Pampero Cine manifesto is their insistence of cinema as a sport. In order to keep playing, you need to practice. According to them, filmmakers today rarely get to practice. The collective denounces pitch labs, script doctors and taking advice from the outside. Citarella: “Filmmakers spend five years showing the project, talking about the project, pitching, marketing, etc. without filming a single shot. The films also grow in that process: people intervene, more co-producers appear, more money must be added. Suddenly you have a Portuguese financier who you don’t know who wants to have Portuguese spoken in the movie, so you want to do scenes in Brasilia, but you’re going to do them in Portugal because they paid you money. Then you take a whole group of people absurdly to Lisbon and you put together a set emulating a city in another country. The baby gets totally deformed in that development.” Llinás: “It’s just that directors film very little, so the fact that directors film too little leads to a loss of the ability to think through the form. I think what is truly revolutionary is to be filming a lot, to be filming all of the time, in generating continuity and in learning one’s own language and in one’s own style. What generates a decline in cinema is the rotation of directors over seven years. The seven-year cycle—of the Pitch Lab project, grant, fund, the over conceptualization of cinema, the tiny moment of contact with the camera, the attempt to premiere at the biggest, most prestigious, biggest festival possible—that is death. In those seven years, the director films two months. Hopefully, of course. In other words, you only establish a relationship with the camera for two months.” 

At the end of our conversation, Llinás relayed an anecdote from Peter Bogdanovich’s famous interview with John Ford. Bogdanovich asks Ford how he filmed the horse race in Three Bad Men (1926). Ford answers, “With a camera.” At a time when the independent film sky is falling, we could take a note or two from the insistent and mischievous filmmakers. who have been making films for two decades, widening the horizons of the cinematic imagination with their labyrinthine forms of storytelling and prolific output. As Citarella emphasized, in the unstable and shape-shifting state of the industry, filmmakers, producers, distributors have to be willing to ask themselves, “Che, why not?

New Yorkers can catch Trenque Lauquen at Film Lincoln Center on Friday April 28 at 6pm, or Sunday April 30 at 12:45pm, with other engagements to follow.

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