Tapas: A Sampler of Cinema and Media from the Americas

Aurora Picture Show, Houston

November 15 & 16, 2008
by Nancy Zastudil

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      Ximena Cuevas
      Still from Someone Behind the Door, 2005
      12 minutes
      Courtesy the artist and Aurora Picture Show

      Recently, film scholar Margarita De la Vega-Hurtado curated Tapas: A Sampler of Cinema and Media from The Americas, a survey of South American approaches to documentary filmmaking at Aurora Picture Show in Houston, TX. While impossible to fully represent a continent’s artistic spectrum in one evening, Tapas proved to be an engaging selection of provocative, culturally revealing documentary film and experimental videos.

      The Tapas program began with La Corona, a 40-minute film directed by Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega (USA/Columbia, 2007) that builds on the power of appearances. The film depicts a beauty pageant in a women's penitentiary in Bogotá, Colombia. There are four main contestants, all younger than 25 years old, nominated to represent their respective cellblocks: Angela, a professional thief; Angie, arrested for gang-related robbery; Maira, a former hired assassin; and Viviana, incarcerated for guerilla activity. The girls tell their stories to the camera, explaining that the pageant competition gives them hope—something to which they can look forward. The girls, adorned with gang tattoos and elaborate donated costumes, walk the runway and stand before their fellow inmates to answer the pageant judge’s questions with fiercely passionate Columbian pride. Amidst the jealousy, accusations and overall ugliness that the beauty competition ignites, La Corona illustrates that dreams are vital to sustaining the human spirit. Yet the fantasy of the dream is tempered by the reality that no matter who wins the crown, the girls must ultimately return to a jail cell.

      In All Water Has a Perfect Memory (Mexico/USA, 2001, 19 min), Natalia Almada uses the “character” of water as both destroyer and healer to gingerly broach the topic of her sister Ana Lynn’s accidental death. Members of this bi-cultural family—mother, father, brother and Almada—narrate the film with memories of the day that Ana Lynn drowned and the painful days thereafter. Almada pairs the storyline with family photographs, home movies and concocted imagery—most poignantly a close cropping of an electric sewing machine needle and the twirling hem of a child’s white dress. The cyclical nature inherent in the image references the rituals that get us through the day, as well as the bloodlines that connect us, described by curator Vega-Hurtado as "the thread that never goes away.” Almada delicately accompanies the images and expereinces with ambient sound, echoing the intimate bittersweet nature of memory. 

      The second half of the evening was comprised of short works by film and media artist Ximena Cuevas; this was her first in-person presentation in Houston. Programmatically set against the more linear and traditional documentary styles of Micheli/Vega and Almada, Cuevas’s videos force viewers to take stock of an image on its own terms, in the midst of the collage-like, even surrealist, nature of her work. Three videos particularly impressed me: Estamos Para Servirle (We Are Here to Serve You) (1999), Natural Instincts (1999) and La Puerta (The Door) (2000).

      Estamos Para Servirle is humorous and employs a “disembodied” fork, or fork-as-flying-insect, which feeds pieces of fruit to a woman lying by the pool. An electronic-sounding voice names the piece of fruit repetitively as it hovers above water, going back and forth between feedings. Natural Instincts, which is the artist describes as “a video of musical terror,” interrogates her culture’s desire to be blonde and the fantasy of “waking up white.” The disturbing video begins with harsh electronic screeches as a billboard displays what seems to be an old Hollywood film clip of a mother pulling back a bed sheet to discover her dead baby. Cuevas applies bleach mixture to her hair and dancing cheerleader types—blondes of course—sing a Mexican hallelujah chorus. La Puerta is one of her more somber and psychologically haunting works. The camera hurriedly searches what seem to be hospital hallways, capturing no other signs of life. The audio is layered with labored breathing and multiple voices uttering the same few names and numbers over and over, perhaps alluding to the dumb luck of a Bingo game and the gamble one takes with personal heath and illness; it may also refer to the disorienting nature of the health care system. We move with the camera through doorways and hallways until finally ending at a large foggy window, with no resolution or escape, only a dead end.

      Tapas offered a thoughtful survey from the Americas, yet I question the decision to present conventional documentary with the experimental works of Ximena Cuevas. I can't help but think that the respective sensibilities would be better served on their own terms rather than being subjected to unavoidable expectations and comparisons. The strength of the works chosen, however, lies in the documentation of personal, experiential subject matters in ways that do not rely purely on nostalgia or stereotypes.

      Nancy Zastudil moonlights as a curator based in Houston, TX, and currently works as Program Manager at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston. She is cofounder of Slab, an exhibition method that collaboratively facilitates art projects and events.

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