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April 18, 2005

Latino Film Festival adds global flair in second week

You know you're "in" when the press table ladies at Pipers Alley know your face and chuckle when you butcher all the movie titles. The Chicago Latino Film Festival is all about cross-cultural bonding, and proves it by featuring films from 18 Spanish-speaking countries, Canada, and America. The point is to show off the idiosyncracies of each country, region, or neighborhood, and two examples of this are a pair of films from urban Havana and the Quecha-speaking region of Peru.

Suite Habana follows the lives of various individuals over the course of a day; it is unique in that it utilizes no dialogue or narration, relying instead on the power of each person's story and actions. The subjects of this quasi-documentary range from 10 to 97 years of age, and display an equally wide emotional range.

We first meet Francisquito (10) and his grandparents Norma (70) and Waldo (71) as they are eating breakfast and getting ready for school. The sights and sounds are familiar yet intimate -- —cloth rubbing against more cloth as Francisquito makes a knot in his school tie, for instance. Others prepare for the day ahead in their own personal ways, and we get the sense that although their actions are routine, Havana itself is not, and the city's spontaneity is what makes each of their experiences something special to watch.

Suite Habana relies heavily on visuals to create relationships with individuals we might not exactly relate to in real life. The camera peeks at the people from very far away in public environments and from close up when they are in more private settings, letting the viewer feel like both a casual observer and a voyeur. The sounds, too, establish familiarity— -- the humming of Raquel's (39) machinery meshes with the grinding of a mortar and pestle and the banging of hammer and nail, creating a rhythm of the workplace, a rhythm that drives Havana's economy, a rhythm that every worker can appreciate, secondary only to one's own heartbeat.

Some of the more touching tales are those of Jorge Luis (42), who must leave his family in order to be with the love of his life in America, and Ernesto (20), who toils in hard labor while harboring hopes of becoming a dancer. It's the simple everyday struggles that make Suite Habana work. Director Fernando Pérez allows us to completely submerge ourselves in the lives of strangers and discover the random beauty that grows from the cracks in this city. After the closing montage, featuring onscreen descriptions of their hopes and dreams, we feel like we know the subjects of the film so well that their scenes of domesticity, friendship, and even suffering become our own. Mi casa es tu casa, indeed.

The first words spoken in Coca Mama are, "We coca growers are not millionaires." Contrary to the stereotypical image of wealthy tycoons dominating over private plantations, most growers see the coca leaf not as a marketable drug but as an object of history and mythology, deeply entrenched in daily life. In the village of Kintapata, a struggle begins between Gato, a shady drug dealer loathed by the villagers, and Antonio, a stuttering poet and former drug addict. Coca mama, in their case, refers both to the plant and Paulina, a traveling clothes merchant who encompasses the unfulfilled promise of the coca leaf.

The relationship between Gato and Antonio is cautiously antagonistic— -- Antonio lets Gato use his radio to transmit messages to his contacts even though he says Gato's illicit activities are "like turning a saint into a whore." Antonio's attitude toward the coca plant is that of reverence; his life has always revolved around it, and perhaps that is why he approaches Paulina, the only person who, because she is an outsider, can possibly listen to and understand his obsession. Gato's problem lies in reverence as well— -- he has none, not for the coca plant, not for any of the villagers. So when Paulina approaches him, he knows she is his only real chance to regain the compassion he lost when he started dealing drugs.

The central love triangle really doesn't matter -- —the symbolism is there in plain sight, and the details are more like background decoration. The more fascinating aspects of the film lie in the villagers' relationship with the coca plant, which includes rituals, methods of clairvoyance, a system of platitudes, and even social codes of conduct. The juxtaposition between the coca plant's place in local tradition and in the global economy is fascinating as well. Although the people of Kintapata are not well educated or worldly, they still harbor an acute sense of how much their crops are sought after.

In a way, everybody's addicted to the coca plant, and the anonymous yet universal nature of the enemy makes their plight compelling. Coca Mama tries to use a love story as an allegory for this ongoing struggle, but barely has time to resolve the love story, let alone the bigger issues at hand. In the end, Paulina and the coca mama remain elusive, and we are left staring at a beautiful panoramic of foggy Peruvian mountains and wondering at the allure of such a plain-looking plant.

The dusty streets of Havana and the lush mountains of Peru have something in common: They are both known as home for a diverse culture, whether it be a working class urban sprawl representing a myriad of ways of life or a close-knit community of coca plant growers united in their beliefs. Suite Havana and Coca Mama demonstrate the importance of identifying and recognizing the achievements and problems within a wide range of peoples and locales.