Topics in World Cinema: Latin America

May 2003

This course fulfills an intermediate-level films studies major requirement in international cinema, and it also fulfills a B-level Latin American major cultures requirement. This makes for an interesting group of students--you've got the film majors who have to take it (some "substitutions" can be made) as well as those students who have already taken an A-level Latin American major cultures course and have chosen then to take this course. Within the latter group there are some students who probably consider that taking a film course to complete the major cultures requirement sounds like a pretty great deal, and there are other students, many of whom are Latin American, who are much more passionate about this course and the issues that it raises. So basically, this class, at least from my observations, seems like it means different things to people based on who you are, where you're from, and what requirement it is fulfilling for you (if any). As a film major who didn't fulfill the major cultures requirement in Latin American studies, I must say I was rather disappointed with this course and with Pena. Considering that it is at least partly a film major requirement, there was definitely a paucity of formal analysis for the films screened in Pena's lectures. About 90% of each lecture was devoted to the political history of the country from which a specific film or director hailed, leaving about 10% (or in some cases about five minutes of brief lecturing just before the screening of the film) for information about the film's content, its formal characteristics, or anything really of cinematic interest. Essentially, each four hour (somehow Pena can stretch it to four hours +) class was composed of an hour and a half lecture on the political context of the country from which the film was produced, a screening, and then a discussion (When every film class requires discussion sections in which the TA's diligently take roll, and the lecture seats 50 to 70 students, I have no idea why film professors leave time for discussions at the end of screenings.). The most interesting thing about the course, however, are the films that Pena selects; they are often quite obscure, and you would never have the chance to see them anywhere else. The films often have overt political agendas that are quite evident in their narratives, and this would naturally seem to me to lead to questions about the the convergence of art and politics. However, I don't think Pena touched on this area even once. Instead, in lectures Pena ruminates on his 1975 tour of most all of Latin America, and, with each class, a different Latin American country is focused on, which encourages the students, who are from the country studied that week, to rant on the political climate of the country and (often) on the shortcomings of the country's political leaders of the past and present. Plus, Pena isn't all that interesting to listen to--he lacks the savvy of a James Schamus and the broad range of knowledge of a David Sterritt. Think of the bordeom inspired by an Annette Insdorf but with greater cultural knowledge. All in all a poor class given its potential, at least from a film major's perspective.