Magical Realism: The Force Behind Latin American Art (Part Two)
Diving into the Latin American Film and the Surreal.
There’s a reason why Guillermo del Toro enjoys playing with magical realism within all his works. Not only is he a master of the bizarre, but he loves finding the imaginary world within the actual one. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia goes on a journey to save her family and understand the war-infested world she now lives in. However, she does so by completing the dangerous tasks set by a Faun, a magical creature. Ofelia has many close encounters with death at the hands of monsters, but she pushes through every single one of them. By the end of the film, the audience learns that the real threat to Ofelia’s life is not the book of trials, but the General she lives with. Abnormal entities aren’t dangerous, the malice that drives humanity is.
Del Toro intelligently reveals this metaphor by depicting the horrors of the Franco-Era and putting them over the treachery of monsters. Ofelia’s adventure is the manifestation of dealing with trauma. This bridge between the contrasting universes allows for unnatural explanations of the ordinary.
“Every mundanity of life grows infinitely more precious in the face of impending death.” – Guillermo del Toro
By introducing others into every day life, people are sensitized with things they aren’t comfortable with. Monsters are the physical manifestations of society’s deepest fears. Shape of Water is another excellent example of del Toro’s recent use of magical realism.
He has a mute woman, Elisa, fall in love with an aquatic beast. Although an initial shock, Guillermo del Toro goes on to utilize the film and explain that love is universal and goes beyond societal constraints. Set in the 1960s America, the Cold War brought a frantic skepticism that regulated society. This period of close-minded thinking bred a fear of communists and other things, including homosexuality.
Throughout the movie there is a parallel storyline where Elisa’s roommate, Giles, flirts with a man who works at a local coffee house. Homophobia takes over, and Giles ultimately suffers from his attempts to find love and acceptance. This powerful subplot projects an ironic sentiment off the screen and into the audience’s seat. Del Toro humanizes the relationship between Elisa and the creature to enhance the injustices that Giles repeatedly succumbs to. Suspension of disbelief normalizes the presence of the monster and its love affair, but the plot prosecutes a Gay man for being different.
Magical realism allows for this comparison because the simultaneous fictional plot makes proclamations about real issues that end up standing out in the film. It makes us ask the question: If we accept one thing, why aren’t we as open-minded to other similar things?
“The way I love monsters is a Mexican way of loving monsters, which is that I am not judgmental. The Anglo way of seeing things is that monsters are exceptional and bad, and people are good. But in my movies, creatures are taken for granted.” – Guillermo del Toro
Even Disney hops on magical realism express. Coco revolves Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. A young boy is able to meet his passed family and the star of his dreams, while on an accidental visit to the underworld. The emotional journey of this film though is a boy chasing his musical dreams. Having a passion is something any viewer of any age can relate to. However, not everyone can say they’ve died and come back to life.
The film flips a traditional outlook on death as well. Instead of looking at it as the end, the art direction pushes forward the idea that life after death is beautiful. Contrasting to pessimistic and dark representations of hell, Coco uses vibrant colors to create a positive and ecstatic atmosphere. Yes, the color scheme is meant to be an impressive journey for the viewer, but it goes beyond that.
The characters themselves are genuine, sweet, and concerned. Miguel’s passed family do everything they can to get him back to living. They don’t scold him. It’s not a malicious atmosphere (until Miguel’s dream singer might be more of a nightmare). The dead care for the living as much as the living misses the dead. Even the monsters in this film break the vicious tradition of being monsters.The alebrijes are spirit animals that if you saw on the street would make you run away, but in Coco they’re guides.
Who’s to say that there aren’t animal guides in the real world?
The parallel worlds simultaneously observe the lives of both the living and the dead. By connecting them in Miguel’s excursion, the film does an excellent job of showing that death is not anything to be scared of. It’s just the next stage of living.
From animated films to live-action movies, magical realism is trend that was in the past and is still up-and-coming. I recently was able to work on a film with my friend, Natalia Hermida, a Colombian Filmmaker who epitomizes Latin American culture and magical realism. Titled Pasajeros en Trance (Transient Passengers), the short has recently gone on to be a semi-finalist in the Student Academy Awards.
Natalia is from Cali, Colombia, the capital of salsa and magical realism. Fantastical stories envelop everything, including newspapers. Peculiar and weird street performers walk around the city looking to motivate a creative outlook on life. All of this out of the ordinary culture gave Natalia the creative mindset to become the incredible and determined artist she is today.
Hermida is a fanatic of experimental filmmaking. It gives her the opportunity to express emotions in an environment that is both real and not. She explores the existentialist concepts that are hidden within everyone’s mind and puts them on camera. Hermida’s films reinforce that even what seems to be normal still has a lot to be discovered. I was recently able to catch up with Natalia to get her insight on magical realism.
Como Plasmar los Sueños y Pesadillas en una Sola Obra (As if Translating Dreams and Nightmares in a Single Piece) – Natalia Hermida
What is magical realism to you?
To me, magical realism is the supreme logic of the extraordinary… that is when the wondrous mixes with the real—when the line between fantasy and reality blurs.
That creative expression has to sprout from somewhere. Did magical realism have an influence on your childhood growing up in Colombia?
I’m from a country known for its delusive tales—growing up in the art and theater circles of Colombia, I’ve been exposed since childhood to a series of whimsical, dreamlike stories that have gotten so deep into my skin that it has become impossible for me to conceive the world as more than an elaborate fantasy.
In every story, I strive to transmit the freshness I get from the people that surround me. If it’s not clear what I’m talking about, we can ask my friend el Callegüeso, a salsa singer with double personality whose music is dictated by his great grandfather from another dimension—and whose famous flute, the black mamba, is said to have been crafted by an African deity out of the horns of an orphan albino elephant.
In my life I’ve befriended a Black mime that paints his face white and wears chains as an ode to the colonial slaves, a vampire named Kalimán who went to rehab and became a clown at kids’ parties, a prostitute who was born hermaphrodite and had to be baptized twice, first as Rodrigo and then as Daisy. To this day, she says she doesn’t know whether she’s a man, a woman, a donkey or an elephant. My cards have been read by Rosana, the last living witch of the Colombian witch village La Jagua; I’ve been bestowed a magical flower by Camilo, the Putumayan Shaman of orchids; I’ve spent a month searching for the Atlanta Magician, my mother’s long lost friend from the `90s who, after her daughter (Mary of the Stars) became a flower, started knitting poems with thread of gold of 24 karats; and I’ve danced with Sven who swears he’s a ghost, but can’t remember how he died—only that he fell in love with the nurse of the ambulance that took him to the hospital while he bled to death.
That is the Latin America I grew up in: magical, chaotic, insane, but charming and full of passion and flavor and indisputable life… the backbone from which my entire body of work sprouts.
It’s so interesting to hear about all those personalities. They’re so animated and alive! I hope to meet at least one of them someday. What opportunities does experimental film grant you to explore your creative visions?
I believe a good film is a daring film, not a polite one. Routine and rules have always avoided me, and I have never been able to understand people who live by them.
Now, that doesn’t mean I allow my team to do whatever they want, because the type of work I do can’t flourish on passivity. Determination is what it needs. I feel films must be architectural, and I’m personally very strict on organization and structuring in all production stages. However, experimental cinema is helpful in the sense that there is no charted path; I get to play and mix unlikely elements, and it gives me fabulous freedom, as it’s meant to break away from the formulas of classical filmmaking. Each film then becomes a game of exploring and discovering unconventional ways of creating a narrative and telling a story.
Could you tell us what Pasajeros en Trance is about? What are your goals as a film director?
The story is about awakening.
Searching for the woman who stole his golden pocket watch, a time obsessed office clerk named Marcel gets locked inside a cubist labyrinth, where Pierrot, his female doppelgänger, guides him through three memories that make him reconsider his deepest traumas and obsessions. It’s a quest of understanding how he has been conditioned by his parents, his teachers, and his cubic-minded society to be so obsessed with the notion of time (his golden pocket watch) that he has forgotten to live.
Why is there always a ticking noise in the back of our heads? With this film, we are posing the question: Are you happy doing what you do? If not, why not rip off from the square and swim? I seek to explore whatever stirs up my consciousness at that moment in the hopes I can raise questions and get people to think.
I’ve participated in Native American rituals with old shamans and medicine women since the age of six, and my first shaman guide, Gerardo, died during the Mayan day of the living and of the dead while he was napping. Just a few hours after, he told me that in the Fire of the Grandmother stones, he saw that in this life, as in my past one, I was meant to tell stories.
My hopes are to translate the magical realism that’s so deeply rooted within Latin American identity into visual poetry with transcendental messages, and I would also like to see more female filmmakers like myself raising their voices a little louder.
I love that. From how hard you work and how passionately you express yourself, there’s not a doubt in my mind that you’ll have a huge influence on future filmmakers. Lastly, what is your favorite piece of experimental or Latin American art that you believe needs to be shared with the world?
Latin America has a literary and cultural richness that can’t be condensed in a single work, but García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t a bad place to start.
“I believe a good film is a daring film, not a polite one.” – Natalia Hermida
Setting the path for generations to come, Hermida is a talented example of where the future of Hispanic cinema is headed. Make sure to check out more on her film, and support the Latin American talent that is emerging from the realms of the uncanny.
Que viva la cultura hispana, y que viva la magia.