January 13, 2012 — A January Term Spanish course at the University of Virginia, "Latin American Literature and the Art of Film," focuses on filmmaking, not just as art but as an industry – while also revealing the prolific relationship between Latin American literature and cinema.
The goal, said Daniel Chávez, assistant professor of Spanish and American studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, is for students to learn "the basic tools to appreciate film critically and to create enthusiasm for literary adaptation."
"You usually hear it said that the novel is better than the film, but they are oranges and apples," he said. "I want the students to understand the variables that go into creating the adaptation. The class is also a pretext to appreciate some of the best Latin American writers, both seasoned and young."
For the first week of the J-Term's intensive two-week format, students focused on learning about the cultural and economic influences that shaped the film industries in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Cuba, and on acquiring the vocabulary to analyze film frame-by-frame.
Fourth-year biology and Spanish major Jhonatan Bakovic, a native Spanish speaker who grew up in Bolivia, took the course because he wanted to try something new. The class was "perfect in terms of the amount of literature and content of the new subject – cinema," he said.
He now views films by asking questions about directing, camera movements and the purpose of each scene in moving the story forward. Also, he said he's much more aware that "the messages given to us directly are sometimes casting on the bigger picture hidden in the art of directing the film."
Chávez introduced the students to the history of Latin American cinema, from silent films to contemporary releases. The "golden age," from 1935 to 1955, coincides with classic Hollywood cinema. "It was a time of artistic and poetic progression," he said.
"From 1930 to 1940, cinema became an economic and social phenomenon that helped to build the cultures."
The New Latin American Film Movement, in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on political themes. "The films were critical of their own societies and the influence of the United States. It was a political, radical and conscious cinema," Chávez said.
It was also a time when authors were writing books about what cinema should do for society. "In Cuba this was very important," he said; Cuban cinema theory and films inspired filmmakers in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Chile. Cuba had a thriving and influential film school where Gabriel García Márquez, the 1982 Nobel Prize winner considered one of the most significant writer of the 20th century who has also written numerous film scripts, taught.
The neoliberalism of the 1990s, which combined liberalism with social justice, began during hard economic times when state support of the film industry was cut throughout Latin America. "In some countries, zero films were produced, although there was TV production," Chávez said.
By mid-decade the economic situation was beginning to change. Mexico offered tax reductions in exchange for film investments. Argentina and Brazil levied a tax on filmgoers, using the proceeds to support the industry. Argentina now has a strong film industry, Chávez said.
Latin American films and filmmakers are enjoying success in the global market, Chávez said. "The Latin American film schools are producing talent that is looking globally to make their films," he said.
Mexican producer, writer and director Guillermo del Toro is known worldwide for his film, "Pan's Labyrinth," and director Alejandro González Iñárritu and novelist and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga found an international following for their films "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros."
But only a very few have this opportunity, Chávez said.
The students watched films from all the countries, chose scenes and wrote about their cinematic aspects, and made oral presentations of their critiques applying the frame-by-frame analysis technique – all in Spanish.
"Being in class for four hours a day and being restricted to speaking in Spanish is very similar to a complete immersion program," said Mohammad Rasool, a Spanish and economics major. "One aspect of this course that is particularly attractive is that we are exposed to so many different accents and dialects of Spanish through the movie segments, something you would not get on a daily basis when studying abroad in one city."
The adaptation part of the class, although discussed throughout, was the focus in the second week. To help the students understand the complexities of adapting the written word to the screen, they read short stories by contemporary writers whose works have been adapted to film. The list includes Arriaga, Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende from Chile, Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina and Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru.
Fourth-year Spanish major Lily Voth describes herself as a film buff. "I love going to the movies, especially seeing a flick based on a book I love," she said. "It's really interesting to notice the changes made during a book's adaptation to the screen, and the analyze why the change may have been made."
For their final projects, the students were asked to imagine an adaptation of a short story or chapter from a novel, taking into consideration both the technical aspects as well as the story.
They learn "to appreciate what you can drop, how you put the film together and to consider the risks of putting more than one strong character in the script," Chávez said. "I want them to question their assumptions about adaptation."