The new century brought with it the arrival of the "new Uruguayan cinema." Alongside it came the names of a new generation of directors such as Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, responsible for 25 Watts (2001) and Whisky (2005), and Guillermo Casanova with his film El viaje hacia el mar (2003). These films resonated with audiences, portraying minimal lives that opened up a whole world for Uruguayan cinema, traveling to festivals and earning praise in various languages.
Although the foundational milestone of audiovisuals in Uruguay spans three centuries, one must go back to the 19th century, precisely in 1898 when Félix Oliver recorded a bicycle race at the Velódromo de Arroyo Seco.
The first Uruguayan feature film was Pervanche (1919), directed by León Ibáñez. The '40s and '50s were a golden era with the emergence of film clubs for independent cinema screenings.
A noteworthy fact is that during the 1950s, only the city of Montevideo had 100 cinemas out of the more than three hundred in the entire country. It is estimated that, on average, each Uruguayan attended 22 film screenings annually. However, this momentum came to a drastic halt during the last military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, with only the historic Uruguayan Cinematheque standing firm.
Revival with Democracy
With the return of democracy, the seeds of audiovisual productions began to be sown again in a country with a population of 3.4 million according to its latest census. The revival of Uruguayan cinema is credited to what many colleagues call the "prophets." Javier Palleiro, audiovisual director, and scriptwriter, as well as president of Directors and Scriptwriters of Uruguay (DGU), doesn't hesitate to mention figures like Mario Handler, a key figure in the committed New Latin American Cinema.
"Handler has a documentary called Me gustan los estudiantes (1968), about street protests, and its images were even used in the news. It has tremendous historical value. There is also Mario Jacob. These were individuals who primarily made documentaries. Making fiction for that generation was very challenging," states the DGU president.
He adds that the "history of cinema in Uruguay is not so ancient, maybe 30 years old. Except for isolated cases, films started to be made more regularly on a personal initiative without state support in the '90s. There is an emblematic film, El dirigible, directed by Pablo Dotta with music by Fernando Cabrera (1994), which was selected at Cannes, and one can say, 'Wow, this is where Uruguayan cinema began.'"
In 1995, almost simultaneously with this global introduction through Dotta's film, the Montevideo City Council initiated the National Audiovisual Production Promotion and Development Fund (FONA) to encourage audiovisual production, coinciding with the advent of cable television. FONA awards two prizes each in the fiction and documentary categories, and one in the debut feature category.
The New Generations
Post the '90s, with the new century, another generation, referred to as "the 2000s," emerged, beginning their film careers before the Film Law and creating successful films that are now iconic.
"It's very rare in Uruguay to have high box office numbers. There were films from 2000 to 2005, and there they are: En la puta vida by Beatriz Flores Silva, El viaje hacia el mar by Guillermo Casanova, 25 watts and Whisky, very good and recognized films. That is the other generation. Then comes the generation of those who started making films after the Film Law. I made a short film in 2006. And then an entire generation that did not experience all this and grew up with some funds. So, from time to time, we try to have recognition for the pioneers who worked years before legislation existed for making films," says Palleiro in dialogue with AV Creators News.
It is after the Film Law that, in 2008, the Cinematographic and Audiovisual Promotion Fund was created, which, along with other measures, funds, and incentives, aims to boost the Uruguayan film industry and ensure its sustainability over time. This sustained growth allowed the establishment of institutions like DGU, which now has around 100 associates, representing approximately half of the country's filmmakers and scriptwriters.
Exhibition: An Outstanding Debt
Despite this growth, one challenge faced by filmmakers is where and how to promote and exhibit their productions. In contrast to the '50s with over 300 cinemas throughout the country, the present situation is more modest.
"There is still the Cinematheque, which is important for us. Initially, when I started making films, they were old cinemas and were in trouble. Now it still has its economic problems, but it has three small but modern halls concentrated, creating a very nice space. That is essential for author cinema. There is a state-owned hall called Sala B, which is small and in the center, owned by SODRE. There is also university cinema, and then there are commercial halls where the major studios dominate. Regarding platforms, there has been an abandoned space for Uruguayan cinema on the state platform for some time. In the interior, it is more complicated. There is a very small network in shopping malls," explains Palleiro.
Major international platforms are still somewhat elusive for Uruguayan filmmakers. Currently, the film La sociedad de la nieve, based on the book by Uruguayan writer Pablo Vierci, is being released on Netflix. However, this is more of an international production by the giant streaming service, directed by Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona.
Rights of Audiovisual Authors
The defense of the activity and the protection of the rights of audiovisual authors are still in development in Uruguay, progressing through various collective agreements carried out by directors and scriptwriters affiliated with DGU.
In Uruguay, there is the General Association of Authors of Uruguay (AGADU), a non-profit civil society organization dedicated to defending the rights of authors and creators. Established in 1929, its initial actions were related to the music industry, and in recent times, through various agreements, it also protects other productions, including audiovisual ones.
"AGADU is a society that has a de facto monopoly but not a legal one. For the moment, the law says that to have an authors' society, you must have more members than AGADU and a greater reciprocity contract with the world," says its president, musician and composer Alexis Buenseñor.
The reason why audiovisual authors are affiliated with AGADU is explained by Buenseñor: "DGU exists as a society and signed a contract with us to grant them collective management, and we provide them with facilities for their meetings and assemblies. We also take care of the collective management of rights."
In line with the AGADU president, director Javier Palleiro states that "DGU is an organization that is not a rights management entity, but since Uruguay already has a very old entity that deals with music, and we are a small country, we decided to make an agreement with AGADU, in which we delegate the management of that right. And every time there is a meeting, both entities attend."
Alexis Buenseñor has held the presidency of AGADU since 1997. Drawing from his experience, he believes that "a collective management society today, if it wants to survive, has to keep advancing as much as possible. If there's something I've promoted, it's constant change, and here the word 'change' means every day. The digital world has changed a lot, and AGADU has changed too. There are very few officials from the analog world left. Currently, there are many young people, and the majority were born in the digital era. The reassurance that nothing lasts. The idea that things are done this way because they've always been done that way in AGADU no longer exists."
Challenges for the Future
This year, Uruguayan audiovisual authors are banking on the implementation of a law that will result in new benefits for directors and scriptwriters. These will complement the fact that, in 2024, the first bachelor's degree in film will be offered at the Catholic University. There is the UTU, which offers more technical careers like sound, but it is not authorial.
On another note, a new universe has opened up with the widespread emergence of artificial intelligence (AI). Javier Palleiro states that, "with the incorporation of artificial intelligence, we don't know what will happen. It has been a revolutionary year for everyone; writers and directors have used it. Beyond that, I want to believe that the role of the author will always be important for many years, whether behind the use of tools, be it AI, a camera, or animation. The author will always be significant."
On his part, Alexis Buenseñor remains "optimistic" regarding what can be gained from AI, "getting the best benefit without it going against creation and the authors. What we must do, however, is identify when the work is solely AI-driven, and if it recognizes rights, then we have a serious problem." By Ulises Román Rodríguez