Capital city

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Santiago de Chile since last Tuesday, gathering materials and ideas for the next stages of my PhD research. It’s proving to be a somewhat piecemeal process, moving forward in fits and starts, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

One of the pieces thus far has been Santiago’s annual international film festival, SANFIC, which ran from 25-30 August. I saw several really interesting films from Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere, and hope to blog about a few of them over the coming days. The first I want to mention, Showroom (Fernando Molnar, Argentina, 2014), is a pitch-black comedy about a man who, after losing his job, is forced to move his family out of Buenos Aires to the Tigre Delta, a fairly remote patchwork of waterways to the north. Desperate to pay off his debts to his uncle and return to the capital, he takes on a job selling apartments in a new high-rise development (via the showroom of the film’s title). While his wife and daughter grow more attached to the slower pace of life in Tigre, the man (Diego Peretti) becomes obsessed by his work and the aspirations he tries to instil in others. The results aren’t pretty.


I wanted to start with this film because, oddly enough, it helps me articulate some of the aspects of Santiago which I find disturbing. This is odd because Showroom is on one level a very Argentine film: Diego Peretti, the lead actor, is a renowned comedian in his country, and the film plays with a roster of national stereotypes: the uncle, for instance, is a typical vivo criollo, someone out for their own gain at the expense of all others, but who hides their individualism behind a  front of affability and backslapping.

The name of the new high-rise development the protagonist sells, Palermo Boulevard, is also a nod to a phenomenon specific to Buenos Aires: the ever-expanding list of subdivisions which have been added to the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo in an attempt to marketise place and atmosphere: Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, Alto Palermo, Palermo Chico, Palermo Queens. This last one, it is worth noting, is simply the rebranding of a neighbourhood with its own historic identity: Villa Crespo.

So, much in Showroom has to do with the particular topography of present-day Buenos Aires. Yet in laying bare the ideology which presents quality of life as a form of capital, as accumulation of amenities (swimming pool, gym, security cameras) the film points at something which is easily visible on the other side of the Andes. In fact, as I walked out of the cinema last night, I passed a hoarding advertising a new development eerily similar to the one in Molnar’s film.

Santiago is, in short, a city full of capitalised spaces. The film festival took place in two enormous Hoyts multiplex cinemas, one of which is located in Parque Arauco, a gigantic, luxury shopping mall in a posh neighbourhood. An odd setting, perhaps, for a film festival. But then the organisers have little room for manoeuvre: there are, I think, three independent cinema screens in all of Santiago. One film I didn’t manage to see at SANFIC, Chicago Boys (Carola Fuentes, Chile, 2015), in a sense explores how this situation came about: how, under Pinochet, a group of economists helped turn Chile in a laboratory for free-market economics pushed to extremes.

I can’t leave things so downbeat, though. Santiago is not a city that lavishes its charms upon you at first meeting: it can feel a bit grey, a bit tired, a bit too in thrall to commerce. It holds back, demanding slower, more painstaking exploration. But the rewards are not insubstantial: today, for instance, I discovered the Barrio Yungay, full of elegant old houses and vibrant murals. There is, moreover, the constantly consoling fact that on a good day, you can stand facing north at any major intersection, turn to your right, and look up at the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.


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