Silents in Latin America


Clockwise from top left: La Venus de nácar (Venezuela 1932), Braza dormida (Brazil 1928), Del pingo al volante (Uruguay 1928); El húsar de la muerte (Chile 1925), Luis Prado (Peru 1927), El automóvil gris (Mexico 1919), from Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika

Now that we have such marvellous tools as BabelFish and Google Translate to assist the stubbornly monolingual amongst us, there is no excuse for not looking out for sites beyond those in English that offer valuable information on silent film.

A fine example is Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika, which though it is in German, has as it subject the silent film in Latin America. Were you to read any of the general histories of silent cinema, you would probably not realise that there was any film production going on at that time in Latin America at all. When I worked on a book called Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema many moons ago, examining the lives of the earliest film pioneers worldwide, investigating what had gone on in South America and environs felt like the deepest archaeology. Spanish and Portuguese books were hard to find, and the major source turned out to be in French, Guy Hennebelle and Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, Les Cinémas de l’Amérique Latine: Pays Par Pays, l’Historie, l’Economie, les Structures, les Auteurs, les Oeuvres (1981).

More has been published since then (some of it in English), and a small amount has come out on DVD, though there is still a sense of discovery of litle-known lands (at least for the non-Latin American), which is where Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika is so good. The main part of the site is potted histories of film production and exhibition during the silent era in Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, Columbia, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Ecuador, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. For some the history is a little thin, but one gets an overall picture of great vitality and creativity, with the strongest production centres being Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

Other sections cover stars and directors (generally their dates, a photograph and a filmography), including such notable names as Enrique Rosas, Carlos Gardel, José Agustín ‘Negro’ Ferreyra, Lupe Vélez and Dolores del Río; descriptions of some key films, posters, examples of lost films, book on silent film in Latin America (divided up by country but surprisingly not citing any studies of Latin/South American film generally), and documents. Crucially there is a welcome section on the handful of Latin American silents available on DVD and VHS, and those that survive in film archives (pitifully few).

Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika is put together by Thomas Böhnke, to whom all praise for shining such a light on a neglected corner of world film history.