The Vampires of Poverty

With films from more than a dozen countries screening at venues from Evanston to Pilsen, you wouldn’t be wrong to count “Ism, Ism, Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America” (“Ismo, Ismo, Ismo: Cine Experimental en América Latina”) among the most wide-ranging festivals of its kind to appear in Chicago in recent years.

The sprawling program, which originated at the Los Angeles Film Forum, is presented here by Northwestern University’s Block Museum, along with the major art exhibition “Pop América: 1965-1975” and a series of lectures and discussion panels to provide more context for the films.

“As custodians of history, it’s incumbent on us to make space for stories that haven’t been explored widely,” says Michael Metzger, curator of media art for the Block. “There isn’t one picture of Latin American cinema that emerges here. It’s a kaleidoscope that reflects the political and historical diversity in 60 to 70 years of filmmaking.”

Though some of these films have played in LA, New York, Mexico City, and Medellín, Colombia, “Ism” marks the first time many will be seen in Chicago. The program features a potentially overwhelming variety of styles and subject matter, including Latin camp, found footage, convos with Che Guevara and graffiti artists, and explorations of appropriation, colonization, and the power of countercultural artists to foment change.

“In the end, we never really came up with a hard definition of what’s Latin American cinema,” said Jesse Lerner, who with Argentine filmmaker and critic Luciano Piazza curated the essays and images in the coffee-table-worthy print catalog for “Ism” ($45, University of California Press). “We have Mexican filmmakers like Paleo Hernandez, who spent his career mostly in France, where he’s celebrated as one of the greats of the French avant-garde even though in Mexico he’s comparatively unknown. Is he a French filmmaker? A Mexican filmmaker? The definitions aren’t easy,” Lerner said.

Definitions might be elusive, but that hasn’t stopped Comfort Station film programmer Raul Benitez from screening free-admission Latin American movies every Wednesday night at the Logan Square venue and art space. In “Ism,” Benitez saw a near perfect fit with Comfort Station’s mission of providing community-driven arts programming. “It’s not just about seeing a movie. It’s about being connective tissue within a community,” he said. “When people come to Comfort Station, they have a space where they can talk afterward, ask questions, engage. That’s also what ‘Ism’ is providing.”

For Metzger, “Ism, Ism, Ism” moves the needle toward acknowledging an overlooked world. “The history of experimental history tends to focus on the U.S. and Europe primarily. There has not really been a strong accounting of experimental works from Chile or Cuba or Mexico,” he said.

It’s no accident that the Block turned outward when looking for venues to get involved with “Ism.” In addition to the Block and Comfort Station, screenings will be at Nightingale Cinema, Filmfront, and ACRE Projects.

“You’ve got to take programs outside the walls of our institutions,” Metzgar said. “We don’t want the museum to be some pristine space on a hill. ‘Ismo’ opens us up to voices that haven’t always been heard, and it allows us to engage with new audiences.”   v