At Its Own Rhythm by Jorge Ayala and On the Road to Virtue by Peter Conrad screened at the third day of DocNow, Ryerson University’s Masters in Documentary Media graduate festival.
Both films delighted the audience with their original subjects and alluring visuals. At Its Own Rhythm shed light on the history of the renowned Latin American Newsreel, which was produced in Cuba from the early ‘60s to 1990. On the Road to Virtue is a reverential treatment of Canadian Meyer Brownstone’s reports for Oxfam Canada from Honduras’ refugee camps during the early 1980s.
In their documentaries, Ayala and Conrad offered an impressive spectrum of archival materials. Both films featured outstanding footage and photography, which, by virtue of Ayala’s and Conrad’s skillful execution, became their key storytelling instruments.
At Its Own Rhythm and On the Road to Virtue are historically and politically driven documentaries. The filmmakers chose unique subjects, which are entrenched, to different degrees, in the geo-political climate of Latin America. Ayala and Conrad enliven their documentaries with such notable personalities as the celebrated Cuban editor and director Santiago Alvarez, and the Canadian activist, Meyer Brownstone. The directors’ thematic choices fueled by the painstaking curation of historical recordings result in two exquisite and compelling documentaries.
At Its Own Rhythm
At Its Own Rhythm by Jorge Ayala is a zealous, illuminating and lyrical documentary that recreates the history of the Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (Latin American Newsreel) and its impact on Cuba. The documentary consists of meticulously curated footage from the Newsreel’s archive intermixed with modern day interpretations of the events. Ayala’s film educates the viewers on the Noticiero, introducing it as an organisation and a movement.
A legendary Cuban filmmaker, Santiago Alvarez, was one of the founders of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute, and the key contributor to the Noticiero, which operated between the early 1960s and 1990. Santiago and his crew were covering the issues of Cuba and Latin America, advocating for anti-imperialism and communism. However, the Noticiero didn’t blindly follow the party’s propagandistic needs. In the 80’s, for instance, despite the authorities’ objections, the Noticiero started filming the deteriorating living conditions in Havana, exposing the country’s overlooked poverty and weakened municipal infrastructure.
Ayala’s film ambitiously spotlights numerous historical topics, including the Cuban revolution, racial discrimination in the USA, Soviet-Cuba relations, etc. Ayala masterfully abridges the Noticiero’s 30 years of footage into his short documentary without robbing the audience of its historical and revolutionary prominence.
While assuredly scholastic, the documentary doesn’t fail to enthrall with its aesthetics. By merging the old cinematic recordings with appropriately contemporaneous Latin American music, Ayala creates an astoundingly rhythmic rendition of Cuba’s history. [Read more on Cuba and documentary film in the POV feature Che, Fidel and Me.]
On the Road to Virtue
Peter Conrad’s On the Road to Virtue is a visual essay based on the work of the socially and politically engaged work of Meyer Brownstone. Conrad’s film uses numerous Brownstone’s photographs and recordings, which coalesce with his present-day accounts of events from the 30 years ago. The documentary primarily focuses on Brownstone’s advocacy for refugees fleeing the Salvadoran civil war.
The El Salvador military conflict started in the 1980s and lasted for twelve years, resulting in a massive displacement of its civilians. In the ‘80s, Brownstone travelled to Honduras to document, mostly through his photography, the depth and complexity of the refugee crisis.
Brownstone’s work exhibits the determination and power of the displaced civilians to cultivate and retain life amid destruction and poverty. Brownstone documented the way that the Salvadoran migrants sustained their lifestyles, inventing new ways to preserve their autonomy and dignity. Captivated by their resourcefulness and ingenuity, he urged for wider recognition of their struggles.
Both Brownstone’s photography and Conrad’s documentary are political, humanist and illuminating. In their work, Conrad and Brownstone criticize the involvement of the US in Central America and question the adequacy of the UN during this and other crises. Both artists address the topic of displacement, which couldn’t be more relevant in today’s world.
The observational style of Brownstone’s photography inevitably influences the aesthetics and tone of Conrad’s film, producing an empiric and contemplative short. Conrad gathers Brownstone’s intensely visual photos and uses them to recollect this Canadian activist’s immense contribution to the region. On the Road to Virtue revisits forgotten stories and lives and brings them back to life.