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December 18, 2014

The first Argentine film in the International Competition at Mar del Plata is a LatinAmerican story of struggle

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saving Arcadia: a thorny voyage into Paraguay

by Cristiana Visan

Herald staff

MAR DEL PLATA — El Impenetrable, the first Argentine film to be presented in the International Competition at this year’s edition of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, is a lavish feast for a wide range of cinemagoers, as it blends the documentary approach with politics, environmental struggles, social critique and astonishing cinematography.

Italian-born director Daniele Incalcaterra is a land owner. Not by choice or inclination but rather by unwanted inheritance: his father, an Italian Embassy employee during Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship in Paraguay, was persuaded to buy some 12,300 acres of land in the deep Chaco region for “a handful of money.” Since his official status would not allow him to acquire the land, he deeds it to his two sons. 20 years later, Daniele Incalcaterra embarks on a long journey to Paraguay to see the land and return it to those he considers to be its rightful owners: the Guaraní people. The following seven months will see him through a gut-wrenching odyssey, as he battles bureaucracy, unaccommodating neighbours and the difficult terrain of the thorny forest of the Paraguayan Chaco.

A road movie and also a sharp incision into Paraguay’s legal and political quagmire, El Impenetrable tells the story of an apparently unreachable piece of land. Making a stop near swampland on his way to his property, Incalcaterra pointedly remarks on the “thorns” of this unforgiving wilderness: the spiny trees and thorny bushes come through as a mercenary metaphor for his entire experience in the Chaco. After travelling 1,500 miles from his home in Argentina, Incalcaterra reaches the end of his expedition only to realize it is a dead end. One neighbour kindly asks him for US$1,000 to grant him access to his land through what is supposed to be a public road. The other neighbour happens to be a powerful landowner who has no less than 1.5 million acres to his name. Incalcaterra finds himself highly unwanted in a land he never desired to begin with. But he doesn’t give up: a colourful procession of engineers, government officials, lawyers, and even Paraguay’s then-president Fernando Lugo parade before Incalcaterra’s camera.

As the director finds himself increasingly immersed in the country’s bureaucratic mess, the film acquires a Kafkaesque quality which seems impossible to shrug off. An agronomist tries to sum up how much the property would be worth and ends up delivering an eerie dissection of capitalism today. Incalcaterra’s 12,000 acres of thorny wilderness are worth some US$600 million, a figure which includes the land’s value as well as the wildlife and the environmental potential. Needless to say, no one would actually pay such an amount when downright bullying and legal loopholes can be used to shoo him away. As to Incalcaterra’s wish to bequeath the land to the Guarani, the agronomist says it best: “Do you actually think they would be willing to leave any indigenous alive to occupy this land?”

And to top it all off, the director finds out from his powerful landowning neighbour that his land already has an owner: a Uruguayan who bought it from one of Stroessner’s officials way before his father decided to make a similar deal. Fast forward to a lawyers’ office in Asunción, who patiently explain both title deeds are valid and that the ensuing litigation would probably stretch into a couple of years. Kafkaesque enough? Not really. A real estate official explains it with a shy smile on his face: “Paraguay’s territory is about 400,000 square kilometres. If we count these multiple deeds, we’d get some 500,000.” Ten more minutes on film and probably weeks or months in Incalcaterra’s Paraguayan adventure, he finds out the situation is far from uncommon: his lot is part of the so-called “ill-gotten lands” sold off – sometimes more than once – during Stroessner’s administration. And since the other owner had bought it from a former lawmaker – who had no legal right to acquire that land – Incalcaterra becomes a sort of “priority one” owner. And since Lugo, in his presidential campaign, had made a crucial point out of clarifying the entire issue of the ill-gotten lands, he becomes the director’s next official target. The meeting where Lugo signs the deed entitling Incalcaterra to turn his land into a natural reserve lasts about a couple of minutes on film but rounds off a quest which ends, on screen, with Incalcaterra plunging his “Arcadia Natural Reserve” sign into the muddy land he has fought so hard for.

In a long chat after the film’s presentation in Mar del Plata, the director said he’s preparing a sequel titled Arcadia, which will by no means be a less strenuous adventure. Lugo’s impeachment in June 2012 has turned Incalcaterra a persona non grata in Paraguay. The natural reserve sign has long disappeared from his land and the corporations are already preparing for the hunt. In Incalcaterra’s words: “My 12,000 acres amount to only five days of deforestation. That’s all the time they would need to wipe off the entire reserve. And I have to keep recording it on film if I want to have a shot at saving this land from sharing the same fate as much of the Paraguayan forest.”

El Impenetrable premièred at the Venice Film Festival before arriving in Mar del Plata and will be shown in Buenos Aires theatres starting November 29.

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