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Culture that can break down walls: Vancouver's Latin American Film Festival underway

The annual film festival season is well underway in Vancouver. August featured the Queer Film Festival and, starting tonight, it's Latin America’s turn. Now in its 9th year, the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival (VLAFF) has grown steadily, no longer a mere warm up for the Vancouver International Film Festival that starts in late September. This year's VLAFF features 11 days of films from throughout the Americas.

Given Canada's strong economic presence in the region, it's disconcerting how little we hear about Latin America. Witness Harper's recent state visit to Honduras, where he glossed over the 2009 coup d'etat and the ongoing murders and repression of journalists and social activists, while announcing a new free trade agreement -- all this and barely a whisper of dissent was registered in the mainstream media. The headquarters of corporate mining giants with operations in Latin America are found on Bay Street and in the business districts of other major Canadian cities, but you are hard pressed to find much real coverage of their impact on the environment and on workers and indigenous peoples. The business pages provide advice for investors on Latin America, but the messy and even deadly reality behind those numbers remains all but hidden by a wall of silence.

All this makes cultural events like VLAFF so important; there's nothing quite like the power of film to break through and shine some light on complex social and political realities around the world. (A number of VLAFF's films tackle these issues head-on, and you can check out the full program for the festival here.)

El hombre de al lado (The Man Next Door)

The opening night gala film at VLAFF starts by literally breaking down a wall. The critically acclaimed El hombre de al lado, a dark comedy by Argentinean filmmakers Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, opens with a split screen of a sledgehammer pounding through cement. Like the rest of the film, the shot is beautiful, clever and not a little bit unsubtle.

Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd) is a wealthy furniture designer who just happens to live in the famous Le Corbusier house in Buenos Aires, the only home in the Americas based on the drawings of the legendary modernist architect. Vain, aloof, effete and yet lecherous, Leonardo is a stereotypical Latin American bourgeois snob. The titular man next door is Victor (Daniel Aráoz), who wields that sledgehammer to break down a dividing wall in order to put in a window that will look right into Leonardo's home.

Once the wall is broken, a world of problems opens up for Leonardo. Victor, his opposite in manner, dress and speech, unnerves his rich neighbour with his directness right from the beginning of their first uncomfortable conversation. Many of the film's best scenes are simple shots with the camera perched over Leonardo's shoulder as he debates Victor a dozen feet across the way through the hole in the wall. As the snob becomes increasingly frazzled, Victor remains matter-of-fact and (unrealistically) good humoured: "I just want some rays of the sunshine you have so much of."

It's a joy to watch Leonardo shown up for all his upper class pretensions. Unfortunately, his opposite number is also a caricature (if an enjoyable one to watch). So while Victor cuts through and reveals as ridiculous Leonardo's selfishness and much else, he himself is boastful, sexist, macho and – despite one curious translation – apparently something of a racist.

It's easy to see why this film won a cinematography award at Sundance. Especially for design and architecture aficionados, it's a feast for the eyes. The visual metaphors and ironies are riveting and sometimes laugh inducing, though after a while it starts to feel a bit over-the-top. The pink Che Guevara poster adorning the wall of Leonardo's alienated pre-teen daughter's room is a brilliant touch. Then there is the scene where Leonardo's wife -- a cold and distant character throughout -- is teaching a yoga meditation exercise that requires her students to stare at a Blackberry smart phone. Like everything else about their sterile, comfortable existence, the meditation session is interrupted by the tap, tap, tapping on their wall coming from Victor next door. The irrespressible neighbour's renovation work drives the plot, as Leonardo is driven further apart from his wife and well down the road towards full-blown madness.

This film pounds away on the same note throughout. The cartoonish feel of the central characters, especially Victor, eventually lessons the dramatic tension. It also, I think, takes something away from the emotional impact of a twist at the end of the film. It could also just be that the somewhat abrupt and discordant ending was irksome because the overall look of the film was so enjoyable.

If you miss tonight's opening, El hombre de al lado is also showing Sept. 5.

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