Fernando Birri - Director

Nationality: Argentinian. Born: In Santa Fe, 13 March 1925. Education: Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Santa Fe, Argentina, 1942–47, and at Centro Sperimentale de Cinematografia, Rome, 1950–52. Career: Assistant to Vittorio De Sica on Il tetto , 1954; returned to Argentina to found Instituto de Cinematografia, later La Escuela Documental de Santa Fe, 1956; left Argentina for political reasons, 1963; moved to Italy, 1964; attended 1st International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema, Havana, 1979; taught at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 1980, and at Film School of Universidad de Los Andes, Merida, Venezuela, 1980–83. Director of International School of Cinema and TV of San Antonio de Los Banos, 1983—. Awards: Grand Prize, SODRE Festival, Montevideo, for Tire Die , 1960; Golden Lion, Venice Festival, for Los Inundados , 1962; honored at Festivals in Benalmadena, Spain, 1979, and Pesaro, Italy, 1981.

Films as Director:


Selinunte (short); Alfabeto notturno (short)


Immagini Populari Siciliane Sacre ; Immagini Populari Siciliane Profane


La primera fundacion de Buenos Aires (animation)


Tire die ( Toss Me a Dime ) (co-sc, co-d, co-ph); Buenos dias, Buenos Aires (short)


Los inundados ( Flooded Out )


Che, Buenos Aires (comprising two previous films); La pampa gringa (doc)


Castagnino, diario romano (short)


Org (co-d)


Rafael Alberti, un retrato del poeta por Fernando Birri


Rte.: Nicaragua ( carta al mundo ) (short film)


Mi hijo, el Chei: Un retrato de familia de Don Ernesto Guevara


Un senor muy viejo con unas alas enormes (+ a, sc)


Enredando sombras

Other Films:


Gli sbanditi (Maselli) (role)


La Rose des vents (P. Guzman) (role)


Plumitas calientes (Gonzalo De Galiana) (ro as El Angel)


By BIRRI: book—

La Escuela Documental de Santa Fe , Santa Fe, Argentina, 1964.

By BIRRI: articles—

"Cine y subdesarrollo," in Cine Cubano (Havana), May/July 1967.

"Revolución en la revolución del nuevo cine latinoamericano," in Cine Cubano (Havana), August/December 1968.

"Fernando Birri y las raices del huevo cine latinoamericano," an interview with Francisco Lombardi, in Hablemos de Cine (Lima), March 1984.

"For a Nationalist, Realist, Critical, and Popular Cinema," in Screen (London), May-August 1985.

"Ein Letzter Dominostein," an interview with M. Vosz, in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), March 1991.

"Öden ich rede weiter von Utopien!" an interview with Wolfgang Martin Hamdorf, in Film Und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 12, 1994.

On BIRRI: books—

Mahieu, Jose Agustin, Breve historia del cine argentino , Buenos Aires, 1966.

Micciche, Lino, editor, Fernando Birri e la Escuela Documental de Santa Fe , Pesaro, Italy, 1981.

Burton, Julianne, The New Latin American Cinema: An Annotated Bibliography of Sources in English, Spanish, and Portuguese , New York, 1983.

Burton, Julianne, editor, Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers , Austin, Texas, 1986.

King, John, and Nissa Torrents, The Garden of Forking Paths: Argentine Cinema , London, 1986.

On BIRRI: articles—

Pussi, Dolly, "Breve historia del documental en la Argentina," in Cine Cubano (Havana), October 1973.

Burton, Julianne, "The Camera as Gun: Two Decades of Film Culture and Resistance in Latin America," in Latin American Perspectives , Austin, Texas, 1978.

"Fernando Birri Section" of Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 100, 1981.

Mahieu, A., "Revision critica del cine argentino," in Cine Cubano (Havana), no. 107, 1984.

Martinez Carril, M., "Fernando Birri, un mito, una obra," in Cinemateca Revista (Montevideo), February 1986.

Araya, G.H., "Auskunfte uber Fernando Birri," in Beiträge zur Film und Fernsehwissenschaft , vol. 28, 1987.

Brang, H., "Welt der Wunder und der Trauer," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), March 1989.

Schulze, B., "Wonderland," in Medium (Frankfurt), vol. 21, no. 3, 1991.

Feinstein, Howard, "Entangling Shadows: One Hundred Years of Cinema in Latin America and the Caribbean (Enredando Sombras)," in Variety (New York), 11 May 1998.

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Fernando Birri is a key figure in the history of the New Latin American Cinema because he was more interested in creating filmmakers than in creating films; because he offered a sustained and systematic counter-example to existing industrial modes of filmmaking and to the ideological assumptions that limited both the process and the product; because he developed a concrete theoretical-practical approach and founded the first school of documentary filmmaking in Latin America in order to teach that methodology; and, finally, because his students fanned out across the continent putting his ideas into practice.

Born in the provincial capital of Santa Fe, Birri was a poet and puppeteer before turning to the cinema in search of a broad popular audience. Unable to break into the tightly controlled national film industry, Birri travelled to Italy to study at Rome's Centro Sperimentale de Cinematografia during the early 1950s, when the neo-realist movement was still at its height. Profoundly influenced by the ideology, aesthetics, and methodology of this first anti-industrial, anti-Hollywood model for a national cinema, Birri returned to Argentina in 1956 hoping to found a national film school. Rejecting the closed commercialism of the Buenos Aires-based film industry, one of the three largest in Latin America at the time, Birri returned to Santa Fe.

Birri recalls: "Fresh from Europe, what I had in mind was a film school modeled on the Centro Sperimentale, a fictional film school which would train actors, directors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. But when I confronted the actual conditions in Argentina and in Santa Fe, I realized that my plan was premature. What was needed was something else: a school which would not only provide apprenticeship in filmmaking, but also in sociology, and even in Argentine history, geography and politics, because the most essential quest is the quest for national identity, in order to recover and rediscover what had been alienated, distorted and destroyed by centuries of cultural penetration. This search for a national identity is what led me to pose the problem in strictly documentary terms, because I believe that the first step for any national cinema is to document its own reality."

La Escuela Documental de Santa Fe grew out of the Instituto de Cinematografia, which was in turn an outgrowth of a 4-day seminar on filmmaking led by Birri. Birri's goal was to lay the foundations for a regional film industry that would be "national, realist, and popular": national by addressing the most pressing problems of national life; realist (documentary) in approach in contrast to the highly artificial style and milieux of the "official" film industry; popular by focusing on and appealling to the less privileged classes. In keeping with his determination to integrate theory and practice, Birri emphasized process over product, viewing each film project as the opportunity for practical apprenticeship on the part of the largest possible number of students. He was the first of the Latin American filmmakers to posit technical imperfection as a positive attribute, preferring un sentido imperfecto a una perfeccion sin sentido (an imperfect/sincere meaning to a meaningless perfection).

Birri's best-known films are the 33-minute documentary Tire die (Toss Me a Dime) and Los inundados (Flooded Out) , a picaresque feature in the neorealist style about the adventures of a squatter family displaced by seasonal floods. Both played to huge and enthusiastic audiences at their local premieres but could not achieve broad national exhibition even after winning important prizes in international festivals.

An inhospitable political climate compelled Birri to leave Argentina in 1963. Subsequent months in São Paulo catalyzed an important documentary movement there, but Birri himself returned to Italy and relative obscurity until the late 1970s. His presence at the First International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema in Havana in 1979 signaled renewed activity and recognition. Since then, Birri has taught at Mexico's national university and at the University of Los Andes in Venezuela. The Benalmadena and Pesaro Festivals (Spain, 1979, and Italy, 1981) organized special programs honoring his work.

—Julianne Burton

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