Once Upon a Time in Buenos Aires

The Argentinian writer and theatre director Mariano Pensotti is back at the festival this year with a piece firmly anchored in his native Buenos Aires. Cineastas raises some questions about the relationship between reality and fiction through characters who are engaged in making films.

Do we put ourselves into the fictions we create or do films affect the way we construct our identities? As one of the characters mentions, about 400,000 films have been made and to watch them all would take 92 years non-stop viewing. While this might be impossible, even for the most dedicated cine-aficionado, film has obviously become one of the most forceful mediators of reality and identity across the globe; so we should take this subject seriously. Pensotti has created characters who embody these questions.

Buenos Aires itself is a city obsessed with filmmaking and with performance. Parents send small children to theatre classes; the poor scrap together money to make amateur movies in their free time, and the city itself has become a cheap location for films set in Europe due to the diversity of its architectural styles.

The city itself has become a reflection of other cities; the inhabitants perform their daily lives, always wanting to be someone else. Perhaps, this concentration of fictional realities might be more prevalent in Buenos Aires, but it is rapidly becoming a major temptation throughout the West as characters from soap operas become more real that our neighbours and video game avatars influence our sense of identity.

Pensotti has adapted cinematic techniques for the stage: split screen, montage, flashback, and a narrator’s voice over. Nonetheless, this piece is also highly theatrical. There is no technology involved; no projections of film sequences and even the voices-overs are simple—actors hand over a single microphone to one another and become the distanced commentator narrating a scene.

The actors take on multiple roles, play a diversity of characters, real (in the terms of the fiction) and fictional (in the films being made, which are equally a fiction): filmmakers, actors, assistants, kidnappers and hostage, a McDonald’s employee making a movie in his spare time. The stories are deeply entwined and the performers switch roles effortlessly without costume change. It’s really quite a tour de force in which fiction and reality converge.

One of the main characters is a film director who has been told he has a terminal illness. He wonders what his 2-year-old daughter will have to remember him by and starts to change the scenario of the movie he is making to add personal memories and his own history. He becomes increasingly obsessed with capturing his own life on screen and eventually fires the actors and starts filming objects. The irony is that the producers have hired another director who is finishing off the original script and who is in the process of erasing the images of the dying director’s life.

Another character, a female documentary maker, becomes obsessed by a Russian actor and goes off to Russia to find him and her own Russian ancestry. What she takes to be the authentic village from which her family heralds, where she feels completely at home for the first time in her life, turns out to be an illusion: a film set replicating the standard clichés about the picturesque past of the Russian peasantry.

Several other stories are woven into the piece to show the duality inherent on identity in our overly mediatised world. The characters are confronted with themselves, with their fictionalised reality, with false selves, while working in an art form which attempts to preserve experience, potentially forever, long after the reality of our personal and corporeal existence is gone.

Pensotti’s work is always multi-layered, cleverly using theatrical devices in new combinations, but it remains deeply human, based on the work of actors who present us with people one could sit next to on the bus. As we engage with them, we embrace questions about the resilience of our inner self. Are we who we think we are? Is what motivates us real?