Opening Doors in the Red Light District: making films in Buenos Aires

Wind in Our Hair girl with mask

Opening Doors in the Red Light District:
making films in Buenos Aires

by Lynne Sachs

We’ve been spying on children in the city for about a century now.
Using our movie cameras, we become omniscient god-like figures who
traipse behind a mischievous boy or a dreamy girl, privy to their
every move, even their thoughts, and, in this way, finding a
deceptively easy access to our own pasts.   From Albert Lamorisse’s
“Red Balloon” to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows” to Ralph Arlyck’s
“Sean: Then and Now”, both fiction and documentary films propel adult
viewers into the dynamic, cacophonous, barely Super-Ego-driven psyche
of young city dwellers en route to maturity.  For a child alone, in an
urban metropolis, a city can hurl all that a society has to offer – be
it salubrious or deleterious – in a single bus ride. Buenos Aires is
complex but hardly iconic, dilapidated but not tawdry, secretive yet
somehow also inviting.  In the summer of 2008, my burgeoning
familiarity with and fascination for this South American city offered
a canvas on which to explore these transformative moments.

Minutes after reading Argentine author Julio Cortázar‘s short story “End
of the Game”, I knew I wanted to shoot a cinematic interpretation of
this seemingly quiet yet tumultuous moment in three pre-adolescent
girls’ lives.  Leticia, Holanda and the narrator (un-named) are
spending a few weeks together in a house on the edge of Buenos Aires.
Each day they perform a series of “sculptures” and “attitudes” on a
landing looking out over the tracks of a commuter train as it speeds
by.  One afternoon, an older boy throws them a note from the train
window, indicating that he has been watching them from afar.  The
girls are transfixed, exhilarated, and confused by this attention.
The game continues for a few weeks longer, anonymously.  Then one day,
the boy get off the train and the girls finally have a chance to meet
him.  Their conversation is brief, stilted, and uninspired, nothing
like what they had imagined. The game is, alas, over.

This realization that nothing is ever quite what you imagined it to be
becomes a harbinger of the adult awareness that will come. Cortázar’s
girls’ liminal halcyon days are coming to an end. They don’t want to
let go of their whimsy, their dramatic play or their baroque
costuming.  Their moment in time reminds me of what my own two girls,
ages 11 and 13, are experiencing in their lives now.  I decide to turn
this story into an experimental narrative film, one that “documents”
and explores these sensations that are so close to the ones I too knew
in my early teenage years.  While “End of the Game” takes place on the
edge of the city in a kind of hermetic, bourgeois residential area
seemingly far from the urban center of Ciudad Federal, I decide to
push my four girl actors into a cityscape that will shake things up in
some unpredictable ways.

I tell an Argentine friend of my grandmother’s who’s been living in
the United States for over half a century that I will be spending a
summer in Buenos Aires making a movie with my two daughters and two
Argentine girls.   She takes a deep, raspy breath and responds with
three simple words:   “Beware of kidnappings.”   Two weeks before we
leave, I read an article in The New York Times about a series of
possibly violent agricultural street protests creating a lack of fresh
food in the major urban areas of Argentina and a palpable atmosphere
of anxiety.  With a wing, a prayer, and a box of 16mm film, I head
south with my husband Mark Street and our girls.  In Buenos Aires,
we discover a summer of winter weather in a city I first encountered
in 2007 when I traveled with my older daughter Maya Street-Sachs
to show five films in their Buenos Aires Festival de Cinema Independiente.

Soon after our arrival in Buenos Aires, I invite Pablo Marín and
Leandro Listorti, two local filmmakers whose lyrical Super 8
experimental films I had seen during the film festival, to join me in
this collective endeavor.   Leandro and Pablo see the world through a
distinctive, curious lens so I am thrilled they have agreed to help me
shoot the film. In addition, they begin to show me the history of
Argentine experimental cinema, starting from the 1960’s to the
present.  In this milieu, I watch the transportive, often
dream-inspired films of Narcisa Hirsch, Claudio Caldini and Lucrecia
Martel all of which give me a deeper sense of the of the textures
surrounding me.

Since we will be doing a great deal of shooting in the family house of
Lena and Chiara, my two Argentine “actresses”, I am particularly
inspired by the charged, tight-knit home environment I see in Lucrecia
Martel’s “La Cieniga”. I try to create a similar spirit of emotional
electricity in the domestic spaces the girls inhabit.  As the children
move through the rooms of this austere 1970’s haute-modern building,
they tentatively investigate the flamboyant costumes I’ve found for
them and begin to understand the personalities of their characters.
Lena is playing Leticia which is probably the most difficult role:  a
girl with a pronounced physical disability that makes her posture look
awkward and wrought. She is haughty, brilliant and vulnerable.  Chiara
plays Holanda, who is clever, patient and naughty.  My older daughter
Maya plays the narrator (whom we name Elena), an observant, overly
responsible girl who feels her changes of life painfully.  Noa plays
Pilar (a name all of the girls adore), the fourth, invented character,
who is playful and wily.

To get things started and as a way to get “into character”, I ask them
to play a game I have invented called “House Taken Over”, inspired by
Cortázars haunting eponymous story of a brother and a sister who
discover that their home is inhabited by voices, and perhaps the
people who own these voices.  They run manically through the house
trying to escape the frightful sounds, and ultimately end up outside
their very own front door – homeless in a way. We follow the girls
with the camera, as they become similarly terrified characters in the
process of playing a kind of paranoid hide-and-seek.  A few days
later, I describe this theater game of sorts to an Argentine
philosophy student who certainly has a deeper appreciation for
Cortazer’s writing than I have yet attained.  He explains that for
some Argentine readers, the story is sharply and hauntingly political
in its depiction of the fear that the Buenos Aires intelligentsia felt
during the period now referred to as the Dirty War (1970s to 1983).  A
house taken over is a mind taken over; that which we most fear is
invincible until it is there to eat us up.

One torrentially rainy day when I plan to shoot in the backyard, but
am forced to move indoors, I film the four girls performing Cortázar’s
14 different attitudes including rancor, charity, envy, and sacrifice.
I position the girls in front of a large ceiling-to-floor window and
discover the enigmatic seductiveness of their silhouettes. By not
revealing their facial expressions, I allow the language of their
bodies to function like a semaphore for their interpretations of these
words, their articulation of prescribed human emotions is pared down
to its essence.  The girls’ bodies transform into moving arabesques
against the wet, green out-of-doors.  From this perspective, the
metropolis of Buenos Aires feels remote, ethereal, and unproblematic.

Despite the fictional foundation of Cortázar’s tale, the documentary
spirit of my working process rears its ugly head. I think about Jean
Luc Godard’s and Anne Marie Miéville’s groundbreaking 1977 French
television series “France Tour/Detour/Deux Infants”. Here the
directors asked two children a series of thought-provoking questions
that lead them to ponder their own fragile existence.  In the
willy-nilly production schedule I have created, we are shooting
through day and night for several weeks; the four girls climb into
their costumes (typical Argentine school uniforms) and won’t take them
off. So when I say “Tell me the things you fear most about life in the
city,” they don’t realize that they will be peeling away the fiction
to find something about themselves just one layer below.

Listening to Chiara’s recounting in Spanish of her dream, I discover a
scary underbelly of fear surrounding abduction here in Buenos Aires:

“When I was little, around 8 years-old, I had a dream. In the dream I
am 13, and I am sleeping, and a thief comes in, and everyone is
downstairs and the thief climbs up the stairs very quickly. He comes
into my room, grabs me, puts me in a bag and takes me. I am taken to
an alley where he makes me lay down, and then the thief calls my house
and says that if my parents want to see me again, they have to pay a
million pesos. And they don’t have the money. And then my dad goes to
the place; it is a very dark place. The thief isn’t there but I am,
lying on the ground. So my father grabs me and we run away. And when
the thief comes back, he sees that I’m not there and he kills

And you’re not afraid of spiders, the dark or anything like that?


Each girl has one scene in the film in which she discovers some aspect
of urban life. Holanda dances a Cyd Charisse style jaunt on the broad
Parisian steps of the Plaza Francia. Pilar jumpropes under the
shockingly modern sweep of the Biblioteca National and squirms in the
infamously ghostly Cementerio Recoleta. Elena and Leticia shop in the
cotillion stores of Once and along Corrientes,  Buenos Aires’ Broadway
chock full of elegant, crowded bookstores, three story pizza parlors
with elderly men in silk scarves, and the constant threat of street
crime.  In this teeming section of the city, the girls feel a sense of
urgency and uncertainty.  They must be vigilant in order to stay solid
and just slightly self-assured, as they walk along the sidewalks in
costume. We follow them with our cameras, trying to be there and not
there at the same time.  Two friends of mine have already had their
cameras pulled from their hands in broad daylight in this bustling
neighborhood, so a tight grip is no guarantee.

To imagine the barrio of Once, I think you would need to picture New
York City’s Lower East Side as it was in the 1970s – full of wholesale
fabric stores, street vendors, and earnest Hasidic storeowners.
Through the lens of the camera, Leticia and Elena, the two older
girls, appear more liberated and independent, embracing the color and
the grime of this ebullient neighborhood, relishing in the fact that
they are gallivanting about all alone.  With cameras in hand, we watch
them stare at a small coterie of construction works sitting on a curb
drinking maté.  In the aural fabric of the film, they listen to a
homeless man and his son singing a chant of need and desire.  But in
reality, the girls are clearly not in this place alone, not at all.
We, the small production crew, are there witnessing them and caring
for them, being adults, being parental, overseeing.  Even their
free-spirited jaunt through the vibrant but daunting Retiro train
station is monitored and contrived.  Out of necessity or timidity,
life in the city for these girls is as protected and secure as life at
home.  The camera presents a brazen autonomy that is, in the end,

In my recorded conversation with my daughter Maya, she too squirms
uncomfortably in response to my questions about what she fears most in
the city.  She speaks of the unknown neighbors, the ones who talk with
vitriol and resentment just on the other side of her bedroom wall.
Their anger is audible; and in their invisibility and proximity, their
“off camera” performance in the theater of her own psyche is
monstrous.  Here city life offers her the opportunity to imagine an
anonymous neighbor who wavers randomly between the heroic
and demonic. Later, she describes a scene she has witnessed with
her own eyes but never described in her own words.

“On Las Heras Avenue is a bank, and in front of the bank is an older
woman who is homeless. We’re coming back from dinner, or from a movie
or something, and we all kind of go silent for a little bit ‘cause we,
you know, feel bad for this older woman who seems like every single
time we walk by is just sitting there.”

As much as these four middle class girls have observed poverty in
their every day lives as city dwellers (Maya and Noa in New York City,
Lena and Chiara in Buenos Aires), it is rare to hear them articulate
this kind of crisp observation.  They know how to see but they don’t
yet know how to speak about the multi-layered, multi-class experiences
that is modern urban life.

On one of the most challenging days of all, we spend about five hours
at the Mitre train station, shooting the girls in their various wacky,
poignant, beguiling statues and attitudes, all on the grass just
beside the train.  Everyone is prepared with a cell phone because we
must coordinate the boy’s ride on the train with the girls’
performances.  Pablo and Leandro shoot video. I am running around with
my 16mm Bolex. A third local media artist is on the train with the boy
actor who is in a grey suit with a book bag.  All of the people in the
station, on the sidewalk and on the train are watching us suspiciously
but we throw caution to the wind and keep going. The girls at first
are clearly feeling shy and then suddenly they give into the process
(my game) and become their characters, relishing the world of their
imaginations while still wondering what they heck we are doing.  At
last, they let go of their own self-consciousness, break the rules of
comportment in a big city.  This charged, hectic, public world full of
lonely train riders, housewives shopping for dinner, and impoverished
day workers riding the rails is a stage inviting wild improvisation.
The weather is very cold but we prevail somehow, completely worn out
but thrilled as the light disappears and we must go home.

Another cold morning, Pablo Marin and I take the boy and my daughter
Maya to the Retiro train station, in the center of the city, to shoot
the nightmare scene exactly as Cortázar had imagined it. The minute we
pull out our Super 8 camera we are told by the police to leave.  Just
minutes before, I happen to spot an even more nightmarish location for
our pesadilla scene on my way to the station, a magnificently
grotesque sculpture garden behind Retiro, full of dinosaur-size
animals built by Argentine railway artist Carlos Ragazonni. So we
immediately walk to this hidden, hellish, fantastic place and decide
we are lucky to have been evicted from the station.  When government
rules and regulations prevent us from following the story as given,
the city of Buenos Aires provides an even grander, spookier back lot
for the shooting to go on.

Our last production day is an exploration of another nightmare, one
that parallels the hide-and-seek game the girls played on the first
day.  I ask a psychoanalyst friend to join us to help me move the
girls into a more oneiric frame of mind.  Her understanding of and
appreciation for the layers of meaning behind and inside dreams sparks
wonderful tableaux vivant that I think can only enhance this aspect of
the movie. We shoot in a wooded area right next to the train tracks in
Parque Palermo. Here three girls, wearing moon masks, dance like
ghosts under the trees while the fourth searches for them in a game of
“Gallito Ciego” (similar to our Blindman’s Bluff).  Every few minutes,
the noisy commuter trains whiz by, disrupting the quiet of the game
and reminding them that they are no longer in a back yard, but rather
the heart of the big city.

During July and August, 2008 in Buenos Aires, the tensions between the
farm workers, agribusiness and government move from distant rural
manifestations to tented encampments in the infamous Plaza de Mayo to
raucous street marches of a quarter of a million people.  While at
first this intimidating illustration of Latin American politics
brought to the street seems like a hindrance to my film project, I
realize that these boisterous, anguished expressions of the poor
(mixed in with the behind-the-scenes manipulations of large-landowners)
are part and parcel of a multi-layered political landscape the girls are
beginning to notice and perhaps think about.  For this reason, I weave
the wild particulars of these Buenos Aires uprisings into the film,
including the cacerolazo (banging of pots in a group protest) and
tractors rumbling down the Avenida Libertad. The hermetic space of
the girls’ childhood, and indeed of Cortázar’s fiction in general, is
punctured by the needle of reality.

Of course, I had hoped to name my film “End of the Game” and to attain
the blessing of Julio Cortázar’s wife, who controls his estate, to
use the title.  Once I am back in New York City and editing with
Puerto Rican filmmaker Sofía Gallisa, my friend and former student,
I spend half a year corresponding with her agency about my project
and eventually send her a fine cut version of the film.  In the end, my
decision to embrace the city of Buenos Aires – howling, dancing,
complaining, lusting, creaking, and dreaming – is my downfall.
By inviting the city hook, line and sinker into the movie, I am, she
feels, betraying the precious spirit of childhood that her husband
worked so hard to create.  By opening the doors to things we might
not want to see, the red light district of our own consciousness, I am
constructing a porous, drafty fiction/non-fiction universe.  I name
the film “Wind in Our Hair” to celebrate the untidy, fluid, physical
world these girls will eventually learn to navigate all by themselves.