Before I even start reviewing this film I would like to point out that I am a massive fan of Mercedes Sosa. If you don’t know who she is (which is okay, we can’t all be experts on 20th century Latin-American singer-songwriters, right?) I recommend you look her up. Maybe start with this song and then move on to a youtube playlist for an introduction. I love this woman for so many reasons. She had an incredibly powerful voice, but when you watch recordings of her performances you see a humble woman who barely makes eye contact with the audience, a woman who said of herself that she didn’t sing because she could, but because she had to. This also showed in the songs she chose: she was a founding member of the Movimiento del Nuevo Cancionero, a movement that sought to establish a national folklore in Argentina (and other parts of Latin America) which was both anti-commercial and anti-colonial. Blacklisted by the military government, she was forced into exile during the dictatorship. When she died in 2009 the Argentinian government declared a national mourning period of three days. Mercedes Sosa is the stuff role models are made of.
First of all, a word of warning: I advise serious caution when attending film festivals of any kind. Do by all means watch the second, third, fourth or fifth film they show, but avoid the opening and closing nights. Unless you’re a fan of big speeches of course. I’m not, which is why I was playing with my phone while three people with microphones thanked everybody involved in the festival before then explaining the programme, which was also lying in my lap. Don’t get me wrong, I know how much work it is to organise any kind of cultural event, but I have a serious aversion to public displays of (more or less sincere) gratitude and I’m outright opposed to reading out the names of private sponsors who are already up on the screen and all over the promotional material.
Rant over, moving on to the documentary. The film was released in 2013, five years after Sosa’s death, and is based on an idea by Fabián Matus, her son, who also ran all the interviews in the film. These two facts probably explain why I felt like I was being shown somebody’s family photo album while watching this film; a friend of mine described it as “one big eulogy”.
The film recounts different episodes from Sosa’s life through recordings of her own words as well as interviews with members of her family, friends and colleagues. As a result the audience gets a very broad overview of the Argentinian music scene of the second half of the last century, but misses out completely on any kind of critical engagement even though the film raises many questions.
All of the musicians featured in the film are men, the only women that are interviewed are personal friends. Was Sosa the only woman on the scene during the four decades of her career? She came from a very poor family, which had a strong influence on her politics. Sosa covered many revolutionary songs, was affiliated with the Communist Party and supported both the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Castro government in Cuba. She had to spend three years in exile. But the documentary creates the impression that all this was a coincidence rather than due to a firm conviction. She suffered from Chagas disease for 30 years until it finally killed her. This is a disease that is linked to rural poverty in Central and South America and can be cured if diagnosed early. Having watched the documentary you would think she died in her sleep.
I am not saying that I wanted this documentary to completely demystify Mercedes Sosa. People have put her on a pedestal and I’m happy for her to stay there. But surely engaging with the struggles in her life would have added to her reputation rather than detracting from it?
Mercedes Sosa: Voice of Latin America shows the life of a great singer through the eyes of people who loved her and are still dealing with this loss. But if you really want to get closer to this fascinating woman then I think the direct way is the best: don’t watch the film, just listen to her music.
IberoDocs Ibero-American Documentary Film Festival ScotlandFilmhouse Edinburgh 14th May 2015