The microsociology of racism in Buenos Aires

by | Dec 11, 2020 | Argentina, Film | 0 comments

The microsociology of racism in Buenos Aires in the cinematographic gaze of Guido Simonetti, Fabián Benitez and “Actores de la Villa”.

By Ana Vivaldi 

Translated by Peter Wade

Poster of film Acuoa

Collaborative work between the film producer and director Guido Simonetti and the actor director Fabián Benitez, who coordinates the collective “Actores de Villa,” generates some unusual images, for example in the short film, Acoua (2019), and in the web series Secuelas (2020) and Ana (2016). The collaboration is unusual in crossing social barriers. Simonetti is an actor and scriptwriter who grew up in an average middle class family and neighbourhood. In contrast, Benitez grew up in a impoverished rural area in the province of Misiones (in the north-east of the country) and since he moved to Buenos Aires he has lived in the barrio Zavaleta, a placed known as a villa (i.e. a stigmatized urban area, lacking basic infrastructure and inhabited by the lower sectors of the working class [the English equivalent might be “shanty town or “slum”]). In an extended conversation with the creators, I learned about the history of this collaboration, and the unusual working methodology they have developed. Next, in relation to the film Acoua (co-directed by Simonetti y Benitez, and written by Viviana Nigro and Simonetti), I discuss the acting work and the focus of the camera, before exploring the creators’ professional trajectories and the methodology that they have generated.

Acoua can be viewed in its entirety at this link.

Microaggressions and racialized subjectivity

Acoua is a short film released in 2019, which has been won awards for the best short film and audience prizes in Spain, Ireland and Argentina (the list of awards can be found at this link). It is currently selected to compete at the 2020 Barcelona Human Rights Festival. The film portrays a job interview, in which racialized class differences are embodied through the work of the actors and camera work that captures minimal interactions. I am interested in dwelling on these minimal interactions, which the sociologist Erving Goffman worked on throughout his career and which the African American psychiatrist Chester Pierce, in 1970, called “microaggressions”.

At first, the characters seem to follow class stereotypes, with two people from working-class and darker-skinned sectors, and a whiter middle-class aspirant: class membership seems to anticipate the outcome of the job search – an expectation that shows that the common-sense assumptions that privilege the whiter person are also racist. The film explores the ways in which the relationships shown in the film are racialized. Middle-class people in Argentina are “white”, i.e. they are phenotypically light skinned and embody middle-class habits in their ways of dressing, moving and behaving, speech patterns, etc. The film shows the ways in which structural racism is an everyday phenomenon, at times explicit (e.g. the pejorative expression “sos un negro” [you’re a black] is part of the daily interaction between white people and brown-skinned, indigenous and Afro people) but mostly evident in micro-actions. Structural racism is reproduced by “non-racist” people in the way that Bonilla Silva has identified as “a racism without racists” (2006). For this author, this absence of “racists” is a fundamental characteristic of the moment in which we live.

In the few minutes during which the action unfolds, Acoua focuses on minimal interactions between the characters. The interviewees enter the office of a small company, confirm that they are in the right place with the secretary at the front desk, sit and wait, talk on a cell phone, look at each other. However, each character embodies these actions in different ways: the ways of entering the office, making conversation, directing the gaze, tensing the muscles are done differently. Before we learn that one of the characters is called Fabián and he is a street vendor, we see him sunk in the chair, dressed in jeans and a worn shirt. Fabián watches with a mixture of discouragement and certainty when a man dressed in a suit enters the office. This character is comfortable talking on a cell phone in a loud voice and using English words. The third person in the scene is a woman in less formal clothing than the secretary, who speaks in a very low voice and who is busy arranging care for her child with someone who is helping her. In these first minutes, the point of tension is defined: three people are waiting to be interviewed for the same position, two of them are from working-class sectors and one from the middle class. But this difference is also racialized, the middle class person is whiter, while the working-class people are brown-skinned (Florencia Alvarado 2020, Alejandro Mamani 2020).

Scene from film Acuoa

It is important to highlight that such colour categories have a particular form in the Argentine context, where people are used to noticing subtle variations in colour combined with clothing and other aspects of appearance and behaviour. However, for people accustomed to other racialized contexts, the differences are much more difficult to distinguish, a fact that makes the white middle classes from Argentina become non-white Latinxs in the global north.

The work of the actors of the Actores de Villa collective is not only based on their own experience, but is also driven by the search to identify what exactly makes them feel uncomfortable in their bodies and in administrative workplaces, which can be seen as places that interpellate them through a kind of environmental racism (Sue 2010). We know that according to dominant forms of organization, bodies racialized as non-white should only access these spaces in predefined roles: cleaning personnel, with apron and gloves, delivery men, porters, plumbers. However, in this story (which, as a story, expresses a desire) the characters are applying for an administrative job. With their bodies the actors narrate to us the experience of entering an office as a brown person, they show it in their discomfort, their elusive gaze, doubtful movements, a slumping in the chair.

It is not necessary to use dialogue to convey what is shown in the micro-reactions that, in the space of a few minutes, tell us that the two brown people feel out of place. The story is told through the embodied work of the actors. Although in the film we do not see the advertisement for the administrative job to which the applicants are responding, we repeatedly hear the phrases referring to the need to have “a good appearance” and “excellent oral and written communication skills”, which function as coded way of talking about racialized class. “Good appearance” supposedly refers to personal care, grooming and hygiene, but as a bottom line it implies having a white body, dressing formally and fashionably, and demonstrating self-control; while “excellent communication skills” refers to handling middle class modes of speech. Simonetti’s camera shows the micro movements that give flesh to these descriptions, for example in the way that Silvia interacts with discomfort with her handbag as she takes out her cell phone, answers a call, puts it away. The actions of people racialized as non-white demonstrate extreme care. Defensive mechanisms against microaggressions are activated when entering an office. In contrast, the middle-class man speaks without a care, occupies the space of the office without asking permission or apologizing, and has an expansive presence because he feels comfortable in that space.

Scene from film Acuoa

In a tradition very different from (and more radical than) North American microsociology, Frantz Fanon also thought intently about micro-interactions. In Chapter 4 of his book, Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon discusses how racism works in language. To do this, he does not focus so much on the meanings of words, but rather on the mode of speech. He gives as an example the interaction between a white doctor and a black patient in a consulting room. In the dialogues that he recreates from his own experience, he analyzes how the tone of voice of people in power becomes informal, simplistic, when the interlocutor is an Afro-descendant (in his example this occurs in his native Martinique). He argues that this change in the way of speaking is one of the ways of infantilizing Afro-descendant people in their daily lives. Fanon describes how racial politics becomes subtle interactions and then becomes internalized and sedimented in subjectivity. The duality referred to in the title of his book (even though Fanon wanted to talk about alienation) has to do with a divided subjectivity in which racialized people, even being aware of the absurdity and the hallucinogenic nature of racism (to use Achille Mbembe’s words), must perform subordination in institutions of European-white origin. Failing to perform this submission is, from an institutional perspective, seen as a violent threat, because the structural order is organized around submission. Specifically, Fanon identified the experience of racism and the initiation of anti-racist actions as “muscles that tense”, and it is this experience of tensing muscles that the film portrays with such power and that is so accurately described in the work of the actors Rubén Esquivel (Fabián) and Karina Franco (Silvia). At the same time, the camera that captures the action of these first minutes and then in other moments of action is more than intimate, it is microscopic.

The camera is so close that it allows us to see the subtle transformations, ranging from discouragement to mistrust and then to surprise. In the first few minutes, while the characters wait, Fabián looks at the feet of his middle-class opponent and the camera focuses on shiny, polished shoes. There is a cut and Fabián looks at his own shoes: sneakers with mud and grass stuck to the soles. For a person familiar with Buenos Aires, the mud on the shoes evokes the city’s extremely uneven urban infrastructure, neighbourhoods without pavements, restricted means of transportation, and difficult access to the city centre. In the seconds when we (as Buenos Aires inhabitants) see the mud we can make an imaginative reconstruction of where Fabián woke up and what his trip to the office was like. In another scene, the reading of a word in a foreign language generates a first change in the interaction and a break in the relationship between employer and interviewee. Fabian reads from a poster in the office which shows the name of the company, Acqua. He pronounces it “Acoua”, misled in part by the stylized representation of the letter “q” on the poster. This “mistake” is not a lack of understanding but rather shows a lack of familiarity with a foreign-language word that is part of the way language use reproduce class positions as habits.

Habits such as a way of talking, or branding a company with an Italian name recreate and reproduce class distinctions, as Bourdieu shows (1984). In the narrative of the film however, instead of a reinforcement of the difference there is simply a respectful explanation on behalf of the person with more power, the interviewer. This is a moment with a potential microaggression in the making. In their daily interactions with the “darker” popular sectors the white middle classes assert their class and racial supremacy by for example casually commenting on the supposed ignorance of the poor racialized as villeros (people from the villas). The attribution of ignorance is not a minor aside but a central trope in the racial formation of Argentina where being white is a synonym of civilization and is opposed to the supposed barbarism of the indigenous, Afro and mixed-race provincial populations. The binary of civilization/barbarism is constitutive of Argentine national identity, as established by the canonical 19th-century book, Facundo, by Domingo F. Sarmiento. Thus to label someone, something or some place as “uneducated” or “ignorant” is a way to locate them on the side of barbarism. In this story, however, instead of reinforcing the difference there is simply a respectful explanation. At a moment when the difference could be reinforced with a racist microaggression, that possibility is cut short.

At the same time, those first few minutes show that being white is also a construction, a labour of taking care of the body. The appearance of the middle-class applicant evokes for us the perfume of hair gel, the shirt washed with fabric softener. Being white is not a given, there is no essence: it is also a construction from and with the body, which unfolds in a series of actions and capacities, a choreography of movements in a chain that links going through a door to sitting in a chair.

Putting racism in focus, questioning its denial and demonstrating the ways in which racism operates in space, even when there is no offense, are points that this film encourages us to think about. The micro-interactions are the starting point that allow us to begin to unpick the interweaving of racial formations: the precariousness of whiteness, indigeneity and blackness, brownness and its specific forms in different contexts (Briones 2005). Social researchers such as Goldberg (2008) and Lentin (2015) have argued that racial formations currently operate through denial and silence around biological ideas of difference, and that difference is instead encoded in a discourse of cultural difference, security, migration, etc. This context of post-racial denial is particularly noticeable in Latin America and in the Argentine context it needs explanation as a structuring modality.

As Ignacio Aguiló affirms in a previous post, “This omission is not due to political correctness or a post-racial vision, but to the fact that, in public discourse, ethnic-racial difference is never stated as a structuring element in the social hierarchy. In other words, the racial never reaches the level of what is said” (2020). Paradoxically, in Argentina people are constantly talking, perceiving and referring to “negros” (“blacks”), at the same time denying that this is an idea that names racial difference. Therefore, an analysis of the discursive plane alone is not enough to understand the modalities of racialization, the forms of its reproduction and materialisation in space, the specificities and mutations of these forms of racism where race is not spoken of. In the Argentine context, where racism has only recently begun to be considered, we need perspectives that allow us to think about racism as embodied, using micro-sociology and postcolonial studies, and as a phenomenon materialized in space, as described, for example, by David Theo Goldberg (2008) for the racialized organization of postcolonial urban space (2008), or by Michael Keith (2012) for the racial formations that group, assign identities and redistribute non-white migrants in the city of London. This is why a cultural product that focuses on bodies, the microaggressions that an office environment inflicts on racialized bodies, and the effects of these forms on people’s subjectivity, is a relevant operation for an anti-racist project. Making visible, understanding from the body and thinking of alternative outcomes to a situation of tension where three people racialized as white and brown compete for a job is one of the film’s contributions to understanding the ways in which racialization operates.

Trajectories and methodologies

The audio-visual creative process is dominated by the figure of the director as an individual artist in charge of a team, and responsible for interpreting what is established in a script, a written and final document. This single figure is fractured in the technical data sheets of Acoua and Ana, where the direction is in charge of two people, who come from very different backgrounds. At the same time, Buenos Aires as a cultural production plant is also a space where becoming a director or actor is generally associated with institutional spaces dominated by “white” and middle-class people (Alvarado 2020, Mamani 2020). University programmes in cinema, image and sound design, and acting schools are all directed by renowned directors and actors. Even with a highly critical and productive independent scene, it is difficult to be recognized if you are completely outside these spaces of training and validation. If, as Ure (2012) affirms, the commercial, academic, independent and alternative scenes were never totally separated in Argentina, creating a space in the cinema on the basis of a career linked to work in television is a less direct path. Even less direct is for a group of actors from the peripheral neighbourhoods (the villas), detached from artistic training spaces, to be able to establish a workspace and be active participants in the production of a short film and not just be “objects” in front of the camera (Alvarado 2020). This also occurs in relation to political militancy, even when the militancy aims to improve living conditions in the villas: middle class people are generally the representatives and spokespersons of working class needs. The Simonetti–Benitez–Actores de Villa association does not follow any of these paths.

Guido Simonetti is an actor, screenwriter, director and co-founder of the Intuitive Series production company. He comes from a middle class background and, like most people from this sector, he grew up disconnected from a direct experience with the villas. His role as a film and television actor and screenwriter was the basis for starting a freelance job as a director and filmmaker. In the conversation we held, Simonetti explains that before meeting Benitez he had produced and directed only one short film. His training is not formal and he developed as a scriptwriter and director in a practical way, by making short films and collaborating with colleagues.

Fabián Benitez grew up in the province of Misiones and moved to Buenos Aires when he was a teenager, since when he has lived in the neighbourhood of Zavaleta, in the south of the City of Buenos Aires (Zavaleta is seen as a villa and is largest such settlement in the city). In 2011, Benitez started an actor training workshop. Benitez began taking theatre classes following a personal interest, which later turned into the project of forming a theatre workshop in his neighbourhood. He began by inviting the neighbours, “boys standing on the corner who had nothing to do”, to form a theatre workshop in the neighbourhood itself and proposed his work as a collective exploration.

Screen shot of online conversation

Benitez explains that his workshop allows participants to do an activity that, outside the villa, would provoke a lot of resistance: “they would not dare to enter a theatre workshop or acting class in Palermo,” he says, referring to one of the middle-class neighbourhoods. From experience, he explains that the internalization of these forms of subordination that, although rarely made explicit, discipline the people of the villas to stay away from artistic spaces, even informal spaces where they could have some experience, such as the numerous workshops that exist. In the Actores de Villa workshops, on the contrary, “we are all the same and we are in the same place”; precisely one of the points to work on, he explains, is bodily inhibition, feeling out of place. He relates that, on the basis of their acting experience, many of the members of the group go from barely daring to speak to standing in front of a group to set up a scene: a personal transformation as well as an artistic one.

The filmmakers met and struck up a friendship at an acting class. Both shared a pragmatic and self-directed relationship with cinema and they started from the desire to work together. His first work was the web series Ana. The series was co-directed by Simonetti and Benitez, establishing a horizontal way of working from the start. Released in 2016, and composed of 3-minute episodes, the series allows you to choose options at the end of each episode, and therefore build different stories, a structure that this series introduced for the first time. The cast of actors is made up almost entirely of members of the Actores de Villa collective. Simonetti wrote the script while Benitez did the acting work and contributed notes to the script before it reached its final form.

Once filming began, the Actores de Villa collective brought their experience to bear on developing the details of the action. The series was filmed in Zavaleta and portrayals of the neighbourhood sought to be realistic; although marginality is a reality, the series avoided a “poverty pornography” or a “voyeurism of misery” that represents Latin America in terms of perceptions from the global North. Subjectivities are multiple, people react to specific situations from their unique positions. The series was shot on a very low budget, so it was a surprise when it began to receive nominations and awards on international festival circuits, such as the Dublin festival. The work showcases the fact that the story is told by several people, revealing the strong and extensive collaborative links between Simonetti and Benitez, and the long trajectory of the Actores de Villa collective.

Acoua, released in 2019, had a similar trajectory, with a simple structure and a low budget with an emphasis on the work of actors, the camera, and it is also receiving nominations and awards (referred to above). The experience of “feeling out of place” in an office environment, which Actores de Villa has been working on for several years, is one of the themes of the film. The script was kept open to what the actors brought up during rehearsals, and the characters drew on the actors’ experiences. Simonetti explains that the name of the film was modified to capture a moment in the work with the actors where one of the actors read the name “Acqua” as “Acoua” in perfect Spanish; this was later integrated as part of the storyline, as noted above.

The mode of work makes a critical commentary on the homogenizing, victimizing representations of people in “marginal” neighbourhoods. Working in partnership also creates a break within the usual forms of creation. These modalities are distinguished from explicitly political cultural forms, which arise from militancy, or with aestheticist visions of the popular. Artistic practices are used as a medium and as an object of work.

Benitez became a benchmark for casting actors. However, Benitez clarifies that the actors of the collective, for the moment, are still being sought to represent characters from subaltern sectors only. For example, a member of the group acted in the television series Un Gallo para Esculapio (A Cock for Aesculapius), by Bruno Stagnaro, which portrays the world of illegal cock fights. Benitez also highlighted that the actors who were hired for the official circuit live the contrast between a life “with everything” while working as actors (a middle-class life), and life back in the villa when filming is finished and the actors return to their neighbourhood and their previous work. This contrast between the life of an actor and the return to normal employment, for example, affected the mood and mental health of one of the actors, who is currently doubtful about continuing to attend castings. Supporting this actor was a deliberate part of Benitez’s work. Simonetti, meanwhile, premiered his first film this year as a scriptwriter for a feature film, La Foquita, el 10 de la calle, about the life of Peruvian soccer player Jefferson Farfán, which achieved record audience numbers (pre-pandemic).

The question that arises from the film Acoua is whether a more inclusive employment relationship could overcome these sedimented forms of racism; whether racism can be dissolved (or modulated) within capitalist property and labour relations founded on racialization. But there is no doubt that the work of Simonetti, Benítez and the Actores de Villa collective shows us that theatre and a camera style that focuses on the body form a privileged place from which to name, think and respond to the micro forms of racist exclusion. Any form that challenges the structural modalities of racism needs to engage with everyday habits, disarm microaggressions and forms of subordination internalized in subjectivity, on the basis of and also beyond discourse. The work of cultural production is a central tool to talk about these unrecognized relationships.



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