This classic review from 1970 examines Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora de los Hornos), one of the defining works of the ‘Cine Liberación’ wave of radical and revolutionary films from Latin America.
When the first explorers from Europe sailed along the southeastern coast of South America, they reported seeing fires by the hundreds blazing out from the dark silhouette of the land. To one particular stretch of coast at the southern tip of what is now Argentina, the Spanish explorers gave the name Tierra del Fuego – the land of fire.
What they saw from their ships were the hornos, or cooking fires, of the Indians who inhabited the region; and the sight of those fires blinking on, one by one, in the evening darkness, until they blanketed the horizon like a strange new constellation, struck the imaginations of those first explorers, curious and apprehensive as they undoubtedly were about the inhabitants of this new continent. Throughout the centuries, the expression “la hora de los hornos” (the hour of the cooking fires) has been used by the historians and poets of Latin America, and it has recently become an anti-imperialist rallying cry taken up by Che Guevara; in calling for a socialist revolution to sweep Latin America, he proclaimed “now is ‘la hora de los hornos’; let them see nothing but the light of the flames.” (Guevara was, of course, an Argentine.)
Under the title La Hora de los Hornos, two other Argentines – Fernando Solanas and hiscoscenarist Octavio Getino – have put together a remarkable film that is in, of, and for the revolutionary struggle which they see as imminent and urgently needed in contemporary Argentina. Traveling all over the country, Solanas and Getino made contact with, discussed with, and eventually filmed most of those who are actively involved (clandestinely as well as openly, outside as well as within the “legal” institutions of Argentina) in the struggle for a revolutionary transformation of Argentine society.
At various stages in the film’s growth, Solanas and Getino showed some of the footage to the different militant groups with whom they were working. On some occasions, this brought about an invaluable exchange of information and discussion between far-flung and very diverse groups that had never gotten together before-or sometimes had not even known of each other’s existence. Thus, the film inserted itself in the revolutionary praxis, and the revolutionary praxis inserted itself in the film, causing the film-makers to rethink again and again their conception of the film and their conception of the revolution. The making of the film and the making of the revolution became inseparable.
For those of us who are striving to come up with a working definition of revolutionary cinema, La Hora de los Hornos (along with Godard’s latest films) may be the most fruitful subject we could focus our attention on at this moment. I say this not only because the very existence and structure of La Hora de los Hornos are rooted in the day-to-day practice of making the revolution, but also because such a tremendous variety of cinematic styles and materials have gone into this film. Solanas and Getino have, in effect, created a remarkable film-mosaic, in which each individual piece, as they conceived it, “demanded its own particular expression that would transmit the intended ideological sense. That is to say, each sequence, each individual cell has a different style of photography or a different form. There are small cells which are little stories or narratives of their own; there are others which are free documentaries; there are some which are made up entirely of montage and counterpoint; others are absolutely descriptive scenes; others are direct cinema; still others are something like a cinematographic carnival-song. The only way to unite all this material without it all falling apart, without falling into complete chaos, was to give each individual part its own form. So, from the camerawork to the montage, it was necessary to find that form.”
Whether they succeeded in finding the proper form for each individual cell – or even for each major section – is debatable. But it is already a major step forward that Solanas and Getino had the courage to pose themselves such a difficult problem and had the courage to disregard normal distribution requirements (of length, among other things) in order to give a presentation of the political situation in Argentina that faithfully renders its complexity.
Four hours and twenty minutes long in the original version shown at Pesaro in June, 1968, La Hora de los Hornos is divided into three major parts: the first (95 minutes) is titled “Violence and Liberation”; the second, “Act for the Revolution,” is subdivided into two segments-a 20 minute “Chronicle of Peronism” on the ten-year reign (1945-1955) of Juan Peron, and a 100-minute sequel on the post-Peron period (1955 to the present), titled “The Resistance”; and, finally, a third section, shorter than the others (only 45 minutes), titled, like the first, “Violence and Liberation.”
The first section of the film consists of 13 “Notes on Neocolonialism” in which are presented various aspects (historical, geographical, social, economic, political, cultural, etc.) of Argentina and the way the world looks to an Argentine. Blessed with a relative abundance of natural resources, Argentina, we are reminded, has always attracted a great many immigrants from Europe, and has often been called “the great melting pot” of South America. With indigenous Indians numbering only 60,000, and mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent) accounting for only 10% of the population, Argentina, more than any other Latin American country, is overwhelmingly composed of white European immigrants. In addition to the Spanish, Argentina also has an enormous population of people of Italian and German descent, as well as significant numbers of immigrants from other European countries and Great Britain.
Moreover, far from it’s being the case that political independence from Spain (in 1816), brought any real economic independence to Argentina, on the contrary, this merely threw the country into the waiting arms of the British imperialists, who gobbled up huge chunks of Argentine land (as well as huge chunks of Argentine beef-the supply of which they monopolized); they built, owned, and operated Argentina’s entire railway system; and they quickly assumed indirect control of Argentina’s national economy.
Finally, add to this already complicated “melting pot” phenomenon the leaden weight of American economic imperialism in the twentieth century, and one can begin to understand why, as the film emphasizes, the ordinary Argentine has little sense of national identity and has a way of looking at the world that is not really his own, but rather is – and always has been – a worldview imposed on him by whichever colonial or neocolonial power happened to have Argentina in its clutches. And for the Argentine masses of workers and peasants, it hasn’t really mattered who was calling the shots in Argentina, for the shots-live bullets-have always been aimed at their heads, as one ruling class after another resorted to violence and repression to keep the masses in their place and protect the power and privilege of the exploiting class. In short, as the French say, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”: whether the ruling class in Argentina was Spanish colonialist, British or American neocolonialist, or simply local bourgeois oligarchy, the experience of the Argentine masses has always been the experience of violence and repression.
The film gives a rundown of the myriad forms in which violence manifests itself in Argentina-the omnipresent police; the brutal repression of strikes; the innumerable military coups; the feudalism of the great latifundia; the oligarchies in industry and commerce (5% of Argentina’s population “earns” 42% of the national revenue); the neocolonialism that perpetuates economic dependence (America owns 50% of Argentina’s giant meat-packing industry, England owns 20%) the neoracism that goes hand-in-hand with neocolonialism; the Pentagon-trained and financed “anti-insurrectionist force” which literally occupies certain parts of the country; and, last but not least, the cultural violence carried out systematically by the communications media, controlled by the local bourgeoisie, which imposes the consumer-ideology of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America on the illiterate and impoverished masses of Latin America.
Again and again in the film examples are given of the way in which aesthetic attitudes are geared to mirror the capitalist ideology of the imperialist ruling classes. European styles in painting, in literature, in film, in fashions; British and American styles in popular music and creature comfort: the only models of behavior held up to the Argentine masses are the models offered “for sale” by the neocolonialists. Ideologically, the masses are inculcated with the cultural values that lead them to desire the very things which serve to perpetuate their state of dependence, neocolonization, and exploitation.
But while showing Argentine neocolonialism for what it is, Solanas also presents an alternative-revolutionary struggle. And precisely because neocolonialism – unlike direct colonial rule by a single “mother country” – is such an amorphous, many-headed monster, the revolutionary struggle has to be waged not against a foreign aggressor, but rather on class terms against the Argentine bourgeois ruling class and the capitalist system and ideology* which, regardless of what particular national or ethnic group is in control at a given moment, perpetuate the exploitation and repression of the proletarian masses of Argentina. The struggle, then, is a class struggle for a socialist revolution in Argentina.
Intensely lyrical in its presentation, this first section of La Hora de los Hornos is a rather flamboyant but impressive exercise in montage, in which the viewer’s emotions are manipulated quite sophisticatedly by the rhythmic cutting. Again and again, serving as a counterpoint to the neocolonialist reality in Argentina, short powerful quotations from Frantz Fanon force their way onto the screen as if hammered out, letter by letter, by some invisible typewriter, literally chasing from the screen the images of imperialism and proclaiming the urgent need for revolutionary struggle. Other quotations from various Third World sources (Fidel, Mao, the North Vietnamese, and numerous Latin American revolutionaries) serve to punctuate the various “notes on neocolonialism” and to call for liberation movements to spring up everywhere that imperialism rears its ugly head.
In one sequence, Solanas’s slick montage juxtaposes flashy zooms on a long-haired Argentine hippy playing a rock song on his guitar and singing in American slang (an image, which, in this context, demonstrates that even the models of “protest” and “dissent” in Argentina are models provided by the imperialists) with austere, grainy documentary footage (shot by Joris Ivens) depicting the day-to-day struggle, determination, and dignity of the North Vietnamese people, whose response to western imperialism has been the courageous taking-up of arms. And, finally, the revolutionary example closest to home and closest to the hearts of the Latin American people-Castro’s Cuba-makes its entry on the screen of history and jolts the viewer with an emotionally stirring and at the same time reflection-provoking shot-held for a five full minutes-of the body of Che Guevara, whose electrifying presence, even when dead, is the clearest and strongest reminder that “the task of the revolutionary is to make the revolution.”
This review was originally published in Cineaste in 1970.