In the years after World War II, American cinema saw an influx of directors from every corner of the world—Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and the Swiss-French New Wave filmmaker Jean Luc-Godard, to name a few. Latin American directors and their films, however, have had a slower start making their way to Hollywood. Until 2000, they were rarely heard of outside of their country of origin. That has certainly changed. Today, the region’s directors are winning top awards at international film festivals, making millions at the box office, and are being courted by Hollywood. In February this year, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu won four Academy Awards for his film Birdman, and last year his compatriot Alfonso Cuarón won seven Oscars for Gravity.

The first stirrings of the change began in 2000, with González Iñárritu’s Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch) and Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles and his 2002 film, Cidade de Deus (City of God). But the tipping point came in 2007, when the “three amigos”—González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro—had 16 Oscar nominations between them, for Babel, Children of Men, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

In part, the change came from within the industry. With their novel “slick grit” style, the films have been able to capture new audiences. The style combines slick editing and camerawork with gritty, politically inflected themes, a nod to the 1960s and 1970s era of New Latin American cinema, which focused on telling the stories of the world’s dispossessed. The “New” New Latin American film also involves a fresh take on acting. The actors of City of God were amateurs who grew up on the rough streets of Rio de Janeiro, where the film is set. They were taught to act over a year. Likewise, Gael García Bernal, perhaps best known for portraying Ché Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, was a virtual unknown when he first starred in Amores perros. And unlike the heroes of Latin American films of the 1990s, who were middle-aged, the protagonists of these new films were young. This new cinematic form also made a clean break from films of the previous decade, which were set in recognizably allegorical national spaces. Instead, they were staged in l’espace quelconque (“any-space-whatsoever”), a notion popularized by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. This technique brought a global flavor to the films since the nonspecific urban environment could belong to any city.

With their novel “slick grit” style, the films have been able to capture new audiences. The style combines slick editing and camerawork with gritty, politically inflected themes, a nod to the 1960s and 1970s era of New Latin American cinema, which focused on telling the stories of the world’s dispossessed.

Latin American film directors also began to explore the market potential of filming in English, such as with González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, Meirelles’s Blindness, Cuarón’s Children of Men, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. English-language movies travel the globe more easily, and can incorporate the added pull of Hollywood stars, such as Sean Penn, in 21 Grams, and Kate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, in Babel.

One additional new feature of the twenty-first century filmmaking involved funding: private rather than state. State funding stymied innovation; the old guard froze out younger directors, and the state’s comprehensive funding meant that directors felt no need to appeal to mass audiences, producing art-house cinema they hoped would win prestigious prizes at film festivals in Europe. González Iñárritu summed up the new approach by explaining how he detested “government-financed movie-making that seems to operate by the maxim: If nobody understands or nobody goes to see a movie, that it must mean it’s a masterpiece.”

But one ingredient that has been undervalued is the role of technology. It is no mere coincidence that the renaissance of Latin American cinema coincided with the advent of digital technology. Although the first recorded attempt at building a digital camera took place in 1975 (Steven Sasson, an American electrical engineer at Eastman Kodak, was behind the invention), it was only in 1998 that the first digital film was released (The Idiots, directed by Lars von Trier). The advantages of digital film—the drastically reduced costs of equipment and film, the portability of the cameras, the camera sensor’s automatic response to light, the ability to immediately view scenes captured on set, as well as the flexibility of digital post-production—led many film directors to turn away from the 35mm. camera to digital, from James Cameron’s Avatar to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Latin America has not been immune to this industry evolution. In 2010, Argentinian director Juan José Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, was completely digitally shot and edited. Cheaper production opened the Latin American film industry up to a generation of younger directors who would not otherwise have had access to the capital needed to make a feature. These newer voices spoke to, and also created, new audiences for Latin American cinema.

There is even a growing tide of scholarly opinion that sees the digital move as part of a larger paradigm shift in human vision and cognition. British scholar William Brown, for example, argues in his book Supercinema that the lack of cuts in digital film leads to the mind’s perception of time and space as a continuum rather than as a package of discrete moments. Clearly there is evidence of this type of phenomenological experimentation in twenty-first-century Latin American film. In City of God, cinematographer César Charlone experimented with space by using 16mm., 35mm., and digital cameras. In fact, the crew filmed in analog but digitized the footage and edited it digitally. The addition of new digital special effects, such as the swiveling 360-degree shot and color-coding scenes to indicate different time periods, enthralled audiences around the world. Then there is the stunning travelling, circular panning shot of the ambient buildingscape in Carlos Reygada’s 2005 Batalla en el cielo, when the protagonists, Marcos and Ana, make love. Two years later, Reygada used the digital bokeh effect to enhance a kissing scene in Silent Light. The two long digital takes that open Gravity (2013) combine to provide an unprecedentedly “real” sense of weightlessness in space and the third shot in Birdman, which is a staggering one hour, 37 minutes, and nine seconds long, gives an impression of living, breathing time—a viewer feels thrust into the center of the action.

Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron, September 12, 2015.
Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

It is intriguing to note that whereas Hollywood cinema has, over time, been reducing the average length of shots in its films, Latin American cinema has been making them longer. From 1989 until 2007, an average shot lasted between 4.08 and 6.32 seconds, but the average length of a shot in Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too), for example, is 18.75 seconds. The 2006 film Hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock) pushed the boundaries even more with an average shot of 123.04 seconds. In Gravity, it is 26 seconds and Birdman is 423.73 seconds. Although these trends are difficult to quantify—since there is much less data on Latin American film than U.S. film—these isolated examples point to a paradigm shift in Latin American film that merits greater scrutiny.

I decided to test out the implications of this paradigm shift scientifically. In October, I teamed up with Jeremy Skipper of University College of London’s Centre for NeuroImaging to conduct an fMRI scan of my brain while watching Gravity. We are building upon the work of psychologist Uri Hasson who has conducted fMRI brain scans on people as they watch portions of films or television shows. He describes this field of study as “neurocinematics” and has shown, for example, how the brain is stimulated by a well-crafted feature. Viewing a segement of the television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, activated 65 percent of the brain’s cortex as opposed to close to zero when viewing footage of people strolling through Washington Square Park. Hasson explains:

The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions, turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuroscientific evidence for his notoriously famous ability to master and manipulate viewers’ minds. Hitchcock often liked to tell interviewers that for him “creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions.”

As for the scan of Gravity, our preliminary analysis of the moment-to-moment data suggests that the film also triggered extended engagement of two areas of the brain: the parts involved in spatial processing (which are activated more intensely during the long digital takes) and regions often associated with social and emotional processing. The film’s balance between phenomenological presence and emotional realism could be part of the reason for its success at the box office—and, indeed, is a combination that continues to fuel the rise of its genre and Latin American cinema itself.

Whether or not Hollywood has caught onto this new style of Latin American filmmaking is not clear. But Latin American directors are certainly rewriting the industry’s very grammar and syntax. The very long digital shot, in particular, may still be considered pioneering and controversial today—some love it, others hate it—but it will, no doubt, eventually become an established technique in filmmaking.

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  • STEPHEN M. HART is Professor of Latin American Film, Literature, and Culture at  University College London, and author of Latin American Cinema (Reaktion Books).
  • More By Stephen M. Hart