Q&A: Director Alison Murray, Caprichosos de San Telmo

A chat with the Canadian filmmaker about her latest documentary, which delves into the magnetic and acrobatic Argentine street dance called murga.
The documentary Caprichosos de San Telmo delves into the little-known world of murga, the Argentine street dance of African origin that unites and uplifts the ghettos of Buenos Aires. (TIFF)

With its magnetic, driving percussion, high-kicking, acrobatic movements and fascinating history, the Argentine street dance murga captivated Canadian filmmaker Alison Murray, who chronicles the little-known art form in her latest documentary, Caprichosos de San Telmo.

A dancer, choreographer and film director who divides her time between Toronto and Buenos Aires, the Nova Scotia-born Murray paints a vivid and poignant picture of how murga – which originated with Argentina’s African slave population – galvanizes and elevates the predominantly working-class performers beyond their hardscrabble lives.

Murray spoke with CBC News on Friday in Toronto, where Caprichosos de San Telmo debuted as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Q: How did you discover murga and Caprichosos de San Telmo, the troupe you follow?

A: About two-and-a-half years ago, my husband and I were pushing a stroller with my then six-month-old daughter, who wouldn’t stop crying. We were just trying to get her to go to sleep. We heard this drumming and, as we got closer to the drumming, she fell asleep.

As we got closer to these drums and they got louder and louder — it’s really hard to capture the loudness in the film — there they were, in the park just around the corner from our house in San Telmo. I had never seen murga before. I had no idea what it was, the origins. It was fascinating to me because it looked so African, but there were no African faces in the group. I thought it was really interesting and a little bit strange. I started asking around and learned a little bit more about the history. It just seemed like a great topic for a film.

Q: How did the troupe react to you wanting to make a documentary about them? You get quite personal: going to their homes, their workplaces.

A: Nobody said no. In fact everybody was quite open about actually wanting to be filmed. This has been my experience in the other documentaries I’ve made as well. Sometimes people feel validated by having someone interested in their life, particularly if they’re part of a more marginalized group in society. Most of these guys [performing] murga are pretty poor. They don’t have many privileges in life, so the fact that a filmmaker from another country wanted to film them, they liked that. They felt good about it.

Q: Have they seen the film?

A: The rough-cut screening was crazy. It was packed. We did it in Cinema University in Buenos Aires, which is also in San Telmo. Five or 10 minute before, they called and said ‘We’re bringing the drums. We’re [going to] drum.’ I had to say ‘Well, no. I don’t think the university wants full-on murga going on inside their building.’ So they couldn’t do that, but they responded really well to the film. There were tears, there was shouting and laughing. I think they were surprised at how long it was and how in-depth it was… I don’t think they realized the scope of what I was trying to do.

Q: What’s the wider Argentine perception of Murga? In one scene, a co-worker of a dancer talks about it somewhat condescendingly.

Filmmaker Alison Murray speaks at the City To City press conference during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. (Leonard Adam/WireImage/TIFF)

A: I’m glad that that came across. I wasn’t sure if, in the translation, you’d get that. Her tone of voice – even in another language – is so obviously patronizing and condescending. That is really the attitude of the middle classes and the bourgeois towards murga. It’s really seen as something dirty, done by poor, dark people.

There are racist undertones to their attitudes because of the origins of the dance [with African slaves]. I came up against them, in relation to the festival [in Toronto], because I wanted to bring [the dancers to TIFF]. I applied to various cultural offices in Buenos Aires for government money to bring them and had doors almost closed in my face when they heard it was about murga.

I think if people actually saw the film, maybe it would break down some of their prejudices and make them realize that it can be something very positive and it is a beautiful art form that they should be proud to have represent their country.

Q: Can you tell me about the symbolism behind each performer’s personalization of their glossy and carnivalesque costumes?

A: It’s a way that each individual member of the group can express themselves, in terms of things that they identify with. Some of them have Bart Simpson on there, but then someone else will have Che Guevara…Or something more personal, like [troupe leader] Pichi, who wears the name of his niece who was killed in a car accident. I guess it’s kind of like identity badges that run the gamut from […] pop culture through to the very political or personal."

Q: At different instances, the film shifts into a colour-saturated look. Why?

A: That was actually an idea that came from Roland Schlimme, the editor, to highlight important moments in the film and to try and get a little more expressive and represent how [the dancers] feel, how they see themselves in the group – to make it different from reality. There’s this element of transformation that takes place for them when they’re participating in murga. So to try and separate everyday life from those moments – when they feel transformed – we transformed the visual image to reflect that.

Q: The struggles your subjects face in their daily lives set against the sheer joy and energy they show when they’re performing is a powerful juxtaposition: I’m thinking, for instance, of the dancer Sergio. How did that emerge?

Murga dancers practice in a park in the San Telmo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. (Kathleen Smith)

A: He’s a funny mix: he’s a kind of a joker but he’s shy as well… He agreed to take me to where he lives in Constitución. Argentines have said to me "You did things that Argentines wouldn’t do. We’d be too embarrassed to ask to go to a rooming house in Constitución because it would feel like an acknowledgement of somebody’s poverty and almost an embarrassment to make them show where they’re living. I didn’t know any of that.

When I first started filming him, he said ‘I got this new job. We’re going to move out of the hotel’ and I thought ‘Great! This will be part of the film’… But, then it just never happens.

It’s that lack of change that makes his story. What was so inspiring to me about him and his wife was how positive they remained in the face of this real, extreme poverty. I don’t know if there were weeks when they didn’t have enough to eat. They would just laugh about it. He sings a little song at the end [of the film] —‘This is the story of the three paupers of San Telmo’—and he has that ability to see his situation from the outside… It’s really something to aspire to: to have that perseverance and to have a sense of humour about whatever life is throwing at you.

Q: What impression do you want to leave with audiences?

A: The most important themes of the film are to do with community, with happiness, with where we find happiness and what we need to be happy in life and what makes [someone] a star or a hero. When these people are in costume and they’re performing, they’re stars. They’re heroes in their community because of what they do with murga. That’s something really great. That goes a long way towards revitalizing this neighbourhood, in particular, where they live. It really keeps them together.

After TIFF, Murray will return to Buenos Aires to screen the final cut of Caprichosos de San Telmo for the troupe. The film’s producers are pursuing broadcast opportunities in several countries, as well as potential inclusion in the 2012 Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival.