Two years after its celebrated release in German and Japanese cinemas, Arne Birkenstock‘s documentary feature “12 Tangos – Adios Buenos Aires” has been finally released for the international audiences in a DVD-edition with a Spanish, German and an English versions and many extras on it. The film is directly distributed via its website www.12tangos.com. This novel approach to film distribution deserves praise for leading the way into new forms of bringing art film to the masses bypassing the profit centers of corporate conglomerates. Through a very aggressive direct email approach requesting help in promoting the documentary the director and producer asked, among other things, for articles and critical reviews.
The film tracks the personal tribulations of two families as they deal with the 2001 economic crisis and the perils of emigration. Daily life scenes acted out by the people in question are interlaced with dance and music scenes filmed at a dance venue called “La Catedral” where an orchestra featuring Jose Libertella, Luis Borda and Pablo Mainetti provide the dozen tangos that serve as bookmarks for the documentary . Singers Lidia Borda, Jorge Sobral and Maria de la Fuente provide some of the best musical moments of film, which includes some of the last moving images taken as well from Jose Libertella and Jorge Sobral.
My expectations were high. The kind of expectations you get when invited to dine at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen. In paper, 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires promised to be a great documentary. It does have superb photography, the music is very good showing that being modern doesn’t mean straying from the roots. But the main course was just way off the expected culinary feat.
The late Roberto Tonet, a.k.a. El aleman plays a veteran show dancer turned teacher of a young girl preparing to emigrate to France. Along the way Tonet is shown talking to the camera while sucking mate through a silver metal straw. His personal loss of his retirement savings during the 2001 financial crisis is his main story line. He’s also cast as a sort of Jack La Lane, wondering out loud in a lesson on tango fitness if today’s young dancers can twist their bodies and touch the ground with one knee. Yes, they can.
The pitfall of trying to tackle politics in a foreign country is acting foolishly and sounding foreigner. Resorting to outdated cliches is a turn off, and focusing on a handful of stereotypes out of millions inhabitants provides a sappy interlude to a dozen musical video clips.
Mr. Birkenstock lost me the first time the voice over narrator said, “You can find the history of Buenos Aires in the telephone book.” Whatever point he wanted to get across is still a mystery to me, but that didn’t stop him from having the phrase repeated several times during the film. Those who’ll be watching and thinking they are being educated in the socioeconomic strata of Argentine society be aware, immigrants didn’t invent the tango.
The film leaves the impression that Buenos Aires is a collage of shanty towns with elementary school kids well versed in economics. The choreographed milonga setting is fake with music that is never heard at a real milonga. Argentinos have emigrated in masses at various periods in the history of the country, for political and social reasons but never because they have Italians grandparents. And those who stay, thanks God, don’t all dance the tango.
Even in times of crisis, Buenos Aires is an amazing city vibrant and alive with incredible architecture and enormous amount of cultural activities available to everyone at no charge. The people of Buenos Aires don’t consider teaching tango to be a job and those who have a college degree in classical or modern dance have only moved into the tango after the city government took over the business of tango for export.
Realizing that most people wouldn’t understand the disappointment of being served Popeye‘s chicken tenders at Commander’s Palace‘s kitchen, let me say that 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires is a narrow look at a period of real crisis that uses as a background to good musical numbers the sappy story of an obscure tango dancer’s ordeal trying to emigrate to Paris, the non related story of a mother who leaves her whole family behind to go work as a domestic in Spain, and the sad circumstances of Roberto Tonet, having lost his life savings and his home, passing shortly after the film was released. The voice over and the subtitles have softened the stereotypes voiced by the characters in the original language.
Get a copy of 12 Tangos, Adios Buenos Aires and enjoy the music segments, even if you at first don’t get the historical relevance of Maria de la Fuente and Jorge Sobral and the significance of seeing Jose Libertella squeezing and stretching the bellows of his bandoneon. If you can resist the temptation to stereotype Argentines or go off the mouth repeating “tango history factoids” from this film, the tango and those in the stands will thank you.