Every year the Modern Language Association awards the Katherine Singer Kovacs Prize for a book published in the field of Latin American and Spanish literatures and cultures. Last month Paul A. Schroeder Rodríguez earned an honorable mention for his book Latin American Cinema: A Comparative History (University of California Press). The awards committee called it “a tour de force that explores the cultural, economic, and artistic evolution of Latin American cinema,” and “a timely and excellent contribution to the field, demonstrating breadth and a deep knowledge of the medium’s social and cultural contexts.” A professor of Spanish, he arrived at Amherst last year. This semester, he’s teaching the courses “Puerto Rico: Diaspora Nation” and “Towards a Latin American Poetics of Liberation.”
I wrote my first book on Cuba’s most important filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and for my next project I was working on a history of Cuban cinema. However, a new book came out arguing in favor of a regional perspective to the history of Latin American cinema, and the argument made so much sense to me that I decided to stop writing a history of Cuban cinema, and instead write a history of Latin American cinema.
What’s an example of something you learned that scholars had not already learned from looking at one country at a time?
It’s widely known that neorealism started in Italy and spread quickly in Latin America. But all the studies were about, “How is Cuban cinema in dialogue with Italian neorealism cinema?,” Or, “How is this Argentinian director in dialogue with that Italian director?” Nobody was looking at, “How is this Argentinian neorealist filmmaker in dialogue with a Cuban neorealist filmmaker who is in dialogue with a Mexican neorealist filmmaker?” From this perspective, we can speak of a Latin American neorealist cinema of the 1950s, in addition to national movements.
Sticking with that example, how does this deepen the scholarly understanding?
It shows that filmmakers are constantly looking beyond their own national borders, and so the idea of national cultures is not so much called into question as it is placed in a broader context. Now, whenever I watch an Argentinian neorealist film, I see it as a specific manifestation of a global movement. And these are not just artistic movements: The best filmmakers are keen intellectuals as well as artists, which means they use the medium of film not only to tell a good story but also to engage in contemporary cultural and political debates.
Can you think of a film that illustrates that?
Yes, the 1968 Cuban film Lucia. At the time, Cubans wanted to break free from U.S. cultural imperialism, and looked elsewhere for political, economic and cultural models. Many found inspiration in the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s, who, among other things, developed the first composite films, or films made up of more than one part. The fact that Lucia is a triptych is therefore not accidental, especially when we consider that each part focuses on a female protagonist from a different social class: a 19th-century aristocrat in the first part, a 1930s petit bourgeois in the second part and a rural worker after the Cuban Revolution in the third part. Taken as a whole, then, the film proposes a Marxist reading of Cuban history that culminates with the Cuban Revolution.
What was your reaction to learning you had won this honorable mention?
I was very happy. They told me, You cannot tell anybody except your family and friends. I immediately called my wife, and then I called my mother and my brothers and sisters. I had to wait two months to be able to tell other people.
Were you surprised to win?
Yes, because there really are no prizes specific to Latin American film studies. I sent the book to the Modern Language Association because I’m trained as a literary scholar and they have a prize for Latin American and Spanish literary and cultural studies. I sent it to see what would happen, and I’m glad I did.
Your book focuses on fictional narratives rather than documentaries. How come?
Fictional narrative films have a stronger hold on our collective imagination than documentary films, and because of that, they serve as excellent case studies for a cultural history of Latin America in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Does the research you did for this book play into your teaching?
I came to Amherst with a lot of experience teaching survey courses. But here, students are much more interested in delving deeply into a topic, so I have had to adjust my pedagogy. For example, last semester I taught a course on Latin American documentary. I spent the first four weeks discussing films that I chose and a few more weeks talking about theoretical issues, so students could intelligently talk about films. And then, the rest of the semester we studied documentaries that the students themselves chose based on their own interests.
What’s your next project?
I’m toying with different ideas, and also teaching different courses to see how I feel with different possibilities. One idea is to do a companion book focused on documentary cinema. Another is to focus on the Baroque period in Latin America. (I taught a class last year on the Baroque roots of Latin American culture.) And the third idea is to do audiovisual academic research. This is a form of film studies, but instead of using words, one uses editing software to create video essays.
Is there anything I've left out that you think our readers should know?
I’m from Puerto Rico, and I was in high school when cable TV arrived. Before that, you had three channels, and they all showed old movies as part of their regular schedule—movies from the U.S., Europe and Latin America. And so I’ve been watching films from Latin America since I was a kid. Writing this study brought back memories that I didn’t know I had, especially those associated with watching Mexican films of the 1940s and ’50s. These are films that I had enjoyed viscerally as a child, and it’s been satisfying to now revisit them as cultural artifacts from a critical perspective. In a way, I’ve gotten to know myself better.
Do you have family in Puerto Rico now?
I do. They're all fine. [After the hurricane] it was 10 days before we finally heard from my mom, and as soon as we heard from her we said, “We’re going to buy you a ticket to come here.” She visited me for three weeks and now she’s with my brothers and sisters in Arizona.