In Memoriam: Fernando Birri


Influential Argentine filmmaker and theorist Fernando Birri died today of a heart attack at the age of 92 in Rome, Italy, where he lived. A pioneer of modern Argentine and Latin American documentary cinema, he was the founder of the Documentary School of Santa Fe, which played a key role in the emergence of the New Latin American cinema of the late sixties and seventies; as well as one of the founders and first director of the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de Los Baños, Cuba in the mid eighties. 

Born in on March 13, 1925 in Santa Fe, Argentina, he studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, between 1950 and 1953. In 1956 he returned to his country and created the Film Institute at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral. He made his directorial debut with the short film called La primera fundación de Buenos Aires, which premiered in the official competition at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and was followed by Buenos Días, Buenos Aires in 1960.

That same year he directed the 33-minute documentary film Tire dié / Toss Me a Dime, a harrowing portrait of impoverished children in Santa Fe who wait daily for the passing train to ask for money from the passengers, shouting “Tire dié!” (toss me a dime!). The film became a landmark for Argentine and Latin American documentary cinema.

His fiction debut Los inundados / Flooded Out, was awarded for Best First Film at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. Using neorealist elements working with non-professional actors, shooting on location, and a focus on the ordinary man, the film tells the story people who are flooded from their homes. 

Birris' 1962 Manifesto of Santa Fe concluded that the social documentary's revolutionary function in Latin America demanded filmmakers to "put [themselves] before reality with a camera and document it, document the underdevelopment."

Other titles in Birri's filmography include La pampa gringa (1963), Org (1979), Mi hijo el Che (1985), A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings / Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes  (1988), Che, ¿muerte de una utopía? (1997), El siglo del viento (1999) and Fausto Criollo (2011). In 1986 Birri co-founded the International School of Film and Television), in San Antonio de Los Baños, Cuba, and was the school's first director. He was a visiting professor at Tufts University in the fall of 2009.

Birri also participated as actor in some film productions in Italy and Argentina, including Patricio Guzmán's 1983 La rosa de los vientos, and playing the leading role in Eliseo Subiela's 2012 Vanishing Landscapes / Paisajes devorados.