Comedies represent a challenge for festivals such as ¡Viva!, since they often rely on audience knowledge of culture and especially language. Most problematic of all are ‘mockumentaries’, attempts to ‘play’ with the conventions of certain kinds of documentary practice. La estrella roja goes one step further, operating within the history and mythology of a specific Argentinian community and its involvement in major political events of the 20th century, still highly sensitive for some.
I’m not generally a fan of mockumentaries so I don’t want to pass judgement here. I’ll stick to a detached observation. In some ways this film might be seen as riffing on the recent cycle of documentary films about female figures seemingly not properly represented in histories. In such documentaries we expect newsreel footage, possibly home movies and interviews with relatives, friends and biographers who offer ‘witness statements’ about what they remember or what they have discovered through research. We may well have a ‘narrativised’ investigation by the documentarist so that we experience the thrill of finding the evidence and making the links.
The subject here is Laila Salama, a woman from the Jewish community in Argentina, who mysteriously disappeared in 1934 as a teenage girl during the Purim festival when she was expected to be crowned as the festival queen. Thereafter she became a spy, reporting on Nazi activity in Argentina and joining a British intelligence group. Active throughout the wartime period in Europe she is later said to have been involved in the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, working with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After that she disappears from view. But she has a place in Argentinian mythology with a tango and a song named after her – as ‘La estrella roja’.
All of the expected ingredients are here with the film’s director Gabriel Lichtmann played by the actor Héctor Díaz. Most of the other characters are also played by actors, some of whom are well-known in Argentina. There is a strong narrative drive and a climactic moment to the research/investigation. The whole film lasts not much more than 70 minutes and a great deal of care has gone into the presentation. I was surprised by the statistics about the Jewish community in Argentina. There are currently around 300,000 in the Jewish diaspora in Argentina and they must be the most likely audience for the film. Of course, the history of the Holocaust is a much more widely known and the filmmakers must hope this will encourage sales. The numbers were higher still during the 1940s (before migration to Israel) and there were also significant numbers in the wider German diaspora in Argentina who were Nazi sympathisers. The film also makes a link to Wakolda (Argentina 2013) a fiction film based on the activities of pro-Nazi Argentinians around 1960 when Eichmann was captured – its central character is a 12 year-old girl. I don’t know whether La estrella roja will prove controversial because of its take on the historical events but so far it seems to have been well-received. There is often said to be a distinctive style of Jewish humour and perhaps this film is an example of such humour? The film screenss again at HOME on Saturday 2nd April. It is accompanied by a complementary short film Los conspiradores (Spain 2021).