Wednesday, 16 May 2007
The International Incomprehensibility of Brad Pitt
Owen Powell - 16th May 2007
Valeria works for the BBC World Service. She’s in the Latin American department, researching, writing, presenting and editing documentary radio programmes and video for the web. Broadly speaking, she’s a journalist. She has a degree in journalism, two Masters, and is half-way through a PhD. I look down at my notebook, and can hardly read my handwriting from yesterday’s interview. I’m not a journalist. But for the next hour or so, I’m going to give it a go.
Valeria grew up in Buenos Aires, attending a bilingual ‘private’ school that taught English from the age of five. After school and University she then took a foundation course in Art, before seeming to settle down with a job and boyfriend. But the urge for new experiences was too strong, and so Valeria uprooted completely – after applying to do a Masters in Anthropology of Art at UCL, she received a scholarship, arrived in London and within two weeks was sitting in her first seminar. At the memory of it, she laughs. “I remember the title of it exactly. It was called ‘How would the internet de-fetishise the commodities?’ and I didn’t understand a word of it. It was traumatising, as I thought my English was quite good. The next day, I was in Leicester Square and it was raining like hell so I went into a cinema. It was this British film, Snatch? You know it?” I nod. “So, I’m sitting there all on my own in the dark, and Brad Pitt comes on the screen and everyone else in the cinema is laughing and laughing and again I couldn’t understand a word. The next day, I went to a travel agent to see how easy it would be to book a ticket home.”
Fortunately, Valeria decided against leaving so abruptly (and later discovered, of course, that Brad Pitt being deliberately incomprehensible was why everyone was laughing). Even the academic English became more understandable, and she began to enjoy herself, meeting a lot of other overseas students. In fact, only three out of the fifteen people on her course were English, and it was quite hard to get involved in their already-established London social life. Even now, working with other Latin Americans at the BBC, Valeria says it’s hard to meet English people.
It was while she was at UCL that an Argentinean friend working for the World Service told her about a part time position there, and convinced her to apply (even though she didn't want to). She got the job, and was soon doing it alongside her second Masters, this time in Theatre at Goldsmith’s. “Goldsmith’s was less ... solid than UCL, but more inspiring,” she says. “All my close friends in London, apart from work friends, are from my time at Goldsmith’s. Every time I study something new, I try to feed it into my work. I always try to make programmes about art and culture. For one and a half years, I made a music programme, going to gigs and interviewing musicians. I have done many interviews in bars at 3am.”
And now there is even more cultural study to feed into Valeria’s work, as she’s busy doing an Anthropology PhD on the Transnational Consumption of Argentine Film. I think it’s fair to say that by now, Valeria has a handle on academic English. As the staff at Caffe Nero make ‘we’re-closing-now’ movements with chairs and tables, she gives me a quick-fire history of Argentine Cinema. In the 60s and 70s, Argentinean directors worked from a leftist perspective, making strongly political films that reached beyond national boundaries. Then, with the 1976 coup and dictatorship until 1983, came the decline. Lots of artists ‘disappeared’, lots went into exile, and film went mainstream, aping Hollywood. Through the 80s and into the early 90s, all that got produced was, in Valeria’s phrase, “bad movies, naked women, really shitty stuff.” But then a new law was passed in the late 90s, allowing film makers to get subsidies, film schools were set up, and a new generation of directors emerged. The New Argentine Cinema, as it’s called, isn’t quite a return to the overly political films of the 70s as it concentrates on more personal, subtle and observational stories. However, as it can’t help dealing with issues of real life – jobs, families, the economy – it is seen by many as ‘intellectual’ film-making, so is only popular with a small section of the movie-going public. Many Argentineans, according to Valeria, make a deliberate decision NOT to see Argentinean film.
(We’re kicked out of the coffee-shop at 8pm – “one of the things I hate about London,” says Valeria, “that nowhere stays open until late, if you just want a chat”. We go to a bar down the road to carry on).
As part of the research for her PhD, Valeria spent a year on sabbatical from the BBC, travelling round Argentina with her (new, English) boyfriend, who was doing some research of his own into the environment and the privatisation of electricity in South America. Aside from this recent extended trip, she has tried to return to Argentina for at least five weeks every year. One of her earliest trips home came nine months after the big financial crisis that hit Argentina in late 2001. Valeria said it was strange to have experienced this from a distance, trying to follow the news from the other side of the world, and when she returned it was often the things she didn’t expect to have changed that had changed the most. But in some ways, the distance also gives her more perspective. On recent trips home, she was glad to see that the mood of the people was better, but she is concerned that without planning for the future the crises will become cyclical. “I’m more aware of the things I dislike about Argentinean culture, as well,” she notes. "It's a rather homogenous society, not very diverse, and some people are concerned only with appearances. There are also conservative expectations of family, of marriage and children. I always knew that I wanted more than that. When I was doing my BA, I knew that I wanted to spend at least one year studying abroad, and I have decided to stay here not so much because of my job, but because of the opportunities to continue studying. The UK is more stable, so you have more mental freedoms here – you can quit jobs to do other things, have gap years – this is all unheard of in Argentina where if you have a job, you hang onto it at all costs.”
It was while she was with her privatisation-researching boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) that she got to experience “a bit of middle-class English life. It’s so different to Latin America. He lived one hour from his parents, and sometimes didn’t see them for three months. We did spend Christmas with them, though. It was very strange for me – wearing these absurd paper crowns, going for walks and eating turkey. In Argentina, we’re in the swimming pool until nine in the evening, although we do keep Spanish and Italian customs, so we eat winter foods like panatone.”
Like her fellow Latin Americans, Silvana and Paola, Valeria is on the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, and is looking to apply for citizenship next year. “Until then, every time I move house I have to tell the police. They changed the name recently, but it used to be known as the Aliens’ Register.” When I ask her if she feels like a Londoner, she agrees that she does. “I feel connected to the city. I like to think that I use the city a lot, I go to the theatre, to exhibitions, to events. I will never say that the size of London is a reason not to see people, I am happy to sit on the tube for 90 minutes to visit a friend. I miss Buenos Aires, but I feel like I have two homes now.”