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Tire Dié (1958) is a documentary short film that follows the everyday lives of the poor children living in a shantytown neighborhood in Santa Fe. Without school or proper government resources, the main focus of their lives is waiting for the local train to come by so they can ask passengers to “Tire Dié” (toss me a dime).
In my last blog post about El Megano, I told the story of two great Cuban filmmakers who went to Italy to learn the art of filmmaking and came back to their country to deliver an important political message. In Argentina, Fernando Birri took the same journey. From 1950 to 1953, he studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and returned to his native Santa Fe to make a neorealist-inspired documentary that would be known as the continent’s first survey film. A response to the turbulent times the citizens of Argentina were forced to live under, the late 1950s was a transitional period in Argentine politics that put the shantytown dwellers of the country under the microscope.
Starting in 1955, the country saw a chaotic transfer of power when longtime leader, Juan Peron, was deposed in a coup. Perón was democratically elected in 1945 and 1952 with deep support coming from the working class population. His administration enhanced workers’ rights and provided more social benefits for them. He restricted international investment, foreign influence, and free trade and believed in centralizing the government and in doing so expanding public employment. One of the major pillars of his administration was housing which he considered to be a right. Still, his efforts couldn’t compete with the mass urbanization and migration which created many shantytowns. And in his ten years in office, Perón had gained many enemies from the left and the right. Landowners feared his calls for worker mobilization and many leftists felt he still clung to the status quo and was becoming a frightening demagogue.
For this politically diverse coalition that did not have anything in common except for their hatred of Peron, housing would also become their target issue. The dictatorship which ensued, self-styled Revolucion Libertadora (RL) put together the Plan de Emergencia (PE) to deal with the problem of shantytowns and also show that they were the opposite of Peron. This all-encompassing anti-Perón but pro-nothing stance left a lot of room for errors and contradictions. They took their inspiration from US ideas on urban planning that were introduced at the Inter-American Conference of 1954 in Caracas. The US government used this meeting to promote itself as a leader in the continent’s social issues and displace European influence on Latin America. From this, the PE decided that eradicating shantytowns by fully evicting residents and re-accommodating them would be the best option. Though as talks continued, the responsibility to re-accommodate was deemed to fall on the residents themselves as well as private enterprises, not the government.
Argentina was trying to modernize and these shantytowns which they viewed as relics of an impoverished rural past were unacceptable, as were the residents. According to the government, these residents were unemployed because of their “low cultural level”. Instead of describing residents as families, the PE used the term “intruders.” The PE may have proposed to sell new housing to shantytown residents, but only six neighborhoods were built for the program. Furthermore, the PE only offered houses for the mother, father, and between three and eight children. Hosting relatives, as had usually been done in these neighborhoods, would be out of the question. Even if these residents were willing to make that sacrifice, it was not likely they would be housed. The PE allowed for individuals seeking investment opportunities or a second home to purchase housing. The only thing this program succeeded in doing was in giving a bad name to the Peronists and residents of the country’s shantytowns.
Director Fernando Birri responded with a documentary that would come to define a type of cinema that the co-director of El Megano would call “Imperfect Cinema.” Tire Dié sometimes looks very homemade and its use of voice-over while interviewing real people is due to the fact that the original audio was not good enough for professional use. While it may seem like a mistake or a fact you would want to hide, this was the defining element of imperfect cinema. The philosophy was that sticking to Hollywood’s standards was an imperialist act. To make a Latin American film with a real political message, especially about the inequalities in the nation, it needed to look imperfect. A slick image of the misery that plagued the continent would defeat the purpose. Birri was not just influenced by neorealism but by Brecht. He didn’t want to create a melodramatic plea or for any fiction to corrupt his survey film. He wanted audiences to think, not feel.
Birri doesn’t need to speak, his stars do. The film’s opening parodies government surveys by listing off meaningless statistics about Santa Fe as the camera hovers over the city. We see immediately that reports like this or those from the PE are meaningless. We only really learn about shantytowns on the ground. Once we see the people, the PE arguments become meaningless. The new government complained about the overarching state, but now the state doesn’t seem big enough to make sure all kids from all neighborhoods get an education. Some schools say that there aren’t enough seats, they don’t allow children with missing teeth, and some simply kick the students out for missing school. Along with that, the government can’t even provide water for the Tire Dié neighborhood.
Still, according to the government, there is no need to worry. The private sector is there to clean up any messes. Unfortunately, none of these residents can afford the private options. One mother, in particular, laments that daycare costs 20 pesos a day and she only makes 10. Right off the bat, Birri establishes the futility of both of these options and subsequently looks inward. Maybe the government was wrong about the big state and the private sector but they were right about the lazy, immoral, and inept character of the shanty residents. The portrait of their inner lives proves without a doubt they are doing everything they can to make ends meet and keep their dignity.
As these residents say, Tire Dié is “the land of sacrifice”. Everyone works more jobs than they can handle to keep their family afloat. Some work even though they are struggling with debilitating health problems; others take in orphan children because no one else will. Using an impressive ideological montage, Birri shows what effect this has on the children. They are shown picking through the trash and are compared visually with the pigs eating slops, inevitably prompting comparison with the leftovers (the coins) that the children pick off the floor. The main message is that these children and the community to which they belong are the forgotten, undocumented underbelly of Argentine society.
Throughout this film, the only thing these forgotten children can focus on is the time the train comes, when they can yell out the window “Tire Dié” and hopefully get a few pesos, but even this becomes an unsatisfying climax. After hearing them talk about this for the entire film, we finally see a symphony of children yell for money and a host of bored and curious faces watch. Most don’t even give a penny. This is what they always dream about? Given the fact that there are so many close-ups of the children as they watch the train, it becomes clear that we the audience are indeed the same people that ride the train and don’t give. Not only does Birri implicate the government in this societal failure, but us as well.
The final nail in the coffin comes with Birri’s last close-up of a little girl who is still too young to join the others and ask for coins. We look deep into her grinning face while a tango song plays and we realize her future is not only predestined, but it is extremely Argentine. She is the face of the country’s future. And if the government or the people don’t take action against injustice quick, another little girl will simply take her place.