Introduction to the Special Dossier on Ema (Pablo Larraín 2019)

Today at Mediático we are delighted to publish an extensive and much-needed special dossier on Pablo Larraín’s Ema (2019), guest edited by Dunja Fehimović, that fills the critical lacunae left by English language press summations of the film. In six excellent and thought provoking posts that range from an exploration of the film’s political engagement and resonances in Larraín’s contemporary Chile and across Latin America, to Cuban audience reactions to its foregrounding of reggaeton, the authors of this special dossier situate Ema firmly within the very specific context of its cultural production.

  1. Dunja Fehimović, ‘Introduction’ [scroll down]
  2. Laura Hatry, ‘Ema: A Premonitory Performance of Fire and Dance
  3. Rachel Randall, ‘Alternative Reproductive Futures in Ema and Divino amor
  4. Paul Merchant, ‘Ema Navigates the Port
  5. Philippa Page, ‘Dancing Larraín’s Ode to Valpo and Ema’s Very Own Myth of (Re)Creation
  6. Ellen Bishell, ‘Ema’s Mise En Abyme: Music Video Aesthetics and Women in Reggaeton
  7. Dunja Fehimović, ‘Ema in Havana: Reacting to Reggaeton

Ema (Pablo Larraín 2019)

Introduction to the Special Dossier on Ema (Pablo Larraín 2019)

By guest editor Dunja Fehimović*

Whether offering commentaries on the action, arguing with the characters, or simply whistling, cheering and clapping throughout the film, it is the audience that defines any trip to the cinema in Cuba. The result can be endearing, exhilarating, or exasperating, and sometimes all three at once. Such was my experience of watching Ema (Pablo Larraín 2019) during the 41st International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, in Havana. It was a late afternoon, weekday projection, but the large auditorium of the Cine Chaplin was relatively full. For a while, we watched in silence, hypnotised by Larraín’s neon hues and deadpan dialogue. Soon, though, allegiances started to form. Ema had separated from Gastón and his troupe, assembling her own squad of reggaetoneras. Having watched them in action on a public playground, we cut to Gastón’s home, where he confronts his wife and two of her friends. The choreographer’s ensuing tirade has as much to do with his own personal frustration as it does with his artistic evaluation of reggaeton. But it was the latter that resonated – and loudly – with the Havana audience.

Ema and her friends dominate Valparaíso spatially and conquer it sexually; the first time we see them dancing reggaeton, they are in a cable car, soaring above the city; later, a montage allows them to appear omnipresent, occupying public (and some private) spaces that are conveniently almost always empty. For all their pride in authentic local identity and identification with ‘la calle’, the noticeably white troupe appears to enjoy a level of social – and literal – mobility that resignifies reggaeton as a raceless genre of freedom and rebellion against authority. However, as I explore in my own contribution to this dossier, the view from Havana is rather different.

But it’s not only a Cuban perspective that exposes Ema as a simultaneously provoking and ambivalent experience. Recognising its arresting imagery – not least of which is the flamethrower that, in the hands of our punk protagonist, spews ‘male dinosaur cum’ over the city – and the addictive reggaeton soundtrack composed by Nicolas Jaar, critics repeatedly hint at an incompatibility between Ema’s visceral power and a rational or logical value. Whilst Peter Bradshaw proclaims Larraín ‘a master of the physical sense of being in shock’, for example, Wendy Ide exposes the perceived link between such physicality and the irrational – and even uncivilised: ‘does it satisfy? Not on any deep emotional level, certainly. But there’s something thrillingly primal about Ema’s scorched-earth approach’.

Particularly revealing is the way in which this focus on the physical seems, for many who write about the film, to preclude or obscure political engagement. Even on a rare occasion when the English-language press mentions the backdrop of social unrest against which it was released, the journalist concludes that Ema is Larraín’s ‘least political [film] yet’. But if the ‘supercharged music video’ sequences hold up the narrative, the flamethrower is ‘Ema’s way to leave a testimony in the city’, and the ‘remix’-like structure troubles the link between chronology and space, the result is a kind of beautiful crisis that cannot be fully understood apart from Chile’s ‘estallido social’ or the spread of ‘Ni una menos’ from Argentina, and the physical interventions through which these movements have disrupted public life. And it would be remiss, as the contributions to this dossier attest, to deny the political implications of the crisis with which Ema confronts us – however messy, contradictory, or ambivalent they may seem.

This special dossier opens precisely with an examination of the film in relation to the ‘estallido social’, as Laura Hatry considers how the two central motifs of fire and dance connect Ema with the events that followed its release via media images of the protests, the Rabia ‘manifesto’ that accompanied them, and the ‘Fuego. Acciones en Cemento’ project. Rachel Randall picks up on the resonance between Ema’s fiery imagery and the neon hues of Divino Amor (Gabriel Mascaro 2019) to highlight the films’ common explorations of masculinity, motherhood, and futurity, which reveal how sexual desire and affective connection might work to reject but also reinforce hegemonic, heteropatriarchal ideologies. Paul Merchant notes that Ema stages an intersection between the domestic and the wider urban spheres, analysing its reconfiguration of social hierarchies in relation to the historical and contemporary spatial hierarchies of Valparaíso. Philippa Page approaches the film through a frame of performance that reveals a structuring tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces which renders ambivalent its every gesture of resistance. Ellen Bishell reads the film’s music video aesthetics and female-only dance troupe as relflective of reggaeton’s recent trajectory, which has been reconfigured by movements such as ‘neoperreo’ that are shaking up the genre’s heteronormative, machista tendencies. Finally, my own contribution interprets the Havana audience’s mixed but vociferous reaction in relation to reggaeton’s paradoxical status in Cuba, where its perception as a racialised, unengaged ‘body’ genre ensures that it remains simultaneously marginal and ubiquitous.


*Dunja Fehimović is Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Newcastle University. She is the author of National Identity in 21st-Century Cuban Cinema: Screening the Repeating Island (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), the co-editor of Branding Latin America: Strategies, Aims, Resistance (Lexington 2018), and co-editor of the annual Screen Arts issue of the Hispanic Research Journal. Her current research explores the contours of a relational (Glissant) Caribbean cinema via commonalities and repeating patterns in terms of film history, production, thematics, and aesthetics.