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A Film from the Other Side of the Tracks

by Stephanie Hartka

translation by Christine-Marie Andrieu


In Buenos Aires there exists a parallel world that Porteños and tourists alike are afraid to go near. Not for American film maker Reed Purvis, who has fearlessly taken to the streets of Villa 31, one of Buenos Aires’ most infamous and feared slums. Armed with a camera in hand, he was determined to make a film which he hoped would aid in reversing the incredibly rigid stigmas upheld by the media and a majority of Argentines against this shantytown’s residents.  “The mainstream view is that most of them [Villa 31’s residents] are criminals and thieves,” said Purvis in a recent interview, “when in reality 90% are normal hardworking people who work in Capital Federal as welders, carpenters, electricians, painters, bus drivers, etc.”

The final film, titled “Villa del Sueño¨, tracks the lives of three resident families that Purvis encountered. An ex-security guard who runs a radio station out of his house, a large immigrant family that abandoned farm life in Paraguay, and a gang of criminals who make their living from illegal activities. In intimately following the lives of three diverse families, Purvis´ film holds a magnifying glass up to Argentine classism, forcing us to enter and examine a part of Buenos Aires that is often put out of sight and out of mind. The film adds a new dimension to our perception of the Villa, focusing not just on the dark side of gang activity but on warm, friendly moments amongst family.

A Film from the Other Side of the Tracks

Rubbing geographical elbows with two of Buenos Aires’ wealthiest neighborhoods, Retiro and Recoleta, Villa 31 lies wedged between train tracks and a freeway. The Villas borders fan across the outskirts of the sprawling city, and houses a population who live in precariously shoddy, ramshackle structures of four to five stories, most without basic utilities like water and electricity. In Purvis’ words, entering Villa 31 is like entering another world: “In the 10 seconds or so it takes to walk across the street on the edge of the Omnibus station it's like you leave Argentina.” Not surprising as most of Villa 31’s 30,000 - 80,000 and ever expanding residents are made up largely of immigrants who have left behind their home countries of Peru, Paraguay or Bolivia to eke out a living on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Like a gaping black hole constantly sidestepped, Purvis not only saw Villa 31 as a feast for the eyes, but said that he doesn't know “how someone can look at something like that and not want to go inside and explore it and meet people. Especially when everyone tells you that you can't enter, that you will get robbed or kidnapped or shot.”

So how did a curious blonde blue-eyed foreigner become involved with a slum? When we asked him, he said that he “met this cartonero from Barracas and he knew a couple of people in Villa 31, so he took me there one day and I met the people at radio 88.1 FM, a radio station inside the villa. From there I met other people and ended up making a lot of friends and spending lots of time there.”

A Film from the Other Side of the Tracks

After nurturing some close relationships, Purvis realized he’d hit a goldmine when it came to film worthy material. “It takes a lot of time to make friends and figure out exactly what stories you want to tell, there are a lot of stories and interesting things inside the villas. Even just people's stories who have moved there from Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru often have tales and experiences of very difficult journeys and lives and come from backgrounds that make the villa seem like a wealthy neighborhood.” And while most of the Villa’s residents initially moved there because they couldn’t afford anything more, one of Purvis’ friends has chosen to live in the Villa not because of financial strain, but because it’s simply “more fun, people are together more, and spend more time with their families.”

It is clear that Purvis’ mission is to communicate that beyond the glamorous streets of Recoleta, there’s a very lively neighborhood of warm hearted people who, poor they may be, enjoy a humble lifestyle of incredibly close-knit family and communal bonds, and are incredibly generous, even when they have little or nothing to give.  He told us, “even though my friend Tony had only been out of prison for a month and was struggling to survive, every time I was at his family's house (he had three kids) they always asked if I was hungry, if I wanted food or anything to drink. It wasn't just a gesture, sometimes they made it hard to say no.”

A Film from the Other Side of the Tracks

Many might imagine it suicidal to go bar and restaurant hopping in a shantytown, but Purvis shares that Villa 31 boasts the best empanadas in the whole city as well as Sopa de Mani, and an array of Bolivian and Peruvian restaurants. And Purvis isn’t the only person privy to the treats tucked along the streets of Villa 31. Travel channel TV stars Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmer have both been spotted sampling the local fare at the bustling weekend market for upcoming episodes, albeit sticking very close to the slum’s edges. Not surprising really, as walking around any ghetto with expensive equipment is an obvious target and, put simply, really poor street smarts. While the people may generally be good hearted and overall pretty humble, the villa is still a villa, conditions are dire, and people are hungry. Purvis explains “whenever I entered with the camera, I had to make sure I was with a friend who lived there. The villas aren't nearly as dangerous as everyone thinks they are, but if you're carrying something valuable then there's a risk of getting robbed.”

It will certainly take time for such marginalized people to become more integrated with the rest of the Argentine society, or for a positive recognition and outreach from the outside. Meanwhile, the residents of Villa 31 will continue to enjoy their makeshift home bars, futbol matches and mate, and the constant rhythm of the ever present cumbia, flowing in high volume from almost every home, confirming an honest feeling of true Latin American-ness in the heart of the city.

With a mix of contrasting origins and tales of arriving to Buenos Aires all worth hearing, one common goal the villa’s residents are all striving for is desperately clear: to suffer just a little less.

A Film from the Other Side of the Tracks

Purvis’ film will be out soon, in the meantime check out the trailer for Villa del Sueño and form your own opinions.

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