Sundance 2024: Gaucho Gaucho is majestic, magnificent documentary portrait of Argentinian cowboys, cowgirls as stewards of tradition that defies modern society

By Les Roka

With the three documentaries that filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw have brought to Sundance in the last six years, the viewer has been encouraged to slow down and luxuriate in the whole cinematic experience of visuals, subjects, music and sound design.

In 2018, the directors took audiences to the final stock car racetrack of Long Island with The Last Race and, two years later, the  rigorously protected regions of the Italian countryside, which are known for the world’s most prized white truffles in The Truffle Hunters.

Gaucho Gaucho, which premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, raises the directors’ artistic presentation to a new level of distinction. Shot in black and white, this magnificent and majestic film celebrates the community of Argentinian cowboys and cowgirls, who preserve a tradition that defies the contemporary zeitgeist.

In The Truffle Hunters, the connections between humans and animals were captured, as elderly men revered their dogs, who are exceptional for sniffing out the prized ingredient, and treated them as royalty. With Gaucho Gaucho, it is the horse. In The Utah Review’s interview with both directors, Dweck talked about showing the unique family bonds the Gauchos develop with their horses. The opening scene shows a Gaucho sleeping on his horse and then rising for the day. “Part of the objectives wer had with filming — the opening scenes when the viewer sees the galloping horses — we wanted to put the audience on a horse,” he explained. “We wanted the viewer to feel the joy, power and beauty of being on a horse and a Gaucho within this world.”

The scenes of Gauchos riding their horses on the vast Argentinian plains are breathtaking. There is a profoundly natural choreographic essence of movement that pops in these scenes. “When you’re watching a Gaucho ride, no one rides a horse better than a Gaucho and what we wanted to capture in this film is this connection between human and animal, this merging of two bodies into two souls,” Kershaw added. The film was shot in Beauty Scope (Beautiful Stories Productions).

Guada Gonza and Tati Gonza appear in Gaucho Gaucho by Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

While the production began in earnest at the end of 2021, the film’s gestation period stretches to the 1990s when Dweck connected with the Gauchos in South America, from where his wife came. Meanwhile, Kershaw also had the Gauchos on his radar, as he continued to explore projects that examine the relationship which  tradition-focused communities sustain to their respective lands. The center of the Gaucho world for this film is in the northwest Salta region of Argentina, near Bolivia and Chile.

In their projects, Dweck and Kershaw are drawn to communities where long established mythologies are as visible as ever. Hence, the unique repetition in the film’s title signifies Gauchos who have fully embedded themselves in the traditions and codes of honor that have been sustained through many generations. 

A pristine sense of freedom feeds the spiritual drive for the Gaucho in Argentina. In subtle ways, the film makes it quite evident that one should hesitate to draw exact comparisons between the mythology of the American West cowboy and the Gauchos in this South American land. It is still an ongoing project in the American West to envision an authentic history that has been eclipsed by the mythologized values of manifest destiny which led to the domination and conquest of lands. The film shows the Gaucho tradition as a more nuanced merging of European and Indigenous cultures, with a prioritizing of being harmonious and responsible to the utmost degree with the lands on which this culture thrives. 

A still from Gaucho Gaucho by Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Guada, 17, is a significant figure in Gaucho Gaucho. The young woman has invested herself completely in the tradition, with her father (Tati) serving as a wise, gentle mentor. She is a promising horse tamer and steps resolutely into a world that historically has been dominated by men. 

In one scene shot at Guada’s school, a teacher admonishes her for not wearing the standard student uniform. Nevertheless, Guada is proud to wear the handmade, meticulously embroidered attire signifying her culture. She is the definitive example of the confident Gaucho who finds true freedom living outside of a modern society that has pretty rigorous expectations and dictates about accepted forms of appearance and expression in schools and workplaces. Guada and her father took their first plane trip to their first visit to the U.S, for the Sundance premiere. The experience was intense but also emotionally rewarding for them as well as the directors.    

To viewers, other subjects featured in the film could have stepped out of an epic Argentinian narrative, spanning several generations. There is a cattle herder who must contend with the growing boldness of condors attacking his livestock. The elder statesman of Gaucho culture, Lelo, holds court, regaling listeners with stories that surely perpetuate the canon of Gaucho mythology. There are two preteen boys who are restless to experience the freedom of Gaucho life. Others are Santito, who keeps the oral tradition alive and disseminates local news to the community, as well as a shaman mystic.  

During production, the directors made sure there were no cutaways or B-roll because they aimed to be as truthful and authentic in the visual representation. Through editing, Kershaw said it became  “a ballet of the visual language of the film and how we use sound design.” Likewise, the editing process ensures the instruction to the viewer to slow down and luxuriate in the moment. “We’re trying to get the audience into a frame of mind where they will be able to sit and study every detail of these worlds,” Dweck explained. “Look at everything on the wall. Look at how the houses are made of clay, the pots on the wall that are probably four generations old, the clothing that’s handmade and the tables that have markings on them from past generations.”  

Kershaw said that they have “moved away from the hypnotizing effect of rapid editing that’s out there a lot. He added, “I think that can often be used to distract people to the fact that they’re not really watching anything and the idea that when we create these images, there are multiple layers both within the image and with the sound design and the music, even though the image may be up on the screen longer than what most people are used to. there are so many layers that people can enter into studying this world.” 

They collaborated with sound designer Stephen Urata at Skywalker Sound. Today (Jan. 26), the film won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Sound at Sundance. 

“Every character in the film has a sonic profile and it’s very subtle but if you go back and listen to it, you’ll notice what each character is given,” Kershaw explained. “For example, the praying scenes in the film, how do we illustrate spirituality in a film with sound? How does God become a sound? How does the threat of condors sound? It’s really not the sound of a bird, but it’s your gut feeling about how we want the audience to feel during certain scenes.” 

The music track includes Argentinian folk and pop songs, as well as operatic clips from Bizet and Verdi. Opera has found its way into the trio of the Sundance documentaries that Dweck and Kershaw have premiered in the last six years. Undoubtedly, these operatic clips enhance the resilient perseverance that has been expressed in various ways through all three films.

Among the many responses the directors received during the Sundance screenings of their film, Dweck said two kinds stood out for them. “Several people said that because of this film, they’re reconnecting with members of my family where those relations have been severed,” Dweck said. The second came from the Latin American community. “They said, ‘thank goodness, we now have a beautiful piece of cinema for our community,‘ which I thought was quite rare and we were grateful to hear that thankful message.”

The films is one of four Sundance documentaries that Impact Partners Film, which included Geralyn Dreyfous as executive producer. Dreyfous also is cofounder of the Utah Film Center, which provided a fiscal sponsorship for the film.

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