Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Soaps with a Latin Scent

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Soaps with a Latin Scent

Article excerpt

Charged with suspense and fantasy, Latin American soap operas are pouring off the production lines into living rooms all over the world

During Ramadan last January, some of the mosques in Abidjan decided to bring forward prayer time. This thoughtful gesture saved thousands of the faithful from a painful dilemma - whether to do their religious duty or miss the latest episode of Marimar, a Mexican TV melodrama which has turned the whole country into addicts of telenovelas, soap operas made in Latin America.

"At 7.30 sharp in the evening, when Marimar comes on, everything stops in Cote d'Ivoire," the evening newspaper Ivoir'Soir noted a few months ago. The programme, which has attracted more local fans than the 1998 World Cup, arrived in Africa after being a similar hit in Indonesia and the Philippines. In 1997, its female star was received in Manila like a foreign head of state.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs hold their breath so as not to miss the tiniest detail of the Venezuelan soap opera Kassandra. "We know Kassandra's innocent and we want her trial stopped," the townspeople of Kucevo, in southeastern Serbia, wrote to the Venezuelan government, with a copy to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. This is just one of many examples of how fiction can invade real life and how far people come to identify with it.

Marimar and Kassandra are classics among the thousands of soap operas Latin America has turned out over the past 40 years at the rate of about 100 a year. They are love stories which have plenty of subplots and move along at a brisk pace. Their characters overcome countless obstacles - social class, family ties, conflicts of interest and so on - to finally win through despite all the ambushes of fate. In all of them, morality and goodness triumph and the bad guys get punished in a happy ending where everyone is reconciled. In this respect they are very different from Anglo-Saxon soap operas, in which conflicts get solved in the course of a few virtually self-contained episodes, which means they can be broadcast in any order.

The plot of a Latin American telenovela includes a strong dose of suspense. Each episode has a dramatic ending to make sure viewers watch the next one. This tactic produced a new way of making some pocket money when Kassandra was shown in the Balkans. People in Bulgaria, where the soap was running 10 episodes ahead of Yugoslav TV, would tell their neighbours across the border what was coming up next - in exchange for 10 dinars ($2).

The worldwide success of these soaps suggests they might be something more than just a carefully-engineered collection of dirty deeds and superficial emotions. Their hackneyed themes don't often amount to anything of great artistic value, but the scripts aren't always puerile and the dialogue and characters are less predictable than one might expect. Telenovelas have accumulated 40 years of experience and professionalism and turned into an industry which can buy the best actors, scriptwriters and directors in Latin America.

Urban violence and political corruption

Since the 1970s, producers have also tried to go beyond classic melodrama and have adapted the works of writers like Mario Benedetti, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado. In recent years, authors, directors and scriptwriters in the Latin American film industry have brought new life to the genre by broadening its range of subjects and bringing it closer to real life. These "new-wave" telenovelas dig straight into issues like police corruption, influence-peddling, urban violence, impunity and the role of mafia money, as in last year's Colombian production La Mujer del presidente ("The President's Wife") and, the year before, Nada personal ("Nothing Personal"), which was made in Mexico.

Soaps like this have sparked off social developments which in the past would have been unthinkable. …

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