Translating Tango: Sally Potter's Lessons

By Pinet, Carolyn | Romance Notes, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Translating Tango: Sally Potter's Lessons


Pinet, Carolyn, Romance Notes


IN the mid nineties Sally Potter, director, writer and dancer, decided to make a film about Argentine tango in which she would play the leading role opposite a well-know tango artist, Pablo Veron. She made two important decisions about the screenplay: the first was that it would be in three languages, Spanish, French and English, the second that the two main characters would be Jewish and exiles who would make a pact and fall in love. The resulting film proved to be an exploration of translation in terms of cultural identity and border-crossings. Sally Potter's film about the dynamics and process of tango also became a meditation on Argentina and on the politics of exile.

A little over a decade earlier, by 1982, Argentina was emerging painfully from the trauma of a dirty war during which up to twenty thousand persons were killed, tortured or disappeared by a succession of oppressive military rulers. Many of the victims were Jewish. Two famous examples of individuals who were imprisoned and tortured are those of Jacobo Timerman and Alicia Partnoy whose testimonies, written in exile, appeared in the eighties. Argentina, paradoxically, is the Latin American country with the largest Jewish population and also has a long history of recurrent anti-semitism. (1) Timerman saw in the dirty war a resurgence of the paranoia and viciousness of the Holocaust. (2) By 1994 there had been terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and on the Jewish Community Center.

THE TANGO SYNDROME

Tango, from its roots among the African and European immigrants in the port of Buenos Aires, has always been a story of exile and crossing borders. Marta Savigliano in her book, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, discusses the "tango syndrome," the experience of longing and nostalgia connected to tango for any Argentines living abroad (Savigliano xiii-xiv). Fernando Solanas, the Argentine film director, who fled to Paris during the dirty war confirmed her view when he wrote that in exile "music was the most emotional language" of his nationalism and tango the "soul of his nostalgia." Speaking of his own films made in that period, he commented, "I have never consumed so many tangos in my life as in those years of exile" (Winn 431).

Solanas set a precedent for Sally Potter with two tango films about Argentines and exile in 1985 and 1988, Tangos: el exilio de Gardel and Sur. His films helped to launch a renaissance in tango both in Argentina and abroad after the dirty war: tango was danced and rediscovered in London, Paris, and New York; and Argentine tango espectaculos (shows) went on tour abroad from Buenos Aires. Tango became a testament to the resilience and survival of a culture.

Sally Potter tells the story of her seduction by tango in her preface to The Tango Lesson. She was working on another screenplay about the fashion industry when she was lured away by tango. As a director behind the camera she became fascinated by the gaze afforded to her by the spectacle of tango. As a dancer/tanguera she would be the object of that gaze. As a writer/director she could control and explore a whole series of relationships between self and other: she could search the tango story for shape and meaning in terms of gender, race, colonialism and imperialism, even reach to a place beyond these where tension and conflict might be reconciled. Tango, it seemed, told an old story and, at the same time, proposed a new one. She decided to shoot the film in a series of lessons about "love, and work and creation" (Potter x). For her tango, is "a testament to survival and graceful hope in the face of the ravages of ageing, political repression and the apparent meaningless of daily life" (84). In this respect tango would be her teacher and her method one of enquiry.

TANGO AND BORDERS

Sally Potter's film moves between London, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Hollywood just as tango has always done. When Sally Potter discovered tango it had already crossed borders many times and had a complex identity. …

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