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South American Trilogy: Part 3b

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

By Paul Mitchnick:

Dolls in Waiting, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3a of Paul's South American journey!

After our night of marching bands, foam spray, and empanadas (and maybe a tiny hangover), we ate a little breakfast the next morning and headed out. What other adventures Buenos Aires had for us, we were about to find out.

Michaelin and I went to the San Telmo Sunday antique market. Right beside the market was a Starbucks. This was fortunate, as Michaelin spent most of the time going back and forth to their washroom. Michaelin just has no luck with street food, no matter where, no matter how delicious, no matter what. And last night’s street food proved no different for my delicate prairie princess. While at the Starbucks, she witnessed a family’s panic when the father discovered that his backpack had been stolen from underneath the table that they were sitting at. Money, tickets, passports: all gone. It made us take our driver Albert’s initial words of warning on our first day in Buenos Aries a little more seriously.

The market consisted of four streets around the perimeter of a square with a couple of streets off the square in either direction. Coloured lights, much like a used car lot from the sixties, hung to accommodate the nightly tangos. There were hundreds of cool things in the market that I had never seen before: European antiques, cameras, jewellery, antique gaucho accessories, things that I have no need of or place for. But like with the Berni book, I resisted.

Puppeteer, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

At the horse ranch, we had met a young woman, Tamara, from San Francisco. Her vacation was a week of riding followed by tango lessons in the heart of tango: Buenos Aires. A performance artist, she had a part-time gig as the gardener at Alcatraz. A vivacious woman who attracted all the gauchos around her whenever she was on a horse (flies to sugar), we had made plans to connect with Tamara in the city.

Green Toenails, San Telmo - Photo Paul Mitchnick

Michaelin begged off for the afternoon meeting, and I went to meet Tamara. Her job that day was to find the perfect pair of tango shoes, so we went tango-shoe shopping. Tamara felt bad that she was dragging me along for this; however, Michaelin has a certain fondness for shoes, so it is a river I have been down before. Early in our relationship, I watched Michaelin agonize over the world’s most perfect pair of shoes in New York City—half price, half a size too small—for over half-an-hour. Prudence prevailed, but only just. So, seeing a woman buy tango shoes in the city of tango was a nice event to witness. Invested shopping. We went to a few small shops that sold tango shoes exclusively. She found a pair. She was radiant. There is something about searching for and finding that perfect something. I happily witnessed it all over Tamara’s face. That glow made the afternoon even more worthwhile. Genuine joy on a person’s face is always an energy that gets shared.

Joy, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

On my way back to our Airbnb, an Asado (the very slow-cooked Argentinian BBQ) caught my senses. It warranted investigation. There was a Parilla/grill about 4 metres square (12’ x 12’) with pig parts, cow parts, lamb parts, goat parts, chicken parts, and other animal parts I didn’t recognize slowly dripping fat on charcoal. If aroma was physical, I would have put it between 2 pieces of bread with mayo and had the best sandwich of my life. Lots of things I might have tried if I knew what they were, but my lack of Spanish kept me on the conservative side. Safely behind very thick plexiglass, the cashier took my order and money then handed me my box of chicken.

Sunday Night, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

The next evening, Michaelin and I went back to the square to witness some local tango. All the strung coloured lights were on, creating a backyard summer party. The concrete square was ringed with folding tables and plain wooden chairs. About 60 people were dancing to an old PA system with speakers roped to the hydro poles. These were locals who might come every night to tango. The women seemed to choose different partners for each dance. The most popular partners for young women were men in their late 60s and early 70s. Tango is a dance of incredible subtlety of movement, and these old guys were by far the subtlest. Small gestures from different body parts communicating between the two partners. Steamy.

Tango, San Telmo - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Our last adventure was a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery. Consisting of fourteen forested acres in the Recoleta barrio, this former convent garden turned cemetery was opened in 1822 by the local government as a ploy to remove political power from the Catholic Church in Argentina.

Mausoleum St. George, Recoleta - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

In the 1870s, because of the yellow fever epidemic, the cemetery decayed, since it was not allowed to bury victims of epidemics. And the well-situated families in the city center fled to the higher northern area, where they built new villas and elegant residences.

In 1881, the city's mayor, Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear, commissioned the Italian architect Juan Antonio Buschiazzo to undertake a neoclassical-style renovation. The front entrance, with Doric columns, was erected during this time. From then on, the city’s rich families built magnificent mausoleums for their deceased.

Mausoleum, Recoleta - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

There are almost 5,000 mausoleums laid out in a huge grid, like tree-lined city streets. There are art-deco vaults, art-nouveau vaults, baroque vaults, and neo-gothic vaults with designers and materials coming from Paris and Milan. It is a bit like an art gallery of statues and elegant little mini-religious fortresses. Vault after vault after vault after vault; most maintained, but some not. It is home to anyone who was anyone in Argentina, and the final resting place for Evita Perón.

Thoroughfare, Recoleta - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

We arrived in the late afternoon to avoid the heat. A schoolteacher offered to be our guide; sure, she is going to know way more than us, and even though we will be shown vaults of people we have never heard of, there will be stories and history. After an hour, we bid her adieu and spent another just enjoying the artisanship around us. The size and scope were overwhelming, and I would look for a long "street" to see how far I could see down it. Fourteen acres and 5,000 vaults make a pretty singular kind of space.

Recoleta Visitor, Recoleta - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

On our way back home, we walked through a park with an open-air market—windowless window-shopping for me. One vendor had a papier-mâché mobile exhibit of delicate structures, both realistic and abstract, that were way too fragile to transport home but lovely to see. However, beside him was someone selling handcrafted knives. All sorts, including some for domestic use. How perfect, practical, and satisfying to my lifelong fascination with knives. Something to bring back home, unlike the gaucho’s facón, the 18” knife and sharpener he carried in his belt while riding.

As a little kid, sharp knives were forbidden kitchen utensils. “Don’t touch ‘em, don’t use ‘em. They are very sharp. I’ll cut your bagel for you!”

As slightly older little kids, we played a game called "Stretchy," a simple game requiring a knife and a little courage. Standing about eighteen inches apart, two boys would face each other, feet together. There would be one knife, sometimes a jack knife and sometimes a kitchen knife. The challenge was to throw the knife beside the other guy’s foot—hopefully not into the other one’s foot—rolled up lined jean cuffs and black canvas runners to be avoided. If the knife stuck in the ground, then that person would stretch to pick it up and take their turn. It was as much about balance as getting the damn thing to look cool in the dirt when thrown. Whoever could stretch the farthest before falling was the winner. Of course, it became harder the farther your legs were apart. Where the first throws were always close to the opponent’s foot, the latter were farther away to make the stretch impossible. This game amused us for hours and, in a group, became a bigger competition.

That nonsense ended somewhere about the start of adolescence; however, the fascination with the tool stayed.

Paul Finds Listeners, St. Nicolas - Photo by Michaelin McDermott

As a young camera assistant, having a sharp knife on me was recommended in case I was strapped into something I might need to be cut out of. Well, I didn’t have to be told twice. The two popular knives of choice were either a Buck or Gerber folding hunter’s knife, both with a drop point 3.5” blade and wooden handle with brass bolsters. The Gerber was a little slimmer and my choice. I had both, as they sometimes "disappeared." And what was a knife without being sharp? A honing stone with a medium and extra-sharp side and some honing oil to keep it unnecessarily razor sharp is a must. There is also a nice semi-circular scar on my thumb shared by several camera assistants in town who had momentarily lost focus while keeping their tool sharp.

In my late twenties, restlessness took me to England, where I was going to stay forever. My brother gave me a Swiss Army Officer’s Explorer pocketknife. Stainless Steel, guaranteed for life, and 16 tools to figure things out. Well, I didn’t stay in England forever, but the knife has been with me since. All over the world, on every job, on every trip. It is always razor sharp. Somewhere in its mid-life, it got sent back to Swiss Army, as it was looking a little tattered. It came back as perfect as a then 20-year-old knife could possibly be.

I opted for a nice-looking kitchen knife at this market. The six-inch blade, wooden handle, brass rivets, and brass bolster made for a handsome piece. The knife was made near the Chilean-Argentinean border, by hand, famous for their steel, I was told. He was asking $50. "Would you go a little lower on your price?" I ask. He said that I could afford the difference better than he could. Ten points for candour. OK, done. It came with a leather scabbard.

Back at our Airbnb, I was anxious to start cutting. My first slice through a fat red orange took the shiny finish right off my new knife. One could see the line on the blade between shiny and not-shiny finishes. Hmmmmmmmm. Oh well, lesson learned, I guess.

The knife immediately got cleaned and went into its scabbard, so I didn’t have to face my embarrassment. In the end, I decided to keep it to remind me of my sometime fascination with style over content (i.e., shiny pretty things). Although it has lost all its sheen, this non-stainless-steel knife holds a much sharper edge longer than any other knife we have ever owned. A kitchen favourite.

Our neighbourhood, San Telmo, was in transition, and there was lots of graffiti—something very present in these kinds of neighbourhoods that we’d seen in Brazil as well. But unlike the Brazilian wall art of Olinda, here the graffiti seemed creatively edgier, more visceral.

Graffiti, Bueno Aires - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

Lots of film had been shot so far on this trip. To my great joy, there was a film lab about three blocks away from our place that processed slide film. The less I carried exposed film, the less I worried about x-rays. The photo lab looked and smelled like a film lab anywhere in the world. The young woman behind the desk was very kind when she told me that my film was too old to process and may not come out. I was so happy to hear that, because it meant she knew what she was doing. When Fuji Astia slide film was being discontinued, I somehow rounded up 150 rolls to keep in my freezer and thaw as needed. On my return two days later, there were perfectly exposed, unharmed images. Each roll came in a meter-long plastic sleeve and when held against the light, my trip could be viewed. Everything came out, everything. More serious viewing would be done later, but step one in the process was successful.

Something that doesn’t exist in the world of digital is the feeling of joy, relief, excitement, and pride from knowing that your work came out and may look like something. You have climbed down a ladder in rock, you have kept your partner waiting while you take just one more photo, you have gotten up insanely early to photograph something that only exists insanely early, you cajole people not to x-ray your film, you spend lots of time alone with an idea in your head, you like seeing that something has come of it.

Graffiti, Buenos Aires - Photo by Paul Mitchnick

I also found a dry cleaner within walking distance of our place (there was a wedding in Chile to go to after all). It opened at 7:00 a.m., and since early rising is one of my curses, I decided to go then. While waiting for it to open, a garbage truck came down the narrow side street and stopped. The driver and his assistant got out of the truck, lifted the tailgate, went back to the driver’s door, lit cigarettes, and chatted.

A young man with a large white plastic pail came to the tailgate. In his pail was a small plastic shovel; a little larger than the one that kids have at the beach. He started shoveling food into the bucket. The garbage truck had just picked up from a restaurant, and the young man was shoveling last night’s food into the bucket. When the bucket was full, he thanked the garbage men, who gave him a cigarette. The tailgate closed, and life went back to what it was before.

More than once, in many countries, I have witnessed poverty and how people try to survive it. It stops me. It stops me in a way that nothing else does. Totally. So much to process about this event while I am standing there with some not really dirty clothes that I am getting cleaned in a foreign country before going to a wedding in another foreign country.

This is a disconnect that never gets resolved, ever. What brings me back is the refuge in the idea of how lucky I am in my life. Not just for the obvious: born white in a good country with well-intentioned parents and in general having things kind of work out, but . . . how guilty I can feel because of it.


Paul Mitchnick is a cinematographer living and working out of Toronto, Canada. He has spent time with many gifted filmmakers in his career—Sean Penn, Lawrence Kasdan, and John Woo as Directors, as well as many Oscar-winning cinematographers. For the last decade, Paul has been Director of Photography on award-winning Canadian Independent Features and television Movies of the Week. He shot KEIF AL-HAL, the first feature film produced by a Saudi Arabian company. Whenever on assignment, Paul travels with his still camera and has taken photographs all over the globe. "I make my living looking at things, and when I have my still camera, opportunities kind of present themselves. Whether those things are looking for me or I am looking for them, I am not sure."

Instagram: @pmmitchnick

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