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A new film delivers a portrait of student activism at Argentine universities
October 26, 2011 - 3:00am

Recent events in Chile have again drawn attention to student movements. Although current political activity is less dramatic in Argentina, the debate about activism at public universities in the media and public opinion has been sparked as a result of El Estudiante (The Student), a recently released independent Argentine film. The movie paints a revealing portrait of student activism in higher education. Besides the cast's wonderful performance and Mitre’s brilliant direction, this movie offers insights into political culture and the resulting ethical dilemmas that define the “rules of the game” at many public universities.

The backdrop of the movie is the confrontations that erupted during the election of the UBA president in 2006. Several scenes were actually shot during these incidents. The left-wing dominated student union (FUBA) repeatedly interfered with meetings of the university assembly in order to oppose the candidate most likely to win, the dean of the Faculty of Law, on grounds that he had held a position in the Buenos Aires city government during the military dictatorship. After the fourth attempt to convene the assembly, the dean withdrew his candidacy in order to unlock the political crisis. Nonetheless, the FUBA continued blocking subsequent attempts to convene the assembly presenting new demands for more student participation in decision-making via a direct election of the president on a “one man, one vote” basis. In the end, a new president was elected but only after lengthy negotiations under police protection.

It is in this context that we are introduced to Roque Espinoza, the “Student”, who is making his third attempt to earn a university degree. He enrolls at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). He looks disoriented, not sure of his academic direction or his own talents. He comes from the provinces and finds himself confronting a new culture—the tribe of social science students. Walking along corridors and spaces filled with political posters and banners reflecting a myriad of student movements, he is most attracted to the idea of having success with girls. This most basic drive makes him susceptible to the charms of a young activist who triggers an interest in politics. His intelligence is attractive to her but an unintended consequence of this nascent romance is his discovery that he has some skill in politics. Swept up in the political conflict of UBA at that time, he discovers that he is quite adept at negotiating and manipulating others in order to achieve his aims. He realizes that he can also climb quickly in the political hierarchy and garner favor with those in power, in particular, with one of the candidates for the UBA presidency.

Roque Espinoza’s case might allow the film goer to conclude that some students get involved in university politics just because they are good at it and because they enjoy the power it offers rather than from a deeper commitment to ideological goals. However, his girlfriend presents a counterpoint, an idealistic social science student and activist. She is driven by ethical and ideological beliefs; she considers it important to be politically involved in order to change university policies and the society at large. She is not capable of compromising her ideals or maneuvering the internal games in order to achieve political objectives. In Realpolitik, based primarily on power and practical and material decisions, she is a loser. In the end the person who draws Roque Espinosa into the world of university politics is left out. A voice-over says that she will become a researcher.

The movie also shows how national political parties are players on the university political field and that the game of Realpolitik means that administrative offices and departments at the university are the “booty” of political success, divided up among the winning political coalition.

In sum, El Estudiante takes the viewer behind the scenes to witness the reality of politics at public universities, and perhaps beyond. It is not surprising, then, that the movie has attracted so much attention. Many of the issues, complexities and dilemmas the film presents challenge the viewer’s assumptions about the motivations and realities of student activism.


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