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In Kino Veritas: Tango Odissey Wine Country Opener

Tango Odyssey Leads Filmmaker Back Home to Bay Area

When local filmmaker Joshua Dylan Mellars got the idea to film his first documentary Tango Illusions in Buenos Aires, he had no idea that it would take a seven-year journey to complete it. Like good wine, filmmaking can take time.

Tango Illusions premieres at the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival on Saturday, August 13 at 6 pm at the Nicholson Ranch Winery in Sonoma.

“My desire to film Tango Illusions has taken me to some strange places. Some roads led me toward my goal and some were detours, but I learned something from all the places I traveled: from the heavy crude fields of the Orinoco, to the lobby of Vienna’s Intercontinental Hotel, from the tropical beaches of Copacabana, to the street fighting in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo,” said the 29 year old filmmaker.

Mellars first became interested in the tango when talking to Argentines, who he met while studying abroad in Spain. Later he saw a tango demonstration in a nightclub in Madrid, and he had to find out more.

Returning to Brown University for his last semester, he applied for a grant to study and film the tango in Buenos Aires. He didn’t get the grant, but decided to go to Buenos Aires anyway. It would take him two years to get there.

After graduation, Mellars returned home to Sonoma County to “get a temporary job, save up some money, buy a camera and then fly to Argentina.” He saw an ad on the Internet for a reporting job in Venezuela, and he sent his resume and a writing sample. One week later he was on an American Airlines flight headed for Caracas.

“I had no journalism experience and I had taken no journalism courses in college, but somehow I convinced the editor I was right for the job,” he said.

Before leaving for Caracas, the filmmaker remembers buying an AP style guide, a dozen spiral notepads, a small tape recorder, and an Italian suit. He says that he also read up on the IMF, the World Bank and grabbed a copy of Paper Tigers and Minotaurs to read on the plane. He arrived in Caracas at a dicey time.

“I noticed from my hotel room window that the street corners were all patrolled by soldiers carrying automatic weapons,” said Mellars.

The presidential election was four months away and an ex-coup plotter, Comandante Hugo Chávez, was beginning to rise in the polls, explained Mellars. On the eve of the presidential election, two soldiers were assigned to the newsroom at the Daily Journal, where the then 22-year old journalist was working.

While covering stories in Venezuela, Mellars met Hugo Chávez and a host of oil ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as they came to either confer or pay respects to Chávez after he was elected president of Venezuela.

After four months with the Daily Journal, Mellars began working as a reporter for Bridge News wire service. He then spent two years shadowing oil ministers, but Mellars never forgot about his tango project. He befriended several Argentine tango dancers and teachers working in Caracas and, after saving up some money and setting up some freelance journalism strings, he bought a ticket to Argentina.

Mellars had his bags packed for Buenos Aires when a Caracas flood caused huge mudslides and killed tens of thousands. The airport was closed down with the exception of emergency flights. Stuck in Caracas, the young reporter followed the story. He helicoptered into mud inundated La Guiara and reported on the devastation. A month later the airport was re-opened and the journalist/filmmaker headed south for the land of tango.

“When I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina was in the midst of an economic recession, but things felt very civilized: beautiful architecture, European style cafes and tea rooms. I had traded the wild west atmosphere of Caracas for the sophisticated urbanity of Buenos Aires,” Mellars said.

But signs of social and political unrest began to manifest themselves soon after his arrival. Unemployed union members set up roadblocks, the middle class felt the pinch of a too tight currency, bank accounts were frozen, and supermarkets were ransacked in food riots in the cities poorer sections.

By the austral summer of 2001, the population in mass began nightly marches to the Plaza de Mayo, drums rolling, pots banging. And then the shirtless ones, the descamisados, began emerging from the bowels of Buenos Aires wielding slingshots and paving stones, torches blazing. A thick humid haze blowing over the Rio de la Plata was made thicker by the teargas from the riot police, said Mellars.

A pervasive malaise seemed to waft its way from La Boca through San Telmo and onto the posh sidewalks of Palermo. Anxiety seemed to careen in the crazy black and yellow cabs passing the obelisk on Avenida 9 de Julio. Argentine angst seemed to insinuate its way into the book shops on Corrientes street and down the tiled walkways of Calle Florida and into the cafes, the confiterias and tea shops filled with liquors, pastry, trysts, gossip and intrigue.

“I was writing stories and working on my tango film, but my phone rang incessantly. I had to take it off the hook. I could only write so many stories a day. It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of it,” Mellars said. He covered the crisis for United Press International (UPI), and broadcast radio reports for the BBC and Marketplace on NPR.

Mellars was out on the street covering the violent political upheaval until late at night, and then he wrote until dawn. He says that he existed on next to no sleep.

“The political situation was changing so quickly it was hard to keep up. Every week I had to learn the name of a new president. It was impossible to ignore the drama around me. I realized I had to include the Argentine political turmoil in my tango documentary,” said Mellars.

As the summer wound down, the political situation stabilized and the violence subsided. After two years in Buenos Aires, Mellars filmed a few finishing interviews for his documentary and caught a plane to Rio de Janeiro. While living in Copacabana Beach, he began editing Tango Illusions. He continued to do freelance journalism and worked for several US and Brazilian narrative and documentary production companies. After living in Rio for two years, he returned to Buenos Aires to shoot additional interviews for Tango Illusions.

Now after seven years abroad, he has finished Tango Illusions and has brought it back home to California.
By Mojib Aimaq

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