The Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is an annual event that attracts both the best and the brightest in documentary filmmaking. Once again, the recent wave of Argentinean documentaries makes a strong impression upon the jaded audience of Gotham cineastes.
Oscar is a portrait-style documentary directed by Sergio Morkin. Filmed entirely on location in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the film depicts the life of Oscar Brahim: a cab driver, guerilla artist and family man. Whilst driving his hired taxi through the city streets of Buenos Aires, Oscar looks out for particularly offensive billboards that rudely dot the urban landscape. He saves various images of posters in his apartment, and then carefully plots out certain billboards that he would like to circumvent and artistically enhance with his own economic and political message.
His victims are advertisements for cigarettes, such as Marlboro, ads for politicians, banks and various other consumer products. Often, he recreates simple food product advertisements to include political figures, condoms and messages about abortion. Oscar is doing all of his artwork while he is driving his hired taxi, which is an average shift of 12 hours a day. The print media writes about him, exposing his creative efforts as “guerilla art.” They describe him as an ordinary man with extraordinary tastes. Oscar responds by saying, “Is there such a thing as an ordinary man?”
Often, his young son accompanies him as he borrows ladders and milk crates from local merchants in order to juxtapose the images of babies in a Benneton advertisement into peso coins. Sometimes the locals trash his work, other times, drivers stop in awe to see him take a simple consumer product billboard advertisement and turn it into an intense political message.
At one point, Oscar recruits a local cartoonist to help him with his revision of billboard art. The cartoonist becomes paranoid of the police and their dogs, whom merely waltz by their advertising revision as if nothing was happening, providing comic relief for an otherwise tense moment. Oscar bravely exploits the billboards of Buenos Aires in the way Don Quixote tilted windmills in Spain. Morkin’s camera captures the facial expressions of the artist with aplomb.
The university students at the local colleges that offer courses in advertising receive him as a hero when he guest lectures to them, saying that he likes to “fuck with advertising.” Meanwhile, he is offered a job by the largest advertising agency in the city, and politely refuses.
Oscar’s life begins to unravel, as he develops severe back problems from driving his taxi for such long hours. One of his two children is hit by a car and breaks a leg. Oscar discovers the problems within the hospitals in Buenos Aires such as petty thievery and the fact that a wheelchair cannot be rented, only purchased. This proves to be quite a burden on a lowly paid cabbie cum guerilla artist.
As Oscar decides to leave his cab-driving job “for the sake of art,” he deals with the political unrest that filters into Buenos Aires vis-à-vis the events of September 11th in New York City. He creates several Taliban-related works on billboards and exploits the anthrax paranoia that descended upon all of the Americas. His family life becomes tense as they are eventually evicted from their apartment. The final scene shows Oscar’s young son waving to the camera from the back of a moving truck loaded with the family’s few possessions. A fitting goodbye that leaves the viewer pulling for a true-blooded artist that refuses to sell out to the corporate world of advertising and graphic design. Morkin’s portrait is well created, just like Oscar’s billboards.