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Punishment, Injustice, and Modernity: Incarceration in Argentine Cinema

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Wilson-Nunn, Oliver  ORCID logo


This thesis explores how cinematic engagements with imprisonment in Argentina have reflected on and participated in changing experiences, discourses, and projects of modernity from the 1930s through to the present day. Canonically, punitive modernity has been theorised as the result of punishment being rationalised, institutionalised, and secluded into strictly bound spaces (Foucault 1975). Drawing on debates about the relationship between imprisonment and modernity in Latin America (Caimari 2004, Salvatore and Aguirre 1996), however, I argue that the films of my corpus dramatise the entanglement of modernisation and modernity in the multidirectional flows of emotions, violence, and capital across prison walls. Be they ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’, these films offer structural assessments of incarceration, such that prison is understood to affect ‘everyday lives everywhere’ (Gilmore 2007). Argentine prison-based cinema encourages critical readings of the internal contradictions within the modern state and the broader socio-economic inequalities within which its institutions are entangled.

In order to conceptualise the wide-reaching relationship between imprisonment, film, and the rest of society, I develop a methodology that moves beyond the scholarly tendency to ‘spot the difference’ between prison realities and ‘deceitful’ images. This thesis is concerned not with the truth value of films about prison but the ways in which these films inform and are informed by historically specific discourses regarding the relationship between state and society in modernity. My resulting interdisciplinary approach is attentive not only to the moving image itself but to the institutional relationships embedded in the production, exhibition, and reception of films about incarceration.

The thesis is structured around what I argue to be four key moments in the cinematic history of incarceration in Argentina. In Chapter 1, I analyse cinema from the 1930s through the lens of melodrama theory. These films make moral and emotional arguments against ineffective, modernised institutions to legitimise more ‘popular’ forms of justice. In Chapter 2, I draw on spatial theory to examine how films made during the first Peronist governments (1946–1955) situate reformed prisons as part of porous urban circuits that include domestic, work, and leisure spaces. Attentive to the increased popularity of location shooting and film exhibition in operational prisons, this chapter also considers how offscreen cinematic practices are incorporated into these networks. Chapter 3 turns to women-in-prison exploitation films made during the 1970s and 1980s, either side of the last civic-military dictatorship. Building on debates about the changing role of gender, sexuality, religion, and state violence in Argentina’s identity as a modern nation, I situate the tension between pleasure, evidence, and knowledge as central to these films’ unease towards democratic state institutions. Lastly, in Chapter 4, I engage with critical human rights studies to show how contemporary films made by incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and non-incarcerated people alike build on but defamiliarise iconographies of human rights associated with the last dictatorship. Focusing on the gendered, classed, and racialised experiences of contemporary ‘common’ prisoners, these films invite critical reflection on modernity’s framework of individual and universal rights.





Page, Joanna


Argentina, cinema, justice, Latin America, modernity, prison


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Wolfson Postgraduate Scholarship in the Humanities