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South Americans Explain The Bonkers World Of Telenovela

Photo: Amores Roubados Via Youtube.
"There was this young girl who dreamt of ice skating professionally but her evil arch nemesis, another girl, pushed her and broke her legs to ruin her career." My friend, 32 year-old Suzanna Atala, a jewellery designer from Mexico who lives in New York, is recounting the plot line from her favourite TV show as a child. "Right" I say, trying to gage Suzanna's grave tone. "How awful" is all I can sincerely muster. For those of you well versed in telenovela (Latin American soap operas) this plot line will sound very unremarkable.

Telenovela, for those not familiar with the word, or the genre, is a very particular type of South American television programming that has its roots in Brazilian culture, but is now a global phenomenon. The reach of telenovela is monolithic. As Dr. Janet McCabe, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at Birkbeck University levelled it to me, "programming can reach around 576million people in 163million TV homes." Often glibly compared to the American soap opera (more of that later) Telenovela is a fusion of two words: "television" and 'novel" and one of Brazil's most colourful cultural exports.

The programming is frequent and telenovelas have "a limited run, consisting of about 75-150 episodes and are broadcast over three-six months, usually daily, five or six days a week during prime-time," explained McCabe. The plot lines are sensational and explosive, and casts can reach around 80 members on one show.

The one thing all telenovela shows share is passion. Passion is the axis upon which all the Shakespearian plot-lines revolve; burning, hot, simpering passion that spans family feuds, trysts, missing persons, false identities and Machiavellian masterminds.

Occasionally, even the kick-off times for football matches are delayed due to telenovela scheduling.

The frequency of telenovela episodes mean producers are able to be agile in responding to cultural happenings, political developments and social trends like sex, religion, drugs, illness and crime –issues that are not being discussed elsewhere. Their stories make headlines and their scheduling means that occasionally even the kick-off times for football matches are delayed. Their characters' tribulations, triumphs and desires are relatable to both rich and poor; they're household names and they generate a large percentage of the country's celebrities.

McCabe told me that the show's content and story lines naturally vary from region to region although the "dominant trope of the genre is the fate of the individual in the social world." So typically, a show would see "a protagonist (normally a woman) leaving behind her family, as she moves from the countryside to the city to take a job." The narrative would traditionally follow an "ugly duckling story, with a plain girl falling in love with a handsome man (called a "galan") who eventually falls in love with her – but in the end, she’s discovered to be beautiful." Around the central plot line usually circulates other regular sub-themes like "class conflict between maids and rich wives, or, a search for ancestry linked to social mobility," added McCabe.

Generally, you'll identify "Brazilian (TV Globo) for its social, more issue-based telenovelas, that are more realistic, and often with historically based narratives. These have relatively higher production values and more complex plots. Colombian ones also have a hard edge and social context, but with more comedy and irony – and set in contemporary times. Mexican ones (Televisa) are more obviously melodramatic and sentimental in tone. An example of which can be seen in the American show Ugly Betty, with the Suarez family watching Mexican telenovelas. While Venezuelan productions are more emotional and share some of the baroque-ness of the Mexican ones."
Sua Vida Me Pertence, or, Your Life Belongs to Me was the first Brazilian telenovela to be aired in 1951. It was shown twice a week and featured Brazil's first televised kiss. The medium engulfed more than the expected target audience that was largely housewives, almost immediately. Peru's 1969 show, Simplemente Maria, saw 10,000 people show up to the character's wedding in Lima. The show was then rolled out in Venezuela and Mexico.

McCabe cited some seminal shows that followed the traditional unfurling. "Yo soy Betty, La Fea (1999) is the classic ugly duckling story. La Usurpadora (1998) is about twins separated at birth who meet (unknowingly) as adults; one is rich and evil, Paola, and other poor and good, Paulina. Then there's the modern Amigas y Rivales (2001), with a rich kids’ theme, complete with maid!"

Carla Estrada, one of the foremost and most celebrated producers of the genre, told the BBC that the script and plot line is crucial. "You need suspense, emotion, love and logic, in order to carry the story through 190 episodes."

It's easy to compare the telenovela to the American soap opera as a kind of mind-numbing escapism exercise, however, as many academics in the 1980s would later contest, the telenovela became a shiny and idiosyncratic emblem of native and domestic programming, clearly impacting and reflecting Latin America's cultural landscape.

Come the early 1990s, Soviet broadcasters were buying shows like Mexico's También Lloran (The Rich Also Cry), starring Verónica Castro and Rogelio Guerra – a show from the late 1970s. Roughly 200million Russians tuned in to watch the finale. McCabe would argue a smooth adoption in countries like Russia is largely down to a shared "wealth divide between rich and poor, between rulers and the ruled, and a shared experience of established religious and familial structures. in Eastern Europe, the genre has been used to negotiate the shift from a communist to post-communist world."

Evidently, their appeal is still such, that in 2015, Netflix made the smart decision to bring Telenovela to a Western mainstream audience by buying 20 of Latin America's most popular Telenovela shows, including the 2010 series, Las Muñecas de la Mafia (basically Mob Wives) and Para Volver a Amar (think SATC).

Telenovela, much like soap operas in the UK, while generating lots of interest, divides audiences and can often come under charges of trashiness, sentimentality and just sheer outlandishness. Sure that to dismiss the genre based on its tendencies towards hyperbole was unfair, we decided to speak to a cross-section of Latin Americans about the televisual novel and why they love it so much.

Filipa Corvacho, a Portuguese 26-year-old Graphic Designer living in East London, explained how essential the programmes had been to her formative years. "Since I can remember, I have always watched Brazilian telenovelas. Since the age of five, I have watched three shows a day. We have Portuguese telenovelas as well but I was always into the Brazilian ones."

Anne Sophie Costa, a 30-year-old make up artist living in London, echoed Filipa's love of Brazilian TV. "Although I am Portuguese, I watched two-three Brazilian telenovela programmes a day when I was growing up."

"Brazilian people– I must say that they are incredible actors," Anne Sophie told me. "It's actually a shame that they don't translate many of the programmes into english, because the world has no idea of what it is missing. They do everything with so much passion. They really do live the character until the end, almost in the way they have psychological problems after their role has ended. Especially if their character is a very strong and mean one."

Anne Sophie told me that it's not just the romance that makes this kind of TV experience special. "They can be very high budget, and you have directors like George Moura, who makes every scene look like poetry."
I asked both women about their favourite shows. Fillipa liked Explode Coraçao, a series from the '90s "that was about the gypsy community, I love it. But my favourite character ever was Suelen from from Avenida Brasil." Anne Sophie admired O Rei Do Gado for its moral and social focus; "It's a very educational novela as it covers a lot of problems in Brazilian politics. The muse is Patricia Pillar, who is a beautiful, amazing actress and woman! For me she is the Brazilian Tilda Swinton."

It's not just women who watch the shows. Juan Romero, a 22-year-old Colombian working in retail in London, tells me that "cast members are like family members. You grow up with them and you feel their pains and their triumphs. We love them like sisters and brothers and cousins."

Suzanna told me that her mother used to forbid her from watching novelas, "but the service lady in my house who looked after me would let me watch them in secret with her." She tells me that her father certainly still watches cartel soap operas, "but he wouldn't admit that to you."

I ask Anne Sophie if she's ever followed a whole series over the course of several years. "I did with this one mini-series called Amores Roubados. Caua Reymond [a world famous novela actor and heartthrob] falls in love with a girl (Isis Valverde). I watched that from start to finish."

"Why?" I asked her. Anne Sophie pauses... "I will never forget this one intimate moment on a beach, and the feelings were so intense I was covered in goose bumps. I began to think this is actually love. A few months later I ended up discovering that both actors had fallen in love on set. It was real love after all. I think this is beautiful."