Bolivian snapshot

Alejandro Loayza Grisi on working with non-professional actors, sweeping landscapes and llamas in Utama

by Amber Wilkinson

José Calcina as Virginio in Utama. Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'We knew the best choice was always going to be to have natural people doing the acting'
José Calcina as Virginio in Utama. Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'We knew the best choice was always going to be to have natural people doing the acting'
Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama pairs the sweeping landscapes of the Bolivian Highlands with an intimate story of love and life for ageing Quecha llama shepherd Virginio and his wife Sisa (real life husband and wife José Calcina and Luisa Quispe). With climate change affecting the water supply, life is increasingly tough, but they still don’t welcome the suggestion from their grandson Clever (Santos Choque), who comes to visit, that they should go back to the city with him. The film is playing in the Best of Fest section at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival this week and opens in the UK on Friday. We caught up with Grisi to talk about the themes and challenges of his film.

How difficult it was to cast the film, because you use a real life couple. How did you find them and persuade them to become involved in the project?

ALG: We knew the casting was not going to be easy, because we needed a couple of elderly Quechua, who spoke very good Quechan and very good Spanish and who knew about the countryside life in Bolivia. So we did a small casting in La Paz. But we knew the best choice was always going to be to have natural people doing the acting. So we went through their entire region. It's a big region in Bolivia with a very small population and very small communities sometimes one or two-hours drive apart. We went town by town asking to meet all the elderly people. And the first ones we saw were them. And I knew I loved them. I loved their faces and their smiles. But they were not interested at first. I think they were not interested because it seems like something you're not going to start doing in your eighties. I feel what's the theme and they are not even interested. It's a way different relationship with film they have in this part of the world - when Luisa saw the film, it was her first time entering a movie theatre.

That must have been quite a lot for her, just the whole experience, but then to be seeing herself on screen. How did she react to that?

ALG: She loved the film. Now she's becoming a cinema fan. So I'm sending some DVDs.

So how did you persuade them in the end?

Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'It's great to work in a family, because we are, the three of us are very different. It’s a good thing, because we are forced to have long conversations to reach the best way to do things'
Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'It's great to work in a family, because we are, the three of us are very different. It’s a good thing, because we are forced to have long conversations to reach the best way to do things' Photo: Michael Dunn
ALG: We kept going. Also, our base was very close to their home so I think they really saw we were serious people and we were doing a serious thing. And then they got interested and they came back and said to me, we have decided that we're going to be in the fiilm.

Well, that was good news for you because it's worked out so well. The film is kind of a love story but it's really set within this quite strong environmental framework. How did you come to the story? From the love story angle and then kind of build the rest around it? Or were you thinking of the environment and then putting the love story in it?

ALG: The first story was the structure of the film, and from the love story, I started building everything around it. At first it was a love story also set in the countryside of Bolivia, but in a different part of Bolivia, in the Andes, in between the mountains, and it was a rainy place. They had to fight also against climate but in a different way. But then I got to travel all around Bolivia, shooting a documentary series as a DOP. It was an environmental documentary so we learned about all the environmental problems we have in Bolivia and the consequences of climate change. So I decided that it was way better to set the story in this place. It was also resisting the climate but it's a dilemma of living or dying, it’s way stronger.

There’s a saying that you should never work with children or animals - and you’ve got an entire herd of llamas in your film. Did that present any challenges for you?

ALG: It presents challenges and it's not easy to work with animals. You have to be very careful, you have to be very respectful not to hurt them. But I must say the llamas are very easy animals to work with, because they are so photogenic. You can stare at them and they put you in a good mood. They are also smart. So by the fifth time we were repeating a scene, they kind of already knew what they needed to do like going to this place. Actually, the trainer told us that if we had sent him the script a month before he could have had them way more prepared.

So you literally had trained llamas then?

ALG: They belong to some person in the same community. But we had to take them to the house, because we built the house. And we built the place where the llama stay. So they had to take them to this place so they could get used to it.

It’s bit of a hybrid film, there's quite a heavy documentary element but also you are telling a fictional story. The couple are non-professionals so how did you go about directing them into those situations for the emotional moments you want.

ALG: I think it has the sense of a documentary, but it was planned and written and shot entirely as a fiction and we also rehearsed it as a fiction. So they knew the entire script by heart, and they knew we rehearsed scene by scene. So we rehearsed each scene because it was very important for me that they could internalse the feelings of each scene, and that they knew what the story was about and that they could relate themselves to the story. And I wanted to not surprise him, because other directors choose to, when they work with natural actors, not to share many parts of the script ao they can have more natural reactions. But in my case, it was way better for them to entirely know what was happening. Because it's not easy to be in your quiet life in the countryside and suddenly, there's a crew of 25 people staring at you as the shot goes on. So it was better for me to show them and I also showed them what we were shooting with the headphones and everything so they could see themselves and what they were doing.

And how did you cast Santos Choque as Clever because it’s very important that he fits in with that sort of environment?

ALG: We already knew him from a previous project. He had a small role in a previous film we made. We opened a big casting. But he was not answering his phone or calls or Facebook, nothing. And then when we were just one week before I was supposed to start rehearsing, he called my brother who's the producer, and he said, “Hey, Santiago. Sorry, I didn't pick up the phone. I was with no signal. I was living with my grandparents in the countryside”. Okay, hired.

You mention your brother being the producer. Your father is also a filmmaker, does coming from a filmmaking family help you?

ALG: Yes. My father always told us that cinema is a craft that you learn by doing it. And you learn it day by day. I think I learned it that way. Because I didn't study cinema, I studied advertisement. I learned photography first and then directional photography, and then directing by doing it every day. And by watching him. I consider him to be kind of a master.

Luisa Quispe as Sisa in Utama. Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'When Luisa saw the film, it was her first time entering a movie theatre'
Luisa Quispe as Sisa in Utama. Alejandro Loayza Grisi: 'When Luisa saw the film, it was her first time entering a movie theatre'

He taught me a lot of things I know about cinema. And it's great to work in a family, because we are, the three of us are very different. It’s a good thing, because we are forced to have long conversations to reach the best way to do things. So I think that helped a lot.

You touched on the fact you were a cinematographer who moved into directing. How hard was it to hand off that job to a cinematographer for this film?

ALG: That was one of the trickiest questions we had before going into production, because we needed to find someone that I could hand off to and be comfortable and at peace with. And it was very easy to hand it to Barbara Alvarez. She's a great cinematographer. She has great sensitivity and we share the same approach. I already knew how I wanted the film to look, I had a lot of references. So it was easy for me to envision the film in a visual way. But it was harder for me to envision how it was with the actors and with the sound. So handing off the cinematography to someone else was the best thing I could do because I was iin a good place to do the rest of the job.

When you say you had references, were they photographic, or paintings? What sorts of things were you using?

ALG: Visually, I had pictures and film stills. And I have a mood board for the visual part. But then I used other references, for instance, for the acting part. And for the silences I worked with Aki Kaurismäki’s film Drifting clouds. I showed that film to the actors, and I was explaining to them, ‘Look how he's using his glance, look how, with silence, they are telling a lot of things’.

It’s interesting you touch on the silence element, because the sound design is really crucial to the film. How was working on that was, both on the set, because I imagine there were some challenges of being in the highlands, and in post-production?

ALG: Yes, the good thing is the Uruguayan co-producer owns a studio for post production and he went to the shoot, so he knew how the place sounded. The biggest challenge was to transport the audience to this particular place with a particular sound and to show how the earth is suffering and how windy it is and how they are struggling with this very hostile climate. During the shoot, we knew that breathing was going to be very important for the sound of the film. So we incorporated that and we recorded many options of the breathing and many options of the coughing. I love classic cinema in the way that you just use everything to tell the story, every single resource you have. And you also use music as a resource to tell the story. I love films with music so I always knew I wanted music. And I used to work listening to concerts from this composer. So this music used to take me to this place and I wanted the same for the film.

Alejandro Loayzo Grisi: 'The llamas are very easy animals to work with, because they are so photogenic. You can stare at them and they put you in a good mood'
Alejandro Loayzo Grisi: 'The llamas are very easy animals to work with, because they are so photogenic. You can stare at them and they put you in a good mood'
Cergio Prudencio’s score really adds to the mood of the film, not just the local instruments that are being used but also its unsettling mood.

ALG: It’s a new exploration of native instruments. It's an experimental orchestra. I think it has a strong change in moods. The music itself is a piece of art , a masterpiece. So having that with images was the best thing we could ask for in the film.

Will you shoot again in Bolivia or will you shoot your next project elsewhere?

ALG: Well, at some point, I would love to shoot an English-speaking film. But the next one is definitely going to be in Bolivia and I'm always going to go back to Bolivia because it's a place I love and it's a place with an enormous amount of stories to tell. But I would love to have the possibility to be in between both worlds like to shoot like Pablo Larrain has.

It’s great that you will continue to make films in Bolivia as it’s a place we don’t see often on film.

ALG:Exactly. It's a place that has not got a big cinematographic history. So it's very important for me to keep telling stories from Bolivia, and from different parts of Bolivia because Bolivia is a very big country with very diverse landscapes and cultures.

Utama is released in the UK on November 25, find a screening near you here

Watch the trailer below:

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