By Gary M. Kramer.
Ecuadorian cinema has been booming in recent years, and the 3rd Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York, June 9-17, showcases films by some of the most intriguing directors from Latin America. This year’s program screens not only in Manhattan, but also in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley, making Ecuadorian cinema available to wider audiences.
One of the highlights of the festival is Sebastián Cordero’s Such Is Life in the Tropics, a riveting drama about corruption and squatters rights in Guayaquil. The film, Ecuador’s entry for the recent Academy Awards, Tropics features multiple converging storylines as a tourist is killed, the crime is covered up, and revenge is plotted. Cordero, Ecuador’s best-known filmmaker has crafted an impressive drama that reveals much about the country and the issue of squatters’ rights.
Alba, the debut feature by writer/director Ana Cristina Barragán, features a remarkable performance by Macarena Arias as the title character, a shy 11 year-old girl who comes of age over the course of the film. Isolated at school, Alba’s best friend may be her ill mother (Amaya Merino). But when an accident at home lands Alba’s mother in the hospital, the young girl is forced to live with her estranged father, Igor (Pablo Aguirre).
Alba doesn’t say much to her father (or anyone else, really), preferring to work on her 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle alone in the attic. Igor doesn’t say much either; he seems ill equipped to deal with life, much less his daughter. When Alba gets her first period, he isn’t much comfort. It is only during a trip to the seaside, late in the film, where Alba and her father have anything resembling a conversation, and it concerns how he was bullied at school. Yet Barragán artfully traces how Alba grapples with the challenges of her life through this nearly wordless film. Alba’s insecurity goes beyond missing her mother, and not really connecting with her dad. She is troubled at school, where she has few friends. When an older girl, Eva (Fernanda Molestina), pays her some attention, Alba gets invited to a party with the cool kids. She is still picked on in games of Truth or Dare, but she also gets to participate in a dance routine that helps her self-esteem, and slowly, but not entirely, come out of her shell.
Alba is filmed in an intense and intimate style that makes all of its heroine’s sadness and despair palpable. This compelling drama never loses sympathy for Alba—even when she makes foolish or heartbreaking decisions, such as lying about where she lives, or stealing things, like her classmates’ makeup and clothes. Barragán builds considerable tension depicting Alba’s peculiar behavior, and part of this is because Macarena is such an expressive young actress. She conveys Alba’s silent, emotional pain, which is manifested in her gawky body language and her frequent nosebleeds. It is almost unbearable, but it is never boring or mawkish. (Viewers may liken her to a South American cousin to Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie White, minus the telekinesis). Barragán’s film is not an easy watch; it is bleak and discomforting. But it is certainly one to admire and worth a look.
Also playing at the 3rd Ecuadorian Film Festival is Alexandra Cuesta’s exquisite documentary, Territorio. Cuesta fixes her camera on the streets and people in four provinces in Ecuador: Imbabura, Manabí, Azuay, and Orellana. She captures the rhythm of daily life, from a barber giving men a shave and a haircut, to children playing, to a woman on the phone outside a nightclub. The images are striking; a young boy on a bicycle rides up in front of Cuesta’s lens and scrutinizes the camera; a man sings passionately; and an overhead shot records a laborer digging, his sweaty, muscular back moving in and around the fixed frame.
Cuesta presents these scenes with very little dialogue or information; the film features mostly ambient noise on the soundtrack. This approach allows viewers to create meaning, or make their own connections about the individuals whose lives are being recorded. The effect is like a moving slide show or travelogue. Territorio invites viewers to visit parts of Ecuador that would likely go unseen by regular tourists. Cuesta’s images—particularly her opening and closing shots—are dazzling. They emphasize the quiet dignity of her subjects, while revealing much about the social, cultural and economic landscape of the country.