Coming from a background in photography and cinematography, Alejandro Loayza Grisi embarked on his directorial career with Utama, the tale of an elderly Quechua couple wrangling llamas in the Bolivian highlands.
Presenting both the hardships of a changing climate on people living off the land and the impacts of migration on families and culture, the film is a subtle and intimate drama presented against some astonishing vistas of the Altiplano. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and it has gone on to pick up numerous awards at festivals throughout 2022 before becoming Bolivia’s entry for the 95th Academy Awards.
CineVue’s Ben Nicholson was fortunate to get to sit down with the filmmaker when the film screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October.
Ben Nicholson: The film engages with this incredibly complex situation that involves climate change, migration, loss of culture, and language extinction. How did you come to this place and story?
Alejandro Loayza Grisi: I think that Bolivia is a country that has been suffering this loss of culture and language for a long time, in a process that’s taken hundreds of years. In the 70s, we were a country where 70% of the population lived in the countryside. Nowadays, 50 years later, 70% of the population lives in the city. So, many things have changed. Cities are starting to be more like each other with time; you can go to a city in the US, and it could easily be a city in Mexico, or in Europe. I think that was one of the things that drew my attention. Also, I travelled all around Bolivia doing an environmental documentary series called Planeta Bolivia, and I got to see all our environmental problems. It’s very painful to see how such a beautiful country with such amazing nature, is in danger of disappearing – an entire country, an enormous country. The region the film is set in is one that has suffered the most from climate change consequences; there are others that may look healthy today, but with how we are behaving, are in danger in 20-30 years.
We, as Bolivians, since we have many cultures and languages, don’t have a clear identity. It’s a great thing because we are very diverse, but at the same time, it’s a question we always have in the back of our minds. We don’t have a strong national football team [laughs] or strong artists or rock bands. So, it’s hard to identify what it means to be Bolivian. I think these questions are in every Bolivian, and the film is exploring those questions about identity and culture.
BN: You talk about this being a longer process but, in the film, you depict specific points of conflict currently arising between the generations. Do you think this is because that process is speeding up? Are there bigger generational gaps now?
ALG: I think it’s a mix because, clearly, in recent years, everything has been speeding up. Ever since the internet, everything has changed; we are living in the middle of a digital revolution. I think it was a historical process. It’s funny because, nowadays, people are trying to recover what we have lost – people are trying to be prouder of what we were in Bolivia. There was a time in history when it was seen as bad that you spoke an indigenous language; you were a second-class citizen because you didn’t speak Spanish well. That has been happening since the Spanish Empire arrived, probably, but it was a distinguishing mark of the past century. I think that [the film’s younger character] Clever going to the countryside is an exploration of people nowadays trying to go back to their roots. I wanted to show this desire not to forget these roots, not to forget this place where we come from. It’s not only Bolivians. Our nature, as human beings, is to be closer to the earth, to the natural world. To live in huge cities is very recent for us. We have a new clock, since probably the Industrial Revolution, and we respond to this clock. We are living under this time regime. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad, it’s just the way it is, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of how it used to be.
BN: What was the process like of working with the local community and trying to incorporate into the film how they felt about these things issues you’re talking about?
ALG: Well, we had the help of a person that was very important during the pre-production and shooting – he belongs to the community, and he helped us introduce the project to the community. They’re so abandoned that the state doesn’t represent the government to them. They have internal rules, which is great. They decide everything as a community, so we presented the project to them, and they decided to support us because they felt it was interesting to show this reality. When they saw the film recently, just a couple of weeks ago, they felt the same way. So, I feel it is ‘mission accomplished’ for us. They are very happy with the film representing their reality, representing their stories, and their characters. Working with them was easy because they are very generous people, very open-minded and progressive, so it was easy to engage them and work with them. The lead actors [José Calcina and Luisa Quispe] were the same as the others; they were very committed to the film, they learned the script by heart, and though they were not in the beginning, I think, after the rehearsals, they became professional actors. I think the most important thing was to have a nice shooting process. Our process was so happy that we could repeat it many times. I think that when you have this in the process, you can also sense it in the film.
BN: And were there specific things that you got from the community that impacted the story? Were there things that you hadn’t really thought about that the change of perspective brought to it?
ALG: I shared the script with many people during the process, or at least the story. I needed to investigate this particular region, this particular problem. So, I shared it with climate experts, with Quechua experts, and with this person from the community. He gave me some notes, and I went and corrected them. The actors also showed me the things they did – so many of the things they are doing in daily life are brought to the film by them; that was great for me to have these actions performed in a natural way because they know how to do it. As for the story, the only scene that was not fully written out with dialogue was the scene where they discuss, as a community, what to do. We did that with rehearsals the same day as shooting. I asked for two hours of rehearsals with them, and I said to them, “okay, this is the problem: it hasn’t rained, it’s already February. What would you do as a community? What happens?” So, they started giving me their arguments and I chose what was interesting. I might give advice, like asking them to make something shorter, but they built the scene themselves because these are true concerns they have.
BN: It’s one thing to agree to be in a big group dialogue scene like this, but what was it like convincing José and Luisa to be your leads? Did you always know you wanted non-professionals, from the local community, to play those roles?
ALG: We knew it would be better to have local people play the roles because they could relate to the story better and could engage with the characters more. We knew it was not going to be an easy casting process, but I knew I wanted them since the first minute I saw them. I started talking with Luisa and then the husband came out, and he was also great – so I was very happy. But they were not interested. It’s a new thing for them and they have a very different perception of cinema. I was just a stranger in a car, asking them to do a crazy thing. So, at first, they were not interested, but then they saw we were serious – they saw us coming back again and again, doing casting in the entire region – so they came back and knocked on the door and said, “we’ll do it. We’re interested.”
BN: I remember reading that they found it difficult to be argumentative with each other because they’re actually not like that at all. How much do you feel you need to properly direct them, and how much was it about making it comfortable for them? It’s always interesting to hear from directors working with non-professional actors and how you go about getting them to do things that they feel less comfortable with, or feel are less authentic.
ALG: Yes, exactly. I must say that in this case, they were acting the entire time. My method – the rehearsals, the shooting – was that way. It was better for me to let them know everything that was happening. Of course, they have natural reactions, but it’s not that we were hunting with the camera. Other processes, other films, and other directors might need to do that. For this film, I didn’t need to. They were responding so well in rehearsals, that it was better for me to have them acting all the time. It was also very important to distinguish between work and real life because real life is more important than work. I didn’t want them to be sad or depressed about the characters, about death, about the situation. So, they were having a blast, they were having a laugh, and then off they went to shoot a death scene. So yeah, they really became professional actors and none of the reactions are natural, it’s all performance. I’m very proud of what we achieved as a team.
BN: In that team, you were taking on a new role, as director. What was it like for you, having to relinquish some of the control of the cinematography?
ALG: It was a natural process and very easy for me. First, I was a photographer, then a director of photography, then a director. I guess I could have seen the role of the director from another side with less responsibility, but I wanted that for myself – I learned a lot from all the directors I worked with. Also, this film arrived with no pressure because I was not a director, I was just doing a film. I feel that when you study to be a director, and you do some short films in university, people are going to ask you ‘when is the first feature? What’s it about?’ You have a lot of pressure from yourself, from the people that know you, from the debt you have acquired with the bank, or the money your parents paid for university. In my case, it was with no pressure. I also felt I had the greatest cinematographer I could have – Barbara Alvarez. So, when I was directing, I could just hand off all the lighting and cinematography responsibilities, I was very comfortable because I could not have done it better than her – that’s clear. She’s amazing and we share sensitivities, so it was an easy process, and no one could have made it better than Barbara. Also, the production team gave me all the comfort I could have asked for to be directing in peace.
BN: I recall Barbara saying in an interview that you shared some visual inspirations with her, to illustrate particularly how you wanted the images to convey the people and how they exist in the landscape. What kind of inspirations were in your mind and what was the visual language you were trying to get to with her?
ALG: Well, one of the main things, visually, was that we needed the outside to be very different from the inside. We needed to contrast them because when you’re outside, you’re not safe – the sun is high and tough on you, and you’re this small human creature in this desolate place. Inside, you’re comfortable – you are with family, and you are in a small, warm place. We wanted to have this contrast. The light in the highlands is very particular because of course it’s more than 4000 metres above sea level, so it’s different, and we wanted to show that as well. I had been collecting photos during the years I was writing – since I am a photographer myself – and I had a very clear picture of how I wanted the film to look. When Barbara joined, I showed her these references and we worked on storyboards and adjusted everything. So, in terms of framing on set, she already knew what I wanted and would then propose better shots. It was a very natural process. She also backed me up with her experience. Being a first-time director, you are always tempted to show how good you are – you have this temptation to do things, to show off your skills – but she backed me and helped me to escape this anxiety.
UTAMA is released in UK/Irish cinemas 25 November – Cinema Listings
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson