Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Close encounters of the charitable kind

Rural landscapes and dust-clouded roads; cocks, dogs and donkeys; horses dragging carts and kids on bikes: the emphasis is clearly on nurturing a sense of place in the tranquil, rather idyllic opening scenes of Argentine-Canadian director Andrés Livov-Macklin’s A Place Called Los Pereyra. The film tracks an encounter between Los Pereyra, a remote village without phones or electricity in the heavily forested region of Cacho, Argentina, and a group of teenage girls dubbed las Madrinas or “the Godmothers,” who until recently made annual trips to Pereyra from Buenos Aires, some 1,450 kilometers away, with the ostensible goal of helping Pereyra’s children to better appreciate education—the village only has one school, which ends at grade six.

The well-intentioned madrinas do what teenage girls from big cities do: they try to have fun, play games with the kids, flirt with a local teenage boy or two, and then leave. It's not unlike being a councillor at summer camp, and constitutes what is no doubt a formative experience for the girls. But how effective is this interaction? Is it all that educational (in the conventional sense)? What is the lasting impact of their visit on the village? Lyrical and attentive, the film neither commends nor condemns las madrinas, but by simply observing the encounter, and spending time in Pereyra before and after, A Place Called Los Pereyra prompts intriguing questions about the efficiency and aftereffects of such altruistic programs, while offering a portrait of a place, seemingly populated almost entirely by children and the elderly (people of working age have presumably gone elsewhere), that feels very much apart from much of 21st century society.

I spoke with Los Pereyra’s co-producer Hugh Gibson over breakfast earlier this week. Gibson is also a writer and director; his 2004 film ‘Hogtown Blues’ won the Audience Award at the Bilbao International Film Festival, and he’s since worked on a series of videos designed to promote Toronto’s Regent Park’s harm reduction program for drug users. Gibson’s story of making Los Pereyra is one of hard work and happy accidents. It’s also about the elusiveness of closure.
Producer Hugh Gibson    

JB: You and Andrés studied film at York University together, right? Is that where this project started?

HG: We knew each other a little through school, but we only got to know each other really well later, when we both had our thesis movies playing at the Montreal film festival. That was back n 2004.

JB: Was Andrés’ thesis film a documentary?

HG: Yes. Mostly about his grandfather. He shot it in Buenos Aires. You could see from that film that he had a particular eye. A poetic sensibility to his storytelling. After school he went back to Argentina and started developing this idea he got from friends who’d taken these charitable trips to distant villages when they were in high school. This sort of thing is practiced widely down there. Andrés always wondered what happens when people from privileged backgrounds go to these places—places that are the opposite of privileged—and then leave. These visitors descend as though from a UFO almost. What must the villagers think when they’re gone? What’s village life like when the visitors aren’t there? Andrés workshopped this idea at the Berlin Film Festival’s Talent Campus where, once more, we both happened to wind up at the same time, staying in the same dorm. I loved his idea. I was very interested in Argentine cinema, specifically after seeing Los Muertos and The Holy Girl. I really wanted this movie to be made. We met the guy who would compose music for the movie in Berlin too. Gary Marlowe. A German guy. It was a fortuitous trip.

JB: You compared these groups to UFOs. One of the film’s most interesting scenes is the one where the grandfather with the giant white face-spanning moustache is sitting on the fence in his boxer shorts, telling his grandson about these people who are coming to visit. What he describes almost sounds like science-fiction, or myth. As though Buenos Aires was Valhalla.

HG: Yes. It becomes a magical place in the kids’ minds.

JB: You guys spent so long preparing; when you started to see the footage, did anything really surprise you?

HG: There were big surprises. The whole trip to the zoo, for instance. None of that was planned. In previous years they had never left Los Pereyra. But this bus came along and took the kids on this field trip and yielded some extremely interesting material.

JB: The idea of these city girls taking these children from the countryside, who are clearly accustomed to living amongst animals, and bringing them to a zoo—it lends itself to being used as a metaphor for the whole project at its most ineffective. But the film smartly resists that metaphor; it doesn’t push it too hard. It would be a facile reading of the relationship between las madrinas and Los Pereyra.

HG: Andrés’ approach was always about keeping distance. Fly on the wall. There were never going to be any formal interviews or voiceover to fill in the gaps. So it follows that you’re not going to beat the audience over the head with big metaphors. There are hints and suggestions to follow, if you’re so inclined.

JB: There is one sequence that feels like a more overt editorial statement, the one where we cut between las madrinas having a party, dancing and singing along to the Rent soundtrack—I guess they brought a generator—while this boy sits alone by a campfire, until he gets up and says he’s going home.

HG: I would say that throughout the movie we just tried to find opportunities to emphasize certain differences. The culture clash. There’s a lot of that in the previous scene where everyone visits that family farm and we learn that children there hunt pumas. The food, the skinning of the goat carcass—we wanted to make clear how different are these two ways of life.

JB: You mentioned that the question that prompted the film had to do with the aftereffects of these visits. I wonder how you felt about the idea that a film crew, however small and unobtrusive, might also have a similar effect. You come, turn a spotlight on these people, and then vanish.

HG: A very good question. One that we struggle with to this day.

JB: Have the people of Los Pereyra seen the film?

HG: No. It’s been an ongoing challenge to bring a screening to them. The fact that that still hasn’t happened is not something I’m happy about. Our main contacts in the village were the teachers you see in the movie. They’ve since retired and moved away. Those who live there don’t have phones or email. They don’t have any way to play a DVD. We’ve been in talks with this government agency called CineMóvil. They bring movies to remote places; just imagine something like what you see in Spirit of the Beehive. We’ve wanted to work with them, but there’s been a series of setbacks that would be comical if it wasn’t happening to us. The truck broke down, the funding suddenly got cut—just one thing after another. But I hope it’ll happen soon.

JB: I’ve seen you’re work with Regent Park. Is making films about neglected or at-risk or unknown communities part of a bigger plan for you?

HG: I hope that anything I work on can give a perspective on the world that hasn’t been seen before, that can deepen people’s empathy and understanding for others, whether those people are in trouble or simply living on the fringes of modern culture. That’s what attracted me to Los Pereyra in the first place. 

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