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IFF Panama: Guatemala’s Sergio Ramirez on Racism, Violence, Second Film, ‘1991’

Film a caustic coming of age tale

Part of Guatemala’s production build, Sergio Ramirez’s first feature, “Distancia,” which won best first work at the 2011 Havana Fest, was a delicate father-daughter re-encounter drama, following a father as he traveled to meet his daughter, abducted 20 years before, clutching the diary he had handwritten in laborious script (and with touching spelling mistakes) that documents his existence for his daughter should he never get to see her in his life. His follow-up, “1991,” was the most in progress of all the works in progress at the IFF Panama’s first Primera Mirada.

Set in 1991 as the army and guerrilla wage war in the highlands, causing sudden blackouts in Guatemala City, the film is ultimately a caustic coming-of-age tale, revolving around Daniel and his high school friends, who indulge in stock rites-of-passage – and also take to the streets at night, baseball bats in hands, to chase and beat-up indigenous break-dancers.

It sits well with “Distancia” as a companion piece about the horrors of violence, whether in war or other parallel contexts. Variety talked to Sergio Ramirez:

In English, we might call “1991” a rites-of-passage story, about what adolescents have to go through to become men. There is a lot of drinking, a touching romance and sex, and the group of friends smoke weed. There’s a key addition, however. To show they are men, the friends also have to indulge in violence

Unfortunately, violence has characterized Guatemala for a long time now. This is demonstrated in different ways, and in this case, violence is their way of becoming adults.

In its focus on violence, but in an original context, would you say the film draws a parallel between what is going on in the city and Guatemala’s civil conflict in the hills?

That’s right, in 1991 , there was a war going on in our hills, leaving a lot of victims, especially indigenous farmers. But for us, living in the city, these were far-off events. The media barely talked about it, and it was forbidden to talk or ask about it at home. Silence was a constant of our lives, just like violence was incessant. The type of silence that occurs when we are afraid to talk, fearful of what people would say if you did.

One striking thing about the film is the absence of parents. They’re working in New York (Daniel’s mother), seen in one scene (the girlfriend’s dad), or just seen from behind (the rich friend’s father) or mentally absent (the girlfriend’s mother). Why is this? 

“1991” is a generational portrait (of kids) raised by TV or domestic service: bodyguards, chauffeurs. Upper-class teenagers used to spend more time with housekeepers and maids than with their own parents, although they did have a lot of money, luxuries and the freedom to do what they wanted. One friend told me he cried a lot more when his driver passed away than when his father did. The middle and working class found in TV and video games a way of not feeling alone when their parents were absent, either working or having emigrated to the U.S. looking for better opportunities. At the age of 15-16 at that time, the world was a huge place to explore, but since barriers were blurred, the free could become libertines traveling a journey that offered no return.

There’s a fascinating scene where the hijo de papi takes his friends to a local dance. He seems quite at home dancing cumbia with the poor – and indigenous – rural folk. But then only days later, he’s hunting down indigenous break-dancers on the city’s streets. Could you comment on the selectiveness of this racism…

Upper-class kids were raised by their employees, who most of the time were indigenous, came from the countryside. Employees usually worked for several years in the same house, and they become part of the family, but no one wants to acknowledge that. Racism has been present in our society, above all the desire to show we are different from others. Everyone is proud of their European ancestors but denies any closeness with an indigenous culture and roots. There is also the concept that indigenous people only justified their existence by working for us, doing handicrafts, posing for a postcard or a National Geographic documentary. From it comes the desire to eliminate them. In this case, that desire is channeled through attacks on indigenous “break dancers,” low class teenagers, generally from state schools that fitted the profile.

The performances of the three leads, Daniel, the girlfriend, el hijo de papi – the rich kid — were great. Could you talk about the actors a bit? What have they done? 

Daniel is played by Eduardo Cabrera, He had never acted before; I knew him because he’s a friend’s neighbor. When we talked about this project, he told me his dad was an “anti-break” during his adolescence. His dad had told him a lot of stories like this one. I personally like Robert Bresson’s movies, and his idea of “no gesture” — looking for people that fit the profile for our characters and working with them more than with experienced actors.

Daniela Castillo is the girlfriend. She is a friend’s ex, a journalist and writer, and since the moment we talked about the project, she was interested in the role because she acted in some theater. Tony’s role — the rich kid is played by Juan Barrios, whom I met when casting another project. He had acted before, and there were things that I liked about him, but his look was missing something. I asked if we could try to dye his hair and turn it red; he agreed, we tried it, and it worked. I think Eduardo, Daniela and Juan have a great capacity to transmit and connect with the camera without the need to speak. The three of them have a powerful look.

The film is obviously a work in progress. What is lacking?

On the previous cut, five scenes were missing that are now included. We weren’t able to shoot them in December and we shot them in March. Besides that, the sound edition is missing (foleys, voiceover, ambiance, sound design and a sound mix). We also need to record the original music. Color correction is also needed and some effects for archive material (news images and sound) for the TV that you see a couple of times.

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