Panama: Panama Fest: Zouain’s ‘On A Road’ Charts Journey into Adulthood

Dominican filmmaker’s road movie screens this weekend at the Panama Fest

On the Road, Somewhere Algun lugar
Courtesy of IFF Panama

Kicking off in Dominican Republic’s upper middle-class community in Montecristi  – whatever happened to Latin America’s poverty-porn school of filmmaking? – “On the Road, Somewhere” marks the feature debut of the now New York-based Dominican Guillermo Zouain.

This is one of the more mainstream offers in the Panama Fest’s main Central America/Caribbean Competition. But one which cleverly frames the tale of three high-school best friends on a summer road-trip, their last together before college, in a bigger picture, the hesitant, muddled and eminently self-aware journey into young adulthood.

The road-trip begins with Oliver, Moises and Hemingway, aiming to visit Oliver’s high-school g.f., who’s off to study in New York, and vacationing on the south side of the island.  Co-edited by Israel Cardenas, a filmmaker in his own right (“Cochochi,” “Sand Dollars”), it points to a first-time filmmaker who has learnt his craft. Shot-set ups, scene lengths, vary energetically, entertain.

One example: “On the Road” near starts with a realist-shot of a teacher explaining university applications, her projector a beam of light in a classroom slumped in darkness; cuts to an iris shot, German impressionist style, of a student walking down a high-school corridor; then has a Wes Anderson-ish down shot of Oliver on his bed, in a faux-naif colored, pre-adolescent bedroom. World premiering at March’s Miami Festival, “On the Road” is one higher-profile title from the Dominican Republic, whose national cinema has lately taken large strides in conquering its own public.

Variety talked with Zouian in the run-up to the IFF Panama, which kicked off Thursday:

For its protagonists, Oliver, Moises and Hemingway, the road-trip seems to balance two contradictory sensations: A sense of “nowness,” their feeling of being alive, caught in the scene when they swim in the sea, or the exact, crisp specificity of close-ups or deep-field shot countryside; the realization that this moment in their lives may never happen ago, that the road-trip is part of a larger journey into adulthood and beyond…I wonder if you’d agree.

I definitely agree. We wanted to portray that moment of dichotomy in a teen’s life when he is being forced by society into adulthood but is still being influenced by an adolescent state of mind. In a way the young mind is living in the present, being a little selfish and not seeing the danger of some actions they have embarked on. At the same time, it is a moment in everyone’s life when very big decisions are staring at you, and society is waiting for an answer, so it is natural for the teenager to self reflect and try to see beyond the present. The film develops around depicting this moment in a person’s life when every experience becomes enlarged and every moment is cherished as an almost legendary instant.

“On the Road, Somewhere,” also seems an attempt to capture the confusion of adolescence, not only in its sense of geographic dislocation, or the disparate advice/criticsm the three friends are subjected too, but the differing ways their live their lives: Oliver is goal-driven, Moises more carpe diem, and Hemingway simply more afraid.

The film allows for a reading in which the main conflict of each character is uncertainty. The problem with confusion is that anything that life throws at you may add to this feeling of incertitude, and the road as a source of antagonists and friends becomes the root of chaos or even order. Everyone faces uncertainty in different ways and in the movie the characters are built around how they choose to deal with it at this particular time in their lives.

You studied at Barcelona’s ESCAC, whose alums also include Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Impossible”), Guillem Morales (“Julia’s Eyes”) and Kike Maillo (“Eva”). One of its hallmarks is the high key tech quality of its students films, and “On the Road, Somewhere” seems no exception, in its cinematography and editing. I get a sense that you must have storyboarded – so careful is each shot-set-up but how did you do that on a road movie?

I was interested in creating a point of view in the film that can be described as naïve, not in a pejorative sense but in the way that the movie captures through artifice the gaze of a middle-class Dominican teenager. I worked on every shot and every scene for a year so that all departments knew exactly how the shooting was going to be. Every component of the film, especially the cinematography, was meticulously crafted so that this fore-grounded the chemistry between the characters and the fluidity of their friendship tied to the country’s changing landscape. To gear every cinematic element in the direction of one’s narrative voice is something I particularly value from my training at the ESCAC.

The road.-trip in “On the Road, Somewhere” could have been the subject of a more arthouse films but a roster of factors – the ever varying, entertaining shot-set-ups; production standards; the “light” music for a film in which the kids do suffer push it towards a more mainstream demo. Would you agree?

I partially agree. I was conscious of the duality of the film and understand that the film lands in between both tendencies. I wanted to portray a free-flowing, youth-driven trip and part of it required the film to assume the psyche of the characters not as a point of view but as an aesthetic choice in music, pace and production design. At the same time the meticulous mise en scène as well as my heavy narration pulled us toward a more arthouse film. I found the mix to be true to the intention of the film and the highly specific adolescent universe it portrays.

When and how will “On the Road” be distributed in the Dominican Republic? 

We are still working on distribution. The plan is for it to be distributed commercially this year throughout the Dominican Republic and beyond arthouse theaters. The film was made having in mind the Dominican youth as its main target audience, and ideally we would want this audience to see it and enjoy the film in our country.

Dominican Republic filmmaking has benefitted enormously I believe from an increase in DGCine funding. How was “On the Road” fiancing put together?

DGCINE provides funding but is also the commissioner of the National Film Law. We worked with this law in my film, in particular with its tax incentive, which allows companies to invest a percentage of their tax money in filmmaking. After three years of receiving negative responses from possible investors Banco Ademi and Banco BDI agreed to finance our film through this law.

I believe Dominican films scored a 33% market share in the Dominican Republic in 2013. By Central American standards, that’s huge. What factors explain that figure?

The truth behind that figure is that the public in the DR is very supportive of local cinema and for a long time made going to the theater a tradition. In general, Dominicans have been proud of their films and make an effort to go see them. Also before the film law only a few local movies were produced annually so people waited for them as an event. Hopefully this won’t change now that we have a bigger offer of local productions that make it to theaters.