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IFF Panama: Jurgen Ureña’s ‘Abrazame Como Antes,’ a Humanist Vision of Prostitution

Director talks about his ‘colorful’ relationship drama, realism vs. reality and Costa Rica’s nascent film scene

Abrazame Como Antes
Photo: José Pablo Porras

In “Abrazame Como Antes,” a strapping, kindly transsexual prostitute in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, takes into her home a young homeless whom one of her clients hits with his car. More than an act of charity, her caring for him seems one of near desperation — an attempt, according to the little psychological backstory afforded the audience, to form a neo-family. This assuages the hurt of abandonment by her own mother whom she still literally worships, building an altar to a large photo of her in her youth. Lacing narrative, a nightclub performance of the eponymous song and fantasy, “Abrazame” charts the streetwalker’s attempt to form a family menage and its motley members attempt at understanding. Variety talked to Costa Rican director Jurgen Ureña just after his presented a rough cut of his second feature at Panama’s Primera Mirada showcase.

After “Muñecas Rusas,” your debut, what attracted you to make “Abrázame Como Antes”?

Originally, it was planned that my first film was going to be “Abrázame Como Antes.” However, the production process was extended, so it became my second film. Both films were thought out almost as opposites and therefore the creative process fed of that contrast. “Muñecas Rusas” is a black & white experimental film that develops ideas and thoughts rather than characters, whereas “Abrázame Como Antes” is a very colorful (in a broader sense) film and about relationships among the three main characters who learn how to live side by side.

Your first feature, “Muñecas Rusas” (“Russian Dolls”) is about a couple imagining another couple in a film, “lost in the rainy labyrinth that sometime we call love,” as you described it. “Abrazame como antes” seems equally a labyrinth in its use of near documentary observation – the extended scene in the transsexual nightclub – and possible fantasy when Tato seems to stab the heroine. Could you comment on this intriguing, hybrid style?

In “Abrázame Como Antes,” I tried to explore the universe within which the characters live, a universe of night and fantasy.  I am very interested in reality, but not in realism. I believe that the hybrid style that you refer to derives from this difference between reality and the point of view you chose to explore that reality. An observational documentary style is commonly associated with the physical or material world. However, in this case, I am using that way of filming to represent something that goes beyond the material world and related to what those characters are feeling, thinking or fearing. This allows the audience to become conscious of those layers of reality, or the complexity of the universe within which the characters are immersed.

Bar one client who tells a story about seeing a spider, in maybe the film’s most warmly intimate scenes, the prostitutes’ customers seem completely dominated by the girls, to the point of humiliation in one case. Is this taken from your observation of reality?

No, in this case it was not taken from a real observation. Those scenes were filmed with the purpose of inverting the way in which we imagine the relationships between clients and prostitutes. In addition, I was hoping to get out of these scenes a funny or light moment that could generate a difference in the general mood of the film. I was interested in focusing not on the sexual arrangements that occur between clients and prostitutes, but on those conversations or approaches that occur either before or after those moments, which could introduce us into their dreams, thoughts and feelings.

How was the film cast? Are the actors professionals, or semi-pros?

None of the actors had prior experience in from of cameras before filming “Abrázame Como Antes.” I would like to believe that, after this experience, a few of them will move closer to the cinema world.

“Abrazame como antes” has backing from Costa Rica’s Ministry of Culture and Youth, Programa ProArtes, Teatro Popular Melico Salazar, the Ibermedia Program, the Costa Rican Film Production Center and Cinergia, plus the Veritas University New Film.TV School, Guadalajara Talent Campus and Cine Qua Non Lab, as well as two associate producers. How easy was it to finance? And what is the state of the Costa Rican production sector? How many films were made last year? Are there now solid state-supported financing systems in place?

It took longer that expected to finance, and we are still trying to get financing for post-production. We had envisaged  financing the project within three years; however it has taken, so far, six years. In general, the production sector in Costa Rica is improving. Last year, four long feature films from Costa Rican filmmakers were released. There is some enthusiasm and effervescence, but there are still many gaps to be filled, including legislation around film making to enable it have more presence in cinemas and to provide tax incentives for filmmaking. Today, there are no sufficiently solid state-supported financing systems in place in Costa Rica. However, a couple of months ago, a production fund financed by the Costa Rican government called El Fauno was launched, which sparked a certain level of optimism amongst filmmakers.

By way of films, what do you plan next?

I am currently writing a script for a long-feature film with the Argentinian director and script writer Valeria Pivato. The film will be called Marea Blanca (“White Tide”) and is about a city policeman who is sent to a remote beach on  Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Once settled in the village, he slowly discovers that the peaceful dwellers have a well hidden secret. This discovery not only changes the initial purpose of his activity in that village, but also shatters the untouched and happy image that foreigners commonly associate with Costa Rica.