Bolivian Work in Progress ‘Sirena’ Aims to Enchant at San Sebastian

The black and white feature highlights a culture clash between men of science and traditional natives in 1980s Bolivia

San Sebastian Work in Progress ‘Sirena’ Aims To Enchant
Carlos Piñeiro

SAN SEBASTIAN — Carlos Piñeiro’s “Sirena” (“Mermaid”) came into last month’s Sanfic Festival in Santiago Chile buzzing from the news that it had been selected, along with another Sanfic work in progress “The Prince,” to participate in the San Sebastian’s Films in Progress competition.

“Sirena” is a black and white look at the conflict between tradition and modernity. It starts off following the drowning of a well-known engineer in Lake Titicaca, some time in 1984. A commission put together to recover the remains of the man are gathered on a small boat, crossing t0 an island inhabited by a group of indigenous families. Conflict arises when the families who recovered the body refuse to give it up, in fear that it will adversely affect the upcoming harvest. Frustrations boil over and cultures clash as the irritated commission members want little more than to collect the body and leave. One gets drunk, the others try to negotiate through an interpreter, and it becomes increasingly unlikely the body will ever end up at its intended destination.

The film is produced by Socavón Cine. Its team is working now to secure sales and distribution, riding the momentum of the back-to-back festival appearances. Piñeiro talked with Variety about filmmaking out of Bolivia, portraying native peoples on the screen and shooting on an island.

What are the major difficulties and benefits of making films out of Bolivia?

Paradoxically, Bolivia is on one hand the country with the greatest cultural wealth in the region, and at the same time where there is the least support, both from the state and from private enterprise, for the development of cinema. This fact, far from being an excuse, is a challenge and an incentive to try our best to ensure that our projects are of high quality.

How do you see your generation of filmmakers? How do you think the future of young Bolivian filmmakers will look?

It seems foolish to talk about the future, because anything can happen. I currently look on my generation with optimism because I realize that it is exploring different directions. I am fortunate to belong to the Socavón Cine collective. With “Dark Skull,” our first fiction feature film, we went far and learned a lot. But our philosophy was always that of a collective. We rotated roles and each contributed from a place where the project could best benefit.

Your characters demonstrate frustration with the indigenous community. But as a director it seems that you strive to avoid judging them. Can you talk about how you wanted to represent these people?

Bolivia is the least western country on the continent. The limits between what one is and what the other is are diffuse. The characters have a relationship with the other, in which I could not intervene. From the direction I avoided falling into the harmful temptation to speak on behalf of the others. What I have with “Sirena,” in the most humble way possible, is a story; simply a story.

Can you talk a little about filming in the desert near Lake Titicaca? What challenges did it present?

A great part of the film we filmed on the Isla de la Luna in the middle of Lake Titicaca. It’s an island inhabited by 26 families that has no roads or electricity. Obviously the challenges were many and very complex. However, when we realized that even having a bigger budget would not be of any use, we found the joy of filmmaking.

Why did you choose to film in black and white?

We all have nuances, but deep down we are a contradiction. Without that contradiction we would not have the strength to transform ourselves. But when talking about life and death, about the ephemeral and the permanent, about each other, sometimes it is better to show the contradiction and let the viewer find the nuances.

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Carlos Piñeiro