In “Los de Abajo” (“Those Who Live Below”), Gregorio’s family, once moneyed livestock owners, has fallen on hard times, its herd reduced to one cow, its laborers now dead or departed for the local big city.
For some years, his water supply, which used to reach his lands via an old aqueduct, has been cut off, diverted by the mayor to water the vineyards of a rich Argentine landowner who lives higher up by the dam and pays the mayor kickbacks. Often drunk over his wife’s death, Gregorio obsesses about getting his water back again. As his frustration boils, he looks to be on a frontal collision course with the landowner. The question is not if, but how long before, Gregorio turns to violence.
Variety chatted to the film’s director, Bolivia’s Alejandro Quiroga, just before “Los de abajo” (“Those Who Live Below”) won a prize at Sanfic Industria, scoring an invitation to Spain’s Malaga Festival to compete in its Work in Progress sidebar.
”Los de Abajo” talks about immigration but from the point of view of those who stay behind. Could you comment, Alejandro?
That issue is semi-hidden in the plot, it’s more a conclusion drawn by those who flesh the protagonist’s implicit background, measured by characters who either want to leave or are already far away: His decision to stay in his village, not go to the big city. In what state does someone who stays stay? How does someone live confronting what others preferred to avoid? Because that’s emigration, apart from the difficulties of starting a new life, leaving is sidestepping the immediate truth, a firm of resistance based on betting on luck, which is chance mixed with hope. But what hope do those who stay have?
The film has large Western tropes in its sweeping landscapes caught in its widescreen 2:35 format and the sense of a hero who belongs to an old order which is gradually disappearing; and the build to final and inevitably violent confrontation. What attracted you to the Western genre, Alejandro?
The family house where the film takes place belongs to my grandfather. I have relations there and go back often. I have a deep affection for this part of the world, Rosillas. As a kid, growing up in the local city, I’d go with my dad and my granddad, and witnessed rather elementary events such as cow branding. We’d drink milk standing by the cow, eat with men and women wearing traditional hats, cowboys who didn’t carry guns but were protected by the life they led. I grew up in a Western without realizing it. Westerns look like everyday life for me.
“Los de Abajo” begins with a sense of a premonition as a man walks up a path looking for water dwarfed by huge sandy cliffs behind. You use physical place, Alejandro, as a metaphor for dramatic and social comment. Again, could you comment?
I totally agree. It’s not just about the wild setting. The bird circling in the air are an eternal return, anticipating the film’s climax, the scorpion digging and its action of digging. Gregorio moves inevitably towards something felt at the very beginning and whose sensation grows in the film, though we don’t want it to happen.
Could you talk about your direction which is highly interesting? You often use short sequence shots which situate character in context but move the narrative along….
I don’t use that many details either. I have some difficulty, personally, getting close to people. Cutaways of objects are less of a problem. Some of the most intimate relations in the film are left unresolved. Generating those relations required me to record certain reactions, so get nearer with the camera, not so near but sufficiently so. Many shots were determined by context. It’s a constant act of creativity, from screenplay through to the shoot, editing and made with a team. What can we do with what we’ve got? Directing is listening, even if sometimes you have to hold your ground. One shot is normally enough for a small kitchen. Reaction shots can be more eloquent.
The film is structured as a Bolivia-Colombia-Brazil-Argentina co-production. How Alvaro, did you get your co-producers on board?
The project was attractive right from the beginning, both for me and for the other co-producers who joined. The main point of contact in putting together the alliances was Francisco Paparella, one of the film’s producers who approached and advised Alejandro from early on. Later, as the majority producer, I had to coordinate closely with everyone, but it was an easy job thanks to the professionalism and vision of all the producers.
What remains, Alvaro, to complete post-production and what are your plans for the film afterwards?
We are missing some post-production processes, particularly in sound, which we are sure to resolve in the coming months. We estimate we can have the film finished, in its entirety, within three or four more months. We expect a premiere in accordance to the size and quality of the film. We have important plans and each of the producers is contributing to the coordination of the steps that we are going to take this year.