Wind whipped and dressed in vibrant wool ponchos with feathered fedoras, the subjects of Joe Houlberg’s Sanfic WIP documentary “Ozogoche” seem possible only in a Miyazaki storyboard, yet they persist: Don Feliciano and his family belong to the indigenous Kichwa community of Ecuador. The doc observes the lead-up to their annual combing of the Ozogoche beaches, where the Cuviví, migratory birds from North America, end their long journey dive bombing the lagoons in apparent suicide.
The land, people and birds of “Ozogoche” serve as rich loam for allegory as the film progresses, with space enough to absorb the difficult reality their traditions face. “Ozogoche” is a co-production spanning Latin America, presented at Bafici’s Buenos Aires Lab in Argentina, Red EDOC in Ecuador, Nuevas Mirada in Cuba and Guadalajara’s Co-Production Meeting in Mexico.
Variety spoke to Houlberg ahead of the film’s Sanfic Industria premiere.
“Ozogoche” has many shots of candid conversation between family. How did you become so invisible as to capture those moments?
I’m glad you noticed and mentioned this. For us, to be “invisible,” or better said intimate and close, was one of the most important and difficult things to accomplish. Although we are all from the same country (the crew and characters portrayed), there is a big cultural gap that we had to erase for all of us to feel as a family in the same space and separate from any exotic point of view. The result is a process of four years of traveling to Ozogoche and getting to know the family we portray and the community. It would be impossible to make this film in one year or one trip. These days we are all really good friends and we are always welcomed as family. I even became the godfather of Sisa, the main character, Feliciano’s granddaughter. To be able to be in the same small room with the people and with the crew and having them perform their daily routines and conversations is for me the heart of the film.
There are contrasts of traditional music and modern pop music throughout the film. Can you speak about the music choices in the film?
I believe the music, at this stage, is something that has just happened in a diegetic manner. It is something we are still thinking about for when we enter the post-production stage, and also something of huge importance for me. But I like music to appear as the movie is making itself. I might sometimes use some referential music for a cut, but no more than that.
The clothing of the families in the film are vibrant and colorful, contrasting the drab and washed out backdrops. How did color inform your direction in the film?
Again, glad you noticed it! The contrast between their traditional clothing and the space they inhabit is one of the first things that amazed me when I travelled there for the first time. In a way it is a survival necessity. The weather is so hostile and changing out there that if for any reason you get lost or injured, sight is the only way to find anyone. Also I think it is a reflection of how they are in their personalities. Again, although the weather and the conditions are so harsh up there, people are really joyful and generous and that I believe is reflected in their clothing. Besides that, for us, visually it is something that draws a path in our cinematic search and approach.
Much of “Ozogoche” speaks to what was, what will come to be, and what will be lost along the way. What about this message drew you to the project?
When you are up there in silence and just feeling the cold earth, it feels like time has stopped or that it just runs at a slower pace. At one point of this long process of making the movie I believed that the action that accompanied migration was the trip or traveling. But with time, I discovered that it is not about the journey, it is about the waiting, the static feeling of observing, letting time pass, letting memories disappear or reappear, letting people go and transform, letting the outside come and rearrange, letting the imagination take you to places or bring you the people, but not physically doing it.