Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York: Diverse Country, Diverse Narratives

By Valeria C. Guerrero

For better or for worse, the notion of diversity is intrinsically associated with Ecuador. In an area equal to the state of Nevada, Ecuador has forty-six different ecosystems and is home to 10% of the world’s plant species. This literal diversity translates into the more abstract, but nevertheless, powerful and controversial notion of national identity. Indeed, in a country named by an imaginary line, made up of historically morphing geographical boundaries and marked by internal divisions, the identity mark of the Ecuadorian has been that of multiplicity and fragmentation.

The fragmented nature of the country’s national identity has influenced its cultural production— the filmic production is no exception. Indeed, if a common trend can be found among the films that make up the first edition of the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York (EFFNY), it is, appropriately, that of diversity.

Beginning with Ecuador’s first fiction feature film, El tesoro de Atahualpa (1924), until 2004, thirty-six fiction feature films were produced in the country. Eleven of these were low-budget exploitation coproductions with other nations of the region that thus have been dismissed by local intellectuals. Although the country has had a few modest production booms throughout its history, mainly in the twenties and the seventies, production has been far from systematic until 2006.

Writing in the early 2000’s, Ecuador’s most famous filmmaker, Sebastián Cordero, stated that producing "cinema in Ecuador is almost a miracle. With an average of one feature film every three years, talking about an Ecuadorian film industry is still very far in the future." His statement draws on his experience with Ratas, Ratones y Rateros (1999), a milestone in Ecuadorian film history.

The panorama for Ecuadorian cinema has since changed radically. The country’s official body funding local productions, Consejo Nacional de Cine (CNCine), was created by the cinema law passed in 2006— as a result of the long-standing efforts of local filmmakers. This law marked a “before” and “after” in the local film market.

Since the creation of this body, sixty-two state-funded films have been produced— without taking into account the numerous independent productions. Last year was a breakthrough for Ecuadorian productions: a record of sixteen state-funded films premiered in the commercial theaters, and it is estimated that around fourteen additional privately-funded feature films were made that year.

The films of this first edition of EFFNY represent a sample of some of the works produced in the country over the past two years. Following the country and the region’s long-standing documentary tradition, seven of the thirteen films are documentaries. Opening the festival is Cesar’s Grill, the personal story of Germany-based Ecuadorian filmmaker Darío Aguirre.

Common trends in the films tend to be that of looking back. Feriado / Holiday, Diego Araujo’s opera prima, tells the coming-out story of a teenager during one of Ecuador's greatest economic crises, in 1999. Open Wound, on the other hand, is set in 1941, when the country was facing a war against Peru. Documentary, Blomberg’s Secret, explores part of the country’s historical filmic legacy—most of which has been lost. It tells the story of the Swedish explorer Rolf Blomberg, who made some films in Ecuador during the forties and fifties.

An important trend amongst Ecuadorian films seems to be that of personal and auteur-like productions. This is visible in Ecuador’s selection for the 2015 Academy Awards— Tito Molina’s Silence in Dreamland / Silencio en la tierra de los sueños. The film traces the daily routine and small pleasures of an aging widow living in a small fisherman community. It displays a prodigious high-contrast cinematography—done also by the director—, some of the best shots being those of the ocean. It follows the general trend of slow cinema— long shots and a loose plot. In its exploration of themes like silence, loneliness and old age, and its use of music, it’s reminiscent to Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012).

The funds provided by CNCine are not enough to sustain the local production. Filmmakers recur to international funds such as Ibermedia or collaboration with other countries. The directors of the notable but undervalued film, Highs and Lows / A estas alturas de la vida, Alex Cisneros and Manuel Calisto, conceived its project with a DIY logic. They opted for an ultra low budget and a crew made up of a grand total of eight people. Tragically, one of the filmmakers was murdered when the film was in its edition stage.

Highs and Lows is a dark comedy about the failures of two thirty-something long-time friends. In a direct homage to Hitchcock’s suspense films and Rear Window (1954), the film takes place mostly in a single space, a terrace, and the protagonist’s hobby is to look through a telescope. Some of its most notable feats are its ironic and entertaining dialogues and its black and white cinematography by Simón Bauer. Bauer also worked on the documentary Resonance which is also showcasing in the festival.

Indeed, if one element seems lacking in the local productions and which is necessary for the establishment of a film industry is that of popular appeal. To reach audiences, both locally and internationally, is the greatest challenge Ecuadorian cinema is facing today. Local productions have overall low results in the local box office and get little visibility internationally outside the festival circuits. Let us hope that this festival provides part of the impulse that Ecuadorian filmmakers need to boost this incoming wave of production.

The first edition of the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York (EFFNY) takes place June 17-21 at the Tribeca Cinemas.