Photo: Montse Castillo

Life In The Tropics and Movie-Making in Ecuador: An Interview with Sebastián Cordero

By | 09 October, 2018

Ecuadorian film-maker Sebastián Cordero‘s latest movie, Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval (English title: Such Is Life In The Tropics), first came out in Ecuador and has been travelling around the world ever since. Born in Quito on May 23, 1972, Sebastián has had an interesting journey in film-making, having a surprise success with his debut feature, Ratas, Ratones, Rateros (1999), and not looking back since.

We sat down to talk with Sebastián about how he got involved in making films in Ecuador, why he has grown to love Guayaquil and how his latest film came to life.

What drove you into making Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval?

The original idea for Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval came from Andrés Crespo, co-writer of the film; I was working with Andrés on my film Pescador. He was playing the main character, and I got to know that he had a script he was working on. He had previously done some other short films, which were written and directed by him as well. I had known some friends of mine who had had a look at the script he was working on, and I was very curious to read it. I knew it dealt with Guayaquil, land invasions more precisely, and I asked him if I could read it. He actually wanted me to read it and I had thought, originally, that he just wanted to have some feedback from me. Like I said before, he had written and directed some short films before, so I thought he wanted to stay behind the cameras as before. Pescador was actually his first film as a leading actor.

When I read the script I was really surprised to find a story that was really well structured, with great dialogue, social realism, which is something I’ am very interested in, but at the same time it had a great thriller element to it. I got back to Andrés and congratulated him but I also mentioned that it was a huge challenge for him and the director to tackle what they have just developed on script, and he told me that he was actually looking for a director, that he wasn’t planning on doing it himself. He asked if I was interested. At that moment my view on the work changed and generated a certain enthusiasm in me, but at the same time I knew there would be a lot of work to do, a lot of polishing of the script and I certainly wanted to be a part of that process in a direct involvement.

So at the end what drew me into making the movie was, I felt that the movie had very strong characters, with characters that were very complex. The story of the family of the main character, depicting the aristocracy of Guayaquil, made me fond of investigating its realities. Reading the script was like reading a Shakespearian tragedy, so I found it quite a challenge to make the film.

Also, there is a film that I have always had in mind, never have had the chance to see it so I have always been trying to picture it in my head; a Bolivian film by Jorge Sanjinés that deals with the portrayal of the city of La Paz and its social classes, so I thought it was such a cool concept that I found inspiration in doing something similar. As I hadn’t even seen the movie before, Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval is what I had in mind about Sanjinés’ film.

How long did it take you to make the movie?

It took a long time to get the project off the ground. From the time that Andrés gave me the script, 2010, it took us five years to start shooting it (2015), and then a year and a half more until it was released. So I would say approximately seven years. The shooting itself took around eight weeks.

Did you have any say in the script? Did you participate directly in modifying the script/story?

I was very active in the writing process. After Andrés gave me the script, I turned in a lot of notes about scenes or parts of the story that needed work. I was first giving him notes while I was shooting my movie Europa Report in the U.S. I was talking to him every week or so, and when I got back to Ecuador we started working on it together. He did do most of the writing, but as he became part of the cast (playing the attorney Lisandro Terán), I felt that it was better for me to also take over the writing, so that he could concentrate on the acting. So although we were making decisions together, I became the one who was writing and changing directly. I had taken it to the extreme where I had re-written or modified scenes to a certain extent even throughout the shooting.

In what way or to what extent do you think you wanted to depict Guayaquil’s culture through the movie?

Depicting Guayaquil and its culture through the movie, was imperative. I’ve been in love with that city since I was a teenager; I had spent a few days there by accident with my cousin, and I discovered it was a fascinating city, completely different from Quito, from where I’m from.
Years later when I shot my first movie Ratas, Ratones y Rateros (1999), we shot for one week there and it became such a gratifying experience that I have found myself shooting scenes for other films I have done over the years as well. Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval became an ‘Ode to Guayaquil’, which portrayed a side of the city in a way that few people have seen it. The city is very complex, it has a lot of social issues, a lot of contrast where people also isolate themselves, you know, the more power they have, the more they isolate themselves, but at the same time it is a city that is very large, and most of it emerged through a social process of invasion, resulting in settlements throughout the ring road built in the 60s, I believe.

Clip from Ratas, Ratones y Rateros, showing an arrival in Guayaquil.

Is there anything biographical within the movie? (Any real life events, symbolic references, maybe even Ecuadorian/Latin-American bureaucracy?)

So the whole notion of land and what could be done with the possession of land; fighting over its ownership and to feel that it is yours legitimately because you have lived in it along your life and have worked the land versus those who own land through entitlements or inheritance.

It felt like the theme of land and its social aspect had to be explained as thoroughly and as precisely as possible. There have been some fantastic characters throughout the history of Guayaquil within this theme. We wanted to base ourselves on several of these characters as references so that we could tell this story which we felt was very particular to the city, but at the same time very universal.

Your movies are characterized by the development of certain crude realities or violence existing within the region, which definitely generates reflection amongst the audience. Are you aware of this uncomfortableness that’s generated? Is this something you like to do with your movies?

Yes, most definitely. I like to generate that reflection amongst the audience because what I feel about a film is that if it stays with you for several days after its been seen, for me it is a very good sign. I like movies that do that to me, I like it when I watch a movie that makes me feel uncomfortable, I find that that is a very good sign, and I try for my movies to hook the audience and pull them in, but at the same time, once the audience is hooked I like to take them further into a zone where they have to examine and look closer at things which as humans would normally try to avoid looking at. I think this is one of the greatest powers that cinema has; a movie can insert you into the characters’ shoes, and experience their perspective of life and allow you to understand very complex issues in such a way that other methods of communication can’t. I’m very drawn to that, and in this case, I like there to be moments of shock, moments where you feel the consequences of violence, the way that these consequences happen in real life, which is always unexpectedly and it always takes the audience to different emotional places. That is something I felt that this story had, something I wanted to play with for sure. It is something that can be evidenced within all of my films.

Why did you decide to film Ecuadorian stories? Why the gamble on Ecuadorian cinema?

When I started to study film, I thought that I had to make films somewhere else in the world. Whether it would be in the U.S. or in Europe. I didn’t think that I was going to be able to make films in Ecuador, particularly because when I was growing up, I didn’t have any references of Ecuadorian film. When I was in college in L.A. [California], I saw The Young and the Damned by Buñuel for the first time, and it really shook me up, to the extent that I thought ‘Oh my god, movies this powerful can be done in Latin America!’ and I thought that this movie could have been made in Ecuador, it told a reality that I felt I knew existed and was familiar with and that I had never seen portrayed in a movie, not in that way. So suddenly it became an option for me to make films in Latin America, just by having a reference.

It’s as if the main ideas developed in your works, are always focused on making stories from Ecuadorian life more visible, or even making the ‘Latin American reality’ more visible. this a theme you have consciously developed in your work?

After finishing my studies, not knowing if I would return to my home country, I ended up coming back to Ecuador and I started writing the screen play for Ratas, Ratones y Rateros. When the movie came out, it turned to be a huge success that nobody expected. I didn’t know that the movie was going to do well, maybe in festivals [I thought], but I never expected people to connect to it. Particularly in Ecuador, where people, as was the case with me in the beginning, were not used to seeing Ecuadorian movies. This first movie I made really changed my life a lot, it changed my perception of things. I didn’t know if I was going to continue making more movies because it was so hard to make just this first one, and we had put so much effort into it, and of course if a movie doesn’t work, it is difficult to continue. Because Ratas, Ratones y Rateros was so successful I realized that it would be fantastic to continue making films in Ecuador. There are amazing stories to be told there that haven’t been told, or at least not with the power of cinema, and I feel that as a story teller, the most important thing you have, are stories. That’s what you build your career on. I think Ecuador is very rich in stories, this is why I have gambled on Ecuadorian and Latin American cinema, even if it is difficult, a challenge, even if creating a movie in this region feels like an uphill battle. Plus, shooting in Ecuador is one of the most enjoyable things to do, for me. Working in Ecuador has been really satisfying, and I think that in the end it has opened more doors for me, than if I had started a career in the U.S. or somewhere else.

Where is the movie touring/showing (what countries/cities and festivals)?

The movie was released commercially in Ecuador around two years ago. Mid 2016. It has also been released recently in Mexico and the art house circuit of the cineteca; the Morelia, Miami, Panama, amongst other European and North American film festivals. We had a great reaction from the audience, it felt as if they were responding towards the current political realities regarding the Trump administration, and relating it to the personality or attitude that one of the characters, Don Gustavo, has. The general response to the film from the audiences’ behalf has been ‘Wow! This story could have taken place anywhere, in Colombia, in the States, in Argentina, Peru, and it would have felt pretty relevant…’.

Thank you Sebastián.


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