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Alejandro Loayza • Director of Utama

“I have more of a knack for images, rather than words”


- At the Málaga Film Festival, the Bolivian filmmaker scooped four awards with his feature debut, a sensitive movie that merges western codes with environmentalism

Alejandro Loayza • Director of Utama
(© Michael Dunn)

Utama [+see also:
film review
interview: Alejandro Loayza
film profile
emerged triumphant at Sundance and garnered yet more acclaim (and trophies) at the 25th Málaga Film Festival, where it went home with the Golden Biznaga for Best Latin American Film, as well as the Silver Biznagas for Best Director and Best Score, plus the Special Prize of the Critics’ Jury (see the news). Its director, Alejandro Loayza, now finds himself in France, attending a string of other gatherings, such as one in Toulouse, but he was kind enough to take our call and answer a few questions.

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Cineuropa: Are you living in Europe now?
Alejandro Loayza: I’m living in Madrid, studying a Master in Screenwriting taught by Mediapro and the Complutense University. I’ll be in Spain until August, but I’m considering turning Madrid into my base of operations, and flitting between here and Bolivia.

Your debut film doesn’t yet have a distributor in Spain, but it does in France. What’s the situation in the rest of Europe?
On 11 May, we will release the movie in France, and we have guaranteed distribution lined up in Switzerland and Denmark.

What does Utama mean?
It means “Our Home” in the Aymaran language; phonetically, it sounds pretty and is applicable to any language. It’s easy to remember, which meant we didn’t have to look for another title, although in France they did add the subtitle “La tierra olvidada” [lit. “The Forgotten Land”].

You were a photographer before taking up filmmaking, and you’ve also made short films and worked on a TV series.
I began my professional career doing something unrelated to film, something that would guarantee me more money, which is why I studied Advertising, and then I took part in a photography workshop: that’s where I fell in love with photography. After that, I discovered the motion-picture camera and I liked it even more, so I started working as a DoP. When I realised the responsibilities that a director could have, I wanted to take that on myself, so I started directing music videos, and that was the transition for me.

Your past career as a photographer is evident in Utama, with all the beautiful framing.
Absolutely, because I have more of a knack for images, rather than words. I had such a clear idea of how the film had to look that I drew the entire storyboard for it. When the DoP, Bárbara Álvarez, came on board the project and we started talking about the movie, she had the same type of film in mind, with its lighting and framing. It all flowed very easily. And that’s why I’m doing a Master in Screenwriting, because images come naturally to me, but words not so much. The first draft of the screenplay for Utama was 43 pages long, and I was sure I could film it using just that, but they pressured me to stretch it out to 75 pages.

It’s a film that expresses a great deal through images, like pure, unadulterated cinema.
Silence can say so much more than words, and glances definitely say a lot more because the way people look cannot conceal what they feel. I wanted to use all of that, glances as well as silence, and I wanted the unexplored landscapes to talk, too. Likewise, I thought that in a relationship involving a couple who have lived together for so many years, which is the case for the protagonists, you wouldn’t need to talk a lot, because everything is said through small gestures or expressions.

That’s where those wonderful non-professional actors come in: that elderly married couple. I suppose that you appreciated their natural spontaneity when it came to casting them.
I think the process was really beautiful, and we had fun. I shared the screenplay with them, although there are some directors who don’t do so, in order to get the most natural performance possible out of them. But I did, and we rehearsed together.

Utama sometimes resembles a western, and it’s also a love story with an environmental subtext How did you manage to combine these aspects so smoothly?
I worked on the screenplay a lot, using a step outline as my basis, then I divided it into index cards and stuck them up on a wall to strike that balance. I had all of that there, visually, and the script gradually gained more and more layers of depth over time, getting fleshed out. That grew out of my collaboration with my brother Santiago Loayza, a producer, and my father, Marcos Loayza, who was a script consultant. The Uruguayan co-producer, Federico Moreira, was also involved in this process.

But I suppose that shooting in that wilderness, with its extreme weather conditions, alongside herds of llamas, can’t have been easy.
Obviously, it’s an inhospitable climate: we filmed during the only viable season, spring, because in the winter, as soon as the sun goes behind the clouds, the temperature can plummet to minus ten degrees very quickly, there are sandstorms and it’s very windy. That’s why we were dressed like desert people, although llamas are very intelligent animals. We used three groups of them, and they’re so clever that by the fifth or sixth take, they knew what they had to do. Obviously, it’s always challenging filming with animals, but llamas are so photogenic…

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(Translated from Spanish)

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