David Nieto Wenzell is something of an oddity: he's an independent filmmaker from Ecuador whose main objective is not to strike it rich, move to Hollywood, and pump out paint-by-number blockbusters. Instead, he wants to be a storyteller, and the stories he wants to tell grow organically from his native Ecuador. He's not interested in bloated action sequences, grimy drug cartels, or any of the other lazy stereotypes audiences often associate with Latin America. The result? Intimate, contained movies with an immediately recognizable perspective of reality, no matter the audience's country of origin. His movies are about navigating personal conflicts and relationships, and after another season of invading aliens, zombie apocalypses, and men in capes, movies like Wenzell's latest, La Llamada, refresh the palette. If American audiences are indeed beginning to grow weary of repetitive Hollywood fare, then new international perspectives may yet relieve our fatigue.
There’s a paradoxical mix of fresh and familiar in La Llamada: the story follows the struggle of Aurora, a single mother and successful publicist, as she attempts to deal with her son's expulsion from school - on the last day of class, no less. The film deftly provides an earnest probe into modern city life, our dependence on technology, and family tensions.
Critics have taken note, as well. After premiering in Ecuador in September of 2012, La Llamada has been accepted to major film festivals throughout Latin America, and is pending acceptance to film festivals throughout the world, including several in the United States. It even premiered in New York City last month. Most recently, La Lamada was accepted to the Oregon Independent Film Festival, and Oregon is where I caught up with David to talk about his movie and Latin American cinema.
Nick Recktenwald (NR): Let’s talk about your movie, La Llamada. Why this story?
David Nieto Wenzell: It’s a personal story that I wanted to be in Ecuadorean cinemas because most movies that were coming out focused more on violence, drugs, and poverty in Latin America. Some audiences only get that view of Latin America, but there’s definitely another side. There’s a new cinema trying to put out other stories about true life in the middle class of Ecuador, and I tried to grab that in my movie.
When I was writing the script for La Llamada, I was told to write what I know. I worked in advertising as a publicist, and in advertising there was never any time, and you just become a part of your work. Also, I come from a pre-digital generation, and the change to a cellular culture has happened really fast. As human beings, we adapt to technology but technology never adapts to us. My approach in La Lamada was trying to show how we try to solve conflicts when we are attached to technology [with the mother’s story], and when we have no technology[with the son’s story]. I think we are totally separated from the ideas that are behind technology, but that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s more about a life, a day in a life, and how you move through it.
NR: When can U.S. audiences see La Llamada?
DNW:We are still submitting to film festivals. We are waiting to hear from other festivals in Argentina, Peru, Bogota, Cuba. We also applied to festivals in Tokyo and Warsaw, and I’m really hoping to see it there. I really want to see the feedback from those places. Eventually, though, I’ll put the film online. Around November or December 2013, I want to put it out there for a large audience.
NR: What was your budget for this film? Was it easy finding funding for La Llamada?
DNW: There are two worlds of cinema in Ecuador. Guys like me try to make cinema by getting funding from the national film council [note: check out this article for more information on Ecuador’s efforts to aid their filmmakers]. Then there is the other side, the B-side. Those guys make like five movies a year and have a larger audience. Why? They make a lot of action movies. Some dramas, but mostly action. Those aren’t the types of movies I want to make, though.
NR: So how do you get people to watch your movies?
DNW: The pirates help.
NR: Really? I never thought I’d hear a filmmaker say those words, in that order.
DNW: Yes. The pirates call small filmmakers in Latin American countries and ask to buy the rights to our movies, and then they’ll sell it. In Ecuador, there’s an association of pirates and they don’t want to pirate their own national cinema, but they’ll make high quality DVDs and sell them alongside pirated [American] films for a few dollars. They respect the small filmmakers. The producer of the film comes to an agreement with an association of "pirates." These associations may additionally sell piracy, but the national films are not piracy; they are originals. La Llamada, however, was indeed produced and distributed by one of these associations (Xpressmax). These piracy associations actually take responsibility for making sure these national origins are not pirated.
NR: So there’s a beneficial relationship between pirates and small filmmakers? That’s how smaller-budget movies get seen?
DNW: With national cinema in Ecuador or Bolivia, piracy helps people see your movie. Peru is trying to work on that relationship, too. It helps that everything is digital instead of film. It expands opportunities for some filmmakers. The festivals help, but the problem is that many festivals, are only looking for certain kinds of stories – tragic stories happening in the U.S., not necessarily tragic stories outside the U.S.
NR: What kind of stories come from outside the U.S.?
DNW: The difference between U.S. movies and movies from around the world is that the fiction is really high. The action is always fantasy, but even “true stories” like Argo have too much polish. They always feel like fiction, and it throws me out of the story.
NR: Do you intentionally try to keep some element of messiness in your films, then?
DNW: I think there has to be reality for people to connect with it. There has to be stuff that matters. Fiction should look like reality, but most American films are just too tidy. You should be able to think during movies. When things are formulaic, you might enjoy it, but then you forget it. If a film makes you think, “I’ve been in that position,” then that’s a good film.
NR: What advice would you give to U.S. audiences tired of Hollywood blockbusters?
DNW: Just like with food, always check the label on your movie. When you go to the store, in this country [the U.S.] I see it all the time in the grocery stores. You stand in the aisle and read the back of the box to see what’s in your food. Do that with your movies, too! Use IMDB and the internet! You don’t want to put bad stuff in your bodies, and you don’t want to put bad stuff in your head.
NR: What about to other independent filmmakers, who like you, are uninterested in working within the Hollywood system?
DNW: If you have a story, something you want to say, you don’t need backing from a big industry if the story is good. It’s still good, even without promotion.