Like many countries in Latin America caught in the euphoric freedom of digital filmmaking and complex socio-political shifts, the independent cinema of Peru, too, has had its moment. In 2009, Claudia Llosa posed with Berlinale’s Golden Bear for The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada), and many thought this was only the beginning. In 2015, three Peruvian features were programmed at International Film Festival Rotterdam’s line-up — a cinephile event (as much as an industry-oriented initiative) known for its special interest in film territories on the rise. Among these three titles, Héctor Galvez’s NN captured the Dutch audience just as it overachieved on home turf, and Juan Daniel F. Molero’s Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) earned a Tiger award.
Then, for three years: nada — at least in IFFR’s catalogue. Yet, 2019 seems to mark the return of Peruvian cinema in Rotterdam, if only because of one full-length film. We’re All Sailors (Todos somos marineros) premiered at Festival de Cine de Lima PUCP in 2018, so IFFR curated it for this year’s Voices section. Everything about this feature and its “voice” is unusual, though, from the plot to the hypnotic haze that settles in the senses while watching such a bold debut. The mood of suspended reality reeks from the opening shot onwards: Tolya (Andrey Sladkov), his younger brother Vitya (Ravil Sadreev) and a captain (Igor Kondyakov) are the remaining crew members stranded on a Russian fishing boat, and they can’t handle the necessary paperwork with local authorities. The captain insists on returning home, despite the fact that the ship company is bankrupted, and Tolya considers the idea of starting a new life in Peru with a woman (Julia Thays) he recently met.
As I sit down to talk with We’re All Sailors’ writer-director-producer Miguel Angel Moulet and his cinematographer Camilo Soratti, my first question is about their educational background in Cuba — again, a rather unconventional career path. Moulet tells me that he used to be an accountant but felt tempted by the Humanities, so he started writing. Attending a film screening at Católica’s cultural center one day, he caught a glimpse of an application call for the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. The film school’s website was “stuck in time,” or “Cuban style,” as Soratti jokes, and the future filmmaker was afraid he didn’t know much about framing or working with sound. “Send anything you have,” they replied, and he was admitted with his short stories.
Located only one hour away from Havana, both Moulet and Soratti agree that the school offers “a nurturing environment,” calling it “a really good experience.” Moulet spent three years there, mingling with “kids from all over the world.” There were a lot of visiting professors, particularly filmmakers, including Emir Kusturica, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Lucrecia Martel and Carlos Reygadas – “you can get really close to these directors, in sandals and shorts, talking about cinema in a really relaxing way.” As Soratti adds smilingly, “everybody goes there, because it’s Cuba, for the revolution.” It is also in San Antonio de los Baños where the two met their future We’re All Sailors co-producers from the Dominican Republic, yet another atypical industry formula for Latin America.
While in the film school, Moulet wrote a script adaptation assignment on The Merchant of Venice. Around that time, he also saw the TV news about some Russian men, far away from home, stuck on their boat due to international bureaucracy and money problems. At first, Moulet intended to set We’re All Sailors in 1994, in order to underline its political nuance, but the main focus ultimately shifted to the ethical aspect. Reflecting on the development period, he shares: “in the beginning, it was very hard.” The process to secure local and international funding was long and exhausting: a scholarship in Montreal, development grants from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, a script award at Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano de La Habana, a Cinéfondation short that could establish him as an emerging filmmaker.
As the budget was slowly taking shape, Moulet scouted for locations and non-actors. Originally intending to set the film in Callao, the principal port of Peru, he then opted for Chimbote, a much smaller place with a welcoming and helpful community. As for the casting calls, they were spread through an Orthodox church and a science center, both frequented by Russian people. “The most important for me was to find people who are willing to make the film,” says the director, “the rest can be worked out.” So, Moulet talked to plenty of people, seeing if anyone would fit the character profiles. The most difficult casting was probably for the boat, “discovered” at the annual San Pedro fiesta in Chimbote. The Dutch vessel cost six million dollars and was owned by a Chinese company, so lending it took a lot of persuasion.
As our conversation moves to the shooting period, We’re All Sailors’ cinematographer recalls the tough two weeks the team spent living and filming on the boat. “At night, it was fine, because it was easy to fall asleep, but otherwise we had severe land-sickness.” Also particular for Soratti was his collaboration with the lead actor Andrey Sladkov, who is a fencing coach in real life: “He was asking me, when you say ‘move there’, do you mean here, or here? [moving his hands a few inches] This was very useful for me as a cinematographer, this precision.” Still, once the cast and the crew realized all the opportunities of the boat’s limited interior space, as well as the marine dynamics, they decided to go natural.
We’re All Sailors’ director reminisces on the set’s creative ambiance and language barrier: “the lady you see singing in the film, Elzbieta, she had to translate every sequence, every word, she worked as a translator on the production.” As soon as the actors embarked on the boat, they had to go around and see if all the signs in Russian are correct, as well as if the atmosphere feels authentic. “Many elements from the scenography you see in the film are objects that actually belong to the actors,” adds the cinematographer. Moulet tells me that Igor Kondyakov indeed used to be a sea captain who brought his old captain jacket.
This prompts our conversation to switch to classic Russian literature dealing with ethics and psychology. Instead of inspecting the characters’ souls with standard close-ups, We’re All Sailors’ focuses on the actors’ faces in profile or 2/3. Soratti elaborates: “We had to divide the world into two, the world of the sea, inside the boat, and the world of the land. In these two worlds, you have different colors, movements, even different climates. On the boat, the sky is always grey, almost merging with the sea, and you have this monochromatic scale, thus also reflecting the monotony of the characters — the light is dim, and the camera is almost always fixed… there are close-ups, aiming to comprehend more about the inner world of the characters, but in the close-ups on the boat, you can see all the movements and the chaos of the outside world — still, but moving all the time — and you could see this fragmentation of their faces, as a representation of their incompleteness.”
With all the buzz surrounding We’re All Sailors in Rotterdam, I can’t help but wonder what the reaction was back home. Moulet and Soratti admit they are very excited about the upcoming premiere in Chimbote, because their film was the first major production shot there. As for the local scene, they are aware that their work is not commercial, given that the majority of Peruvian releases are comedies or horror flicks. We’re All Sailors won a Special Jury Mention for First Work at the Lima Film Festival, however viewers left the screening “like somnambulists” — it took some time for them to process the story. “I knew I won’t have that classic reaction of people tapping me on the shoulder and exclaiming ‘that was so good, bravo!’ Still, there is a deeper emotion people can have after seeing the film,” Moulet hopes. All in all, We’re All Sailors’ director and cinematographer are conscious of the fact that it is difficult for independent cinema to find its way to the Peruvian audience. “How about a VOD platform for local titles?” I ask, and they immediately show me the Retina Latina website, which is supported by several cultural institutions in the region — hence there is no subscription fee. “These are not premiere films, it is going to be a while before we upload [We’re All Sailors],” Moulet assures me, “but, yes, it is an opportunity.”
Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.