PERUVIAN CINEMA: OCTUBRE / OCTOBER (2010): Interview With Diego Vega
This has been a great year to engage with Peruvian cinema. Not only did I have the chance to speak with Claudia Llosa whose film La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009) was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award®, but I was able to follow-up with Dr. Kimberly Theidon, whose research informed Llosa's film. Also, I had the opportunity to speak with Javier Fuentes-León, whose Contracorriente (Undertow, 2010) has seductively haunted the hearts of festival-goers the world over and earned the honor of being Peru's official submission to the foreign language category for the 2011 Academy Awards®. Further, I was fortunate to sit down with Diego Vega--half of the brother team behind Octubre (October, 2010)--upon the occasion of October's North American premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). October's full dance card on the festival circuit required filmmaker brothers Daniel and Diego Vega to divvy up rounds. While Diego introduced the film at TIFF, Daniel was off in Vladivostok introducing October to the Russians. Most recently, October has been announced in the World Cinema Now lineup at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF).
Money-lender Clemente (Bruno Odar) only knows how to relate to others through transactions. His life is turned upside down when someone leaves him a baby in a basket. When a client, Sofía (Gabriela Velásquez), steps in to help tend to the baby, Clemente is faced with new possibilities during Lima's October celebration of the Lord of Miracles. As further synopsized by Diana Sanchez in her official description for TIFF: "Austerely shot with careful attention to framing, October signals the arrival of a distinct cinematic voice from Latin America. The Vega brothers compose a moving and charming film, balancing themes of loneliness and disconnection with an absurd comic tone that steers the narrative away from melodrama."
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
* * *Michael Guillén: October is an enchanting fable and the line that jumped out of the movie at me was: "Poor is not someone who has little but he who wants a lot." This struck me as the lesson of your film's fable, particularly because your main character Clemente is a money lender who somehow misses the true value of his transactions. How did you and your brother go about developing this story? Did one of you write it? Did you both write it?
Diego Vega: We started on October quite a long time ago. The first idea came after I graduated from film school--I studied at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión in Cuba--and when I came back to Peru, I was full of films and emotions from having been at the school. I liked Robert Bresson's films a lot and had seen his last film L'Argent many times. As you might remember, L'Argent is about a counterfeit bill that crosses the lives of many characters with tragic consequences.
Guillén: Fascinating! I failed to make that connection.
Vega: Well, also in Peru, we have a lot of fake money in circulation. Peru has a "fake" culture in the sense of piracy. Everything is sold as something it's not. You buy something and it's not the real designer label; it's not the original. It's common for Peruvians to be suspicious and scrutinizing when anyone pays them with paper money. Whether it's paying for a taxi, going to a small store, eating at a restaurant, anywhere, people will always check the money you are handing them to see if it's fake. So the influence of Bresson's L'Argent and this cultural practice in Peru of doubting authenticity were the origins of October.
I'm the screenwriter so I took the idea and began to write the script. My brother Daniel and I talked a lot but I wrote the first draft, and then he read it and offered comments. Even though October has a counterfeit bill in it, we left it as a source image. It doesn't move or travel in our film. It stays with Clemente.
Guillén: He can't get rid of it.
Vega: But that counterfeit bill is the source of the story. At the beginning, we had many different families involved but we ended up telling a story about attempting to build a family, even if in our film it is a strange and bizarre family composed of individuals who have no connection to each other yet find themselves together as a family for the birthday party, for the climax.
Guillén: Just so I'm clear, the counterfeit bill in October is 200 soles. Roughly, what would that be in American dollars?
Vega: It's about $70; a bit more than about half of the official minimum wage per month in Peru, which is around $100. Thus, 200 soles is an important bill in Peruvian currency. Some families only have 200 soles to live on for the month. It's distinguished for bearing the image of Santa Rosa de Lima. But it's not a common bill and it's not one that anyone in Peru wants to have in their possession, because they're too often fake. Peruvians prefer a 100 soles bill, or 50, or 20; but, not 200.
Guillén: Let's return to this interesting idea of the constructed family. Are you playing with the idea because there has been so much social upheaval in Peru? Resulting in many Peruvians losing their original families? Or is it because Peruvians are migrating to the cities and losing touch with their original families? Why was it important for you to create the portrait of a constructed family for your narrative?
Vega: The fact is that many original families--including my own family--are dysfunctional families. Either that or one of the parents has abandoned the family, or one of the family members is missing, or they don't get along. Though, yes, I constructed the family for my film, it's not for the reasons you've stated. Daniel and I didn't think about migration into the city or anything like that, even though during the violence of the '80s and '90s many Peruvians did migrate into the city. But that wasn't what we were thinking about. Originally, if I recall, we started to build five families with the fake bill traveling between them and they were all dysfunctional families and that's primarily because that's how Daniel and I grew up. All of the parents of my friends have either split or are dysfunctional in some way. But this isn't a tragic way of seeing the family or anything; it's just like that, no? It's difficult to put people together and keep them together for 30 years. In Peru, my parents' generation is just that way, no?
Guillén: Is Daniel older or younger than you?
Vega: Daniel is 11 months older than me.
Guillén: So I have a sense now of how the two of you negotiate to develop a script; but--when it comes to the actual shooting--is one of you more of a director than the other?
Vega: We split duties. Daniel takes care of the visuals, the cinematography, and works closely with the DP during the shooting, while I stay with the actors.
Guillén: How did the two of you come to that arrangement?
Vega: It was organic and natural. I'm the one who starts the writing and--since I'm the one who comes up with and develops the story--I understand the characters and their motivations and can thus guide the actors better. My brother comes in and has an overall view which has developed from our conversations but has not experienced the lonely process of creation. The actors asked a lot of questions that he couldn't answer so it became easier for me to answer those questions for them. So we came to this arrangement organically. Plus, my brother has always loved cinematography so it's natural for him to be caught up in the film's visuals. Before the shooting, we talk a lot to decide what we want to do so that we're clear and decisive when the shooting starts. But even though we've divided it so that I'm the one who gives notes to the actors, Daniel can always offer comments to the actors as well. Or I can suggest certain framings to the cinematographer. There have been times when I've said something to an actor and then Daniel has come along and said something opposite and the actor complains; but, we just laugh about it and work it out.
Guillén: Clearly the collaboration with your brother works because one of the strengths of your first film October is how your characters are so well-developed and how the film is so visually interesting. I don't know if you can speak for Daniel or not, but in terms of the look of the movie I became keenly aware of how the camera rarely moved. Was that decision partly an economic one?
Vega: We had always visualized the film in that way, though perhaps not so much. We had thought about some small, slow movements, maybe towards the beginning; but, when we sat down with the money we had, and started to draft our shooting budget, we decided to get rid of all of the movement, perhaps to the extreme? Though we had thought of making a film in that way, probably we would have moved the camera a bit more if we could have. Our ideas were conditioned by the budget.
Guillén: Are you and Daniel intending to work together again?
Vega: Yeah! In fact, we are developing our next script. October took so much. It took years to get the funding. But now it's finished and it's working and we're very happy and pleased about that. But during the process of pulling October together, we had time to do a lot of other things--my brother had two kids, continued working while we developed this feature film, and I wrote a couple of scripts--so now that we have put October out into the world, we've returned to one of those scripts and are rewriting it together. Now--because everything is functioning--we're going to keep working.
Guillén: Can you speak about Sofía's ritual of adding her pee to a glass of water she then offers Clemente? At first, I thought it was a vengeful act but then it gradually dawned on me that it was more a form of feminine magic?
Vega: Yes, that's right, and it's common in Peru. Not everybody practices it, of course, but ladies in their forties to sixties are familiar with the ritual. They probably know a friend or two who have done it. For me it's a symptom of desperation. Sophia is a religious woman, a devotee to the Lord of Miracles, and she expects the Lord of Miracles to answer her prayers; but, when she doesn't get what she wants from the Lord of Miracles, then she goes the other way. It's a kind of voodoo, no? Sofía thinks, "The Lord of Miracles is not giving me what I want--which is this man, this family--and so I'll try to catch him with this panty tea."
Guillén: Panty tea?
Vega: In Spanish we call it te de calzón. You've seen Persepolis?
Vega: Well, Marjane Satrapi--who wrote Persepolis--also wrote a small comic called Borados. I don't know how you say it in English?
Vega: Ah. Well, one of Satrapi's main female characters in Borados does a similar thing. After performing sex, the woman puts a key in her vagina in an effort to catch her lover. But she has to perform the ritual quickly, within 20 minutes of having had sex. Not only does she have to immediately put the key into her vagina, but then she has to boil water, remove the key from her vagina and put it in the water, and then serve this "tea" to the man.
Guillén: A love spell, eh? Yikes! After Sofía performs this love spell on Clemente, he goes to have sex with a whore and, apparently, the magic has worked because he can't get it up to fuck the whore. What impressed me in that scene was the whore's wise response when she comforted Clemente by telling him, "Well, you know, you can't stay the same." I admired that you invested such common sense wisdom into this lady of the night.
Vega: I'm not sure if you remember but that same woman wears glasses. After she finishes having sex, she puts on her glasses, which reveals that she's actually a grandmother, or something like that. We wanted to keep far away from stereotypes of prostitutes and prostitution and to remember that prostitutes are the women men go to in order to feel warm for a moment. Clemente, being the kind of man he is, goes to this woman to feel a moment's warmth, to feel he is at home, but the minute he's finished with her, he rises, cleans himself, and gets out because, probably, afterwards he feels guilty. But during his time with her, he feels okay and a little more human and that woman, of course, she understands this in Clemente, she understands this in men in general.
Through that scene we wanted to give a tip to the audience that Clemente is missing something; he's missing an opportunity. We were too subtle and needed a bit more and by having her say that--"You can't stay the same"--audiences understand better the necessity of Clemente's character arc. They understand that Clemente himself is beginning to understand he needs to change. What's beautiful is that this insight arrives through his involvement with a prostitute who is--in effect--a grandmother.
Guillén: As a character Clemente is quite interesting, but profoundly sad.
Guillén: What struck me was that--whereas Sofía had her faith in the Lord of Miracles to rely upon and (failing that) feminine magic--Clemente had neither. In fact, the film's final image of Sofía walking in the procession of the Lord of the Miracles while Clemente walks against it seemed so telling at how at odds they were. It's as if--though he senses he needs to change--he still doesn't understand why. He doesn't get it.
Vega: He's stubborn, yes. He's too cold, too dry, and--though he has understood something--maybe he hasn't changed? He's understood that he has to do something, he has to move forward, change; but, he resists. That image you bring up of him walking against the procession was the original ending of the script and has stayed through the end of the film. But when we were in the editing room, we felt it was too dark and we wanted to add some light to the final scene. Because of his resistance, we couldn't put the light and the hope in him; so we decided to use Sofía to close the film because--in a way--it's the sensation of a happy ending, even though it's not a happy ending.
Guillén: It ends on a note of faith, which is to say hope.
Vega: The truth is that--even if Sofía and Clemente get together--it doesn't insure happiness. They're difficult personalities and maybe they'll get together but won't know how to be happy? But the sensation at the end of October is that you feel the light of hope, which is what we wanted, because October is dark, it's difficult, and it's sad. We needed the film to end the way it did.
Guillén: Let's touch upon the story of the old man and his poor girlfriend in the wheelchair. You have them leaving the city at film's end. Where did they go?
Vega: They're going off to die.
Guillén: But at least together?
Vega: Yeah. He wants her to die with him somewhere outside of Lima, which is too big and annoying and hard for old people. I think they're going to find a small town somewhere where they can just live at peace until they die together. It's a small thing this man is doing but by the end of the film it's a big thing because they're together. He risks a little bit by kidnapping her, no?
Guillén: Though I have been brought up religiously, I can't say that I am a religious person, though I can say that I am a superstitious person. I believe in the invisible world and am fascinated with the Catholic religion's negotiation with the invisible world, especially as inflected through different cultures. Catholicism in Guatemala is a totally different animal than Catholicism in Peru, though they're both spotted one-eyed cats. In your film October the month of October is associated with the Lord of the Miracles and I'm wondering if that's actually true in Peru?
Vega: Yeah, yeah.
Guillén: Can you speak a bit about that tradition?
Vega: It's a huge tradition in Peru that started up some 400 years ago. It's origin is in Black Peruvian culture. A slave from Angola who had been brought to Peru in the 17th century painted an image of the Crucifixion on a wall. This painting survived earthquakes and floods and--because of that--people began to venerate it. Then they built a church to house the mural [the Sanctuary of Las Nazarenas]. After hundreds of years, the veneration of the Lord of Miracles has become what you see in October.
Throughout the month of October, the image is taken out of the church and moved through a series of six processions from one church to another throughout Lima. The first procession is a small one to the center of Lima but the others are huge, long processions that carry the anda--I don't know how you say it in English--for kilometers. It's become quite popular and is rooted in the modest people, the people with needs, and is now called the Purple Month. That's why Sofía is wearing a purple habit. So, basically, the processions of the Lord of Miracles is from Lima and worshipped primarily in Lima, though--if you go to New York--the Peruvian community there would probably do the same thing. I'm not exactly sure about New York, but I wouldn't doubt that it's the largest procession of the Lord of Miracles outside of Lima, Peru.
Guillén: Is the Lord of Miracles the patron saint of the poor?
Vega: No, he's not. We have a lot of saints in Peru with a lot of different associations. For example, this Lord of Miracles in Peru is also associated with a soccer team named the Alianza Lima. In October, this team changes their regular outfits to purple ones associated with the Lord of Miracles. And though the worship of the Lord of Miracles had its origin among the marginalized Black slaves, it now has less to do with the marginalized and more to do with the lower middle class. In Peru, for example, we have Sarita Colonia; she's a younger saint for the criminals, the marginalized, the prostitutes, no? She's related to the port in Callao. The worship of the Lord of Miracles has to do with much more than that, even though--because of its origins--it's rooted in the lower classes.
Guillén: So are you saying that faith in the Lord of Miracles has more to do with the dreams of the middle class who are still aspiring and want a little bit more?
Vega: That's right. They don't ask for big things.
Guillén: More material things, like a washing machine or something like that?
Vega: That's right. The faithful of the Lord of Miracles wear the purple habits during procession because they are expecting something from the Lord of Miracles. If you remember, the white cord with which they tie their habits have knots and the more knots the cord has, the more they are expecting from the Lord of Miracles. Some folks wear these habits the whole month of October. It depends on what they are expecting. For me, these religious practices are efforts to explain what cannot be explained or to fill the emptiness, right? In the case of the Lord of Miracles, I think the faithful are feeling emptiness and are asking for--not just material things--but spiritual things as well: to have a better year, let's say. It's common for the people to thank the Lord for the miracle of being alive.
Guillén: Well, Diego, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about October. It's a lovely film. Congratulations on being picked up for North American distribution by New Yorker Films.
* * *Note: Incidentally, after the fact as I researched the matter, it appears there is a strong following for the Lord of the Miracles among the Peruvian community in San Francisco, who honor him with mass and a procession on October 17 each year.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.