In January 2013 I flew to Manta, the largest fishing port in Ecuador, to attend the second annual Festival Ecuador Bajo Tierra. As its title suggests, it is a festival for Ecuadorian underground films, held in conjunction with the first-ever Ronda de Negocios de DVD, a place to discuss the distribution and commercialisation of national low-budget films. (1) In attendance were producers, directors, distributors, DVD manufacturers, a graphic designer, a post-production company, the hardest working actor in Ecuador today, the president of the National Film Council (the biggest source of film-financing in the country, with $730,000 destined for 2013), ministers of culture, and sub-ministers and their employees. In other words, a diverse selection of the Ecuadorian film world met for the first time to express their concerns, expectations and disappointments, and perhaps to begin future collaborations. The elephant in the room, of course, was the very contradiction of the entire event: the formality of what has otherwise been a largely informal industry. Manta, a working-class city far from the political and economic centres of Quito and Guayaquil, respectively, was the perfect setting for such an unlikely historical event.
Rather than discuss the films presented at the film festival, this article highlights aspects of Ecuador’s film history and “industry” that have made the festival and marché-du-dvd possible and necessary. First of all, it is imperative to understand that more national films were made this year than any other year in Ecuadorian history. Last September/October, when Sin Otoño, Sin Primavera (Iván Mora Manzano, 2012) and La Llamada (David Nieto Wenzell, 2012) came out, it was the first time that two national films screened simultaneously in movie theaters. Now, less than a year later, this is a common event.
Film productions have been assisted enormously by the formation of the Consejo Nacional de Cinematografía in 2006. Since national film production has increased, it would only be logical that distribution become the next issue to tackle. Thousands of taxpayers’ dollars (yes, dollars are currently used in Ecuador, for more on this topic see Ana Fernandez’ performance and Miguel Alvear’s video on Vimeo, Hasta la vista, baby! are invested in national films, which in the eyes of the ministry of culture are cultural products to be exported (like coffee, chocolate or the wrongly named Panama hats). Up until this moment, however, as far as I know, there haven’t been any studies conducted to make transparent how these funds are actually used and about the success of these films both locally and abroad. In fact, it seems that few, if any, films have been able to make back production costs. This puts the industry in a difficult place.
At the same time, not surprisingly, few strategies have been implemented to assist both the local and national distribution and exhibition of these films. For example, there is only one film festival that has had the resources to survive to this day –curiously a documentary film festival – Festival de Cine Documental Encuentros de Otro Cine, also called EDOC. In the capital city of Quito, there are a few commercial theatres (located in malls) that offer practically identical programs, consisting primarily of action films and romantic comedies from the United States. The only theatres that show a variety of national films (commercial, documentary, alternative) include the small cinephile haven Ochoymedio, and less regularly, La Casa de la Cultura and FlacsoCine. There are no blogs, magazines or newspapers dedicated solely to the film culture of Ecuador.
The most common way to watch a movie in Ecuador, as in Nigeria (the world’s second largest film industry, after Bollywood and before Hollywood), is to buy it on DVD (1 to 2 dollars, depending on if you want an artsy film or in a hard case). After all, why wait months to see a film in the movie theatre when you can obtain it –usually sooner if not at the same time – from a DVD vendor and only pay a fraction of the ($5) ticket price. Of the one-dollar spent on the DVD, however, zero cents go to the film producers and directors. This is not a problem for foreign producers because it is not a big enough market to make a difference in DVD sales. For local producers, however, while informal distribution does help to get their films out (without producers having to put up money), once the films are out, they are out. The producers no longer have control over their product – on how it’s packaged – and do not receive a cent from DVD sales.
In the past year, the Ecuadorian government has begun to regulate these vendors by increasing prices for national DVDs. What has ended up occurring, however, as highlighted in heated discussions in Manta, is a divide between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” national cinema, where the “highbrow” films (the ones that tend to be financed by the National Film Council or with international co-productions) are now sold for almost $5 each, placed visibly on shelves or in store windows for the authorities to more easily “regulate”. Meanwhile, “lowbrow” films – or cine bajo tierra, made by local producers, the majority of which are not from Quito, and therefore not connected to the larger film apparatus – continue to be sold at the normal price, without the permission of their producers and without regulation. En resumen, the publicly financed national cinema, whose production teams are made up almost entirely of the capital’s film elite, and that is intended for commercial release (seen as investments) are more protected by the state than the small, artisanal films entirely financed by – in their majority – working-class autodidacts from outside Quito (places like the often flooded Chone, of Manabí).
The “highbrow” films are sent to festivals abroad – air tickets and accommodations partially or entirely financed by the state – and circulate internationally (or at least try to). The “lowbrow” films circulate at the home – DVD level for a local audience –and are extremely popular (legend has it that one of these films, Sicarios Manabitas, is the best-seller among pirated DVDs at 1 million DVD sales), yet are never released in commercial theatres or festivals. So while higher-budget, state-invested films are sent abroad and protected at home (through DVD legislation), lower-budget films whose primary form of circulation is through DVD sales remain both un-protected at the local DVD store level and un-exhibited at the theatre and festival level. (2)
Enter Miguel Alvear and Mariana Andrade. In 2009, filmmaker and visual artist Alvear (co-director of the experimental and avantgarde Blak Mama, 2009) and sociologist Christian León, with the help of producer Mariana Andrade of Ochoymedio (and producer of Blak Mama), set out to investigate these alternative, underground yet extremely popular filmmakers in the book Ecuador Bajo Tierra. This investigation led to perhaps one of the funniest and most interesting films to come out of Ecuador, the documentary-fiction film about the same subject, titled Más Allá del Mall (“Beyond the Mall”, a play on words: “Mal” means “Evil”), directed by Alvear and starring Andrés Crespo. Andrade and Alvear then created the first Festival Ecuador Bajo Tierra in 2009 to premiere Más Allá del Mall. (3)
The Festival Ecuador Bajo Tierra, now in its second edition, is a showcase of the filmmakers encountered in their research, including the producer and director of the now legendary (at least in Ecuador) Sicarios Manabitas, Fernando Cedeño, as well as Nixon Chalacamá, Nelson Palacios and more. A total of 20 films were shown at the festival this year, with incredible diversity in format, subject matter, budget and style. The open call had no restrictions in gender, format, duration or content. As the website states, “The festival is not competitive. Preference will be given to low-budget Ecuadorian films (less than $70,000) and productions that have not been released in commercial theatres or on national television”.
The importance of the festival is that it creates a space where underground Ecuadorian cinema – and the filmmakers responsible for it – can be seen (on a big screen) and appreciated (or not) by the kind of audiences that frequent movie theatres and film festivals. In a country where, as Jorge Luis Serrano of the Consejo Nacional de Cine states, only 15-20% of the population has seen a movie in a movie theatre, this audience is, generally speaking, part of an elite. (4) Nevertheless, for the first time in Ecuadorian history, these lower-budget films are screened side by side with much larger productions, breaching the divide between the so-called “lowbrow” and “highbrow” and forcing audiences to rethink this division. The poles finally meet – only to show, perhaps, that they were never too far from each other to begin with.
The Festival therefore challenges the movie theatre-going “elite” (and just think: when cinema started it was for the masses, considered the lowest of the art forms) to reconsider (or to consider for the first time) movies made by people who work day-jobs to be able to pay their own production costs. In other words, they are asked to consider the working-class filmmaking sector of society not only as culture-producers (filmmakers) and culture-consumers (spectators) but as people too, with their own stories to tell.
Perhaps the next step will be to screen underground films with commercial films in movie theatres, or maybe these so-called underground films will be pumped with cash and no longer fit the low-budget requirements of the “underground”. Maybe, just maybe, one day these films will receive state funding. What should be considered in this process is that it be inclusive and not only draw attention to specific names and faces that have already been “discovered” (which at this point, it must be said, are dominantly male and from the Ecuadorian coast), but to all filmmakers – old and young, women too – who work outside the official parameters of film production: artisans who see movies not as cultural products to be sold and invested in but who make these films because of their passion and their necessity to say something different or see something new.
As I write these words I am about to show a video for exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Quito. This video is part of a larger film project, Comuna Engabao, a film made far from Quito, with the participation of a fishing commune on the coast of Ecuador and with the help of grants from the Premio Mariano Aguilera 2013 and FLACSO-Ecuador (a budget of around $15,000). Due to bureaucratic reasons, this film – like the films made by the underground directors in Manta – has been removed from consideration for the post-production funds from the National Film Council this year. Nevertheless, like those films that came before, it too will be completed – despite financial difficulties – in an effort driven purely by the passion for telling stories that haven’t been told.
The passion to create can never be measured, formalised, systematised, regulated, or controlled. And that’s where one can see all too clearly the limits of events like the Ronda de Negocios de DVD, which though necessary, will always be one step behind the creativity of the artists. The artist – in this case, the filmmaker – is the one who pushes the limits of what is considered art. Fortunately for the Ecuadorian cineaste, the Festival Ecuador Bajo Tierra and its organisers have recognised this fact and have embraced it. Let’s hope this effort continues and expands to include more faces, more regions, more styles and more subject matters. Meanwhile, Ecuadorian filmmakers will be forced to look for new forms of distribution and exhibition and will continue to push the “standards” in the name of innovation, creativity, and necessity.
Festival Ecuador Bajo Tierra II
Manta: 22-17 January 2013
Guayaquil: 25 January-3 February 2013
Quito: 1-10 February 2013
Festival website: www.ochoymedio.net/ecuador-bajo-tierra-2
1. In comparison to the United States, all films produced here are relatively-speaking “low-budget”. The highest budget films up until now have been made by Sebastian Cordero whose Pescador (2011) has an estimated 1 million dollar budget.
2. In June, to my surprise, I found a copy of Sicarios Manabitas in a DVD store placed with other national cinema and priced at $4.99. This is a victory for the film’s director, Fernando Cedeño, who has been fighting to get his film sold at this price since Manta (January).
3. Más Allá del Mall (Alvear, 2010) and Fernando Cedeño’s new film El Ángel de los Sicarios (my review here) are screening in New York in July, as part of the Ecuadorian Film Showcase in New York. More information available here
4. Letter to the editors of El Comercio, by Jorge Luis Serrano, president of the Consejo Nacional de Cine. Published 2 January, 2013. Available here.