"Cochochi": Coming of Age in the Sierra By Pamela Biénzobas Saffie
Children growing up and becoming responsible teenagers (or not); boys being rebellious or obedient, shyly joking about girls, liking or running away from school; defying authority and doing what they are not supposed to, and then having to assume responsibility. The story, as universal as a coming-of-age story can be, is that of Cochochi, the remarkable first feature by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas.
The tone is also universal and natural, but there is one particular detail that sets it apart from your usual teen flick: it is set in the Tarahumara Sierra, a rural zone of Chihuahua, Mexico, among the indigenous Raramuri people. But this is not what makes it most special. It’s the fact that it tells this story without the slightest hint of exoticism or condescendence, and through a gaze that feels authentic, honest and dignified.
Evaristo and Luis Antonio (“Tony”) Lerma Torres — the names of the characters and of the actors — are two brothers finishing elementary school. Evaristo loves studying, unlike Tony who, nevertheless, does so well that he gets a scholarship to continue his education, though he doesn’t even attend their graduation ceremony. (The reason he gives for his absence towards the end is delightful.)
When they’re sent out to deliver some medicine to relatives in another town, Tony decides to take their grandfather’s horse, though they are not allowed to. In the middle of the journey, they lose the horse and then lose each other. Each one goes through his own adventures during the separate search, which takes both through other towns and new encounters. When they finally find each other they have to assume their responsibility, understanding how important the horse is for their family’s subsistence, and they must also decide about what they want to do next with their lives: study or work the earth.
Though at some point in their separate journeys the rhythm seems to stretch things out slightly, the film’s overall structure is very precise and quickly seduces without much effort. The use of music is also very accurate, to transmit not just the atmosphere, but often to set the beat of the action. The cinematography, by Guzmán and Cárdenas, reaches a delicate balance between boasting the awesome beauty of the landscape and avoiding the postcard image. The environment’s greatness participates in the story, not just as a backdrop but as a determining feature, and it is photographed accordingly.
The outstanding quality of Cochochi and its respectful tone implicitly questions an attitude that concerns all domains, and cinema in one of the first instances since, by using nature, it involves both looking at and portraying (a person, a group, a reality, a concept…) The camera indicates a position in relation to the subject, which is way too often one of superiority when that subject is a minority or underprivileged community. Even with the best intentions, the approach is usually patronizing, looking at the other through its difference or novelty.
Cochochi’s approach is so natural that of course it highlights the difference, precisely by incorporating it as a normal part of another kind of everyday reality. The coexistence of Raramuri and Spanish languages, the use of the radio to send out both private and practical messages to other towns, the material difficulties, the ways of relating to strangers so differently to that of the city and other particularities of life in the Sierra are simply integrated into the story, the storytelling and the image.
This all contributes to making Cochochi a fine piece of filmmaking, accurately shot and built; a lovely, fun and moving story about children, and an (unfortunately) exceptional example of love and respect for the subject.