"The Path": Footprints in the Land of Sunflowers By Cristina Venegas

in 23rd Guadalajara Film Festival

by Cristina Venegas

It comes as no surprise that Costa Rican director Ishtar Yasin’s debut feature film The Path (El camino, 2007), a film dedicated to Nicaragua, makes early reference to Nicaragua’s greatest poet-errant Rubén Dario. Whispered on the soundtrack by an unidentified male voice, Darío’s poetic phrases mysteriously anticipate an outcome:

“Pilgrim you go searching in vain
For a better path than your own
How do you expect me to lend you a hand
If my sign is your sign
You will never reach your destiny.”

The film tells the story of 12-year old Saslaya (Sherlin Paola Velásquez) and her little brother Dario (Marcos Ulises Jiménez) as they leave Nicaragua bound for Costa Rica in search of their mother who emigrated eight years before. Darío’s poetic and foreboding tone is tempered by Yasin’s direction of the hopeful yet uncertain journey.

When the film opens, Saslaya and Dario are already on the road making their way through a charred landscape of volcanic rock and swaying grassy fields. A constant wind blows and whistles. They’ve learned in school that the burnt earth of the Valley of Acahualinca — the land of sunflowers — is the result of volcanic eruptions that covered over the footprints and the paths of the first Managuans. Hoping to find their mother, the kids escape an abusive grandfather with whom they work in the municipal dump. There too the wind kicks up paper, plastic, foul dust and debris creating a haze of garbage. Armless dolls and a rose-colored glass box become Saslaya’s prized possessions.

The ominous circumstance of two kids migrating alone might descend into utter despair and sentimentality were it not for Yasin’s restrained observation of the life they encounter along the way. Wearing her pink dress, Saslaya looks out onto an immense rocky horizon with sturdy awareness. Together, they walk to the city and board a bus to Granada where they naturally fall in with other homeless children and find fragile and momentary companionship. They laugh and play, scavenge for food, and swim in the lake. An anonymous kid drumming in a park rhymes adult lyrics about ending corruption and violence. They encounter an enigmatic man with a puppet theatre who unsuspectingly turns up again and again throughout the journey. Other recurring figures appear on the trip: two men carrying an antique table and a sinuous young woman in a blue dress. A boat takes them across Lake Nicaragua to San Carlos where they embark on a second boat and cross another lake, which finally gives them illegal passage to Costa Rica. Slowly winding up river, the boat moves into the dense tropical foliage that dominates the atmosphere. Meandering through the hazards of migration, the film refuses to adopt the all too common fast-paced, highly stylized and gritty depictions of poverty and violence.

More than a film about immigration, The Path conveys a cruel yet beautiful human and natural landscape. Her powerful visual style is the result of juxtaposing a picaresque journey peopled by real, sometimes absurd recurring figures, with “documentary” passages. Her theatrical and acting background is at work in the fanciful moments while her own visceral experience of the journey — taken while working on the script — informs the construction of Saslaya and Dario’s story. Indeed, she cast real people in most of the roles whose own life story and experiences were similar to those of the characters they played. There are seemingly unscripted moments like when Dario, playing near the lake, encounters a very old indigenous woman sitting with a young girl. She asks him why he’s there. She is part of the landscape of rural life. The eyes of her brown, leathery face stare back at us in self-conscious observation. Or, on the boat to Costa Rica, where passengers huddle in the intimacy created by the risk they undertake together. They share with each other, in conversations at times off camera, the reasons for their relocation. Finding work. Reuniting with family members. Looking for a new life. The dangers of the trip, conveyed with matter of fact simplicity, are reminders of leftover wars: amputated limbs the result of mine fields and lives scattered in search of peace. Later, the looming violence is momentarily held at bay by the wild enjoyment of an amusement park ride.

The Path joins the growing list of provocative Latin American titles — from And Your Mother Too (Y Tu Mama También) to The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta), to Who Killed the White Llama? (Quien mató a la llamita blanca?) and Guantanamera — where the road as narrative drive explores a number of social, historical and individual conflicts. On one level it provides an image of little seen territories as well as their history and context. On another, the genre reveals raw emotional landscapes. The film’s title doesn’t suggest a journey’s end. Like the legend the children learn in their ramshackle schoolroom, the footprints on the path might disappear under the strain of violence if we don’t stop to consider the weight of every step taken in search of something better.