Utama - My Movie In Toulouse

in 34th Rencontres de Toulouse - CinéLatino

by Bojidar Manov

An established, beloved, and renowned festival with a clear thematic code, the Rencontres de Toulouse – CinéLatino, now in its 34th year, once again offered a rich, diverse program that received an indisputably positive overall assessment. The main competition of 12 full-length debut feature films (for the festival’s purposes, these titles can be either the first or second film in a director’s filmography), plus a similar selection of full-length documentaries and another program of shorts, constituted a reasonably impressive panorama of Latin American cinema in its unofficial European capital. But also, while surveying this prestigious festival we should not neglect to mention its very useful professional platform for supporting projects in progress, Cinema en Construction, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with more than 40 films. Thanks to the the “Toulouse Incubator”, some of these projects have appeared on big screens internationally, including at important film festivals with prestigious awards.

Within just a few months, writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama has already enjoyed a respectable festival run, taking the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, four awards at the Malaga Spanish Film Festival, and was a nominee for the Ingmar Bergman Award at Goteborg. As is often the case in today’s hyper communicative and oversaturated media landscape, I found this film in Toulouse, where it brought me pure joy as a spectator and satisfaction as a professional. That satisfaction is even stronger because Utama is Loayza Grisi’s feature debut. Prior to that, since 2016, he worked as a cameraman and producer. For his ambitious Utama, he has concocted a great plot: an elderly, lonely married couple raise cattle llamas in extremely difficult conditions; their biggest problem is prolonged drought and the long distance they must travel through a dry desert landscape to bring the llamas to water. These Godforsaken people remain loyal to Quechua traditions, living in accordance with the unwritten scrolls of ancestral memory, but time and circumstance have taken their grandson away from them, sending him into the eroding civilization of the regional city. These types of conflicts are universal and inexhaustible topics in contemporary art, but to realize them convincingly on screen requires a lot of concentrated talent, the persistent pursuit of an idea, and the endurance to compete with the more overtly commercial productions that world cinema yields every day. It is to Loayza Grisi’s credit that he has avoided all temptations and, with great minimalism, not only tells the story, but uses all manner cinematographic tools to produce a strong impact: the presence of his main characters (played by non-professional actors), the emotionally infused image of the harsh mountain landscape, the sparse dialogue and precise editing. Through these components, the narrative acquires a sense of the original energy of pure film parlance.

For me, as a Bulgarian, Utama instantly evoked a symmetry with the magnificent film Aga, from the Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov. That film closed the 2018 Berlinale before touring dozens of festivals and earning numerous awards. The symmetry is due not only to the storyline; not only to the recurring drama of urbanization that tore the protagonists’ family apart; not only because of the doomed patriarchal purity of dying traditions; not only because of the integrity of the characters, free from all inbound influences of civilization; not only because of the eternal themes and the dominant emotional pain of the old father’s death. 

Kindred spirits to the characters in Utama, Aga’s characters are in Yakutia, on the other side of the globe, in the Far East tundra, enduring extremely difficult living conditions while their daughter resides in a distant city. The old men survive by fishing under the everlasting ice, and the daughter has to bury her mother after their prolonged forced separation. And the injuries sustained thanks to technological civilization can be seen in the bottomless cone of the excavated diamond mine and in the tear frozen on the daughter’s face!

It has long been known that universal, eternal artistic ideas move across their latitudes and freely intersect the creative meridians guided by the compass of an author’s intuition. Thus, Aga and Utama meet unexpectedly and form a kind of duo on the modern world’s screens.

Bojidar Manov
Edited by José Teodoro