Berlin Film Festival Spotlight: "El Vuelco del Cangrejo"

One of the standout Latin American films screened during this year’s Berlinale was Colombia’s El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap), which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2009. I was particularly interested in this one, since it’s one of the newest productions that speak to Colombia’s burgeoning cinema movement. Nothing would thrill me more than for my Colombian neighbors to get the respect they deserve on a global scale, much like Peru did last year at this very film festival with La Teta Asustada (which is also nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year). And it seems Vuelco is on the right track; it won the FIPRESCI association of international film critics’ top honor in the Forum sidebar, a big deal for first-time feature film director Oscar Ruiz Navia, who is only 27 (!) and assembled the movie with some college buddies from Cali’s Universidad del Valle on a minimal budget.

This is a slow-moving tale about a predominantly black village on Colombia’s Pacific coast which fights to preserve what’s theirs in the face of white newcomers looking to exploit them. Before you go crying that it's an Avatar rip-off, it’s important to note that Ruiz Navia’s message is delivered in a subtle and poetic way. Even the protagonist, a skinny and pale man named Daniel (Rodrigo Velez), preserves an air of mystery until the very end. He lands in La Barra at the beginning of the movie with no explanation of where he’s going or where he’s been (save for a black-and-white photograph of a beautiful woman). All we know is that Daniel is in transit and desperately needs to get going—on a boat, preferably. And boy are boats hard to come by.

As of late, things have begun to take a turn in La Barra, and not for the better. The fish have become scarce, and another white man, a bearded, wanna-be hotelier from the big city named Paisa has set up post on the beach with the intention of building a resort where, presumably, lots of dirty sex and booze-drinking will transpire. As if that weren’t enough to threaten to corrupt the way of life in La Barra, he’s also brought his loud, sexually explicit music with him (reggaeton, naturally). Ruiz Navia has him blast the same, nondescript dembow beat every night through his crummy speakers for effect, and as a viewer, your frustration builds with that of his neighbors. The central relationship is between Daniel and a little girl named Lucia, whose hobbies include following Daniel around instead of attending school, begging people to buy her mother’s lunch meals, and trapping crabs in her plastic bucket (a reference to the movie’s title). The key to not get them to escape, she says, is to turn them on their backs.

Though there are several interesting characters in the pic, including Cerebro, a patriarchal figure who is also possibly sleeping with his own niece, the main presence is, without a doubt, nature itself. Even the stunning morena who sleeps with Paisa for fish and tries hard to seduce Daniel can’t compete with the breathtaking landscapes of jungle and beach in La Barra. 

Visually speaking, the movie could very well be one extended slideshow, and in fact, it is! If you’re in Cali, Colombia, you can visit the still photography exhibit called “Detras Del Cangrejo” (Behind The Crab) from photographer Santiago Lozano Álvarez, who went behind the scenes while the movie was being shot in La Barra. It will run starting Feb. 25 for several weeks at the Alianza Francesa de Cali.

I chatted with Ruiz Navia after the screening in Berlin and asked about his thoughts on, among other things, the future of his country’s film industry, which we will shine a light on through a wonderful article in Latina’s April 2010 issue called “Cinema Paraíso” by contributing editor Grace Bastidas (a Colombian herself).

How did you discover this town and its stories?

This is a special area in the Pacific coast, it’s in the middle of the jungle so to go there is really difficult; there are no highways. We wanted to do something there because nobody knows that place. These people are direct descendants of the slaves from Africa but they have mixed with the indigenous people and the white people. I was there in 2002 as a tourist and I met Cerebro, who is a real character, and that was the inspiration to start the whole process.

Are the problems of the people in La Barra known to the rest of Colombia?

In all of the Pacific zone there are people who come and try to take over things and the natives resist them. It’s a recurrent problem but people haven’t really talked about it, at least not in cinema, so I wanted to tell it in a very poetic, very metaphorical, not grotesque way, something very delicate. I don’t expect my movies to change the world; it’s simply my reflection of those things— it’s very personal.

Who supported this movie the most, financially speaking, back home?

I had support from the Fondo para el Desarollo Cinematografico in the post-production stage. At first I had no support; I had to make the movie on a very low budget. Then I had support from France and a few other funds.

What is very hard to attract financing?

Yes because it was a debut project with a cast of mostly unknown (and non-working] actors. It was risky from every point of view, but I insisted in bringing it to this point.

Are you interested in telling more stories with some sort of social commentary?

Yes and no. I don’t make a difference between what’s social commentary and what’s not; I just make movies that reflect what I think about the world. I want my cinema to be a reflection of my personality, my aesthetic, and my ideologies.

Hollywood has a certain way of telling stories, and it seems 3D is all the rage right now, but your style is obviously a departure. Was this a conscious choice, knowing the commercial success wouldn’t be the same?

I’m interested in another kind of cinema. The movies in Hollywood are the ones that we know work the best, commercially, but that’s not to say they are the best. Fame does not mean quality, necessarily. But there is this whole other style of cinema from Europe and Asia that’s not that well known and those are the kinds of movies that I want to make.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

I like to work a lot between the documentary and fiction spaces, reconstructing parts of my memories. I think it’s an interesting game, artistically speaking.

How do you feel about the state of Colombia’s film industry in general?

I feel like the doors are being opened little by little with different projects. There is still a lot of work to be done. There are directors who have taken a giant step like Ciro Guerra [director of this year’s official foreign language Oscar entry, Los Viajes Del Viento].

With whom do you identify the most in terms of your peers?

There are people who are making their movies and some interest me more than others. For example, Simon Brand [director of Paraiso Travel, which broke box office records in Colombia upon its release in 2008], I don’t really identify with him. I respect his work but I don’t have anything to do with it. I do value what he does and I’m happy he’s done well commercially. But I like Ciro Guerra’s approach more, my journey is a lot more like his. Victor Gaviria [director of Rodrigo D: No Future —the first Colombian feature screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in 1990] is a very important point of reference for us. But the movement as a whole is just beginning, there is so much to be done still.

What has the reception been like here in Berlin?

People have really become interested in the movie. We had our world premiere in Toronto and then we had two other screenings in between, in Chile and Havana. On top of that, we want to go to several countries. We haven’t closed any distribution deals yet [outside of Colombia, where it will be released theatrically in March]. It’s very complicated in general to sell movies in this market, it seems they just want to buy the same 5 or 6 movies, like Avatar, but we’re still here. Maybe they don’t buy these smaller movies right away, but we persist, and maybe in a year or two it can be bought for another audience. The important thing right now is to take it to various places. It’s our first movie, so we’re taking it slow. In any case, I have a great sales agent in Berlin and a French producer so one way or another, it should move.

El Vuelco Del Cangrejo will also screen at this year’s Miami International Film Festival in March 2010.