Sunday, December 13, 2009

COLOMBIAN CINEMA: CRAB TRAP (2009)—The Evening Class Interview With Oscar "Papeto" Ruiz Navia, Rodrigo Vélez & Arnobio Salazar Rivas

There is an intimate scene in Oscar Ruiz Navia's debut feature Crab Trap (El Vuelco del Cangrejo, 2009) that reveals the true translation of the film's title. Daniel, a "white" stranger, has drifted into the Afro-Colombian coastal village of La Barra in hopes of securing a boat to escape Colombia. While waylaid in the village, he befriends a local girl Lucia who entertains him one afternoon by showing him how she traps crabs by flipping them over onto their backs. The crabs are helpless in this position until a wave sets them right side up. Is Daniel in the same position? And what kind of wave will be required to free him from being trapped?

"Landscape and dreamscape, like the clashing worldviews of the characters, meet in Crab Trap,"
John Anderson writes at Variety, "whose effect is an existential disequilibrium. If Samuel Beckett ever went to the beach, this is what he might have thought about."

Treading a fine line between documentary and fiction, Crab Trap is a meditative look at daily life in a remote village on the Pacific coast of Colombia that explores the nuances of social and racial relations in one of the most isolated areas of the country. As Diana Sanchez writes in her program capsule: "Oscar Ruiz Navia's debut feature captures a part of Colombia rarely seen on film, the black communities of its Pacific coast. …Elegantly enhancing the distance between the locals and the foreigners, Ruiz Navia uses non-professional actors from the area to contrast with the two outsider characters, who are played by professionals. Crab Trap registers the languid pace of these remote villages while alerting us to the oncoming clash with modernity and how it is beginning to disastrously affect the lives of local peoples." As reported earlier on The Evening Class, Crab Trap was provided completion funding by the Global Film Initiative in 2007. The film boasted its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where director Ruiz Navia and his two lead actors Rodrigo Vélez and Arnobio Salazar Rivas sat down to talk to me about their film. [This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]

Oscar Ruiz Navia was born in Cali, Colombia, and studied at the National Film and TV School of Colombia and the Universidad del Valle. He created his own production company, Contravía Films, in 2006. He has directed the short films Three Pounds: Music for the Sick (2002), Sunrise (2003), The Children of the Beast (2005), Vacuum-Package 1, 2, 3 (2006), There Is a Brain at La Barra (2006) and Liquefaction (2007). Crab Trap (2009) is his first feature film.

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Michael Guillén: Oscar, during the Q&A session after the world premiere screening of Crab Trap, Rodrigo made mention that you and he met during a campus demonstration when the two of you were fleeing the military who had been brought in to squash the protest. How then did the two of you collaborate on developing the story for Crab Trap?

Oscar Ruiz Navia: Though Rodrigo is now a professional actor, he started his studies as a drama student at the same university where I was studying social communications. Though we had met before, it wasn't until after the demonstration on the university campus that we began talking about film. In some ways, our interaction after that demonstration set the metaphor for our work: we both wanted to get away from the militant and political atmosphere of Colombia to create something beautiful with film. Though we were both worried about the political situation in our country, we didn't want to mire ourselves in the critical, complaining that "this is bad and this is bad"; we wanted to feel we were taking part in the construction of our country, not the destruction. We wanted to meet our lives with our cinephilia, our ideology, and our aesthetics. We didn't want to create direct speech; we wanted to create something metaphoric. But, of course, this impulse towards metaphor comes from the pain we feel from reality.

Guillén: The fact that the film's political subtext was purposely indirect worked for me, though of course I was left wondering about narrative details. I wondered if Rodrigo's character Daniel had gone AWOL from the paramilitary?

Ruiz Navia: No, not really.

Guillén: Or are we even supposed to know about his past?

Ruiz Navia: That is a good point because—when I decided to include the political subtext in the film—I definitely wanted it to be an indirect statement. Sometimes people criticize that Colombian films are always about violence, war and drugs, and—as a consequence—certain filmmakers don't want to talk about those things anymore; they prefer to create in a plastic bubble. They want to escape from the reality of the Colombia in which we live. But I think we have to talk about these things and the problem is not in the subject itself, but in how to talk about the subject. There's a way to talk about it. Often people just talk about the fact of violence but not about why these things happen, not about the cause or the effect.

With El Vuelco del Cangrejo I wanted to talk about the causes and consequences of violence in Colombia, but not so much about the violence itself. I wanted to examine the traces of this problem and, of course, wanted to tell the story through one person's small problem as representative of the larger problem. Thus, the neighbors fighting over the music in the film is a metaphor of the intolerance experienced by many Colombians. Colombia is not a militarized country just because we have big guns that spill blood; it's a militarized country because in the daily lives of Colombians there is much intolerance of neighbors and judgment of friends. I wanted to suggest this pervasive intolerance in Cangrejo but leave it to the audience to make up their own mind.

Guillén: Your film is set in the Pacific coastal village of La Barra. How did you discover this remote place?

Ruiz Navia: I found La Barra while traveling as a tourist. I used to go there with relatives and friends to have fun. We liked the place because it was isolated and wasn't overrun by tourists. There wasn't even electricity when we first visited there. For someone from the city, La Barra was a calm place to relax; but, you could also have something of an anthropological experience because you could interact with these native Afro-Colombians.

One day during one of my vacations at La Barra there was a white man who—just like Paisa in the movie—brought loudspeakers to play his loud music. Arnobio, who plays Cerebro in the movie, was actually the owner of the camp site where I was staying and he was angry about the loud music. He complained this was not the "real" La Barra and that everything was changing for the worse. With this anecdote I felt I found a metaphor to express the intolerance in our country; a microcosm of the larger problem. I also wanted to have a character who has come from the city and is witnessing this conflict between the villagers and modernity. This character, of course, is Daniel who I felt could be as objective as I was when I visited La Barra. I didn't want the story to side with either of the neighbors. I wanted the point of view to be that of an outsider witnessing the conflict. Also, though he observes what's happening, there's really nothing he can do, just like in real life you can dislike something but not be able to do anything about it. Daniel is the most fictional character in the story, even though the story is told through his eyes and vision. But he's not a hero who tries to save the community; he's just a normal person.

Guillén: Normal, perhaps, but wanting to escape?

Ruiz Navia: You could say Daniel's character was a metaphor of what I was feeling about my country at that moment. I didn't want to be there. I wanted to escape. I wanted a change. Making the film was like a journey where I had to rewrite my situation and remember what I'd forgotten. Whether a film is a road movie about a journey or is like a road movie and a journey, you make the trip because you want to change something you don't like or that gives you a pain in your stomach. I wanted to take this trip, make this film, because we have so many problems in Colombia, but I wanted the film to have an elegiac tone. I wanted it to be beautiful and emotional and not simply critical.

Guillén: You mentioned it took five years to make this film. How did Rodrigo and Arnobio participate in creating the characters of Daniel and Cerebro, respectively?

Ruiz Navia: I wrote the characters but took many things from their real lives.

Rodrigo Vélez: My process for developing the character of Daniel lasted approximately 2½ years, during which time it was important for me to visit La Barra, to get to know the place, the surrounding landscape, the rivers, and the people. To build up the character, it was also important to realize that—no matter how many times I visited La Barra and talked with the villagers—I was never going to be a part of La Barra. Ironically, the more familiar I became with La Barra, the more estranged I felt. At first I tended to romanticize La Barra and—because of the romantic feelings I was having about La Barra—I felt I was understanding La Barra; but, as time went along, I realized La Barra was more complex than that and that I would never really fit into the lives and situations of the people of La Barra.

Guillén: Oscar, I appreciated how your camera looked into the faces of the villagers. It introduced them as characters in the narrative but also, by contrast, emphasized Daniel's difference for being so fair, nearly white, an outsider drifting through.

Ruiz Navia: Of course the film is about the clash between these two different ways to see the world. Colombia is a country of mixed races. We have black people, indigenous people, white people. I wanted to have a guy from the city who looked different than the villagers of La Barra. To finish up what Rodrigo was saying about his preparation for the role, I didn't want him to know exact dialogue as much as I wanted him to know about the place La Barra, to live there. By the time we started to shoot the film, he had memories of it because he had stayed there for a while.

For example, the story called for Daniel to have a relationship with the little girl Lucia, so I wanted them to become friends in real life before we began shooting the movie so that the dialogue would develop spontaneously between them. His preparation was also deepened because we were supposed to make the film three years ago but had production problems. Then—when the project was finally ready to go about six months before we started shooting—he was ready.

By contrast, Jaime Andres Castaño—the actor who played the white man Paisa—never visited La Barra because I knew I wanted him to be the enemy of Cerebro. I told him not to show up on location until a couple of weeks after we had started shooting. When he arrived, he was out of touch with the others and this was my way of directing the actors: to understand their relationship in the film and to try to replicate it in real life.

Guillén: Arnobio, you are what would be called a non-actor, though now I guess you would be called an actor. How difficult was it for you to be in front of the camera? To play the role of Cerebro?

Arnobio Salazar Rivas: I've had the nickname "Cerebro" for a long time so I built the character up from myself. At the beginning, I met Oscar and some of his crew when they came to La Barra as tourists and my first experience working with them was a short film called There Is a Brain at La Barra where Oscar filmed me making some coconut cookies. That was my first exposure to the camera and then—when Oscar proposed that I play a part in Crab Trap—I said okay. I thought, "I can do it. Why not go for it?" [Of note was that Arnobio's presence at the Toronto International was the first time he had ever been out of his home country Colombia.]

Guillén: In Cerebro's confrontation scene with Paisa, I appreciated that he wasn't all macho about it and that he approached the conflict thoughtfully. He knew he couldn't take Paisa on physically so, instead, he went to the village council and gathered their support, leading to that wonderful final scene when they dismantle the fence Paisa has built on the beach. I have to commend the both of you for presenting an image of an indigenous people who have an innate intelligence and an integral sense of who they are.

Ruiz Navia: As I said before, I didn't want to show direct violence. Also, it's realistic. Cerebro is not a violent man. He's never hurt anyone and never would; but, he has the strength of his convictions. I wanted to have a confrontation. I built all these situations for Cerebro to be in but the situations were inspired from what I knew about him. The confrontation was a fictional scene; but, in order to make the scene work, I made sure that the actor who played Paisa and Cerebro never met before we started shooting. That confrontation scene was the first time they met and it was already into the fourth week of the shoot. Before we started filming, I had them do a physical exercise where they pushed against each other until their bodies were heated up, and then I had them do their dialogue while they were in that heated state.

Usually in theater an actor builds up his character psychologically, but it's different in film. I think in film an actor should not be aware of his character in that way. He shouldn't think; he should just feel and react. As a film director, I have to get the actors to feel something and then give them complete freedom. But if I started providing Cerebro motivation—"You are very angry"—he would never have been angry. Instead, I have to make him angry in some way and then capture it on film. For example, maybe I would make him run three kilometers before we started filming. Or the exercise I spoke about between he and the actor who played Paisa, I had them physically struggle until they broke a sweat and then I asked Cerebro, "What do you think? Should someone build a fence here on the beach?" Cerebro started saying what he thought about that and—because he was hot—it looked on film like he had psychologically developed his character's anger. I kept it simple and corporeal, not mental. In theater, actors think a lot; but, in cinema, actors should feel. Because Cerebro and the actor who played Paisa had never met before, it was honest on Cerebro's part to think: "Who is this guy?" If they had become friends before shooting this scene, it would have probably lost some authenticity.

Another example: in the story, Lucia the little girl and Daniel become friends. But Rodrigo had already become friends with that little girl so that—when we went to shoot the scene—all they had to do was remember that they were friends. Rodrigo could say to her, "Ah, remember the day when we played…?" and the little girl would go, "Oh, yeah." That made it easier for her to get into the situation with him during the filming because she had already lived it with him.

Guillén: Let's talk about the charming young girl who played Lucia. Who is she?

Ruiz Navia: Her name is Yisela Álvarez.

Guillén: The scenes between Rodrigo and Yisela are delightfully heartfelt. Yisela delivers the line—"I can't stand it when you're angry like this"—with perfect comic timing. Since you were in many scenes with her, what was it like for you, Rodrigo, to work with Yisela?

Vélez: Adding to what Papeto has already said about relationships….

Guillén: "Papeto" is Oscar's nickname?

Vélez: It's his artistic name. [Oscar ducks his head and blushes.] You have to have a different name for your artistic name. [Laughter.] Anyway, yes, Yisela and I spent a lot of time swimming together in the ocean and physically tussling with each other. We developed a playful relationship.

Guillén: You, however, are a trained actor. Was there anything that you learned from Yisela, even though she was a non-actor?

Vélez: She was 100% alive the entire time. She taught me not only how to really live in the scene from the moment Oscar said "action" and the camera started rolling, but also how to live before and after the scene. As an actor who's been trained in the theater, I've been taught to focus and to move into the character when the scene begins; but, Yisela taught me how to move into the character before the scene even started, whether the camera was rolling or not. That was a great learning experience for me.

Guillén: "Papeto", talk to me about the look of the movie and what you were going for with your cinematography. Who are your stylistic influences?

Ruiz Navia: As you can tell by now, I try to mix my life with my cinephilia. I used to program auteur films and the films of well-known directors for a cinema in my home town and I wrote reviews. I've been influenced by many different kinds of directors. It's hard to name one single director; but, for example, I love the work of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. He had a special influence upon me in his unorthodox depictions of reality. He can find the poetry in real life and in people who are—allegedly—simple.

From Europe, I love masters like Tarkovsky and the way he directs his actors. He's talked about the fact that film is not like literature, just about telling a story—even though this is what the market and industry have told us—but, what's essential in cinema is the possibility of capturing the passage of time. The power of the image and the power of sound is important in his films; the rain for example. When I was in La Barra, it's a humid, rainy place, with a lot of aural texture. I would say the humidity and rain in Tarkovsky's films is also in La Barra. La Barra is also a grey beach. It's not a sunny, fun beach like what most people associate with a beach. No. It's a melancholic and nostalgic place.

For the actors, I was influenced by the methodology of Robert Bresson who didn't believe in Stanislavski's method of theatrical acting. He thought of actors more as models or objects that the director had to manipulate. That wasn't because he was a bad guy; it was because he wanted his films to be as near as possible to real life. In real life, if you are sad, you don't have to emote. Maybe you're just silent?

I've also been influenced, of course, by the new Latin American cinema; films from Argentina, Mexico, which—because the films are in the Spanish language and are filmed in locations similar to Colombia—speak to me.

I love films that are seemingly simple but are full of epiphanies. I don't like it when people say, "Nothing's happening in this film." Maybe that film is not full of Hollywood-style action where something is always happening; but, in real life there are many little things that happen that are simple but important. I want my films to focus on such small details. I don't want to make epic dramas. I want my films to be like life.

01/03/10 UPDATE: In his Senses of Cinema Toronto dispatch, Dan Sallitt agrees with me that—though Pedro González-Rubio's documentary hybrid Alamar (To the Sea) "generated a surprising amount of critical buzz during the last days of TIFF"—he "somewhat preferred another Toronto premiere with a wilderness coastal setting, Oscar Ruiz Navia's El Vuelco del Cangrejo (Crab Trap)", which "puts its trust in the windy ambience of the sparsely populated seascape, and in a faintly Bressonian camera style that advances the narrative without amplifying the drama. The personal stories are handled so elliptically that they ultimately seem perplexing, whereas the political story could do with more ellipsis. But the weight of Navia's visual style makes the film linger in memory."

Meanwhile, in the current issue of Cinema Scope (Winter 2010), Robert Koehler—who characterizes Crab Trap as "one of the most interesting artifacts of recent Latin American cinema"—wilingly explores the embedded contradiction in the film's criticism of encroaching modernity (electricity, tourists, etc.) even as it employs modernity's tools to become a film. Koehler concludes: "It becomes readily apparent that Crab Trap is far more concerned with forces, both natural (weather, ocean conditions, the water level of the river on which Cerebro and Daniel paddle in a hand-hewn canoe) and economic (the eradication of the locals' livelihood, the pecking-order of power in the community, the control of property). And because its interest lies there, the embedded contradictions of racial identity, modernity, and the role and purpose of a hero are coiled in a helix of fascinating effect and range that belies the film's outward shell of simplicity."

Cross-published on


Michael Hawley said...

Fascinating interview, Michael, especially Ruiz Navia's discussion of how he worked with his actors. I sure hope I get a chance to see this one day. Since the film got completion funding from Global Film Initiative, maybe it'll be in the 2010 Global Lens line-up?

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Michael. I hope people get to see this film someday too. Unfortunately, it's not included in the Global Lens 2010 lineup (which I'll be announcing any moment now). But hopefully it will make some kind of Bay Area festival appearance.