Cámara Lúcida began in 2016 as a small gathering of friends in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third most important city after Quito and Guayaquil. At the time, Francisco Álvarez, its founder and director, was a film student at the Universidad de Cuenca. The festival was born of a necessity to see other kinds of films projected – smaller films, freer films – often excluded from the national film festivals, including Cuenca’s own locally financed, star-lined, red-carpet event, La Orquídea Film Festival, which began five years earlier and represented everything that Cámara Lúcida did not want to become. Now in its fourth edition, the encuentro has grown, yet it has not lost the qualities that have made this festival truly stand out in the national film festival landscape. It remains an intimate, youth-driven place for friends to meet, watch films that are not seen in the local movie theatre chains, and share long conversations into the night over canelazos, a traditional spiced hot beverage from the highlands.

The non-competitive festival was larger this year than in previous editions, with about 140 films in the program, of which 30 are feature-length films. While last year the program was divided into three categories – Fiction, Documentary, Experimental – this year’s edition brought new and more diverse categories, including “Que sean fuego, las imágenes” (Let the images be fire), a section of films that are united “for political purposes” and for offering perspectives on social movement and resistance; “Puertos”, dedicated to films that speak to the contemporary experience of  “being in the world” and become a kind of voyage through story and language; “Fractales”, for films that cannot be easily defined or that defy traditional film categories; “Eqatorial”, for Ecuadorian films; and finally, “Apropiacionismos”, for appropriation and found footage films. Retrospectives were dedicated to the films of Sky Hopinka, Nazli Dincel, Michael Woods, Alexandra Cuesta, and Kevin Jerome Everson & Claudrena N. Harold. Guest curators included Sebastián Wiedemann, who also curated a program for the festival last year, with a program titled “The movements of the Earth, learning to land”; Ecuadorian-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Jacques Martinod, who has screened his own films at previous editions of Cámara Lúcida, with a program titled “Grietas Resonantes”; and, finally, NY-filmmaker and programmer Alex Faoro, with a program called “Thoughts on Small Filmmaking,” which I had the chance to see earlier this year at Al’s Cinematheque in Brooklyn, New York.

All films were screened throughout the city’s centre, principally in its oldest theatre, Teatro Sucre, where both the opening and closing took place, and in the smaller (and my favourite) theatre Alfonso Carrasco (right next to Café Cinema, an old-school café decorated with film reels and ‘80s-‘90s movie posters, where smoking is still allowed). Another venue this year was the Museum of Modern Art, which this year offered the new à la carte option of selecting the films you want to see from the program. Continuing from previous editions, Cámara Lúcida once again offered outdoor screenings in two of the city’s most unique places: the Puente Roto or “Broken Brigde”, which got its name after the Tomebamba River destroyed half of it in 1950, and the Calle Santa Ana, one of the city’s oldest streets, which was closed for decades and recently reopened in 2017. It is at these open-air screenings in particular where one feels that a dialogue is taking place between Cámara Lúcida and the city of Cuenca, between cinema and the public sphere.

After a welcome by Álvarez, where he situated the festival within the context of the recent National Strike and Indigenous-led 12-day anti-IMF protest of October, the opening film was Pirotecnia from Colombian filmmaker Federico Atehortúa Arteaga. It was an appropriate way to begin, as the film analyses the relationship between images and violence in the context of Colombia. As I write this report, Colombia continues nation-wide protests which have been met with different forms of state violence, including police and military repression, the militarisation of the country’s main cities, and a curfew in both Cali and parts of Bogotá. Taking this into perspective and especially considering the political context around this year’s edition – Cámara Lúcida being the first Ecuadorian film festival to take place following October’s strike – and in the midst of several protests around the continent, apparently dormant questions begin to resurface, including: What is the relationship between cinema and violence? Between technology and ideology? What is the relationship between cinema and politics, and how does this relationship manifest today?

Many films in the program spoke to these questions in diverse ways, including Andres Duque’s Carelia: Internacional con Monumento (2019), which masterfully brings together observational and participatory modes of documentary, as well as the essay film, testimony and experimental forms. Another standout in the program is Sugarcoated Arsenic by Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena N. Harold (2014), which recycles and re-constructs a found sound archive of a 1984 speech given by Vivian Gordon, the director of the University of Virginia’s Black Studies program between 1975 and 1980 as well as the university’s first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology. Another unforgettable experience was seeing Sete anos em Maio (Seven Years in May) by Affonso Uchoa (2019), a film that shoots darkness and bodies in the night and recovers and reimagines the power of testimony. Also in the program was my favourite film of the year, Vever (For Barbara) by Deborah Stratman, which beautifully weaves together materials of different textures, places and times, including Barbara Hammer’s images filmed in Guatemala in 1975, Maya Deren’s texts and field recordings from 1950s Haiti, and Teiji Ito’s drawings and sounds from the same period. The resulting tapestry-film leaves the spectator with a particular sense of hope, one that is inevitably intersected by failure and abandonment. These films are examples of how cinema, including documentary, fiction, essay and avant-garde, can respond to, complicate, and make visible political realities through experimental photography, montage, reenactment, testimony, play and texture.

Sete anos em Maio (Seven Years in May, Affonso Uchoa, 2019)

The festival’s highlights included a retrospective on Alexandra Cuesta, a Cuenca-born Ecuadorian filmmaker whose work is better known abroad, especially in the United States where she studied at CalArts and was recently awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. An experimental filmmaker whose background is in street photography, Cuesta has shot and edited almost all her work – previous to her 2016 feature-length digital film Territorio – in crisp 16mm. Her films are about places and about the people she encounters there, with a strong emphasis on Latino communities in the United States. They are shot in flâneur fashion, composed of fragments of sidewalks and conversations, brief exchanges of stillness and movement, of light and darkness in the city life. The sound follows suit; dialogues that are never completed, songs cut in half, movements of bodies and cars and objects passing by. The picture that they offer is incomplete and in their incompletion, they forego facts in order to deliver an experience, a sense of what it’s like to be there, in that specific place, with a camera. At the end of the program of her first four films, made between 2007 and 2013, Cuesta expressed her gratitude for the festival, saying “I have been making these kinds of films for 15 years and this is the first time there is a space in Ecuador for this kind of work. Thank you.”

Despedida (Farewell, Alexandra Cuesta, 2013)

Another highlight was the participation of Michael Woods, a “media terrorist”/ filmmaker from New York City whose Ecuadorian grandparents were in attendance. Having studied film at NYU, Woods, like Cuesta, also comes from a formation in shooting and editing on 16mm. Of special interest was his “MixTape” session, which he made specifically for the festival, bringing together several of his shorter pieces, filmed over the past 14 years in 16mm and 8mm (projected digitally). Most of this material has been filmed in the United States, including An Infinite Loop of Resistance (2017), but what was most surprising to see was his footage shot in the streets of Quito. These images showed another side of the capital city, not only because of their format but because the city is seen through the eyes of someone who has spent much his life abroad. As in Cuesta’s film, there is an exploration of cinema through the position of someone who is both inside and outside. This position is one of a particular privilege of vision, of being able to look inside but with the distance of perspective that only not completely belonging can provide. “I am Latino, I have Ecuadorian grandparents,” said Woods, speaking in Spanish. “But people have always told me, ‘You are not Latino. You are White’. My films are also about that”.

Other notable guests this year included Nicole Remy, Andrés Dávila, and Martin Baus, filmmakers from Perú, Colombia and Chile, respectively. Remy’s Detener el pulso (2018), produced in Lima’s platform for audiovisual experimentation Taller Helios, is made from the director’s maternal home movie archive and becomes an exploration of her mother’s image; Davila’s Sour Lake (2019), shot in the Ecuadorian-Colombian border of the Amazon jungle, is an experimental ethnographic portrait of a territory transformed by colonialism and more recently, petroleum extraction; while Martin Baus’ film Nervio (2018), one of the most formally experimental films in the program, is a continual zoom into the space between images – or between frames – of a found 8mm home movie. The silent images show people, mostly children, submerging themselves over and over again into a crystal blue pool. As Baus zooms between the images, the sound takes centre stage. The film explores this between space as the place where sound can flourish over image.

Parallel activities included a panel on film criticism with film researcher and academic Galo Torres from Cuenca, experimental artist and writer for Desistfilm Ivonne Sheen from Perú (who also came to present her experimental short Con cierto animal) and myself. Sheen’s participation marks Desistfilm’s second year collaborating with the festival; in 2018, Desistfilm co-editor Mónica Delgado offered a three-day workshop on experimental film criticism and covered the entire festival for the online film magazine. Paúl Narvaez, researcher from the Cinemateca of Ecuador, gave a talk on the country’s patrimonial film archive and expressed his desire for the archive to be accessed by researchers and film students. Related to this objective, the collective Guayaquil Analógico, co-directed by myself and Chilean filmmaker Martin Baus, coordinated a two-day workshop on appropriation of the archive, in which we began to digitally re-cut some of the Cinemateca’s only remaining 1920s material. Finally, Guayaquil Analógico offered a screening of 8mm and Super-8mm materials, found, filmed and processed in Guayaquil, in an intimate rooftop screening in the city’s historic centre. Guayaquil and Cuenca, cities of historical and cultural importance for the country, have remained marginalised in Ecuador’s official film history. Cámara Lúcida and Guayaquil Analógico can be understood as efforts to reverse this process and help to place both Cuenca and Guayaquil firmly on the map of Ecuador’s film history.

Closing screening by Guayaquil Analógico. Photo courtesy of Cámara Lúcida.

As the year comes to an end and national protests against neoliberal politics and rising living costs take place around the continent and world, and as both of Ecuador’s largest and most well-known film festivals are in crisis,1 it becomes evident that contrary to common opinion, the first festivals “to go” will be the bigger festivals, the most unsustainable, those that need over one hundred thousand dollars to exist. In these times, Cámara Lucida’s festival takes centre stage and its festival model becomes an example for the rest. Long live Cámara Lúcida, a festival for which Ecuador is finally ready.

Cámara Lúcida Festival Internacional de Cine No ficción, Experimental y Poéticas Expandidas
14–22 November 2019
Festival website: https://www.ecamaralucida.com

Endnotes:

  1. The country’s two largest film festivals are Festival EDOC and La Orquídea, from Quito and Cuenca, respectively. The first costs over US$150,000 and the latter over $3 million (enormous budgets compared to Cámara Lúcida’s $12,000). In 2019, the outgoing prefect of Cuenca threatened to take the Orquídea festival name and logo with him. As a result, 2019’s edition was cancelled. In July, it was announced that next year’s budget will be reduced to 500,000. This is after a ludicrous 2018 edition which brought Francis Ford Coppola for a one-and-a-half-hour masterclass and a closing concert by Spanish pop artist Miguel Bosé (a great percentage of the festival’s budget went to these entirely unnecessary expenses). Meanwhile, a month ago the Festival EDOC, dedicated to documentary film and the film festival which has lasted the longest in Ecuador (18 years), announced that it will not have an open call for its international program next year due to budget restraints. This was communicated through an alarming social media post, which was shared by many who believed that it was the end of the festival. The festival later explained that there would be a 2020 edition but that the films would be chosen by a collective curatorial team (and not through an open call as it has been every year before). EDOC has had difficulties for many years now, and it is positive to see that it is changing its approach for next year. Interviews and articles on the subject point to lack of economic support. However, there could be other reasons behind the festival’s crisis, which should be analysed in order to understand how a festival which so much support begins to fall apart.