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PARK CITY '07 INTERVIEW | Alejandro Landes: "...I did not want to try to control an already volatile

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire January 3, 2007 at 10:04AM

[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition sections were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same questions.]
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[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance '07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition sections were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same questions.]

Filmmaker Alejandro Landes' film, "Cocalero," according to a festival description, centers on "geopolitics, people's movements, indigenous culture and one man's impressive determination." "Cocalero" follows present-day Bolivian President Evo Morales' populist campaign that propelled him to his nation's highest office, but not without controversy. A 40-something that wears blue jeans and lives in a one-room house, he refers to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as "Commandante," champions the rights of Bolivia's first inhabitants and promotes the legalization of coca products. Landes' film will screen in Sundance's World Cinema: Documentary section.

Please tell us about yourself...

I was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and grew up in Ecuador. I graduated from Brown University in 2003 with a degree in political economy, though I attended my history of art or photography lessons more often. After college, I began writing for the Miami Herald, while moonlighting at a weekly news show broadcast throughout Latin America.

Though my days as a journalist were short lived, it was there that I first encountered the characters in my first film. [And] I'm 25 years old.

Please talk about "Cocalero," and how did the initial idea come about?

In August of 2003, while I was working at this political talk show, Bolivia made headlines. President "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada had fled to the U.S. after his government's repression of street protests left many dead. Goni again blamed Evo Morales, the leader of a coca-leaf farmer union, for the country's havoc, accusing him of having lead a coup.

We invited Goni on the show and had Evo with us by satellite feed. I remember feeling taken aback by the dramatic presence of the two faces of Latin America: one white, American-educated, and a firm believer in market forces. The other: an indigenous, union leader with no formal education who viscerally denounced US imperialism and the Western way of life. Throughout the show I couldn't help but stare at the knitted, crooked flag nailed on the wall behind Evo. "Evo for President," it read haphazardly.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.

I like the documentary work of Brazil's Joao Moreira Salles, and Eduardo Coutinho, particularly the raw humanity present in their films. From the first day of the shoot, I looked for the tones of grey within this historic and very particular scenery--the idiosyncrasies of a people and a place.

"Cocalero" director Alejandro Landes. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Though the approach was both passive and at times participatory, I did not want to try to control an already volatile environment like Evo's bid to the presidency. Instead, I chose a camera-in-hand/ no tripod/ no artificial lighting/ no optical filters approach that allowed me to just look.

How did the project come together?

I set my mind to making a film about Evo in late June of 2005 when Bolivia's caretaker president called for early elections. The first polls put Evo in second place, and I rushed to put something together without knowing how I would gain access to his campaign.

Accompanied by Jorge Manrique Behrens, a Venezuelan photographer, and the limited backing of an LA-based angel investor, I arrived in Bolivia on October 1 and sought out a meeting with a member of Evo's makeshift communications team. I don't believe she thought we would get very far with our request, but she went through the motions and took us to Evo's office in Congress. We sat there waiting for hours, staring at a giant oil portrait of Evo and the rainbow flag that decorated the walls.

Evo hurried in, many papers in hand, wearing his customary black jeans and blue fleece and sending the office into a spiral of activity. I handed him our written proposal, but before I could finish the pitch, he told us to be ready [the next day] at 5 a.m. outside the Movement to Socialism (MAS) party offices. There was no formal sit-down; he simply gave us a quick look and an instinctive 'yes.' A 'yes' we had to work and renegotiate everyday from then on.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?

The first challenge was basically that I had never made a film before, not even a short. The most difficult thing later on became living with the anxiety that comes with filming a volatile environment where you are forced to kind of just swim along a rapid current. I guess we didn't know whether we would have an ending to the film.

What do you hope to get out of the festival, and what are your own goals for the experience?

I hope to watch a lot of good films, and hear what people have to say about mine.

Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?

I was a bit down and out in the editing room in Buenos Aires when I got the call. A few moments later, the editor and I were at a nearby fish restaurant, toasting over and over again with a lot of people we did not know, and most of which had never heard of Sundance. It was a very good day.

What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?

Access to cinema in Bolivia is limited, and after Sundance, I would like to take my film to the same faraway places we visited during the campaign, especially El Chapare jungle--the home to thousands of hectares of coca plantations and the setting of the heart of the film.

Maybe we can subtitle in Quechua and Aymara and set up makeshift screening rooms, taking the film to people who have never been to a cinema in their life.

Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com

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