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‘Road to La Paz’ Director Francisco Varone on His Film About a Muslim in Argentina

‘Road to La Paz’’ Director Francisco Varone on His Film About a Muslim in Argentina.

Road to La Paz is a quiet, understated film about brotherhood and kinship between two very different Argentinians during the 2001 economic meltdown of the country, one a young man at a loss about how to live with his new wife and one an old man, a Muslim who has lived his life with his wife in Argentina and now wants to begin his pilgrimage, first to La Paz and then onward to Mecca.

What better way to transition from Qatar where I attended Qumra, a support program for upcoming filmmakers from MENA (Middle East, North Africa) to Latin America where I saw  at FICG, the Guadalajara Film Festival.  “Road to La Paz is a coproduction of Qatar, Argentina, Netherlands and Germany. 

As I write this, it is screening at IFF Panama as well.  Below is my interview with first time filmmaker, Francisco Varone.  This interview was actually conducted in the foyer of the multiplex in Guadalajara before he went in for its premiere screening, just after I  had seen it at the press and industry screening in FICG. 

This road movie starring Rodrigo de la Serna (“Motorcycle Diaries”) and one of Argentinas leading stage actors, Ernesto Suárez, takes us on a trip of over 1,800 miles, from Buenos Aires, Argentina to La Paz, Bolivia. 

Sebastian, whose passions are the rock band Vox Dei and his old Peugeot 505 is married and short of cash. Sebas decides to start working as a limo driver with his Peugeot. Among his frequent passengers is Jalil, an old unkind Muslim who one day offers Sebas a large amount of money to drive him to La Paz, Bolivia. Sebas reluctantly accepts. Jalil and Sebas don’t agree on anything, not even on what music to play, Sebas likes Vox Dei, a progressive rock band from the 1970s, and Jalil brings along his traditional Arabic music tapes.

The road and Jalil’s deteriorated health, make them surmount obstacles and become good fellow travelers. Jalil confesses that in La Paz he’ll meet his brother Nazim and peregrinate along to Mecca. Jalil’s health worsens and Sebastian knows he has little time left. After a long and winding road, Jalil arrives very weak to La Paz. There, after forty years, he meets his brother again. Sebas heads back home, his mission accomplished, his life changed.

The financing of this film was quite straight forward according to Francisco. 

Francisco Varone: In 2012 we submitted the project the film to Visions Sud Est in Switzerland.  I was almost working by myself on the film at this time and then started working with a larger Argentinean production company, Concreto Films owned by Juan Taratuto, a big film director who was directing TV commercials and said hed help.  They had a tough time finding investors so he introduced me to Gema Juarez Allen (whose recent film “Invasion” is the story of the U.S. invasion of Panama in the 1980s), a well known documentary producer with experience in coproductions who knew how to find money and understood the value of going to festivals. She said she would do it as her first fiction film and went to San Sebastian Film Festivals Foro de Coproduccion in 2013.  There she had lots of one-on-one meetings and met Julius Ponten our Dutch coproducer who got funding from the Netherlands Film Fonds and Gunter Hanfgarn that applied to EZEF, an Evangelistic Fund for films from the south (one of the backers of “Timbuktu”). 

We already had the support from INCAA in their “Opera Prima” (First Works) section.  Out of 100 script submissions, they chose three and I got 50% of the production budget.

We shot the movie in 2014 and then after we had a first rough cut, we went to 2015 Cartagena where we won in Colombias first FICCI PuertoLAB (consisting of five films by first, second or third time filmmakers from Latam, Spain or Portugal). This post-production money was awarded by a three-woman jury composed of producer Christina Gallego (“The Wind Journeys”, “Embrace of the Serpent”), Gaelle Mareschi of Kinology, the international sales agent and Paz Lazaro.

Then Doha added post-production funding for $25,000.

FiGa saw the film in Ventana Sur and picked it up for international sales.

SL:What was your festival strategy?

Francisco Varone: Francisco Varone: The first festival it played in was Busan Film Festival 2015 in So. Korea.  We wanted to play some festivals before its release in January in Argentina.  There were many Latin American directors in Busan and its really good for making Asian sales.  

From Busan it went on to Chicago, Sao Paolo, Mar del Plata where Ernesto Suárez won the SAGAI Prize for New Actor, at Thessaloniki FF 2015 where it won the Bronze Alexander, Palm Springs, London Argentinean Film Festival, FICCI, FICG and IFF Panama. We also went to Palm Springs, Glasgow, Cartagena, Guadalajara (where I saw it) and Panama (where it is now playing).  FiGa sells it at these festivals.

It was released in Argentina in January with 20 prints.  So far it has 35,000 admissions and it is still playing, now in its fourth month!

SL: How did you find your sales agent?

Francisco Varone: FiGa picked  it up in Ventana Sur in December 2014 where they saw the first cut.
FiGa discussed playing it in more festivals but we needed the Argentinian release now, this year.  Finding a commercial release date is hard so when you have it, you take it!  There are not many options.

It was finished in 2015.  At its premiere in Busan, FiGa it sold to Filmarti for Turkey.  FiGa has sold to Danaos for Greece, Spain, Central America, Germany, France and Brazil.  U.S. rights are still available. 

SL: Now that FiGa has it, what are you doing?

Francisco Varone: Four years ago when I quit commercials I became a professional scriptwriter and Im also a script doctor, a rarity in Argentina.  I conduct short-term one week-to-ten day workshops.  Now I have written two scripts for two other directors and am working on my own script.  I have lots of ideas…

SL: What was the reaction to this film?

Francisco Varone:  Most people have not seen Muslim films so audiences dont recognize Sufi as something special. 

In Sao Paolo, some young Muslims saw it and one told me that it was the first time in his life he saw Muslims without guns in a movie.  He was surprised also that it came from Latin America.

SL: What was the origin of the film?

Francisco Varone: In 2001 there was a huge economic crisis in Argentina.  All savings in the banks disappeared.  I was just finishing film school and there were no jobs.  My best friend got married and his wife worked.  He was a “house-husband”.  This was a strange role conversion for me, but my friend was happy. I liked this character and wrote a half page of notes.

In 2008 I started a script about him. I also met an old film school friend and found out he had converted to Islam.  These elements all went into the screenplay.

I am from a Catholic family but have always been interested in Buddhism and I practice martial arts; Ive traveled to China and I like the East. So my friend introduced me to the Islam community. Like in the movie, I was in a ceremony called Dikhr, a Sufi ritual that takes one to two hours.  It is a deeply moving experience.

I discovered something here in Argentina.  How such Middle Eastern religions could be so organically a part of general society.  I wanted to show this.

At the same time, I was into Zen Buddhism.  Regarding how they express “truth”, I find the Buddhists and the Koran  use the same words.  We are all talking about the same thing.

The movie is not propaganda, it is simply depicting one possibility, one road…

SL: How did you cast the film?

Francisco Varone: It as great for the film to have a huge star in such an indie film.  The young actor, Rodrigo de la Serna, is very famous and he was very generous to trust in a debutant director and producer in fiction.

We had held a casting search in theaters in Cordoba, Uruguay, and other places and could not find an actor for the role of the Sufi.  We had a casting director who called other casting directors and Eugenia Levin who had cast many important movies said on the phone she had the perfect actor and hd offered him this great part, but he had said no.  She put us in touch with the older actor, Ernesto Suárez.  He is very famous as a stage actor in Mendoza, a province in Argentina, but this is his first film.  He lives a very modest life, drives a 1980 Renault, has a small house, a few clothes.  He was not sure he wanted to do it, though we wanted him because he has such a natural quality. 

He was not really interested in acting in a movie and I took a plane to talk to him.  His two sons told him to do it, and so he accepted the part.

We found him three weeks before we started shooting.  We were thinking of cancelling the shoot because we could not find the right actor. 

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