By telling the story of an elderly indigenous couple as they eke out a living in the arid Bolivian highlands, Alejandro Loayza Grisi brings home the all-too-real perils of climate change in his country and around the world. But “Utama” (“Our Home”) is also an enduring love story, played by real-life couple Jose Calcina and Luisa Quispe, who’ve been married for 48 years.
“Utama,” which world premieres Jan. 22 at Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition section, is the fiction feature debut of Loayza Grisi, who credits his work in still photography and documentaries for the precise framing of the film’s stunning, otherworldly landscapes and moving character portraiture. It was while traveling around Bolivia as a DP for the documentary series “Planet Bolivia” where he saw first-hand how the rural communities’ way of life — some just outside the main cities — was being threatened by the extreme changes in the climate.
“Utama” turns on elderly Quechua couple Virginio and Sisi, played by non-pros Calcina and Quispe, whose daily routine tending to llamas is disrupted by an unusually long drought. The arrival of their grandson Clever (played by actor Santos Choque) is a catalyst that will force them to face the realities of their threatened lifestyles.
Working with Calcina and Quispe, who first rebuffed several attempts by Loayza Grisi to cast them, turned out to be a gratifying experience. “The chemistry between them was what helped the most,” said Loayza Grisi who lauded their commitment to the film. “The biggest challenge was to make them yell and lose their temper with each other as they are even sweeter in real life,” he said, adding: “What undoubtedly helped a lot is that they were able to identify with their characters.”
“[Choque] was very generous in his work and supported them in everything,” he recalled. “To create a better relationship, he decided to accompany them in their daily lives, so he really was an adoptive grandson.”
Equally charming were the llamas: “They’re highly intelligent; they soon grasped what we were trying to do and after a few takes, knew what was expected of them, going in or out of their pens on cue,” said Loayza Grisi, who expects that aside from a screening at the community where it was shot, BF Distribution will be releasing the film in key cities of Bolivia by August.
International sales are handled by Alpha Violet, which boarded “Utama” while the film was participating in the Toulouse Cinélatino program as a work in progress.
Loayza Grisi has two fiction projects in development, both with working titles: “Chovore,” which also carries an environmental message, turns on a group of young cadets based at a remote town in the Bolivian Amazon who are put to the test when they are sent to contain forest fires without adequate resources.
Further along in development is “El Chico del Rayo” (“Lightning Boy”), set in Apolobamba, a town in the Andes at more than 5,000 meters above sea level. Here, 16-year-old Egan begins to feel the call of his destiny to become a callawaya (Shaman). To do this, he must be struck by lightning and learn the art of clairvoyance from Don Cosme, an old callawaya who reads fortunes in town.
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