San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican Feature Films on the Rise

An earthquake rumbled through the floors of El Vegetariano café in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro during a late-May press function. Hilda Hidalgo fled out the door of the restaurant.  Nobody else in the café had time to react tothe minor earthquake.

When the tremors stopped, the Costa Rican film director returned, laughing. “Valiant or brave,” Hidalgo said, “I am not.”

Not brave? Earthquakes notwithstanding, others might disagree. If she’s not valiant, then there must be a similar word to describe Hidalgo’s persona. Bold, or daring, perhaps? This year, Hidalgo made her feature-length moviemaking debut, with a script that was not made for the gutless.

For her first ever full-length film, Hidalgo adapted Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Del amor y otros demonios” (Of Love and Other Demons). It takes some courage to interpret the work of one of the world’s greatest living writers for the big screen. This spring her movie opened to strong reviews in Colombia and Costa Rica.

She earned a spot in last month’s Los Angeles Film Festival, and dazzled the critics again.

All along, as the film gained momentum, Hidalgo carried the banner of Costa Rica’s fledgling film industry.

Fewer than a dozen Costa Ricans have directed a feature film. Yet four movies helmed by Costa Ricans have debuted in 2010, with more expected before the year’s end. These select few local filmmakers have had honors and critical acclaim accompany their releases since this generation emerged a little more than five years ago.

Esteban Ramírez’s “Caribe” debuted in 2004, winning top prizes at Latin American film festivals hosted in Spain and Italy. His second film, “Gestación,” opened in November to rave reviews.

Ishtar Yasin won festival awards in Mexico, Switzerland and Argentina for her 2007 release, “El Camino (The Path).” Paz Fábrega’s “Agua fría de mar” (Cold Water of the Sea) won an award for novice filmmakers at the 2010 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Hernán Jiménez’s “A ojos cerrados (Without Hesitation)” opened July 2 to huge box office numbers that, if sustained, could make it the highest-grossing film release by a Costa Rican in Costa Rica. Perhaps hometown bias should be factored in; nevertheless, only one film, the thriller “Donde duerme el horror, (Where Horror Sleeps)” out of the half-dozen recent Costa Rican releases opened to negative reviews.

For Hidalgo, the story of her own film began in Cuba. She was participating in a storytelling workshop run by García Márquez at his film institute in Havana. During one class, she mentioned to the author how “Del amor y otros demonios” was his one book that would work well as a film.

“So do you want to adapt it?” García Márquez responded.

Hidalgo was astounded. Incredulous.

“Gabo, don’t say that to me, because I’m going to go and do it,” Hidalgo told him. “Don’t joke about it.”

This time García Márquez’s question had turned into a command. “I’m not joking,” he said. “I’m telling you to go and do it.”

Hidalgo bought the rights to the film for a symbolic fee from the literary giant. When the film was finished, she bravely premiered it in García Márquez’s home in Cartagena, Colombia. Hidalgo waited through a half-hour of agonizing silence before García Márquez reacted to the film. He loved the adaptation.

The film moves at a slow pace, focusing more on the romantic qualities of the novel than on other themes. The plot centers on a young girl believed to be possessed by the devil and the relationship she forms with a priest who’s ordered to exorcise her demons.

The movie, produced by studios in Costa Rica and Colombia, had a budget of $2 million – by far the largest of any Costa Rican film. But part of the reason the movie came to fruition was a result of a filmmaking alliance called Ibermedia. The organization has helped fund film projects in Spain and Latin America for two decades. Costa Rica joined Ibermedia in 2008. It’s no coincidence that the recent surge in Costa Rican-made films came soon after. To increase the distribution and fundraising options for a film, Ibermedia members will often collaborate on projects.

In addition to Colombians, Costa Rican filmmakers have worked with counterparts in Brazil and Nicaragua.

Roberto García of the government-run Costa Rican Center for Film Production said joining Ibermedia represented a huge step forward for Costa Rican cinema. The move will help Costa Rican filmmakers reach their next goal of forming a more cohesive film business within the country.

“We still have a ways to go,” García said. “There still is no Costa Rican filmmaker who can live off his work. It is growing, but we still do not have an industry.”

García could list only nine Costa Rican directors who have created feature films.

Most of those directors studied the craft outside Costa Rica through scholarships or fellowships. All of them struggled to raise funds to complete their films. Still, new filmmaking programs at the University of Costa Rica and VeritasUniversity indicate more movie buffs could be coming onto the scene. The talent, in many respects, appears to be here.

One area of Costa Rican cinema seems to be lagging behind the rest. Actors and actresses from Costa Rica are absent from most productions made by compatriots.

Costa Ricans have produced and directed movies, done tech work and written scripts during this surge in local film productions. But few natives have stepped up from behind the scenes to star on camera.

“A ojos cerrados” is unique in that regard. Not only does the film use Tico actors, but also the three leads are all of Costa Rican citizens. Director Jiménez sifted through 850 wannabe actors over six months before finding his right choices.

The movie tells a story about a grandfather trying to mitigate the pain of his wife’s death by embarking on a journey with his granddaughter. Two of the film’s stars had never acted before. Carlos Luis Zamora, who plays the elderly lead, told Jimenez he didn’t know what the word “cast” meant when he screened for the role.

The actor’s limited experienced did not affect reviews. The $70,000 film opened to high praise from critics and large crowds at the theaters. What some moviegoers admired most was the Costa Rican feel of the movie.

Shooting locations included San José, the Caribbean port city of Limón and the beach community of Puerto Viejo, south of Limón.

Jiménez wanted to convey a sense of everyday life in Costa Rica, something he believes most Costa Rican productions have failed at.

“I think it’s very important for a film industry that’s just starting to take off to be able to portray our everyday happenings,” Jiménez said. “That goes from having breakfast to going grocery shopping. It’s important to be able to see that kind of everyday, very simple reality portrayed on the big screen.”

Jiménez seems to be the harshest critic of his own work. He referenced his debut as a learning experience, and the director said he’s hesitant to enter the film into festivals. Instead, the 30-year-old Jiménez wants to take the lessons he learned from his first film and apply them to his second film, which he hopes to release in 2011.

Luis Carcheri, a Costa Rican film distributor for three decades, has never been this busy with homegrown movies. He believes three of the five all-time most successful Costa Rican-made films will have been released in the last two years, once “A ojos cerrados” finishes its run. Carcheri credits new, efficient, cheaper technology for the rise in filmmaking. In the 1980s, Oscar Castillo was the only Costa Rican film director making feature-length productions. And still, Carcheri recalled, it was a struggle for Castillo to find any of the instruments or talent he needed.

Now, Carcheri said, there’s a feeling Costa Rican citizens want to see their cinema grow. They feel involved in the growth of the industry.

In the eatery in San Pedro, the sounds of clattering coffee mugs and clanking soupspoons signaled a return to normalcy.

The walls no longer quivered. And Hidalgo explained why the future of the Costa Rican film industry cannot be rattled. Opportunity is emerging in all sectors of the industry.

Even local animation companies are gaining prominence both in and outside the country.

Hidalgo recalled the scene with García Márquez in Cuba. She had felt an enormous weight upon being given an opportunity to adapt one of the great author’s works. But with that added pressure came a feeling of liberation. Chances for more Costa Rican filmmakers are opening up. Now, Costa Rica’s film industry cannot be afraid to create. “When you have that kind of certainty,” Hidalgo said, “you just go for it.”

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