Finding a Film: Scouting Parque Central

November 5, 2014

A deviation from the standard (though admittedly irregular) for this blog.  This is something I drafted when throwing around ideas with the director of Parque Central for an article he was invited to write.  This was my experience scouting the documentary, which you can still contribute to at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1808754869/parque-central

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The idea for what would become Parque Central came when the director and conceiver of the project, Ricardo, went to Antigua Guatemala on holiday. He had fallen in love with city and even went back in a relatively short period of time. During his visit he had his boots shined by a kid in the park, and the image stayed with him – an American tourist looking down at a brown-skinned adolescent huddled over his shoes, shining them with rapid precision. It’s an uncomfortable image to think about if you’re coming from a position of privilege, but one that also represents a reality of the kind of labour necessary to survive. The kid probably thought nothing of it, because he’s just trying to make a living.

The inspiration had struck Ricky. This is a film. He was determined to make something of it. He asked me to help him on a scouting trip, and as I couldn’t think of a good reason not to do it, I agreed. We booked our plane tickets and then set about having almost nightly phone conversations about what the film was going to be. His concept was fairly simple: a city symphony drawing on Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera centering on the shoe shine kids in the park, and combining the aesthetic of Lucien-Castaing Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan with Michael Glawogger’s poetic observational style in Whore’s Glory (because out and out thievery should always aim for the best). Very quickly our conversations turned to the fear of exploitation and what might be described as “poverty porn”. Imagine shooting children spending all day shining the shoes of relatively wealthy tourists, and the sound of Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of Angels” will start to soundtrack the images in your mind. Then you’re a step away from a theatre full of white, affluent Americans shaking their head in sympathy at the plight of poor brown kids in a foreign country. This is not to say there isn’t merit to a social issue film, but we’re not journalists. We’re not here to report on a problem and hypothesize about its roots and causes.

Though Ricky was fairly familiar with Guatemala, I was a complete novice. You can read all you like and it’s good to do so, but it doesn’t prepare you for dealing with another culture. Ricky had hired a local producer, Santiago, to show us around, set up meetings, translate, and get us access to the sort of things we might want to film. I cannot stress enough the value of hiring a local producer who knows the area of wherever you want to film. It’s one thing to be a hapless tourist attempting to experience another culture, but it’s another thing to attempt to intrude upon it to make a documentary. Santiago gave us an idea of what kinds of things were acceptable and what weren’t, and he was instrumental in preventing us from being brash Americans charging into peoples’ lives and accosting them to allow us to film them.

The first few days were difficult to say the least. We would spend some time sitting in the park, filming this and that and occasionally someone would let us film a shoe shine, but nobody was particularly receptive to the notion of a couple of Americans with limited Spanish following them around all day, and understandably so. I was aware before I went down there of the flow of children from Central American countries attempting to cross into the United States – a number of them dying in the process. However, I wasn’t aware of the growing problem of underage sex tourism in the area, and when we got to Antigua we saw a newspaper article about the disappearance of young indigenous girls from the area. If I was worried about people misunderstanding our intentions before, I was absolutely petrified now. We filmed around the city and got some good footage of the sights, but we didn’t have any real center to the film and after a couple of days it began to feel like we’d gone down to have a nice holiday with a really well composed home movie to show for it. Then things took a turn, and I would put it down to luck but it wasn’t. It was Santiago who managed to contact an acquaintance of his, Guillermo, who just so happened to run a charity to help the kids that worked in the park. His organization, which can be found out shoeshinekids.org, sets up classes in and around the park a couple of times a week where the kids can practice art, exercise with yoga, and learn rudimentary computer skills. After meeting with him, he felt he we were trustworthy, decent people so he walked us through the park and introduced us to the kids who were working there. We finally met Domingo, who sells ice cream out of a wooden cart, and he agreed to let us film him for a while and eventually to let us follow him to his home. We had something.

We weren’t in any way sure of what we were going to get following Domingo home. We set up a camera on his cart to get shots of the city and the cobbled stone streets as he pulled it to the other side of town. He took it through a door and then down an alleyway to courtyard where he stored it. He put the remaining ice cream in a freezer and left some money for the man who sells it to him every day and we followed him some blocks away to another little door on a side street. We walked down a damp hallway and into another courtyard to a series of rooms draped with blue tarp and doors with padlocks. There were probably 6 or 7 families living in this tiny area. There was one toilet and two stone basins for washing that were shared by all the inhabitants. Domingo showed us to his place, which could charitably be described as a mini-storage unit. It was a small single concrete room with a corrugated sheet metal wall that featured a hotplate, a small TV, and piles of Domingo and his cousin’s (who shares the room with him) belongings. There was a piece of plastic that they rolled out onto the concrete floor to sleep on. We shouldn’t have been shocked, but we were, because nothing you read about can quite prepare you for the reality of this kind of living situation.

This was certainly interesting, and from a visual standpoint it was quite moving, but now we’re back to the discussion of exploitation. As a white middle-class American, this is absolute squalor to my eyes, especially for a 14-year-old boy. My instincts are to recoil at the circumstance and feel a deep sympathy for the plight of Domingo, but my perspective of privilege informs those instincts. It’s tempting to focus on these aspects because they will seem the most alien and, perhaps, interesting to an audience, but then you’re denying the perspective of the subject in favor of your own, and you’re on your way to a reductive social issue film. All documentaries are subjective, of course – choices are made in composition, in editing, in chronology, etc – but if you keep your own cultural preconceptions at bay you can start to see the fuller picture. We liked Domingo because he was really good with the camera (yes, this is the kind of thing you think about). He’s quite reserved and he approaches his work with a real dignity, but he’s still got the youthful demeanor of a 14d-year-old. When we interviewed him, we found out he sells ice cream seven days a week so he can pay his rent, buy the supplies, afford to eat, and then send money back home to support his family. He’d like to be in school but he knows he can’t and he has aspirations like anyone, but he’s not bitter or upset or sad about his life. His biggest problem is that he misses his family. He doesn’t see his life as some kind of tragedy or himself as a charity case. This is his life and he does what he does because he knows it’s what’s best for the people he loves, but it’s hard to really express that on screen if you just show the endless days of work and the (from our view) impoverished living conditions.

One night, Ricky and I decamped to a cigar bar owned and frequented by ex-pats from America. We went with the intention of logging the footage we had accrued but somewhere around the third gin and tonic that fell by the wayside.   A group of American MBA students came into the tiny room and we started talking. They were in country for a “social justice” trip. They had visited a dump, toured a coffee plantation, and met with the president of the largest beer company in Guatemala. It wasn’t long before discussions between us became a little heated, verging on contempt. They were all adherents to a neoliberal market system and saw entrepreneurs as the answer to the country’s ills, and capitalism was slowly improving the lives of everyone. Greater access to micro-business loans would solve the problems of inequality and raise the standard of living. As a couple of lefties, this was anathema to us and neither side would concede an inch of ground. This wasn’t even getting into the history of colonialism, the United Fruit Company, the CIA backed ousting of a democratically elected socialist government, the endless marginalization and occasional attempted genocide of the indigenous population, and the three plus decade civil war that ravaged areas of the country. These are all worthy arguments to have, and there could be a great and very informative documentary to be made about the roots and causes of the problems of Guatemala; one that features talking head interviews with social and economic experts and politicians and activists on how things are and how they might change. It’s all worth discussing, but for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter. It is doubtful Domingo ever considers these issues, because he’s just living his life trying to get by. It probably wouldn’t be hard to use him as a springboard to discuss these issues, but then you’re just reducing someone’s life to a data point in a case for or against something.

One day we had gone back to the hotel in the afternoon to upload footage and recharge batteries (I cannot stress enough how important is it to check that all your equipment works before you head out to location because capturing what you want is hard enough without limiting yourself from the start), and when we got back to the park at around 5 to get some footage of Domingo packing up we saw him playing a pick-up soccer game with some of the other kids who work in the park. They were using the benches as goals and a little hacky sack as a ball. Domingo, it turns out, has a natural gift for footwork and ball control. One of the kids, a 10-year-old shoeshine named Hugo who would eventually become part of the film, was employing a brilliant strategy of lying across the entire bench as a goalie and was thus virtually impenetrable. We grabbed a camera and started running around them, through them, and behind them to catch the action (it amused onlookers and a number of the kids no end to watch a couple of not-quite-in-shape 30 year olds huffing and puffing around the park with a camera trying to keep up). There was such a sense of fun in that game, and in that crucial moment you saw these kids actually be kids, and suddenly they’re not reduced to a cause. They are vibrant and alive and full of youth and, at least from what I saw in that moment, quite happy. Now we have a film.

-M

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