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'Utama' film explores the impact climate change has on cultural traditions

Virginio looks into the distance of his lands in the Bolivian highlands that are facing the consequences of climate change, threatening his traditional way of life.
Courtesy of Kino Lorber
Virginio looks into the distance of his lands in the Bolivian highlands that are facing the consequences of climate change, threatening his traditional way of life.

The consequences of climate change and the loss of cultural traditions often go hand-in-hand in places like the Bolivian highlands. The film Utama captures this by following the daily lives of an elderly Quechua couple, Virginio and Sisa, who live in the highlands taking care of their land and small herd of llamas.

Utama follows the couple as they live through an uncommonly long drought that threatens everything they know, and are faced with the hard decision to stay and keep their traditional way of life or move to the city with their grandson.

This eco-drama is the directorial debut of Alejandro Loayza Grisi and won the Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema Dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022. He says he was inspired to tell this story after traveling all around Bolivia doing environmental documentaries. The film will be screening on March 21, 2024, at the Oriental Theatre at 6:00 p.m.

"I was able to know different realities, different places, and these [problems] that are very close to us, but that we don't end up knowing in the cities," he explains. "So I wanted to bring those stories closer to the people in the cities, I also wanted to tell a love story between [an elderly couple]. I think that's one of the purest love, one that has survived time and remained together."

Casting was crucial in order to bring Utama to life and bring audiences in to a world most would not be familiar with. Loayza Grisi notes that they traveled through the entire highland region in Bolivia and visited every village to find actors that could both speak Quechua and Spanish.

Virginio and Sisa are played by actual couple José Calcina and Luisa Quispe who had never acted before. Loayza admits the couple saw them as "some young boys from the city" who weren't serious, but fortunately accepted their roles in the film after many trips back to speak with them.

"If you would be able to know them you would realize they are very different from the characters they are playing, which speaks a lot about the amazing job they did as actors," he says. "It was important for us that we could find people that could relate to the story."

There is a mix of beauty and dread in Utama, both in the plot and the landscape. Loayza Grisi says he was intentional in taking audiences to this specific, unique place in the most truthful way in the visuals and the pacing of the film.

"It's a hostile environment, but it's beautiful environment at the same time," he notes. "You could think that [the characters] are poor, but they are not because they have everything they need there. Well, they used to have everything they need there. Now with climate change they [don't] have everything they need so that's the main drama of this place, that they need to leave their home. And that's something that is going to happen more and more in this place and in other places around the world."

Loayza Grisi started his career as a photographer, then a cinematographer on documentaries and music videos, and says that he wanted to make the leap to director to have more decision making power in addition to a creative outlet.

"I really enjoyed the process of creating something [as a director of photography] and telling a story in that way. Cinema gives you so many possibilities to tell as story that I wanted that for myself," he explains.

"Utama came from this place as a photographer, because it is a very photographic film. It’s something I learned as a photographer, that you can tell a whole story with just one image. So imagine what you can do with 24 frames per second," Loayza Grisi adds.

Even though Utama has been very successful for a directorial debut, he notes that his key takeaway from his experience making this film in Bolivia is that the process is the most valuable thing.

"You spend some time there with people doing something you love and people [are] sharing their talent with you for your idea, for your film. So I think that one thing I learned is that generosity moves cinema and I think that generosity at the end moves the world in a positive way," says Loayza Grisi.

You can see "Utama" at the Oriental Theater tonight at 6;00 p.m. Loayza Grisi will be in attendance for the screening and a panel discussion afterwards along with Tara Daly, Associate Professor of Spanish and co-Director of the Center for Race, Ethnic, and Indigenous Studies; Nathalie González, an undergraduate student and Evans Scholar at Marquette; and Pedro de Jesús Gonsalez Dúran, a graduate student in Spanish and Portuguese at UW-Madison.

The screening is sponsored by The Marquette Office of Research and Innovation: Explorer Grant and The Center for Race, Ethnic, and Indigenous Studies.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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