Locating Paraguay, a small, landlocked country in sub-tropical South America, might be a predictable challenge on any student’s geography test. Its much larger, “world order” neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, have tended to outflank it in history, first during Spanish colonization and the era of maritime trade, and partly because Paraguay’s mid-19th century War of the Triple Alliance cost the country almost 70 percent of its male population. Since then, Paraguay has suffered as well from over a century of internal strife and civil war; the country ended generations of authoritarian rule, stolen elections, coups and assassinations as recently as August 2013, when its current president, Horacio Cartes, was inaugurated. In the first half of the 20th century alone, the country endured 31 presidents.
Given this shambolic history, it is remarkable that the official Paraguayan entry for the 2017 Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film, Los Buscadores (The Gold Seekers), is not a probing tale of the struggle for democracy in the face of war and revolution, but a joyous — even manic — story of a group of young men living in the capital of Asunción today. After one of them loses his grandfather, he discovers in his grandfather’s papers what might be a map to a cache of lost gold and jewels buried somewhere in the city. (This harkens back to a popular myth that wealthy Spanish buried their valuables during the Triple Alliance war but didn’t retrieve them afterward.) The boys, led by the grandson, Manu, use this hand-drawn map of colonial architectural landmarks to embark on a wild treasure hunt. Thanks to the film’s helter-skelter pace and bold camera moves, it can best be described as “Run Lola Run meets Indiana Jones.”
Here is the official trailer:
Watching Los Buscadores at the Academy’s Goldwyn Theater in late November, I was thoroughly captivated by its cinematic energy and driving, eclectic music score. But I had little conviction that this adventure yarn about a gaggle of street kids who didn’t suffer from abject poverty or gang violence would garner special attention in its official screening — especially with so many intensely dramatic, widely acclaimed films vying for the nine-title shortlist. (I discussed these selections here.)
But days after I saw Los Buscadores, I could not get it out of my head. This led me to search YouTube to see what, if anything, I could discover about its filmmakers and its production. Every year there are remarkable foreign-language films made on a shoestring that simply don’t garner sufficient critic and/or media attention to attract awards; these include Danis Tanovic’s 2013 masterpiece, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker.
The first hint I got that Los Buscadores might have an interesting behind-the-scenes story was a brief montage of moments from the film’s preproduction: writing the screenplay, casting, storyboards, location scouting and shot listing. While any mainstream feature would engage in these activities, I noticed this crew was very young. The video ends with a photograph of them:
After the Academy’s shortlist was announced on Dec. 14, I felt free to contact the film’s co-directors, Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori, to query them about their project in greater detail.
Maneglia and Schémbori are not neophytes; they are producing partners who have worked together for over 25 years. In 1999, they made two short films, Say Yes and The Hole, both produced by the New York Film Academy and released in New York. Seven years ago, their first feature, 7 Boxes, became the highest-grossing film in Paraguayan history, even surpassing American blockbusters. It is also a youthful chase/treasure-hunt narrative, but without the historical context of Los Buscadores.
On Dec. 20, Schémbori replied to my email, offering a thumbnail of Paraguay's cinema history:
'The Gold Seekers' is our second feature film. We wanted to make an adventure movie, rescuing part of our history and our culture. A 'Goonies' to the Paraguayan! For Paraguay, making movies is almost a miracle. It does not have more than 30 films in its history; however, after the premiere of '7 Boxes,' our first film, in 2012, the Paraguayan Cinema Academy was born, and the first university of cinema was created. Currently, Paraguay is producing more movies with much effort because we still lack a film law. However, we have many stories to tell.
Indeed, they have stories to tell, as do so many countries whose social, cultural and political histories have only recently been tapped by their filmmakers. (Senegal’s Félicité, which did make the Academy’s shortlist, is another example of this.)
The sense of the filmmakers’ discovery of this history, as well as the infectious energy that comes with it, can be seen in this “making of” featurette about the first two weeks of production of Los Buscadores. The clip affords a look at the film’s small equipment package, which is about the size of what might be employed on an extravagant student film in America.
A clip showing a full month of the film’s production reveals the tight community and camaraderie that is a signature of small, low-budget films around the world — including several birthday cakes and a pizza delivery (the ubiquitous second meal found on even the biggest blockbuster productions). The clip opens with Schémbori calling “Action.” This launches into a montage of the film’s lighting and camera work, images that prove that even when technical resources are limited, filmmakers worldwide can tell stories that give us community and bind us together, reaching far beyond oft-contentious national borders.
Maneglia and Schémbori supported their film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this month. The festival spotlights many of the foreign-language films submitted for Academy consideration.
Bunraku: Ningyo Joruri