ADVENTURES IN FILM : THE WIZARD OF LA PAZ
Adrian our focus puller with Doug our DOP
Hectic shooting on the street
Alex the Cement man. He once pretended to be insane for some months to avoid paying food and rent during one of the revolutions
Some much deserved shade
Salt flats with our lovely bus in the distance
Doug VS The Wind
A marching band school in Uyuni
Setting up for the Train Cemetery shoot
Sunset at the salt flats
Tracks to nowhere. The Chileans bought up the train companies here, took what they could and left it to rot. There's hardly any train service here now
One of the few parts with water. But in the rainy season it's all covered and looks like a mirror, to the point you can't distinguish the floor from the horizon
Alex by the fire
Paola our amazing make up artist with Paolo our wonderful Cusillo!
Studio Murmur, Foqus, Gran Angular co production team!
Esteban, Franco´s little brother, who thought I was a ghost
Franco´s amazing mum, his little bro Esteban, and Franco looking cool
Our salt flats guide. What a jumper!
Alex in character, he also used to do puppet theatre as a young man in the countryside for the farmers who had no television.
Adrian with Ghandi El-Chamma, a great friend and Studio Murmur member. He camera assists and sorts out our kit, lugging an entire Alexa package from London! He also has beautiful hands
The weird old Potosi
Franco with his family
Alex watching one of the rare trains that pass by
Ameena Kara Callender, the wonderful and talented costume designer!
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“They say that "La Paz, te atrapa..." (La Paz traps you…) This is very true. It´s been 3 and a half months and I have no idea when I will leave. It´s certainly a new home. Bars know my usual.” - IPJ
This is Evelio, the first link in the chain, who really opened Bolivia up to me in a massive way through his stories and subsequently a very important introduction to Alely which I'll talk about later. I met him after the Landshapes video at a weird illegal after party full of Bolivian gurners (a rare sight, much like their coffee production vs. consumption, the balance being more on production). We both shared a mutual unease towards two particularly coked out Paceños insisting on speaking in poor English to me, naming football teams despite me caring as much for football as I care for the outcome of a primary school netball match. We (Bruno stayed on!) then had some great nights out with Evelio, who introduced us to the best spots, as we were clueless gringos were ripe for the picking by shit club nights.
Me and Evelio, who coincidentally on his last day in La Paz happened to be walking past my short film shoot after our goodbye night out!
I’ve ended up making a great friend in Evelio, we’ve shared some wonderful times and he introduced me to Alely Amazonas, who got new things going. Alely’s a freelance producer, and now a close friend, who introduced me to Rafa Estevez the Exec of Foqus and Yamil Del Villar, Exec of Gran Angular. These two companies work together in video production and ended up getting me a music video job and also some government propaganda work; but now they’re also like a family to me here. It was in the propaganda video job that I met Franco, the lead boy in the Naughty Boy video.
Franco. The greatest kid in the world.
Franco was just an extra, but struck me as soon as I saw him. He gave off this really strange energy, an adult’s energy. As if he’d lived a really long life. His image stuck in my head for the following week and I wracked my brain as to what story he belonged in cinematically. Some days after I saw a disabled Chau Chau dog. He hobbled up to me and panted as I stroked him. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before, so I was really shocked as to just how much he looked like a lion. Franco then popped into my head; the Chau Chau and Franco! It’s the Wizard of Oz, Bolivian style!
What a crew.
That same day I had written to Sam Seager, a great commissioner and excellent photographer who used to send me tracks back in the day, and he sent me the Naughty Boy track. When I listened to it, I let Franco and the Chau Chau wander my mind and wrote the subsequent script we shot, which they then picked. For a year and a half I’ve been writing these ambitious treatments and never winning any of them, so I was really taken aback. I had to actually make this video. FULL STEAM AHEAD.
Some weird coincidences happened on the shoot, which I think is always a good sign of a project going well. On the first day of casting, we were still searching without any luck for a male ballet dancer. I had specified to Ameena our stylist that the character who would play the traffic cop should be male but quite feminine. Then Paolo walks in. Tall, slim, feminine looking guy, asking what the casting was for.
‘Sorry mate, but unless you are a classically trained ballet dancer, there isn’t a role for you.’
‘Well I studied for two years in NY.’ WTF. He’d seen the “casting” sign outside and just walked in, happening to be on the street that day. Then Paolo was just incredible in the casting session, completely owning the role.
Then there was the hotel. I had wanted this Bolivian comic called Pocholo to play the cement man, even specifying it in the treatment, but he’s very busy, and quite a celebrity, so in the end we thought it best not to use him. So we moved on and found this wonderful hotel, the John Wesley, and went there to check out the room our producer had earmarked.
‘It´s occupied’, they said. ‘Oh wait, here he is, you could ask him to look...’ We turned around, and it´s Pocholo! He was staying in the same room we were wanting to film in. So up we went and had a look around. Jokes.
The shoot itself went very well, though it was pretty precarious at times. We were very ambitious with it from the start so it was to be expected. The first day was 24 hours of shooting, but then we got the most comfortable bus in the world on the long trip to Uyuni. The seats looked like they were made for fat Americans, and they reclined flat. Franco’s amazing mum and his little brother Esteban came along too, but his little brother had this deep fear of me. Whenever I would go into the office (his mum is the cleaner there and brings Esteban along) he would cry "cucu" at me from behind his mother's skirt.
I later found out that “Cucu” meant 'Ghost' just before we left on the trip, when I was delirious from the intense pre-production and 24 hour shoot with no sleep, I started tripping out. I was sure that this boy had acute senses and could see that I would die on the trip. We were going to the mines of Potosi, a mountain riddled with tunnels, to the point where it is now falling apart. I was sure this boy could see that I was to become a ghost, dying from a collapsed mine or some other horrible death. Luckily, over the course of the shoot he warmed up to me and stopped calling me “Cucu”, which calmed me down a bit.
The salt flats were as incredible as you might imagine. A vast white expanse with recurring dried salt puddle border patterns; so vast people who go without a guide die each year from getting lost. We just about managed to catch the sunset, and had some time to soak in the atmosphere once the camera was turned off. The bordering town of Uyuni was very strange, as you enter from the desert, the sand is blown and piled up at the edges of it. As you get further in the sand disperses, as if they swept from the middle outwards and got lazy toward the edges. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, there’s hustle and bustle, gringos walking around buying stuff, lot of people on bikes.
Standing on a giant albino's brain.
Next we went to Potosi. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is a city that used to be the wealthiest in the world when the Spanish were here. They of course pillaged the place for its gold and it’s now a rather poor place, but still has a strong mining industry. There is a heavy atmosphere there, sludgy air; I was told it’s all of the ghosts. They say millions of Indios died here under Spanish rule due to forced labour that involved crushing mercury and silver ore with bare feet. The Spanish also shipped in African slaves to replace the mules, twenty men for every mule, as the mules wouldn’t last. Potosi has a brutal past, and you breathe it in when you arrive.
So we went to the mine. I was at the most nervous I’d been during the shoot at this point, but still confident we would get what we needed. Since being in Bolivia I have become much more superstitious, there are too many personal stories for you to remain staunchly cynical. I have always had an eye open towards these things anyway but Bolivia is like being dropped in at the deep end. Every mine in Bolivia has “El Tio”, the Uncle. El Tio is a statue of the devil which they must give offerings to in order to have safe passage further into the devil’s lair, the mines. It goes back a long way in history, but the Spanish Catholics had a strong hand in adapting the image to be more in line with their version of the devil. It’s said that children were sacrificed in offerings to El Tio, and still are to this day, which is an element that inspired the script but which also made me very nervous when entering the mine. We were quick though, in and out in two hours. This gave us time to shoot some more so I decided to get the shot of them coming up over the hill, to try and position the mountain as a character. For me it has a very sinister feel, almost man-made.
A Potosi girl, she lives right by the mines.
Franco then became scared after being in the mine. He was fine for the first few days, but kids at his school had talked of the devil and frightened him. We were all then very worried for him and I planned to go back to the mine to call his “ajayu” (soul). This is when you go to the place that first got him scared, to call his soul back to a piece of clothing that was worn at the time, and then place this clothing back on them once returned.
At night I dreamt of Franco, running around like crazy, laughing, unlike himself. I caught up to him and knelt down, my hands on his shoulders, calming him. I noticed he was still running, another version of him, and the one I was with was the real Franco. His eyes looked frightened and were a deep black. I told him how the devil wasn’t real, how he had nothing to worry about. The more I told him, the more these invisible arms would wrap around my neck. Like a headlock. I kept talking to him, to calm him, and they would strangle me. I woke up out of breath and couldn’t go back to sleep. I got a call in the morning telling me that the very night of my nightmare, Franco’s mum had called his Ajayu, and that he felt better. I can’t speak highly enough of him and his family. They put their whole selves into the project.
Everyone on the crew, too many to mention, put their heart and soul into this project. Tim and Dobi smashed the hell out of the UK production, dealing with all sorts of nightmares, and pulling through every single time. Doug was incredible as usual, steadicaming down a mine in Potosi, even higher above seal level than La Paz and without any oxygen! Ameena was a new addition to Studio Murmur, and she was incredible. I’d known her for some years and this was the perfect job for us to start out our new collaboration. The entire Bolivian crew smashed it, everyone bled for the project. Then Gaia worked her usual magic on the edit, Serena post producing for us, and Luke Morrison delivering an exquisite grade.
We released the video to what has been the most incredible reception here in Bolivia. It has gone completely viral, the track itself playing on radio stations and the video regularly playing on TV. A political meme even started with Franco’s image, his ears covered, saying ‘la la la’ surrounded by Bolivian politicians. I heard it’s on repeat in the embassy, and that at one of the universities people are doing the ‘la la la’ gesture as a way of telling someone to shut up. I’ve also been told it’s made Bolivians proud of their country, something incredible to have achieved, especially since there is a certain self-deprecation present in the national mentality.
There are constant references to Bolivia being third world, unable to do things properly, and so on but the case is that Bolivia is an incredible country, unique, and the people are some of the kindest I have ever met. So I am still here, riding the Naughty Boy wave, keeping my options open as to what’s next. Maybe a film of length, a Fea***e film. I dare not say the F word though. It’s the most bizarre and mythical of beasts, scarier and more confusing that the devils in the Potosi mines. They say every time you light a cigarette from a candle, a Fea***e film dies.
WORDS + PHOTOS: IAN PONS JEWELL
NAUGHTY BOY | LA LA LA FT. SAM SMITH | DIR: IAN PONS JEWELL