Nicolas and Luis Puenzo, Juana Burga on ‘The Unseen’

John Hopewell
Variety

BUENOS AIRES — Somewhere on a high Andes plateau, a pregnant Quechua girl’s father dies. She determines to leave with her young husband. So begins an odyssey which takes the couple across a benighted landscape, as dry as the moon, a Bolivia Altiplano laid waste by industrial exploitation and bloody militia, heading to Chile and the sea. They meet Ruiz, a 50-year-old, war-scarred photographer who seeks to save them from the war zone, salvaging what remains of his humanity. Written by Nicolas and Lucia Puenzo, and helmed by Nicolas, a co-director of TV series “Cromo,” survival thriller “Los Ultimos” (The Unseen) is set in a future which seems ever more part of the present. Luis, Lucia, Esteban and Nicolas Puenzo produce; Lucero Garzon associate produces. Sneak peeked at Los Cabos,”The Unseen” now plays at Ventana Sur’s Primer Corte pix-in-post showcase, curated by Cannes Cinefondation’s Georges Goldenstern. Variety talked to Nicolas and Luis Puenzo and Peru’s Juana Burga, in her debut film role, about an allegory for the present which is in danger of becoming quite simply the present.

“The Unseen” is like a post-Apocalypse film without an Apocalypse and a film which is in part futuristic, in part a near contemporary portrait of what happening in the world. I wonder if you could comment?

Luis Puenzo: You are right. Your definition is accurate. Outside the picture however, the Apocalypse is happening before our eyes. We see its symptoms in refugees seeking a place in the world, in the emergency that Bolivia has just declared because of the most brutal drought in decades, or in political retrogression in Latin America and Europe. The Future of “The Unseen” is almost here.

The central performances from Peter Lanzani and Juana Burga are tremendously physical: Their motivation is reduced to the bare necessity of survival. Would you agree Nicolas?

Nicolas Puenzo: The concept that struck us so deeply was “intoxicated beauty.” That is what we see happening to our region, both the territory and the populations, because of the bestial exploitation of natural and human resources. Our characters are the excluded: the refugees, the deceived, the survivors. They are beings hardened by the injustice of the system and the harshness of the territory. We constructed them looking for a great intensity and at the same time simplicity in their survival.

How did you find Juana Burga to play the female lead? 

Nicolas Puenzo: On Google! We needed a beautiful young Quechuan, but couldn’t find one, we’re in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina. So Dad went onto the Internet. I’m not sure what magical words he wrote but there was Juana.

Juana Burga: I’m better known as a model in Peru. One day, somebody said: “There’s someone called Nicolas Puenzo who wants to make a film with you.” I called my agent, sent a link to Historias Cinematograficas, and my agency was very, very enthusiastic. Then Nicolas interviewed me.

When it comes to describing the film, I feel, rather like “The German Doctor” or “Cromo,” that it mixes some genres and indeed narratives, from the Quechua figure of the serpent that eats its tail to the “Mad Max” tale of desert-set futuristic survival, to the Western, in the figure of Ruiz, a grizzled veteran of violence whose role is to allow the couple a future in which he will not participate. Again, Nicolas, would you agree?

Nicolas Puenzo: Yes, the film exhibits elements of different genres without the story installed in any one specific genre. There are elements of the Western, undoubtedly, as the characters walk and experience the savagery of war and the exploitation of their territory. Here, unlike the classic Western, it is not the state that advances over wild territory but the other way round, a territory abandoned after a cycle of brutal exploitation that has left it unviable for human life.

Ruiz is a character from a Western, with the melancholy of someone who inhabits a territory that has changed and which he no longer understands. A man who meets the end of his era. I would also say that the documentary and the look of photo journalism are the main references of the film, filmed as if it were the vision of a war photographer.

As a film from a cinematographer-turned-director, Luis, what were the main choices made both a DP and also a director?

Luis Puenzo: This question should be answered by Nicolas, who in “The Unseen” performed the simultaneous roles of director, director of photography and cameraman, as well as producer and before, screenwriter. Exercising multiple roles is not just a habit, for us it is a necessity. This is how we learned and how films are made in countries like ours.

Nicolas Puenzo: My starting point was to forget the differences between the work of the director and the director of photography. I shot the film as if it were a photo journalist shooting, intervening in the terrain and among people, in search of real emotions. I talked with the actors and filmed them at the same time, so as to get a sense of vertigo in the performances and camerawork. I was always thinking of the concept I mentioned before, Intoxicated Beauty, and I was always looking at how to process that idea into the performances and  image.

 “The Unseen” was shot in the Salar de Uyuni, where Herzog lensed “Salt and Fire.” As one of the producers on the film, Luis, what were the major production challenges in what could not have been the easiest of shoots.

Luis Puenzo: In these locations it is not easy to film, but neither is reaching them, nor any other aspect of logistics. Even less with an austere budget, a small team and actors living with all the difficulties, but those demands were faced by Nico. It was my job to stay in the rearguard, taking care of “financial engineering,” which on a project like this is not easy either.

Ventana Sur will show a rough-cut version of “The Unseen” in its Primer Corte showcase. When will the film be ready for delivery?

Luis Puenzo: We are working on the final adjustments, without stopping for Ventana Sur. Our plan is to complete post within the remainder of the year and arrive at copy in the first week of January.

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