Wednesday, 14 September 2011

THE PEDDLER, or the art of DIY feature film making

The Peddler (El Ambulante) is Daniel Burmeister, a very down to earth man in his sixties who has dedicated his late life in making home crafted full length feature films, travelling from dusty town to dusty town in Northern Argentina with a video camera, minimal equipment, and a tremendous skill to improvise. He shoots his films involving the locals as actors, based on a staple of four or five screenplays. This is community based film making on a shoe string at its best. 

 This beautiful documentary was made in Benjamín Gould, in the province of Córdoba, by Argentinian film makers Lucas Marcheggiano, Eduardo de la Serna (who also acted as the judge for the competition based on it) and Adriana Yurcovich.. The film opens with a long lens take of a dusty reddish road in the middle of nowhere, a small dark object in the distance slowly becomes a rusty wreck that Daniel calls a car. The car enters the lonely streets of the town, stopping in front of the municipality. Not only Leone's Once a Time in the West sprang to my mind, but also a short journey I took in 1971, into a slow town in the province of Misiones, in the North, after crossing the River Paraguay by boat. The dust, the loneliness of the place, the punishing sun... All captured in here.

 We see the same scene in reverse by the end of the film, as the peddler rides out of Benjamín Gould, his mission accomplished, a scene reminiscent of Westerns, with the hero riding into the sunset, a trail of dust behind him, accompanied in here by the music of the legendary Argentinian singer Atahualpa Yupanqui. This song is not only beautiful, but also captures the mood and atmosphere of the film, the loneliness of the vast agricultural plains, the slowness of a way of life, so well. 



Have no mistake, the peddler is a solitary man with a mission, to make cinema from the grass roots, although he does not articulate it in this fashion. Daniel Burmeister had already built a reputation before arriving to the town, he only asks for free accommodation and groceries from the local shops, as his income comes from the proceeds of the sale of tickets once the finished film is shown. Once the local council, the municipality, approves his terms, he charms the locals, including the children, to participate in auditions. These sessions are a kind of improvised home made method acting workshops, before deciding in the cast. He has, as the mayor of the town says, the knack to sort out every problem that conspires against the completion of the film, including sorting the broken radiator of his old car. In one scene, involving a wedding, the actor playing the part of the priest walks away, so the help of a bystander is enlisted and, presto!, the filming continues. In another crucial scene, one of his main characters has to go away to sort out an industrial accident, yet Daniel manages to get him to play his part before leaving, rearranging the shooting schedule, and the screenplay, thinking on his feet. 

 What the peddler does is to make people realize their own true value, their own potential, that you do not need to be famous to be able to act. In this sense, what he does goes against the grain of contemporary culture, with its incessant pursue of fame for the sake of it, in many cases. His conversations with the taxi driver are enlightening, to convince him to play a part in the film, his reluctance to do so, “he couldn't do that, he is not an actor”, left behind, a wig left by a passenger becoming useful for his character. Cinema on the hoof, and its works. 

He has no interest in making commercial cinema, and the initial notions from the locals that he had to be a really bad director to ride into town are quickly dispelled. By adapting one of his staple of scripts (he used to write a script for each town where he made a film, at the beginning of his career as a film maker) to the circumstances and the abilities and characteristics of the cast he has been able to gather, the inhabitants are able not only to realize their own potential, their own creativity, but also a sense of community is reinforced, as people who only greeted each other with a “Good morning”, or “What a nice day!”, or whatever, start to actually talk to each other, to know the others who surround them. 

 When he leaves in his old car, rust and bits falling from it, he leaves behind not only a testimony of the creative potential of that community, but also a sense of worth which goes well beyond the geographic boundaries of the town, as tapes get sent to relatives leaving on all corners of the world. The sense of pride emanating from the function in the town hall when he shows the finished film to the locals is palpable, you should have seen the smile on my face when I was watching it. 

 The disc also contains three short films, the winner and runner ups of a competition held when The Peddler was released on British cinemas a few months back. I confess that I was slightly disappointed with those shorts, not so much, but because of their nature, with, perhaps, the exception of Kyle. The sleekness of their production betrayed the ethos behind The Peddler, the ethos of a community based and crafted film making. 

 The Peddler DVD goes on sale in Britain on 26th September, 2011, RPP £12.99
   

 Interview to Daniel Burmeister (not provided by Network Releasing). Regretabbly, it is in Spanish. 


 Stills and trailer © Network Releasing, unless otherwise indicated.

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