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GUATEMALA CITY – The success of Guatemala’s movie industry isn’t measured in box office receipts but by whether a film makes it to the silver screen.
The biggest box office hit in the Central American country last year was Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which generated US$1,006,801, according to movie distributing company Revsa.
In comparison, the highest-grossing Guatemalan movie, the comedy Puro Mula, grossed US$30,600.
Still, the country’s movie industry is experiencing a boom in the number of films produced compared to other Central American nations, as Guatemala finished 17 movies the past two years. Costa Rica, for example, has released 14 movies since 2003, according to Costa Rica’s Ministry of Culture.
“[Guatemala’s] strength [in making movies] is that it has consistent access to high-quality actors, whereas in other countries it is very expensive to hire a professional cast,” said Cecilia Santamarina, a producer with Full Moon productions, which last year released the comedy La Vaca. “Our budget was minimal. We finished our movie for less than US$100,000.”
The industry’s growth has enabled Guatemalan filmmakers to tell their stories to the masses in a country with a population of about 14 million.
La Vaca was seen by 16,000 during a six-week period beginning this past October and was also successful on the international festival circuit in 2011, participating in the Cannes Independent Film Festival, the Central American Icaro Festival, the Ottawa Latin American Film Festival and the International Trailer Film Festival in New York.
Meantime, director Julio Hernández Cordón, 37, has made three movies – Gasolina, Marimbas del Infierno and Polvo – in the past five years. Cordón’s films have also been recognized at numerous film festivals. Gasolina (2007) was showcased in the “Film under Construction” category at a festival in the Spanish city of San Sebastián.
“My stories can only come from Guatemala because my filmmaking has its own view, with simple stories,” said Hernández, who started his career as a local news producer eight years ago.
Hernández’s producing company, Melindrosa Films, doesn’t spend more than $100,000 quetzales (US$12,831) per movie because he doesn’t cast professional actors.
Agustín Ortiz, who plays the main character in Hernández’ latest film, Polvo, to be released later this year, said Guatemalan films have no boundaries since the industry doesn’t have the same technology or resources as other nations.
“By working with Julio, I have come to know the process of producing a film in Guatemala. Compared to other productions, his narratives are more honest because his stories are original,” said Ortiz, who is a full-time journalist and had starred in a few plays at San Carlos University before landing a role as Juan in Polvo.
Despite the success, some struggles
Hernández said a lack of support from the Guatemalan government has forced movie companies to raise their own funds or partner with their counterparts in Mexico or Costa Rica.
“It’s complicated [to make movies] in Guatemala because there is no infrastructure,” Hernández said. “In other countries, the film industry is supported by the government, but not in Guatemala.”
For example, the movie companies in Costa Rica are supported by the Costa Rican Center of Film Production, which is backed by the Ministry of Culture and lends equipment, offers training to filmmakers and organizes festivals with its annual budget of US$500,000.
The Guatemalan government doesn’t have an official entity to finance films but has supported productions promoting certain themes, such as director Fran Lepe’s Trip. The 2011 film was sponsored by several private entities and the Executive Secretariat of the Commission Against Addictions and the Illegal Trafficking of Drugs (SECCATID) because it centered on the dangers of drug use.
“Everyone is struggling, especially when it comes to financing,” Lepe said. “What we got for this movie did not cover the financial costs of a production of this kind.”
Santamarina, however, said money isn’t the only issue impacting Guatemalan filmmakers.
“It’s also a constant fight against prejudice, against poorly set parameters by the people themselves,” she said. “The public is not used to seeing national films, and the collective consciousness is alienated because of the foreign productions, which are very expensive to film and promote.”
Michelle Rojas, who specializes in advertising photography for films, said Guatemalan films simply can’t compete with big-budget films that cost millions, such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which had a production cost of US$195 million.
The movie generated US$1.12 billion worldwide, making it one of the highest-grossing films of all-time.
“Guatemalan movies don’t get much attention because a lot of people believe the movies produced by Hollywood are better because of the special effects,” he said. “Our films show our national reality, how people live their daily lives.”