I posted the trailer for the film Utama a few weeks back, and having now seen the film, I thought I’d follow up with a review.
Utama, which means ‘our home’, is set in the highlands of Bolivia. It tells the story of an elderly Quechua couple eking out a living in an unforgivingly dry region. Virginio herds llamas. Sisa manages a cottage garden, trying to coax plants out of the dust. It’s also her job to carry the water.
Neither of them are fit for these challenges. Virginio is unwell and hiding it from his wife. Sisa is traveling too far for water, trekking out to a dry riverbed as the pump in the well has run dry in the drought. It’s clear that their traditional way of life is hanging on by its fingertips. Neighbours in the village have already given up and moved to the city. When their grandson visits, it is obvious to him that their time is up. But how can he convince his grandparents to give up what they know? To give up their home?
“The rain is coming”, they tell themselves – but is it?
Utama is a modest film – a cast of three, for the most part. The central pair are a real-life couple and are first-time actors, discovered by the director during location scouting. Not a lot happens in the film, as they go about their herding and their chores, their awkward dinner table conversations with their grandson with his bluetooth headphones around his neck. But with this unassuming set-up, Utama tells a far bigger story in more ways than one.
Firstly, Utama is visually extraordinary. It’s the work of director Alejandro Loayza Grisi, a photographer who has turned to film-making, working with cinematographer Barbara Alvarez. They approach the film as photographers, everything taking place in this sparse and deserted landscape, characters in relief against the blue sky, shots held like portraits. Characters framed in something far bigger than they are. You won’t have seen anything quite like this before. This is not a place, nor a way of life, that has drawn the world’s attention.
It’s also a bigger story because it serves as a symbol for the loss and damage of climate change, though the term is never used. The climate is indeed changing in the Bolivian highlands. Rainfall has decreased and the seasons have become unpredictable. Already dry and inhospitable, the changing conditions are testing communities to breaking point. As the film accurately portrays, it is often the elderly who are left behind, unwilling to re-locate to a city that has nothing to offer them.
“I believe that telling a story from the point of view of those people who are very close to us, who still live in the countryside and face the agony of seeing their way of life disappear, is vital for understanding the human cost of climate change,” says Grisi. “Utama is ultimately a story about one of the most underrepresented places on Earth, but it is also a universal story that could be set in any community that is facing similar social and environmental problems.”
Utama is Bolivia’s entry to the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature, and it already won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It’s in selected cinemas in the UK from today.