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A film about shark hunting in Nicaragua

A scene from El ojo del tiburón.
By Pablo Suárez
For the Herald
Alejo Hoijman’s film plunges viewers into an untamed, mysterious universe

Maicol and Bryan are best friends and live on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, in Greytown, a village isolated from the rest of the country by a thick jungle and a treacherous sea.

It’s summer, and their sweet childhood days are about to be over for they will soon start working. As they wander about, they also explore their world, that is to say the jungle and its surrounding areas. They like to talk endlessly, recall fond memories, and talk about girls and love — in that order. Quite often, there are expeditions for shark hunting in Greytown. But such hazardous undertaking is for grownups only.

One of the best shot documentaries to be released in these last couple of years, Argentine filmmaker Alejo Hoijman’s El ojo del tiburón (The Shark’s Eye) goes after the route followed by Maicol and Bryan. And in so doing, it dexterously plunges viewers into an untamed, mysterious universe. Hoijman spoke with the Herald about his new opus.

What were your first impressions of Greytown?

As soon as I stepped there, I was completely fascinated by it. But not necessarily because of its beauty. Think that it’s a town isolated amid the jungle and you can only get there by means of the river San Juan, or by sailing along its dangerous sea. From Managua, it takes at least three days, depending on the weather and the level of the river. It’s a rough town where there are no musicians and nobody knows how to sing. The faces of the people reflect their history, which you need to be familiar with for fully know what’s going on.

Then, let’s talk about its origins.

Greytown was founded by Englishmen centuries ago as a customs spot to charge travellers who wanted to go up the river San Juan from the Atlantic until bordering the Pacific. Bear in mind that before the existence of the Panama Canal this was the route used by thousands of traders and smugglers to join both oceans. Once the Panama Canal was created, the town lost all its splendour and was entirely destroyed in the confrontations in the 80s.

How has that affected the townspeople?

In some sense, the adults living there today are survivors for they were combatants during the Nicaraguan Revolution, on one side or the other. Or they were refugees who saved themselves by escaping by foot through the jungle. Lost in the middle of the jungle, there’s an old English cemetery and also the wheels of a train that was never built.

How about the kids?

Many of them have never seen a car in their lives. They know little of what happens outside their town. In this scenario, I met Maicol and Bryan, two kids with a very special sensibility. One of the things that I found very interesting is how different, yet also similar, these kids are to kids you can find in a big city like Buenos Aires.

In the film, you say that many of the workers have become drug smugglers. Why is that?

Traditionally, fishing was one of the possible jobs, but it’s now about to disappear as an option. Fishermen know the sea very well, and we’re talking about a very risky sea. For some years now, they’ve been tempted by drug trafficking lords to provide technical assistance to motorboats coming from Colombia to Mexico and the US. This is not a taboo issue in Greytown, so it was easy to talk to people who said they were involved in these activities.

And besides drug smuggling?

There are some traders and governmental workers, be it in the City Hall, the school, or the infirmary. However, there are very few options. But it seems things are about to change because there’s a project to build a small runway in the jungle for tourism. Should that happen, the town would change completely.

What did you know about Greytown before making the film?

I had read a lot about it and was very anxious to know it. But this film actually came into being as a result of another project that never took off. I was hired to make a television documentary about some kind of shark that inhabits the place. So I travelled there for research purposes. Once I saw the town, a new film that had nothing to do with the original project was born.

But you had the themes in mind prior to the trip?

Yes, I had been thinking about making a film concerning kids who were somehow about enter adult life, mainly because of work. Suddenly, I’m in this new town and I get to meet shark-hunting apprentices. So my previous ideas and this new scenario merged together.

Many documentaries show us reality, but not all of them do it in the same manner.

First of all, I wanted explore what the boundaries of documentaries could be. In particular, I was focused on investigating the notion of off-screen space. I wanted to play with what’s seen or not seen according to the framing, meaning what you decide to show and what you deliberately hide.

How does this differ from a conventional view on documentaries?

An extremely conservative view of documentary cinema implies that the more you can show and inform about, the better. In my case it was the exact opposite. In a playful manner, I wanted to make clear that framing inevitably means hiding everything that’s out of reach for the camera. Hence, I tried to go for an expressive film rather than an informative one.

El ojo del tiburón is an observational documentary. What do you find attractive about this mode?

The truth is I don’t totally agree with such definition in this case. Every time I have to describe this film I run into the difficulty of not knowing what words to use to account for the type of documentary it is. Observational documentaries are almost a subgenre, but my film doesn’t really follow its conventions.

Why not?

I’d say it’s observational only because it registers events and occurrences as they take place, but it doesn´t register a series of testimonies or commentaries about things that happened or are about to happen. Even the camera is closer to the characters than it is in observational documentaries. I like to think that the camera not only cannot remain outside that which it aims at registering, but also it interferes with what we call reality.

And so it becomes a part of reality?

Surely. In El ojo del tiburón, I deliberately decided to include some marks that show the film is a construction in the making. We spent so much time with our characters that finally the experience itself was a part of the things they would talk about. Cinema ended up mixing with everyday life.

@PablSuarez
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