Receiving its North American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on March 9, Sebastian Cordero’s “Such is Life in the Tropics” is a dark and atmospheric drama about corruption. Set in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the film was originally titled “Sin muertos no hay carnaval,” which means “Without death, there is no carnival,” indicating that sacrifices are always being made for the greater good.
With that theme in mind, Cordero’s sharp, smart film examines the interconnected lives of the rich and poor in Guayaquil as (in)justice is meted out by and through various crimes.
In the film’s opening moments, a tourist is accidentally shot and killed while bird-watching. A witness identifies Emilio (Daniel Adum Gilbert) as the shooter, but he may not be the guilty party — something his lawyer, Lisandro Teran (co-writer Andres Crespo Arosemena), aims to prove. Teran is also pivotal to the film’s other plotline, which involves his representation of hundreds of families squatting in a settlement that Emilio inherited and wants to sell. How these stories unfold, with characters facing reversals of fortune as secrets and lies are told and exposed, is what makes this slow-burn thriller so effective.
Cordero, who made the excellent crime thriller “Cronicas” and the celebrated sci-fi flick “Europa Report,” has created an engaging human drama that illuminates the ethical and emotional undercurrents of greed, power and violence intertwined with squatter settlements and land grabs.
The filmmaker spoke via Skype with Salon about corruption, air-conditioning, soccer and other aspects of making “Such is Life in the Tropics.”
What prompted you to address these issues of money, corruption and injustice?
It was a great challenge to explore the abuse of power around land in Latin America, which is very present and we’re very aware of. Guayaquil is a city of 3 million inhabitants and 10 percent live in lands that are not completely legalized and have been squatted in for decades.
I thought that was a tremendously current and important topic to deal with — but from the perspectives of characters who have a richness and a complexity. None of them are completely noble or have pure motives. They have something that dirties their intentions. That made me think of “City of Hope,” the John Sayles film. Another film that was a huge reference was Kurosawa’s “High and Low” about a kidnapping.
What is special about that film is how the story is told geographically, how these different words interact. They are close but also universes apart. The morality of the characters might seem like they are doing something good but self-interest overtakes everything else.
Daniel Adum Gilbert is particularly outstanding in the film. We feel the weight of his stress as his character goes through the legal system. Can you describe how you created the various plots and worked with the cast to create the film?
That was one of the trickiest elements. When you have this ambitious story, you need to narrow down the essentials, so you’re not being redundant telling different facets of the issue. The characters have the complexity they need. I’m happy you mentioned Daniel Gilbert. This is the first time he’s acted. I couldn’t find the right actor, and Daniel is an artist who does street art and sculptures, and he’s known as an artist. I saw him at an event in Guayaquil and I saw something in him that I equated with the character. His character is questionable but [Daniel] should always be empathizing with him, and he struggles with the issues, even though he’s doing things that might be completely questionable.
The actor is completely different from the character. He has long hair and tattoos and is very different than Emilio, but he comes from a similar society, and he knows the upper crust of the Guayaquil society. He told me he felt Emilio would have been a version of himself if he had taken a different path in life. He has a stoic disposition and there are many scenes where he’s silent and he still manages to convey a lot. I’m really proud of the work we did. We took a risk. My producers were nervous about going with someone unknown and yet I felt he was special and seeing the reaction of people has been great that my instinct was right.
As you did in your film “Cronicas,” you portray violence in vivid ways. Here one of the most disturbing images is when a character is beaten and his head is wrapped in duct tape. And this is seen twice! What can you say about how violence is portrayed in Ecuadorian society?
In the world of squatter settlements, there has been quite a bit of violence over the past decades. The violence is not as extreme as what we’ve grown used to in the narco culture in Colombia and Mexico, where torture takes over but if you get into trouble with the wrong people you won’t get away easily. In this film, I went for more graphic violence than I have in my previous movies. There is something about how the violence happens suddenly and takes us by surprise, even though it is stylized and larger than life.
I wanted to find the right balance where you can have two of the two henchmen who are having their dilemmas — like debating about killing a kid he knows from the neighborhood — but he has to, or he’s putting people’s lives in jeopardy. I wanted to balance the sympathy and empathy at the same time. The second time you see [the head wrapped in duct tape], it wasn’t specified in the script how the character died. But the earlier scene with a head wrapped in duct tape was so powerful that I [knew] that’s how I wanted the second character to die. It was a cruel way to die and it was a great signature. It says a lot about the extremes people go to. There are some real-life characters who are well-known, and well-known in their violence as well.
What research did you do on squatter settlements?
The squatter settlement is named Talía Toral after a real place. It was evicted, but I kept the name. We were going to shoot there, but it was torn down. The name comes from the niece of one of the famous land invaders. People named their settlements after people who are ferocious, so it is indicative of how they can be if you mess with them. It’s a way of letting them know to stay out of there.
“Tropics” is very atmospheric. We feel the heat in the city, the glossiness of the high-rises, the grittiness of the dilapidated shacks and apartments. Can you talk about creating the film’s authenticity and how it contributes to the film’s points about class and inequality?
The thing is that the film is really a portrait of Guayaquil in all its different facets. It’s a city with a lot of inequalities but also very atmospheric. It’s hot and humid. The first thing you notice is how people isolate themselves from the heat. The wealthy live in an air-conditioned bubble. Their [limited] contact with the air and the reality is their luxury. . . . They isolate themselves from the rest of the people.
At the same time I needed to set up elements that mark these divisions — window and reflections — so I shot the car scenes through a window so they are seen in this literal bubble. These elements allow us to play and reflect the isolation of all these characters who are living together. The high-rise is a landmark building in Guayaquil. I knew I wanted his apartment to be in there not just because it has an amazing view, but it gave me a chance to be on an open balcony and the distance [between rich and poor] is felt the same way. He’s just as isolated and in his own world.
The other extreme has houses with bamboo walls, and the windows are just openings. Because of the weather and the heat, those types of constructions make sense so the air can pass through. The minute they have money they buy an air-conditioning unit. It’s the first sign you are making it. Because the air-conditioners are so prevalent, the city is noisy. Shooting on location we had to shoot in extreme heat 40 to 42 Celsius [or 104°F] and [had] to silence 20 air-conditioning units and have fans ready to go for the actors so they aren’t drenched in sweat. It’s a challenge, but it gives the city its atmosphere. At night because it’s humid and raining constantly, it’s always very hazy and the lights reflect in the haze. Like in L.A. We needed to have that light reflected on the sky to have that feeling of oppressiveness.
This looks like a very ambitious production with scenes set at a soccer stadium and several sequences that involve elaborate shots. Can you talk about the budget and the production and how you scaled your project to make it both stylish and feasible?
This film cost $2 million, which by U.S. standards is low budget, but you can make a movie for much less. There are a lot of complex elements and for the budget it costs, the movie looks so much bigger. We were resourceful, creative and, in some cases, lucky. We were able to give it a different scope. The stadium was a character in a movie because it was the only place where all the characters come together. They would normally never interact otherwise. It was the Roman circus.
It’s a symbolic space in the city. But how are we going to shoot the crowded soccer game? The logistics of trying to get the permits to get a real team that’s not portrayed in a positive way is hard. We went with fictional teams. But how do we fill a stadium for a fictional team? The stadium we shot at — it was not used for soccer anymore. It used to be but their soccer stadium was being remodeled and, because of that, they had to schedule some of their games in the stadium we shot at! So we were able to shoot real footage and then we digitally replaced the players and clothes with our character and extras. We did specific things but the power of that huge crowd was something we never could have staged from scratch.
Do you think your film will change minds about exposing corruption and injustice?
I was rewatching “City of God,” and it’s such a pop film with so much punch you almost forget it’s about huge social problems in Brazil. But there are moments in the film where you see things that are so disturbing or shocking enough that you think these things need to be addressed. There are audiences that will see “Tropics” as entertainment.
But once you get past that hopefully the film makes its point that land invasions and squatter settlements need to be addressed. The deeper problem is the lack of morality and respect for other people’s lives. We’ve grown accustomed to dog eat dog. In the U.S. with Trump, you can see a lot of the philosophy of looking out for yourself. That won’t take us anywhere, and seeing that up front and being exposed to it, hopefully makes you want to change that.
In Ecuador corruption is common enough people have dealt with it everyday on all levels, from bribing a cop who pulls you over to people getting away with things that are shocking. But I think it’s dangerous when we just get used to that; it loses its shock element. The film, in a way, tries to make that element clear, even if it hits you over the head a bit. By the end, there’s something wrong. And hopefully the next stage is for people to look at their world to see what they can do to improve it. That may sound naive, but that’s hopefully some of the impact the film can have.