REVIEW: ‘Territorio’ presents Ecuador through a stationary lens

The third Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York includes screenings of Territorio from director Alexandra Cuesta. Image courtesy of Cinema Tropical.

The new documentary Territorio, playing the third Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York, is an arresting portrait of lives in the South American country. Director Alexandra Cuesta has the scenes play out without moving the camera; instead she offers tableau images of the country and its people without interpretation or cinematic flourishes. The resulting film, running a quick 66 minutes, makes for a slow-burn experience but one that has many redeeming qualities.

The opening scene is of a person standing against the wind on a boat racing for the horizon. The waves come and go as the twilight sky casts a pale light on the surrounding waters. Cuesta, in a brave way, stays with the man and the open sea for a long beat. There is no dialogue, and the only sound is that of the crashing water against the sides of the boat. It’s a perfect beginning to her exploration of the country.

Other images depict the young and old living, working, dancing, playing soccer and enjoying life. There’s a somberness to many of the images, which depict lives of hard work and weekend enjoyment. Some of the subjects look right into Cuesta’s lens; some stare off into the distance.

The children in the documentary smile as they kick a soccer ball along a dusty road. A family watches an American film, the four children hanging on to their father in a single bed. A young woman sits on a rock behind a nightclub. A DJ bounces along to the beat of a song. A lonely dog scratches itself on a lonelier road.

Because Cuesta lets the camera linger — always for the right amount of time — Territorio begs further introspection as if there are underlying themes behind the portraits, as if the audience should consider context and community.

There is not much of a narrative thread, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Instead, most of the soundtrack is of natural sound and whatever the microphone might be able to pick up from the characters in the general vicinity.

Cuesta is dedicated to her approach, especially her decision not to move the camera. At times, the action of a particular scene is just out of frame, and yet she stays fixed on the portrait, stationary and calm. This refusal to turn toward the action can be frustrating but also revealing. As an artist, she’s obviously after something different.

Perhaps she wants the audience to consider the individuals she has chosen to capture, the lives of real people and their everyday goings-on. Perhaps she’s after the documenting of movement without partaking in the movement herself.

Whatever her modus operandi, and it remains a mystery throughout Territorio’s running time, she offers enough material for a full-on exploration and consideration of Ecuador and a few select people from far and wide.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Territorio (2017), directed by Alexandra Cuesta, is currently playing the third Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York. The movie will screen June 16 at Syndicated Bar Theater Kitchen in Brooklyn and June 17 at the Queens Museum in Queens. Running time: 66 minutes. Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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