One of the riskiest entries in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition was Southern District (Zona Sur), a Bolivian film about a wealthy family in suburban La Paz and their indigenous Aymaran servants. Politically loaded and stylistically unique, the film went out on a limb, and the risk paid off: director/writer Juan Carlos Valdivia won the festival’s directing and screenwriting awards in the World Cinema category. Additionally, Bolivia submitted the film for Academy Awards consideration.
Bolivia is undergoing cultural realignments as wealth slips from the upper class and indigenous people gain power. This became clear with the election of President Evo Morales, the first Aymaran to hold the office. Valdivia put his finger squarely in the wound during a heated election year, addressing race and class in a polarized culture, but choosing a style that withholds judgment.
In the film, a matriarch lords over her three children in a beautifully appointed home, where a loyal indigenous butler and gardener take care of the children’s needs and whims. However, money is running out because of the parents’ divorce. When the butler learns of his son’s death, he leaves to attend the funeral against the matriarch’s wishes. This is followed by other turns of fortune that disrupt established power dynamics.
Valdivia describes the plot as “minimal,” noting that the storyline “is subverted for other elements, like atmosphere. In fact, during the first two-thirds of the movie, you could put the scenes in different order and it wouldn’t matter.”
What’s most striking is the design Valdivia worked out with the film’s cinematographer, Paul de Lumen: Each scene is a single shot lasting two to five minutes, and each shot utilizes a slowly rotating camera that makes up to four 360-degree turns per scene. The moves are independent of the actors, who walk in and out of frame. Because the characters are onscreen only 60 percent of the time, viewers wind up observing the house, which becomes a character as the camera reveals its luxurious décor and layers of family history.
This radical approach was motivated by several ideas. One was German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s theory of human individualism, which utilizes the metaphor of spheres. “We create spheres, or bubbles of existence,” says Valdivia. “These bubbles can be like foam, a conglomeration of individual spheres, but they are also individual bubbles.” The family embodies this social dynamic, while the circular camerawork suggests the spheres they each construct and are trapped within.
The moves also express an Andean view of cyclical time. “Juan Carlos wanted the feel of a clock, and he wanted it to be unforgiving, like time,” says de Lumen. “Using a remote head facilitated that feel.”
De Lumen shot Southern District with a Red One (Build 16), “the first in South America,” according to Valdivia, who acquired it in June 2008. He and de Lumen, who is based in Los Angeles, spent a year shooting commercials with the camera before Southern District came together. Valdivia wanted to shoot his feature with the Red mainly because he “wanted to prove you could make a very well-made movie with digital capture. It was a personal mission.”
For Southern District, they captured at 4K Redcode Raw, the maximum resolution possible. Because some scenes ran nearly five minutes, the Compact Flash cards didn’t offer sufficient storage space, so de Lumen recorded to the 320GB Red Drive. (The production carried two.) “We were able to shoot all the coverage of one scene on that,” says de Lumen. “It was about a half-day’s worth of shooting.”
Camera movement was per-formed in two basic ways: rotating on its axis, or circling around a scene. Valdivia used the architectural program SketchUp, which even enabled lens choices, to plan shots. He had an architect render a 3-D model of the practical location, then moved a camera eye through it. These decisions became a springboard for what de Lumen calls a “jam session” on set. Choreographing actors and camera and finding the right speed for both were time-consuming challenges. They averaged 15 takes, sometimes going up to 30. In effect, says de Lumen, “that was our coverage: the speed of the camera, size of the lens and the blocking of actors. Those were the ways we provided options for the editor.”
De Lumen shot most of the movie on a 24mm Arri Ultra Prime, which was “wide enough to capture the room without distorting the actors when they got close to it. It was the perfect lens for multiple coverage within one shot.”
Key grip Rosendo Ticona created a couple of rigs to achieve the clock-like camera motion Valdivia wanted. “Rosendo’s custom rigs enabled us to take an ABC Products Pelé Remote-Head XL35 off the 10-meter jib and apply it to other supports,” says de Lumen. “One rig was a special hi-hat, so we could mount the remote head onto a dolly or baby legs. This allowed us to not only rotate 360 degrees on its axis, but also slide on dolly track to accommodate blocking and framing in tight situations.” Dolly grip Walter Achu was often lying on the floor, inches out of range of the camera’s view.
“Another custom rig was a jib arm attached to the ceiling,” continues the cinematographer. “We were able to mount the remote head onto it to get a circular floating feel that I could control remotely. The dolly grip would gently coast the camera around, and I would control the pan and tilt. It created a really unique feel that’s unlike Steadicam, dolly or crane.” This was utilized for the film’s sex scenes and the penultimate “godmother” scene, in which the mother is offered cash for the house.
Gaffer Raul Hernandez worked closely with Ticona to create special rigging for the lights. “There’s not an abundance of normal rigging material [in Bolivia] like C-clamps, gobo-heads, C-stands or spreaders,” notes de Lumen. “This was important because we were shooting in a practical location where there was very little room to hide lights.”
De Lumen and Valdivia supervised the 2K digital intermediate at Filmosonido in Santiago, Chile. (The goal was a 35mm print at 1.85:1.) In the color-correction, de Lumen smoothed out uneven lamp temperatures, finessed varying skin tones, and fine-tuned white walls, which predominate in the house. The festival print was struck on Fuji Eterna-CP 3513DI.
As significant as Southern District’s technical challenges were, the project’s biggest challenge was devising a whole new visual language and trusting that the audience would “get it,” says de Lumen. “I’d been shooting commercials, where you need to get something across in 30 seconds. You tell viewers what they want to feel. Southern District does the opposite.” He acknowledges that there were moments when he feared the movie’s style might seem pretentious, boring or even dizzying. It wasn’t until several scenes were cut together that he and Valdivia were completely convinced of the rightness of their approach. “The more I watch the film, the more I respect Juan Carlos for having the guts to stick with it,” says de Lumen.