Costa Rican Director Neto Villalobos’ Latest Film Documents a Romantic Relationship in Real Time

Neto Villalobos. Photo by: Esteban Chinchilla

Continuing Tribeca Film Institute’s commitment to supporting fresh voices from Latin America, the esteemed New York City institution announced last month the recipients of the 2016 TFI Latin America Fund, presented by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Out of 225 submissions, ten projects were selected from six different countries including Colombia, Chile, and Costa Rica. Indeed, the most unusual submission of the bunch comes from that Central American country.

Produced and directed by Ernesto “Neto” Villalobos, Jamón bills itself as a documentary film about what it’s like to be in a romantic relationship. You see, more than a year ago, Villalobos began filming his friend, Diego Arias and his girlfriend, Paz Gutiérrez, who’d recently begun dating. One day a month, he follows them, slowly tracing their budding relationship. Think of it as riff on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or Michael Apted’s Up series, with hints of reality television with the focus being less on drama and more on introspection and the passing of time. Villalobos admits he’s yet to settle on a way to frame the project — it currently doesn’t even have an ending — but he seems rather excited about that, understanding perhaps the way it’ll organically shape itself in the coming months (or years.)

Wanting to catch up with Villalobos, whose Por las Plumas became the first Costa Rican film to screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival back in 2014, we called up the director to learn more about his unusual project.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I remember it was in high school. At the end of high school they usually ask you what you’re going to do and I thought, well, I want to find something that I really enjoy because I don’t want to end up working for something I don’t enjoy. I decided that I wanted something with art and I really loved film since my parents showed me a lot of films since I was a young kid — or rather, I’d end up watching what they were watching. So I wanted to start working on production and my sister used to have a production company for TV ads so I was already familiar with that world. So let’s say I was 16 when I decided I wanted to do this and my parents were very supportive. They said, we don’t know what you’re going to do when you’re old, but if you want to try that, go for it.

Can you talk a bit about the story and process of Jamón?

Well, the thing with Jamón is, I’d finished my first film, Por las Plumas (All About the Feathers) and it took me a lot of years — like 7 to 10 years to finish my film. So I started working on my second feature film and I decided why don’t I start with the third at the same time? Because the second one is gonna take me so much time, so why shouldn’t I start another one at the same time. So I decided I should do a project that I could manage in terms of production to work on it at the same time as this other one. I was talking to a good friend who’s one of the main characters of Jamón, Diego, and he had started going out with a girl. At that time I didn’t have a girlfriend so I was wondering a lot about love and relationships. And he showed me a little video he had made with his girlfriend and then it hit me: that’s what I want! I want to explore love in a relationship that is just starting. They’re also a young couple who are dating for the first time (at the age of 22) and they’re also artists so they understand the process and were really up for it. I talked to them just yesterday and they’re still together and happy. We were talking that it’s great that we don’t know where the story is going because we’re trying to understand what they’re going through as they’re going through it, checking in periodically.

And how does that work logistically?

Usually what I do is I shoot one day a month. It’s usually a two or three person crew. It can be individually or together, like a couple. We do things that they usually do and I try to do one interview once a year in a vast Costa Rican landscape — I want them to feel smaller than life. They started to go out about 2 years ago and we started shooting around one year and eight months ago. Right now we don’t know when it’s going to end. It would be great if like something huge happened: getting married! Having a baby! A big break up, or something like that. I mean, I don’t want anything bad to happen to them but in a way it’s also great that nothing’s happening. Because that’s also love, sometimes. Monotony.

So you don’t have an end in sight?

I’m trying to not think ahead and not put in an end-point to the project or a final date and see where it’s going. It’s fun because I don’t want to show them anything of the material until it’s finished. That’s one of the rules I have: they can talk about each other and about themselves and their feelings, but neither of them is going to see anything until it’s done. So it’s going to be a very nice experience for them because they’ll see themselves talking about their feelings sometime in the future.

How did you hear about the TFI Latin America Fund?

I’d heard of Tribeca a long time ago; I think everybody around the world knows Tribeca. I remember I saw the possibility of applying with the project to a small fund through the Costa Rican Film Festival. I applied there and miraculously they took the project. And then it won a small prize that was sort of supervised by Tribeca. So I was very happy. They invited me to apply because they saw some of the material I had of the project which was fun — it was very good for me to start editing something. I knew the material, I’d seen the material but I hadn’t edited it yet because I didn’t know where the project was going. It’d be absurd to do any kind of post-production right now. But it was really good because I got to see a lot of different paths that I could take with the project. And so they asked me to apply to this fund and I did. I have to say, I didn’t know what to expect. I really, really — I know it sounds like bullshit — but I wasn’t really expecting to win the fund because I know the project is very malleable. But then it happened and it’s great! It’s great to have support for a project that I’ve had a hard time getting support for since it’s not a traditional kind of project. I think Diego and Paz, the couple, were also like “Okay now we have a little bit more pressure because we have to continue being a couple!”