How Indie Crime Thriller ‘7 Cajas’ Jump-Started Paraguay’s Film Industry

'Los buscadores' still courtesy of IFF Panama

When Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori set about shooting their first feature they did so without any kind of film industry to lean on. This was 2010. The state of Paraguayan cinema was such that they had to buy most of their equipment from Amazon, as the country didn’t have the kind of rental businesses where they could find adequate filmmaking tools. Working with a stripped-down crew and filming guerrilla-style down in Asunción’s Mercado 4 the filmmakers pulled off what seemed impossible: a scrappy, pulse-pounding thriller that became a breakout success. Their movie, 7 Boxes (7 cajas)went on to become a big hit in its native country – earning more money at the box office than Titanic! Paraguay’s film industry has not been the same since.

In the intervening years, Maneglia and Schembori have happily seen their home country begin to take cinema seriously as an industry worth investing. Paraguay now produces an average of five movies a year, with production peaking back in 2015. That year not only saw Landfill Harmonic become another buzzworthy title as it traveled the globe but found the country submitting its very first project (Cloudy Times) to the Foreign Language category at the Oscars. It’s undeniable the effect that 7 Boxes had on this burgeoning national cinema. As Maneglia and Schembori shared with Remezcla at the International Film Festival of Panama, things like the ongoing conversations about instituting a national Ley de cine similar to the ones fellow Latin Americans have in place as well as the establishment of the film school at the Universidad Columbia de Paraguay were precipitated by seeing what a successful, audience-friendly home-grown production could look like.

One of the most consistent pieces of feedback the two directors remember getting when 7 Boxes first began screening in Paraguay was one couched in incredulity: “It doesn’t look like it was made here!” (“No parece hecho acá”), they heard all the time. Despite coming through as a kind of compliment they couldn’t shake off what it signified. Namely, that audiences still didn’t have much of a grasp of what Paraguayan cinema could look like. “I think the main thing we’ve seen since 7 Boxes is people saying ‘yes we can,’” Schembori told Remezcla. She’s seen more engagement on the production side from investors and filmmakers willing to try their hand at shooting local stories. Moreover, she’s happy the conversation has shifted from “can we make a movie?” to “what kind of movie can we make?” with talk of genre and style overshadowing the kind of logistic second-guessing that she and Maneglia experienced while trying to get 7 Boxes made.

The state of Paraguayan cinema was such that they had to buy equipment from Amazon, as the country didn’t have the kind of rental businesses where they could find adequate filmmaking tools.

That doesn’t mean making their latest movie was easy. First pitched by Maneglia as a kind of Paraguayan Indiana Jones-like tale, Los buscadores (The Gold Seekers) follows Manu, a young newspaper delivery boy who finds an old treasure map hidden in a book his ailing grandfather gifts him. Convinced the map shows him where old (and possibly cursed) colonial treasures have been buried, he decides to track down where it leads him. The adventure thrill-ride of a movie was a departure for the filmmakers in one key way: where 7 Boxes was mostly in Spanish, their latest is populated with characters who speak Guaraní. Despite this being true to the country – more than 80% of Paraguayans speak both Spanish and the indigenous language – they knew it would make securing funding more difficult. Here’s where they wish government funding for cinema wasn’t still baked into the FONDEC  fund which gives out money to all kinds of cultural projects in the country.

So if on the one hand they were hoping to make a movie that spoke its country’s own language, they knew that their chosen genre would alienate the other kind of helpful tool Latin American filmmakers have at their disposal for production and distribution: film festivals. More so than many of their Paraguayan counterparts Maneglia and Schembori are committed to making crowd-pleasing stories. “That, I think, sometimes sets us apart and alienates us from certain film festivals,” Schembori noted, “who have a certain idea of what Latin American cinema should look like. They expect a kind of socially engaged kind of films. But we wanted to make an adventure film, driven by the wide-eyed wonder of its protagonist.” In citing influences, it’s no surprise Maneglia points to auteurs like Hitchcock and Brian de Palma who have been able to navigate genre fare in truly distinctive and commercially-successful ways.

Their instincts remain right on the money. Los buscadores ended last year as the No. 2 movie of the year in Paraguay (sandwiched between Furious 8 and Despicable Me 3, which is no small feat). And any suggestion that film festival audiences would be any different was dispelled as the action-heavy flick was warmly received at the International Film Festival of Panama earlier this month. Looking forward, they’re aware the success of their own movies can only do so much. They still hope the Ley de Cine will be made official sooner rather than later and would love to get to a point where they won’t need to import an Argentine stunt crew to help them shoot tricky motorbike chase sequences like they had to do this last time around. 7 Boxes may have opened some doors, but they know there are plenty that remain primed to be kicked open in the near future.

This interview was conducted in Spanish by Vanessa Erazo and translated by Manuel Betancourt for Remezcla.

7 cajas is available to stream on YouTube and iTunes. Los buscadores was picked up by HBO Latino.