The Director of Ecuador’s Oscar Contender on Casting a Street Dog in His Film About Loneliness

Filmmaker Tito Molina’s Silencio en la tierra de los sueños is a meditation on loneliness across various beautiful moving planes. A co-production between Germany’s Weydemann Bros. and Ecuador’s La Facultad, the film is Ecuador’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The camera follows an elderly woman whose days are consumed by monotony following the death of her husband. The depiction of her routine is intercut with dreamscapes that find her looking for solace while walking the surf of an unknown deserted beach. A bit of color is added to her everyday when she befriends a stray dog that becomes her roommate.

This intimate portrait benefits from Molina’s gentle hand and focus on simplicity. He takes a minimalist approach to the craft by using basic cinematic tools (a camera and a few lights) that create elegant images marked by their deep contrast and clean composition. The sound-mix complements the visual style as it is layered and rich, and therefore intensifies the immensity of the empty space. The languid editorial pacing effectively recreates the ennui of solitude.

The film premiered at the Guadalajara Film Festival (FICG) and has successfully played festivals in Turin and Hamburg. Below Tito takes a break from his hectic screening schedule to describe what inspired him to make the film and how sound is an underrated yet crucial narrative element.

Director Tito Molina
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Are you a filmmaker by vice or conviction?

“I come from a family whose members have lived a long time… so it has always interested me to observe the behavior of the elderly.”

By conviction.

Where did the idea for the film come from?

First, I come from a family whose members have lived a long time. My grandmother died at 104 years old, for example, so it has always interested me to observe the behavior of the elderly. I think there is much to learn from them. Second, following the death of my father, I was preparing a documentary about him and in the process of researching the project it began to transform into a screenplay and ended up becoming this film.

What movies inspired the look of Silencio en la tierra de los sueños? What filmmakers?

I don’t use movies as a reference for the look of my films. I use pictorial references — artists or periods of art. For Silence, I relied on the Baroque period, especially seventeenth century painters like Rembrandt, Velázquez and Caravaggio, and some of the Italian Quattrocento painters like Andrea Mantegna. On the other hand, the filmmakers I watched a lot of while working on the preparation of the film were Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Viktor Kossakovsky, Chantal Akermann, Sergei Dvortsevoy, and Andrei Tarkovsky. They have all been my teachers since I started studying film.

Why work the theme of loneliness in this way, with no dialogue, no professional actors, and at a slow deliberates pace?

“I discovered that silence is expressed in film through sound and not the absence of it.”

To try any theme in film, whatever theme that is, requires analyzing and understanding the way it expresses itself. While there are endless ways to address an issue, the author must find the ideal shape for the movie. When he/she finds it, it’s often the only one that could have been. For my film, I was interested in talking about things like silence. Then, I discovered that silence is expressed in film through sound and not the absence of it. The sound of the whole movie is laid out in this hyper-detailed way, where every little sound “sounds” emphasizing the loneliness of the protagonist in the same way that the absence of the word allows us to “see” things around their little routine; minimal things that normally seem unimportant but are amplified in the slow evolution of every action of the elderly protagonist.

Who is Cokie? What did you do in order to have him be so comfortable in front of the cameras?

Cokie was a street dog. We found him in one of the villages where the film was shot. After seeing an extensive cast of trained dogs this finally was the one who convinced me. It was very hard to work with him because he had been badly treated when he was a puppy and the dog trainer had very little time to work with him. We had to work with the trainer on set at all times, coming up with ways for the dog to do the complex actions required in the film. He is now a very happy and active dog as the trainer adopted him.

Tell us a little about the technical details of how the film was made, the camera used? Lenses? Lights? How many people formed part of the production team?

“Cokie was a street dog. We found him in one of the villages where the film was shot.”

The film was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II and a suitcase of second-hand photo lenses. The only light kit I had was a basic photography one. Professional film lights were never used not because we didn’t have access to them but it was decided based on the shooting concept (I used a lot of sunlight bounced off mirrors) and the method of work that I employed with the team I lead. The crew consisted of 7 people although there were periods when the crew was reduced to 4, 2 or even 1 person, especially towards the end of filming when I virtually executed all functions, from photography to sound.

Where you were and what you were doing when you learned that Silencio was chosen to represent Ecuador? How did you feel?

I was in Germany, presenting the film at the Hamburg Film Festival. I received the message via Whatsapp and I could not believe it! I had brought a bottle with me as gift for some friends but it never reached its destination because we were celebrating late into the night.

What has been the response of Latin American public? European?

“The public reacts very differently to the film in every place that I present it…”

The public reacts very differently to the film in every place that I present it but their reactions have had one thing in common: silence and disorientation at the end of the projection, but not in a negative sense but rather in an introspective way and that’s good. That makes the Q&As long and very entertaining because people want to know things that they have sensed but are not clear as to how to express them, how to put into words their emotions and that is essentially the film.

For us who do not know, tell us about the film scene in Ecuador. What kinds of movies are coming out of the country? Are there any that you can recommend?

In Ecuador today an average of 20 films a year are produced. For a small country with no film industry that is a lot, especially if we think that just 10 years ago it was one to three films per year on average. It is a time of boom, there is constant and incessant production; there are dramas, documentaries and the occasional comedy being made. Of the many great films that have been produced, I recommend the documentary La muerte de Jaime Roldós by Lisandra Rivera and Manolo Sarmiento. It is a rigorous use of documentary visual language hand in hand with excellent research work.

Silencio en la tierra de los sueños is Ecuador’s entry for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.