Julia Vargas (1942-2018) was a Bolivian screenwriter, producer and film director. The most successful female photographer in Bolivia, her third feature film Carga Sellada (Sealed Cargo) premiered at Havana, Palm Springs and the International Film Festival of India, where it won a Special Jury Prize. Carga Sellada (Sealed Cargo) was selected as the Bolivian entry for the Foreign Language Academy Award, but it was not selected.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Julia Vargas discusses humor, ecology, indigenous representation in the Bolivian government and her next project.
FILMATIQUE: Carga Sellada (Sealed Cargo), which chronicles the attempt by corrupted officials to smuggle toxic chemicals into Chile, is based on true events from 1994. Can you provide some insight into this chapter of Bolivian history, including the cultural or political forces that might have precipitated this scandal?
JULIA VARGAS: In 1994 Bolivia was under a very strict neo-liberal regime that led to the privatization of many state companies and provoked important popular movements. The indigenous population, a numerical majority but a social and political minority, had no access to the government nor did they have any political power. Rather, most times they were discriminated against or treated with paternalism. But they were organized and very confrontational.
At that time the environment was not included in political proposals. It is known that toxic waste from first world countries were clandestinely transported to "garbage" countries with large deserted spaces and no state control, or maybe by way of authorities' complicity. This specific soil arrived as residual mineral to be processed, by 2 partners, one of which was in Europe. They broke up and left the material abandoned. The discovery of the contaminated soil by the villagers, and their anger, led to the scandal and further attempts to get rid of it.
FLMTQ: Has the situation in Bolivia improved since then??
JV: Bolivia has undergone a great and irreversible change since the first indigenous president took charge. The inclusion of indigenous peoples in the government at all levels led to strong participation and a positive class conscience. The Indian peasant serving the white landlord is history.
Because my story had to preserve the historic moment it differs from today's reality. The present government performs an ecological rhetoric about the protection of Mother Earth: very politically correct, but unfortunately absolutely by contradicted in the facts.
FLMTQ: What ultimately motivated you to tell this story? Were you drawn to the ecological message, or simply the fun of this particular caper film?
JV: Two aspects of the events that I was following in the news and in my research have motivated me. First of all I was interested in the ecological importance of the toxic waste traffic, and the state's disengagement. Nobody cared.
The interesting other aspect was human: the train was coming and going erratically for 13 days, and the policemen in charge were attacked, and forced to stay and share a locked space. They were ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It was very appealing for a filmmaker, a good opportunity to capture characters' humanity.
Finally, as a photographer I wanted to share the beauty of the region where the events had taken place.
FLMTQ: One of the strongest and most distinct aspects of Carga Sellada (Sealed Cargo) is the levity of its tone, despite the serious topic it addresses. What power do you believe comedy possesses to force us to confront certain realities, and how did you build the film's light, humorous tone?
JV: My first intention was to make a documentary, but then I realized that a drama would have much more impact and was the only way to bring real attention to such an important subject. But I did not want to make it epic or loose the characters in a film of adventure. I wanted it to be as life is, very daily, and close to common people. Humor for me is a great way to face life events and in this case it probably helped to get close to the characters' dramas. I added a metaphorical antagonist recreated from Bolivian mythology of the mines, a deity that protects the Earth, that is very clear for Bolivians.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
JV: I am finishing a documentary about a teenager that was murdered by her boyfriend. She became a popular subject of devotion and is supposed to grant peoples' requests, her unpunished assassination transformed into a "religious" market for people that are not even related to her. The real subject is unpunished femicide.