Every single year, Sundance Film Festival brings artists and audiences together for the premiere of groundbreaking work. This year, we had the opportunity to speak with many creatives and professionals who have worked on some of the incredible work being spotlighted at this incredible festival.
DP: Diego Perez Romero
Film: Shirampari: Legacies of the River
Can you share a bit about your professional background?
Diego Perez Romero: I studied communication sciences in Lima and before graduating I started working in conservation, especially in the conservation of Amazonian forests, which led me to spend the last 15 years or so visiting different protected areas and indigenous territories.
My relationship with image making began first as a photographer, then with video and finally film, always within the scope of communications for conservation.
What was it that made you fall in love with becoming a DP?
Diego Perez Romero: I have always really enjoyed creating images, since I was a child, my school notebooks had no notes, they were pure drawings, then my work made me need to generate images to go along with text and I grabbed the camera, that's how I started with photography, then video, for me this is a continuity of what I always liked to do.
However, being a DP seems something special to me because it requires more discipline, planning, also being in a team, all of this is interesting because it is a relatively new challenge for me.
How did you get involved with Shirampari?
Diego Perez Romero: In 2016, I traveled to Yurúa for the first time. A friend of mine who was mayor at that time suggested that I register the wonder of that place, but also the difficulties that its mostly indigenous inhabitants lived. On that trip I found out that the Asheninka people fished giant catfish using these hooks, however the trip ended and I couldn't see the practice with my own eyes.
Several years passed and in 2020 a Nat Geo announced a grant for stories in tropical forests around the world, also in those weeks, Lucía (the director) returned to Peru after finishing her master's degree in documentary film, so I proposed to her to apply with something related to this place (yurúa) and that practice (hook fishing), she accepted, we wrote the project together, we shaped it into a short documentary and we agreed that she would be the director and I would be the DP, in February 2021 we found out that we won the grant and the rest is history.
Did you go into the project with a vision already in mind? If so, what was that vision?
Diego Perez Romero: This is interesting because since 2016 I have been dreaming about this heroic image of the fisherman diving in crystal clear waters, like in the Caribbean Sea, with a lot of visibility, hooking the catfish. Once there, we realized that the visibility was not greater than 20 cm, the opposite of my vision.
We had no choice but to embrace this reality and I think that in the end, the low visibility was something that makes the film much more interesting because there is a fear that we share as humanity of what we cannot see, especially underwater.
Apart from this image that I made myself of the moment of fishing, the vision was to ensure that the image and feeling of the documentary be (i) immersive, (ii) emotional, (iii) dynamic and (iv) magical
For this I planted a series of restrictions that I would use as a guide to have a final product with a cohesive look and that is at the service of the story.
For the immersive “axis” I proposed that we should always use a wide focal length. I chose 24mm because it is wide enough to get close to the action and subjects, but not so wide that it distorts their faces. Also the use of the wide angle was to always have the characters in their context, never isolated from the environment, reinforcing that link between person and environment that is at the heart of Shirampari.
For the emotional axis I decided to use the different color temperatures and light qualities that naturally occur throughout the day in the rainforest. We knew that Shirampari was going to be filmed almost all the time outside, so the idea was that the natural color would enhance the moods of the characters. For this we filmed at dawn, dusk, at night, even at noon, we did not run away from the harsh and "ugly" light of midday, on the contrary, we use it to our advantage narratively.
For the dynamic component, the proposal was based on using a handheld camera, abstaining from the use of the tripod and camera movements such as panning or tilting, and on the contrary, it was preferred to use camera movements motivated by the action. This is also in line with the immersive axis, the idea was to place the viewer in the action.
Finally, the “magic“ was based on including images that depict the living nature of the place, the ephemeral moments, the reflections on the slow running water and the interaction of all these elements with the characters.
In addition to all the above, one more restriction that was transversal is that the camera should always face the sun to take advantage of the volume that the backlight creates, I wanted to have shadows and highlights.
What were some immediate challenges you thought you might face making this happen?
Diego Perez Romero: Before shooting started, the main challenge I thought I was going to find was that being so close to the characters (at 24mm) could have intimidated them to the point that it would affect their performance, in the end this did not happen.
Then there was the underwater thing, beyond thinking that we were going to have good visibility, I always thought it would be a challenge to be able to hold the air long enough to capture the heroic image that I thought it would have.
Also I was a little worried about diving into a caiman or a huge snake, or getting entangled in the tree branches were the catfish hides.
Can you share what your planning process looked like? How does this play into your creative approach?
Diego Perez Romero: Before traveling we had many meetings with the protagonists and other specialists who knew the area, mostly to know how Arlindo was going to teach Ricky to fish, the dynamics of the community on this kind of events, also to figure out logistics such as the capacity of the plane and the boats to
determine the amount of equipment we would carry, also on access to energy to charge the batteries, etc. From this stage we were able to identify things like it would not be just Arlindo and Ricky fishing but many other people, that we had a restriction regarding the amount of equipment we could take because the river was low and the boats could not carry much, and that we would have to charge the batteries with a small portable motor since there was no electricity in the community. All this influenced the creative process.
I also had several conversations with the director to understand what she wanted Shirampari to look and feel, we shared several documentaries and movies that we liked and that we thought could serve as inspiration. Then I put together a visual proposal, which was approved by the team. Already during the filming, all of the above kind of forgotten, is sits in the back of my mind, and I concentrate more on the moment, trying to best capture what is happening in front of me.
Speaking of creative approaches, can you share what types of shooting style(s) you took and how they enhanced the storytelling?
Diego Perez Romero: This documentary was quite influenced by the indie aesthetic, for this reason the style that was most applied was guerilla or run and gun, and cinema verité, with minimal equipment and a crew, camera in hand, without repeating scenes. It seems to me that this style enhances Shirampari's storytelling because it does not get in the way of the action, in addition to allowing the viewer to feel that there are not intermediaries, contributing to a more "real" experience.
What are some of your favorite shots from the film and why?
Diego Perez Romero:
1) Ricky with his flashlight inside the mosquito net at night, because of the color, because of his expression, because of the intimacy that is generated at that moment.
2) When Ricky and Ishaco take those baby birds out of the trunk, because of the magic that is in that knowledge of their environment at such an early age, also because of the nobility of their gesture when returning them to their nest.
3) When Ricky takes the catfish out of the water, wich was the only time we worked with two cameras running at the same time, me outside the water with a long lens and a tripod (quite the opposite of my visual proposal hahaha) and Chémi (the producer) who was in the river nearby Ricky with the wide angle, I like how both points of view talked to each other, it was also a surprise to see the final cut because I didn't know what he had managed to capture at that moment, specially the catfish spitting water at the camera.
What was one of the most difficult to accomplish?
Diego Perez Romero: The follow shot when Arlindo carries the catfish to the community because it was a challenge for them and me, in addition to the accumulated fatigue of several days of quite physical shooting and in somewhat extreme conditions (due to the heat, the mosquitoes, the absence of toilets, the food), they carried a fish weighing almost one hundred kilos and I carried the camera that does not weigh even a third but it was still super difficult to maintain the frame and focus climbing that cliff without having a crazy shaky shot. We all end up exhausted.
What equipment did you use to help bring Shirampari to life?
Diego Perez Romero: The main camera was a Canon C70 and we used Canon EF lenses, 16-35 F4 IS, Canon EF 24-70 F2.8 and the Canon EF 100 -400 L. We also used a Canon R6 for some underwater shots.
Most of the documentary is shot on the C70 with the 24-70 lens and a polarizing filter and matte box and follow focus. We used a 1.5 meter x 2 meter collapsible reflector a couple of times to push some light in and other times to use it to take it away.
If you had to describe what's in store for the audience visually, how would you describe it?
Diego Perez Romero: Shirampari is a film that gives you a privileged look at the life of an indigenous family in a very remote area of Peru, where ancient cultures and forests remain practically intact. This is something that is already changing, since there are several highways that will soon connect the area with the rest of the country, impacting the forests and the ways of life that for thousands of years have remained protected by their isolation, in addition, the covid brought the internet to the community, so technology is also transforming them (for the better in most cases) but it will inevitably change the way they see the world, especially among the youngest.
Can you share any other projects you have on the horizon?
Diego Perez Romero: This year we will start to move a documentary that we shot last year together with Lucía about a Harakbut old man who is very beautiful, the name is Chamán (Shaman).
Also this year I hope to start filming a documentary series on women leaders in the Amazon together with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, and I am looking for funds to carry out a photographic project on a family of catfish known as carachamas (Loricariidae) which in my country are a very important part of Amazonian life and outside of it, in other countries like the US they are a threat to ecosystems because they do not have natural predators and people do not eat them either.
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