An interview with Luis Prieto on Bamboleho

Richard Raskin

Did the idea for making Bamboleho come from the Calvino story you mention in the credits or were the elements you used from Calvino simply part of a story inspired principally by other things?

The idea for the film really came from some articles that appeared in the local press talking about the fact that more than 300 street kids (mainly illegal immigrants from Morocco, minors and without family ties in Spain) were living on the rooftops of the old part of the town of Barcelona - the city where I was living at the time. I had seen many of those kids in the streets of the gothic neighborhood of Barcelona, trying to get by, sometimes even stealing from tourists. I was shocked by the facts in the press and realized that it was a huge problem, not just a few kids living on the roof tops... but 300! That was when I started to consider making a film about those kids. I went to some rooftops and saw some of their settlements... I was really struck by the harsh realities of the lives of those kids, who a century ago would have lived under the bridges in the cities and today they were living on the rooftops.

Then one day, as I was discussing with my fellow filmmaker and collaborator, Sarah Webster - she would also be the art director of Bamboleho - the idea of making a film about those street kids, she pointed out how their stories reminded her of the Italo Calvino book "The Baron in The Trees". I had read the book a while back and I knew what she was talking about and I thought that would be a great idea for the film to base the story of Bamboleho on those two sources, one fictional - the novel of Italo Calvino "The Baron in the Trees" - and the other one real - the story of those street kids of Barcelona.

Could you comment on your casting of Eloi Yebra, Alicia Gorina, Hafid Abou El Hakam and Daniel Casadella in the four main roles?

I felt for several reasons that it wasn't going to be easy to cast the roles for the film. One was because of the ages of the main four roles and the "sincere" and "sexual" love story between the two Spanish protagonists. They were supposed to be fairly young (in their early twenties), and they were to show the reality of their love for one another in very few minutes as well as to perform a scene were they are supposed to have sex. So I felt that it was not going to be easy to find those actors.

The situation with the Moroccan kid was even more complicated since there are no actors in Spain of that age that are from Morocco. For that reason we set up a casting call that was pretty big for a short film. Over 250 young people showed up.

Among them we only found a few girls that could match the role of the young girl, Mara. And we finally chose Alicia Gorina. She was not only perfect for the role, but was also a very mature and excellent actress. She had training in the theatre and she was really remarkable from the first rehearsal that we did. She completely fit into the role.

For the role of the Migue we tried a few actors and none of them really worked, so we were lucky enough that Eloi Yebra - who is a very well known Spanish actor - was available and read the script and fell in love with it. After meeting him and doing a little rehearsal with Alicia, they both felt like the right ones for the film.

We were still without an actor to play the role of Hafid - the Moroccan kid. We talked to Moroccan kids in the streets, some of whom were actually living on the rooftops of the city. Finally we found Hafid talking with some other kids in the street. Hafid had come to Spain a year earlier as an illegal immigrant hidden in the trunk of a car. I asked him if he could sing something (in Arabic), but he said that he didn't know any songs. So I asked him if he could sing "Happy Birthday" and he started singing it - but in English! Anyway, I saw him smile and I fell in love with his teeth and his smile. He had something very special in his expression and even though he was "found" in the street (and that meant we had to be ready for everything, including having him disappear for good from our set), I felt that he was perfect and I was ready to give him the opportunity.

I literally adopted him for a month before shooting the film: he came to my house almost every day, at first just to hang around and so we could get to know each other, and later on we started doing some rehearsing..."learning how to sing", etc... Hafid´s Spanish wasn't as good as it sounds in the film, so he had to practice quite a lot. Then he meet Eloi and Alicia and they spent some time together until they knew each other and felt comfortable. They become friends or close enough before the actual shooting, so Hafid really felt comfortable with the whole filming experience - a completely new and different one for him: from being a street kid to being an actor in a film! (Even if it was a short, for him it was a big change.)

For the role of the young Migue, I needed a kid who was spontaneous in front of the camera and I had seen Daniel in a TV spot. I had actually seen all the material that was shot and I had noticed how good he was in every take. Someone mentioned to me how he was also a very good kid to work with and I just went for him without even meeting him before the filming. He was excellent, just a few words and he was ready for his role.

You of course are the principal architect of the screenplay. But you also credit David Blanco and Kiko Moreno as co-writers. Can you tell about their contributions to the story?

I wrote a first version of the script and even though I was very happy with it, I thought that I could improve it, so I invited David and Kiko to join me. They are both really talented people as well as my close friends, so we sat down for a few days and made some small but important changes and added some new scenes - like the one in which Hafid and Eloi talk about the differences and similarities between Spain and Morocco.

The song "Bamboleho" has a special status in the film - emphasized by the fact that it gives the film its title. Could you tell about the role of the song in the film?

I wanted the kids in the film to be shown having fun, because even though their lives may be miserable and hard, they also know how to have fun in their difficult environment. So I wanted to have them in some sort of party and it felt right to have them playing some sort of music. I thought that playing an occidental song in Arabic could actually be something very interesting, both because would be fun and also because it is disorienting to hear a song that you know very well sung in another language that you don't know - like Arabic. I had another song in mind, but in the end we were only able to get the rights of "Bamboleho" (which by the way, even though it is a traditional Argentinean song, has been copyrighted with no problem by many singers like the Gypsy Kings and Julio Iglesias).

The song tells about "stumbling" from one place to another and how love is an important driving force in our lives, so it felt like a very appropriate song since it "articulates" the essence of the film. Initially it was going to be sung entirely in Arabic, but we had to keep some words in Spanish to maintain the rhythm of the lyrics in the song.

When I showed Bamboleho to my students and discussed it with them, I realized that not all of us understand the story in the same way. My understanding is that the two scenes when Migue flees across the rooftops are two separate occasions, one of which comes after the other. And that the return to Migue as a young boy, via the sound-bridge of his name called out in a woman's voice, does not suggest that the other scenes were just imagined by a young child, but is in a sense a framing device, also designed to leave the viewer with a positive image of Migue very much alive. Is this the way you see the story?

I like the fact that the film speaks differently to different people. That its circular (doubly circular) structure is full of open spaces for the viewer to articulate his/her own film in a way. For that reason, sometimes I feel that it doesn't matter that much anymore how I understood those scenes, that what really matters now is how each person who sees the film understands it.

But for me the story works in the following way: Migue jumps just one time and what we see is the same jump from two points of view. One is Migue´s stoned (drugged) point of view or what he and everyone else would of like to see happening. The other one is what really happened - the raw reality. But at the same time I also read those jumps as a second opportunity that those kids can have in life and how we can give them that second opportunity if we want to.

Then, at the end of the film, when we come back to Migue as a young boy it is a "framing device" that helps to leave a positive image in the film. Not so much to "forget" the tragic ending of Migue, but rather to go back in time and give also a "second opportunity " to Migue as a young boy. That is: he doesn't need to live in the rooftops and risk his life everyday, he doesn't need to be a street kid without a point of reference (no family ties, no nothing). Those kids, street kids could have a better future, we can do something about it. But we have to do it before is too late. Before he grows up and "jumps". In a way is an ending full of hope in the sense that things are not hopeless, we can do something about those things we don't like. We can help those kids if we want to.

To continue the issue raised in the previous question, you chose to depart from a strictly linear form of storytelling - not only by returning to Migue as a young child at the end, but also in presenting the theft of the fat man's bag as a flashback, rather than before the first pursuit over the rooftops. Can you comment on your choice to depart from strictly linear storytelling?

I felt that the life of those kids must be very "un-linear" in the sense that they don't have a structured life. No schedule to follow, where days merge into one another. So the recollection of events should go something like they are in the film. It is not the first time they steal, not the first time they smoke a joint, have sex (those kids are young adults by the way)... That structure also worked very well with the idea of coming back to Migue as a young boy at the end of the film.

The visual dimension of Bamboleho is striking - the saturated colors, beautifully composed images, the richness of the visual experience in general. Yet the esthetics of the film are in the service of the story, rather than elements in place of or that detract from the storytelling. Could you comment on the way in which you see the interplay of image and story in this film?

A film is a story told with images so both have the same importance for me. For that reason I always devote extreme care and love to the images of my films, as much as to the story. I also studied photography previous to studying at the film school and I am very much a "visual" person, so there was a serious planning of the visual elements of the film. I worked very closely with the art director Sarah Webster and with the director of photography Marcos Pasquin. We talk about the different parts of the film, how I wanted the beginning and the end with high contrast and in blues; and the middle section warmer and in reds mainly. They both work together very closely and Sarah put in the picture the colors for Marcos to shoot as we had agreed. It was a teamwork that functioned very well. They are both great and very talented and really helped transmit what I had in mind in each scene.

We also did serious preparation for achieving the look of the film. Since we only had four days of shooting and everything was daylight exteriors (shot in December by the way) we didn't have that many hours of daylight. So the art director - Sarah - did a great storyboard of the film and once we had the locations secured I took Polaroid pictures of pretty much each frame (or image of the story board) at the actual location with someone standing where the actor was going to be. So before going to shoot the film I had already visualized the whole thing. That way I was able to achieve most of the ideas that I had planned for the film.

Do you see short film storytelling as essentially the same as storytelling in longer narratives, or as something specific to the short form?

I see it as pretty much the same, but this is my very personal approach to it. I avoid looking for a gag to tell in 5 or 10 minutes. That has never appealed to me, so instead I try to tell a story (little or big) in 5 or 10 minutes. But I always get in trouble with that, because obviously the short film is like a short story and not a novel. So you cannot try to convey a lot or you may get lost... But for the same reason you don't want to convey too little (unless the short is really short).

Is there any advice you would give student filmmakers about to make their own first short films?

My teachers at film school taught me to do what I thought I should do when making a film, just follow your heart and be sincere with what you are trying to tell. That is still today very important to me. And of course, watch a lot of good films, that is really how you learn most. Don't watch TV movies or bad movies or you will learn how to shoot TV movies and bad movies instead of great films!

Is there anything else you would like to add about Bamboleho or storytelling or the short film as an art form?

Storytelling is both easy and complicated at the same time. It's important to clarify your ideas before you start a story, so you don't get too lost. I get lost quite a lot. It is fun and that is how you also learn, but at the end of the day you have to think of what is really important in your story. And then go ahead and shoot it.

December 31, 2003

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