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Crashing a Movie Set in the Bolivian Desert

The story of going out into the Bolivian desert to meet the makers of the film, Juana Guerillera de la Patria Grande.

A phone call informed us that our horse ride had been cancelled. Apparently, all of the horses had been taken for the day to film a western movie. I was staying in Tupiza, Bolivia, a few hours away from San Vincente, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are rumored to have died. Not to be dissuaded, we caught a taxi out across rocky, red dirt roads to Torojoy where the crew were said to be filming, with thoughts of Lonesome Dove and All the Pretty Horses spray painting themselves across my mind.

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My fantasies were not to be disappointed once in the bosom of the breathtaking mountains of southern Bolivia – red, yellow, brown and green. We exited at a bridge crossing the turquoise blue waters of the San Juan Del Oro River, at an altitude of 2700 metres. We descended into a small, picturesque valley where our horses, extras, and the film crew were assembled.

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The crew was preparing to shoot a scene on the other side of the sandy, shrub speckled rise that lay down the road and walled in one side of the valley. A red rock, stalactite-like rise and the river walled two other sides of this small valley paradise.

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A young assistant, who was there for work experience, showed me around, and I was encouraged to take photos by two of the motley looking crew who were dressed as revolutionists. Others were dressed as Spanish colonialists, others as Bolivia’s indigenous people. Horses stood tethered under the shade of the acid green leaves of the gently hanging trees, occasionally whinnying.

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Trucks, four wheel drives, and vans carrying cast and crew moved across the bridge and passed above us en route to the shooting location. People in buses and on motorbikes passed by too.

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After ten minutes, I was able to speak with the producer, David Arratia Flores, a cool and very accommodating Bolivian guy. He looked relaxed in a hoody and ray bans, and was kind enough to speak with me in English. The film is called Juana Guerillera de la Patria Grande, by acclaimed Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinés and is about the famous Bolivian historical figure, Juana Azurduy de Padilla. David gave me a quick run-down of the film and what they were doing in Torojoy.

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Producer, David Arratia Flores, arrives (middle right).

We heard there was a western being filmed today so we caught a taxi out here. Anyway, I just wanted to find out a bit about the film, when it will come out; just anything you want to tell me, the basic facts.

“Well the director Jorge Sanjinés, he’s probably the most acclaimed director from our country and if you check the internet basically he invented a new language for cinema. He’s famous around the world. This movie is about Juana Azurduy de Padilla, she was a warrior [a Latin American guerrilla military leader] for the independence of this country. And the movie is about her, and about other specific moments in our history that gave us freedom from the Spanish.”

And it’s pretty true to real events?

“Yes, yes, basically. We have been working with historians, so it’s very close to the real events because there was a couple of movies about Juana Azurduy de Padilla that weren’t Bolivian movies. They were from Argentina but they had a vision different from us.”

Is it an independent production?

“Well it’s from the film production group Grupo Ukamau, which Sanjinés founded. We are working with the Cultural Ministry and the Communication Ministry and the Army here. Now we are working with people from Tupiza, with the Mayor of Tupiza, and so we are very happy to be here. This place is amazing, maybe the only place in this country where you can find a lot of horses. I mean, today we are going to work with maybe 50 horses, so it’s going to be great.”

What scene are you filming today?

“Well, it’s about Juana Azurduy de Padilla, with Simón Bolivar, Antonio José de Sucre… they are watching, all the horses and the warriors and the indigenous and they’re running to war.”

Are you filming in other locations in Boliva, and if so, where?

“Yes, in La Paz, we are working now in Tupiza, then we are going to Sucre, Lago Poopó – a lot of places there too, and we almost end in Totora, Cochabamba.”

Who are some of the actors involved, are they well-known actors?

“Well, we are working with local actors but they are famous here, we’re talking about Piti Campos – she’s playing Juana Azurduy, and we’re working with Jorge Hidalgo (Bolivar), Christian Mercado (Padilla), Fernando Arce (Sucre), all of them have been working and in films before here.”

When are you going to release the film?

“I think maybe January or February [2015].”

In South America or worldwide?

“I think it’s going to be local first, in La Paz, for the premiere… in Tupiza too, and maybe from there for the festivals.”

So today, how many people have you got on set?

“Maybe 50 people riding horses, and another 80 people running, and our crew is 70.”

After this conversation, we caught up with the production on the edge of a much larger valley five minutes down the road, where they were preparing for the scene David described in the interview. A few vans and four wheel drives lined the side of the road as we followed it down to where it crossed the floor of the valley before it rose up again to form a ridge beyond the shooting location.

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A narrow inlet on the left occupied much of the crew, who had set up tarpaulins and penned the horses together along one side of the inside of the steeply walled enclosure. Trucks containing necessary equipment were parked around the location.

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On the other side of the road, the landscape opened out across shaly stone covered sand and low lying cacti into a wide valley that was hemmed in on all sides by mountains. An island of light, lime, emerald and forest green trees offered shade on the right hand bank of the San Juan Del Oro river that comes round the bend and runs down the middle of the valley, stretching far out and away to the next rises in the distance.

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Reverse view of the valley where Grupo Ukamau were shooting.

The mood around the shoot was initially a little bit tense as we were shooed away by a different producer who told us we were not allowed to take photos. David had told me we could take pictures of them preparing the scene, just not of them filming, however after a little detour across the dreamy plain we returned and caught up with David. This time, we were given permission to take some photos before we had to clear the area.

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David Arratia Flores on set.

Things were more spread out as shooting time came closer, with cast and crew moving about. More vehicles lined the side of the road that ran towards the shooting location. Horses had cascaded into the valley and stood together, waiting, some mounted by their riders. A line of extras dressed as indigenous characters peered at us from the ridge and flags were being pitched around the scene. The main camera was being prepped.

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With the sun high in the sky and getting uncomfortably hot, we decided it would be a good idea to start the 12 kilometer walk back though the desert. Luckily, we were able to hitch a ride back to Tupiza with some of the film crew.

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Filed under: Art and Music, Bolivia, Travel Stories

About the Author:

David Fegan is a freelance journalist from Melbourne currently travelling through South America, reporting what he discovers for Vagabond Journey. has written 19 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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David Fegan is currently in: Samaipata, BoliviaMap