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Patient and Devastating, 'Utama' Shows Just One of the Million Fronts of Climate Change

By Petr Navovy | Film | March 28, 2023 |

By Petr Navovy | Film | March 28, 2023 |


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There is a deep, haunting absence at the heart of Utama. The rains haven’t come for almost a year, and for elderly Quechua couple, Virginio (José Calcina) and Sisa (Luisa Quispe), this spells trouble. Their life in the Bolivian highlands is dependent on periodic respite from drought. The Altiplano is one of the world’s most extensive high plateaus, second only to Tibet’s, and its arid nature means that there is very little flex when it comes to rain: What little comes, is very much needed. As Utama opens, Virginia and Sisa are coming to realise that everything they have known may about to be turned upside down.

Utama sensitively and empathetically explores a situation the likes of which is already happening, and which is going to be replicated on Earth countless times going forward: The exile of entire communities, and the extinguishing of whole ways of life, by the changing climate brought on by the excesses of industrial capitalism. Filmed with patience and care by writer-director Alejandro Loayza Grisi (impressively his debut) and cinematographer Barbara Alvarez (A Febre), Utama runs only at eighty-seven minutes, and while it doesn’t take any particular surprising turns in its plotting, it doesn’t really need to. That’s not what it’s about. Its main goal is to take the horrifying statistics related to climate change, and to zoom in and to re-centre the lens on what those statistics are actually made up of: The people, and the land on which they live. Their crops. The animals with which they share the space.

In some ways, Utama reminded me of 2019’s knockout, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. That film too concerned itself with an elderly member of a native community being suddenly and violently confronted by the winds of capitalist change. Other similarities abound: Lingering close-ups on deeply lined faces, eyes wordlesly telling stories of deep history and memory; wide and ultra-wide shots emphasizing the land and its ecology and the characters’ relationships to it; and a slow pace attuned to the rhythms of the land. Where Burial had an almost hallucinatory quality to it, however, Utama remains—mostly—firmly grounded in this plane; and in place of the burning rage at the heart of Burial, Utama breathes with an abiding sorrow, hope slowly draining through the grooves in the parched soil of the Altiplano.

It is the great crime of climate change that the people who have had least to do with creating it will suffer its effects the most. The various Quechua-speaking communities that live in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and other parts of South America, have—like every other Indigenous community—contributed the absolute minimum to the emissions and to the violent extractive practices that have brought the Earth to the brink of unimaginable ecological catastrophe. Quite the opposite: In general, it is the world’s native communities that so often provide practical and workable examples of how to live and work in a much healthier balance with the natural world, with organizations like UNESCO creating initiatives like the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems programme (LINKS), designed to harness some of the knowledge of Indigenous peoples in the fight against climate change.

Utama is not an easy watch. Why would it be? The topics it covers are as sad as it gets. But it is not a miserablist indulgence either. There is great joy and life here too, family and love, warmth, and nature; as there must be in any story that deals with humanity on the brink: Those are the things that remind us why we keep fighting for a better world.