What are the things you picture when you think of Costa Rica? Ecotourism, zip-lining through cloud forests, howler monkey-watching, and maybe vast white sandy beaches? Filmmaker Neto Villalobos wants to show you a very different, more working-class, quirky-slice-of-life side of the country in his first feature, playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year.
“I see the beauty in chaos,” Villalobos explains over the phone from San Jose, in the week before coming here to speak at some of his screenings. “I know there are a lot of magical places in Costa Rica, and beautiful beaches, but that’s not what I wanted to show. I love that, but I think there is a beauty in this other Costa Rica that people are not used to seeing.
“And it’s not, like, ‘Oh, they’re so poor.’ No,” he emphasizes. “These are also really happy people and they don’t need a lot of things.”
The film tells a different kind of Costa Rican story, but it also stands out as one of the few features coming from a country that has next to no movie industry. To make it, Villalobos first won a $20,000 award, and then launched a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo (with 40 percent of the support coming from countries outside of Costa Rica, he adds).
“We don’t have the funds from our government and we have to find our own ways to make films,” Villalobos explains. “In the ‘90s, there weren’t any films at all and this year there are six Costa Rican movies.” He points to other Costa Rican films gaining attention at fests around the world, including Cold Water of the Sea and Puerto Padre. “I don’t think I’m that lonely,” Villalobos quips.
His deadpan comedy, though, is very much about someone who is lonely. A security guard named Chalo (Allan Cascante) works the sleepy night shift alone in a quiet Costa Rican town and spends the long boring hours dreaming of buying a rooster named Rocky that he wants to get into cockfighting. When he finally convinces his neighbour to sell it, he keeps the bird with him at all times, but it becomes increasingly difficult to find a place where the rooster is allowed to stay—leading to endless awkward situations and low-key laughs.
“I shot with a five-person crew in an abandoned town and practically all the actors in the film are people without experience,” Villalobos says. Of the character Jason, one of Chalo's colourful coworkers, he says: “He used to work with McDonalds Express.”
To achieve the film's naturalistic, dryly hilarious performances, the director found it was best to improvise scenes working from a basic structure. The rag-tag group of characters who support Chalo’s dream—including an Avon sales lady/maid and a kid who rides a bus with him—eventually form a kind of dysfunctional family.
Cockfighting is hugely controversial, of course, but don’t expect to see it actually unfold onscreen in this movie. Villalobos attended a few fights as research. “I saw the whole thing, but I didn’t enjoy the violence or the fighting, but I really liked the way people interacted with each other,” he tells the Straight. “And they’re in a hostile atmosphere yet I knew I wanted to make a comedy. I also knew that I didn’t want to show a fight.”
Despite the title, then, this winsome little rarity is not all about the feathers at all. “The film is about friendship and relationships and loneliness,” Villalobos agrees.
All About the Feathers screens at International Village on October 5 (6:30 p.m.) and 6 (4:15 p.m.)