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Watching "The Nothing Factory" in Quito

Encountering Pedro Pinho's film of economic crisis in a unique place: the Cinemateca Ecuatoriana Ulises Estrella, in Ecuador's capital.
Pedro Pinho's The Nothing Factory (2017), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from April 20 - May 20, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
The Nothing Factory
Rainy season has begun in Quito. After a long day, I take a crowded Ecovía—one of the city’s public transportation lines—to be dropped right in front of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana Benjamín Carrión. This institution houses the Cinemateca Ecuatoriana Ulises Estrella, which is carrying out an exhibition on the best films of 2017. The year has just initiated in deceiving rhythms that haven’t allowed me to watch many films. The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho will be the third of the year. An image with men of different ages and heights raising their arms with the palms of their hands spread widely, wearing blue coats and expressing protest and discontent in their faces, kept appearing in front of me with persuasive insistence as I went through film magazines, websites, brochures, festival programs and social network posts of the last year. That image, however, felt fairly distant.
***
Portuguese cinema has become well acquainted with Quito in the last years, with the surging of the Week of Portuguese Cinema (Semana de Cine Portugués). This event, which is organized by the cinematographic association and film distribution company Vaivem, occurs annually and has brought some of the country’s most striking films in recent years to some of our screens: Tabú and the Arabian Nights trilogy by Miguel Gomes, the short films of Gabriel Abrantes, John From by João Nicolau, and Correspondências by Rita Azevedo Gomes, to name a few. The relevance of them being screened here not only stems from the fact that together they form a particular tendency in Portuguese cinema that brims with innovative energy, but most importantly from the fact that the non-traditional production modes that foster them are responsive to the difficult economic conditions that the country faces, which are not distant from the ones we live with in Ecuador. Therefore, a valuable dialogue has been established. One of the main venues in which it has taken place is the Cinemateca Ecuatoriana Ulises Estrella, and the screening of The Nothing Factory is a continuation of it.
***
The Cinemateca sits on the threshold between modern and colonial Quito. It is part of the Casa de la Cultura’s main building, which is a roundish structure surrounded by a green area. In front of it sits a McDonald’s and a commercially bustling park named El Ejido. The way into the main building involves going through a parking lot and a few stairs, then one has to circle it towards the left until some other stairs appear. That is the entrance into the Cinemateca’s main movie theatre, called Sala Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco, which takes its name after a well-known Ecuadorian novelist, essayist, historian and diplomat. There is a big saloon in which the audience often queues; its walls are decorated with posters from well-known Ecuadorian films, and a number of old cameras are displayed in glass cases. At the bottom of the room is a big cafeteria that is often closed, but once it becomes active is a lovely space to share expectations or after thoughts of the films with strangers. Although the saloon is relatively cold, its windows that look towards the north east of Quito have allowed me to glimpse the most beautiful sunsets.
***
The walls of the Sala Alfredo Pareja Diezcanseco are wooden and brown and the seats are blue, the same kind of blue of the coats worn by the characters of The Nothing Factory. Only twenty seats were taken when the trailers started rolling. The premiere of Rubén Mendoza’s Señorita María, La Falda de la Montaña from Colombia was announced. A few months earlier a retrospective of his work was held in that same movie theatre. When The Nothing Factory started, more people came in. Now I have to go back to the notes I took on my notebook, which I tried to take quite subtly in order to not interrupt the experience of watching the film. The film also beings with an interruption: Zé and his wife are sharing a sexually intimate moment when his mobile phone starts vibrating with an alarming insistence. This scene, I later realized, gives clues to one of the film’s most important explorations: the ways in which intimacy can be interrupted by the abrasive forces of a violent and unforgiving power structure.
***
There is tension outside of an elevator factory where the workers are defending their workspace. A woman enters the frame with the camera following her as if warning that she is carrying terrible news. The conflict is established early on: the elevators will stop being produced because bringing others from China is cheaper. As a result, the workers will be let go of their jobs; the jobs they have been executing for many years, the financial source of sustenance for their families. At some point the film drifts towards the voice of a woman describing the European economic crisis. She describes it as an “end without an ending,” and then says, “human work in capitalism is unsustainable and obsolete.” A particular scene stuck with me: one of the characters is flaying a rabbit’s skin. A sense of disgust was felt in the room. The metaphor is clear: the skin is to the work, what the rabbit is to the workers.
***
The film does a dynamic job of balancing acts of deep intimacy with landscapes of cold industrialism. In fact, the camera often drifts away from scenes of intimacy towards the gray and open landscapes of a country in economic crisis. Director Pedro Pinho suggests the crisis is not only present in the latter. They are intrinsically connected, there is a clear causality involved. The economic crisis, however, also suggests the fostering of alternative modes of living and being. A certain splash of creativity seems to derive from there, and in the case of film production, film conceptions that are often found on the margins of production and viewership, come to life. Cooperative methods make possible what the state and private markets won’t. Cooperative methods such as when the workers take the factory in their hands, making work possible when capitalist enterprises deny it. I’m happy that this is one of the first films I have seen in 2018.
***
The experiences I have had of watching films at the Cinemateca Ecuatoriana Ulises Estrella have been warmly cocooned by a sensation of collective unity. Full seats on rainy Mondays, entire families at films that are rare findings in Ecuadorian screens, informative and personal presentations prior to the screenings. The team comprised by the movie theatre manager, the projectionist and others has been the same for several years, and whenever I go I am welcomed by them with warm hugs and smiles, even if I only worked with them for a few months. My relationship to this place also grew fonder when, talking to my mom, she confessed that when she was younger and worked nearby; she would spend her afternoons watching films there. It is now me sitting here.
Some people have left the screening (not as many as in Correspondências a few months earlier), others cough, some murmur, and at times I feel invaded by the desire to listen to their comments. But I am never able to do it. When the word capitalism is mentioned, some members of the audience raise their heads and extend their necks as if something of the word would wake their deepest arousal. The film reaches its ending and someone in the back starts applauding. We follow that person’s initiative.
***
I am left with the feeling that whatever form intimacy might take, it is more powerful than the forces that intend to silence it. I suspect that is what Pinho means to suggest. I am confident he is describing a collective kind of intimacy. There is a scene of intimacy in which all the workers sing and dance and interrupt whatever sort of expectation we might have of the film's story. I am reminded then, that not all interruptions are necessarily negative.
It stopped raining. We are leaving the cinema at 23h00. It’s a rarity for a Monday, probably as rare as having witnessed the premiere of this film here in Quito.

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