A new action movie featuring a poor delivery boy whose life depends on the mysterious cargo in his wheelbarrow has Paraguayans excited and proud to see their gritty reality on the big screen for the first time.
While audiences have been delighted by "7 Cajas," the movie shot in a chaotic market in this South American capital has nevertheless jarred many with its focus on the darker angles it shows: a suffocating mix of official negligence, societal indifference, police corruption and organized crime that keeps most of the population mired in poverty.
"I loved the movie," said 30-year old architect Antonella Cantero. "It is just that for some of us it becomes hard to watch, something that is so tough and so common at the same time, and we prefer to hide."
It's an odd mix of emotions for people unaccustomed to seeing any cinematic depiction at all of their country. The nation's movie industry is virtually nonexistent, and U.S. films dominate the country's fewer than 15 theaters, most of them in the capital of Asuncion.
"Fast and Furious on Wheelbarrows" is how one critic described "7 Cajas," referring to the action series about heists and street races. It has wowed festival audiences, filled Paraguay's theaters since August and will soon be distributed around the world.
The film is drawing comparisons to India's "Slumdog Millionaire" in how it gets audiences rooting for a poor slum kid, Victor, a wheelbarrow delivery boy summoned by a small-time crook to carry a mysterious load of boxes across the market for $100 — a huge fortune for a slum kid in a country where the extremely poor don't make $2.50 a day.
"Listen up, little one. You must protect these seven boxes with your life. Understand? And when the boxes show up again, I'll give you the other half," the crook says, tearing the $100 greenback in two.
Things quickly get complicated along the slum's dark corridors, where Victor runs for his life from criminals and police.
The fast-paced film has cinematic touches straight from Hollywood, but also an authenticity that comes from being shot on location with a relatively inexpensive camera on a budget of just $650,000.
Except for the central characters, nearly everyone who appears in the film lives or works in Municipal Market No. 4, a sprawling collection of tents, shacks and building corridors in downtown Asuncion. There, practically anything can be bought or sold, from legal products to smuggled fruit, stolen cellphones and fake DVDs. Even illegal drugs can be purchased clandestinely by buyers who know where to look for them. The characters speak jopara, a street language that mixes Paraguay's two official languages, Spanish and the native Guarani.
Paraguayan directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori told The Associated Press they aimed to make a fun film, not a social statement.
"Maybe it was a very unconscious objective," Maneglia conceded. "It really wasn't my intention to depict our reality faithfully, but for it to be entertaining, and to have an interesting message."
Celso Franco, the 23-year-old first-time actor who stars as Victor, said he sees the film as a protest.
"We are so tired of some things; we want people to see our reality," said Franco, who was raised by his grandmother in Paraguay's countryside after his parents left for Spain to work and send money home to support him and his brothers.
"This is a demonstration of how we are living in Paraguay and we know that it reaches people in power, and at least they'll feel a little bit guilty, the ones in power now who can change some things," Franco said.
The evident poverty of the characters is a reality for most of Paraguay's 6.5 million people. While booming soy prices have raised the country's gross domestic product for three straight years, a tiny upper class has held onto nearly all the wealth. Democratic governments have failed to budge the 55 percent poverty rate since a 35-year dictatorship ended in a coup in 1989. Of the nation's impoverished, 31 percent live in extreme poverty, according to U.N. statistics.
International distributor Shoreline Entertainment is expected to bring "7 Cajas" to audiences around the world next year, shaping first and lasting impressions about Paraguay.
"I don't understand why people come out laughing from the movie theaters like it was a comedy," said Silvia Mongelos, 31, who works in an environmental foundation. "The movie is a social protest, from beginning to end, of our terrible reality."
Maneglia, the director, emphatically denies trying to send that message.
"It's too big of a responsibility," Maneglia said. "I don't think it encompasses all we are."
Shoreline Vice President Sam Eigen agreed. "Before it focuses on any kind of social issues or relates to a particular situation in Paraguay, the feeling after watching the film is that its first priority is to be fun and entertaining," Eigen said.
The filmmakers got funding from Paraguay's government, cultural foundations and a private bank, but still came up short until they won a 100,000-euro ($128,000) "Films In Progress" award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain last year, allowing them to finish the low-budget project.
The finished film won San Sebastian's Youth Award this year, along with Best Dramatic Feature at Sydney's Cockatoo Island Film Festival. Showings then sold out at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where Shoreline outbid other distributors for the international rights.
"People couldn't stop clapping, some had tears in their eyes," Schembori said of the Toronto event.
"7 Cajas" isn't among this year's record 71 submissions for best Foreign Language Film. Without any experience in such matters, the producers and the government's culture secretary missed the Academy Awards' submission deadline.
The film has sold a national record 300,000 tickets at about $5.50 apiece since "7 Cajas" premiered in August. Its producers now plan to travel the country showing the movie in churches and gathering halls, sometimes to people who have never seen films on a big screen before.
They're also organizing a free showing inside Municipal Market No. 4, keeping a promise they made to the workers there.
"They feel like this is their movie," said Schembori. "It is their movie."