Daniel Burmeister is the peddler (el ambulante). With his old, red car that’s always on the verge of breaking down, the sixty-something travels rural Argentina from one village to the other and makes what he calls ‘handcrafted movies’. One village, one month, one movie – one man. The peddler is in charge of the entire production process, and his enthusiasm is infectious, his capacity to improvise enormous. Everyone can participate and in the end, there’s a big screening for the whole population. As compensation Burmeister, a self taught cineaste and a real jack of all trades, only asks for lodging and free meals during the time of his stay. Up to this day he has produced roughly seventy feature films, based on one of his own scripts, and he continues making cinema for the people.
El Ambulante observes Burmeister on the set in Benjamin Gould, a tiny village with 700 inhabitants in the province of Cordoba. A true valentine to the passion of filmmaking, El Ambulante is also the study of an idiosyncratic life style and a tender portrait of life in an Argentine village.
How did you first connect with Daniel Burmeister?
In Argentina, we attended a film festival, Cine con Vecinos and there we first heard of a man who was traveling from one small town to the other, making movies. And we were really excited about this story and wrote him an email. He was immediately responsive and interested in collaborating. So we went to meet him in the village he was filming at then. At that point, we only had the idea, but no funds at all, we were about to present the project. And well, one year later we had the money, and were filming El Ambulante.
What attracted you most in the idea? Why did you want to make this film?
For a variety of reasons. In the first place, being a director myself, I was wondering how can this be – that there is one person with so many hats, basically doing everything himself, overseeing the whole process of making a movie: scriptwriting, pre-production, casting, camera, direction, edit and then he also screens the films, that was really calling my attention. Also, that he does it in such a short time frame – a long feature in only a month, and then he moves on! I was curious to see how this works, also, how this works as a way of living, which it is. How does someone live like he does, really, this made me very curious.
On another page, I saw there a very poetic element – you know, the solitary man, the loner, how he embraces this solitude while at the same time generating so may expectations and feelings in the people he deals with. And then he leaves again, alone.
The film reveals very few details about Daniel’s former life. We learn that he is a widower with daughters, and that he comes from a rather unconventional, artistic family. Still, his father never seemed to really appreciate what he did. When at some point one of his many sisters calls him, it upsets him profoundly because he had not expected her to be in touch. Apart from these occasional glimpses, his personal life remains in the background.
While we did have a lot of material about him and his former life, we also had an initial plan. And since we were three directors, it was best to stick to it pretty rigorously. As you can imagine, it can get complicated with three directors. And well, the initial idea was to concentrate on the process of Daniel’s filmmaking, to observe him arriving in a town and to capture everything until he leaves again. Like a making-of, if you will. And yes, we wanted to give some hints about his past, but this was never meant to be the essence of the film.
What kind of reception did El Ambulante have in Argentina?
It was fantastically received at the BAFICI, the Festival for Independent Cinema in Buenos Aires, where it won the audience’s award for the best film. And beyond that, well, it got a lot of attention and very favorable reviews. For it being a documentary, it did really well. Maybe not as fantastic as we had dared to hope for, compared to its overwhelming success in other countries. But we were very happy, especially due to its great performance at the BAFICI.
I particularly asked you because I myself lived in Argentina, and for me, it shows the essence of life in a small village in rural Argentina. Of course it can be understood as a declaration of love to all things cinema, to filmmaking. But I also felt it is a declaration of love to the life in a village.
Well, yes, indeed, that’s definitely the case. It kind of cherishes that life style, and maybe you can say that it calls for considering more the roots, and for embracing simpler things.
Also, Daniel himself is a very typical Argentine character. In Argentina, we improvise all the time! There is this expression, ‘to fix it with wire’, and in Argentina, we use that a lot. In that sense, Daniel is like the king of ‘fixing it with wire’, because he constantly has to come up with some kind of improvisation, during his filming, but also in general. So for me, he is very representative for our country and this is one of the things I personally like most in our film.
How did the success of the film effect Daniel’s life?
He still continues to do his filming, but now he gets more offers. So now many villages want him to come, and he can be slightly more demanding, say, if he really doesn’t like the accommodation they offer, he can try and get a better deal. But basically he sticks to what he’s been doing.
The film seems very faithful to verité style. How much did you actually stage or had to repeat, apart from the few somewhat set up yet short interviews?
We got so incredibly lucky, as it rarely happens when you do this kind of documentary. In fact, we only repeated the couple scenes when Daniel talks to the mayor’s assistant. And we chose another street for Daniel to drive in and out of the village. Actually, the road that leads to the village is paved, but we thought the dirt road was more romantic, so we filmed him there… But basically, that’s really all.
This was the first documentary you worked on, how did you experience it, and what are your future plans?
The experience was just amazing, because everything went so smoothly. Like I said, I’m sure it was an exception. In any case, it was very insightful and inspiring, and this for me who had never really considered doing a documentary.
And what the future is concerned – honestly, throughout the last months, I’ve basically traveled with the film. I really like watching it and seeing how people react to it, so I’ve enjoyed doing this. But I’m also working on a new documentary. This time, I’d like it to be even more observing, you know, more showing than telling. Something maybe that’s more related to fiction, while still being a documentary. These days, fiction and non-fiction are overlapping more and more, and this is something I’m really interested it.
Well, good luck and thank you very much for your time!
Bio: Eduardo de la Serna
Eduardo de la Serna was born in Buenos Aires. In 2005, he directed the feature film El refugio de los Caracoles. El Ambulante, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurkevich, is his first documentary. He also did the offline edit of the film, and is currently working on new projects.