The city of Iquitos, Peru, sometimes called the capital of the Amazon, is surrounded by rainforest on every side. Even today, no roads lead into the city; it must be entered by boat or by plane. A mission was built there in 1757 to bring Christianity to the savage peoples of the rainforest. However, the discovery of the commercial potential of rubber a hundred years later would change the city forever, turning it into the bustling capital of trade for the Amazon, from Brazil to Ecuador.
This was the city that Roberto Blanco, Peru’s most famous filmmaker, was born into in 1894. His father, Efraín Blanco, was a strapping, industrious Spaniard who moved to Iquitos in the 1850s and became rich in the rubber boom. His mother, a waitress in a tavern when she met him, was one of the many women of her generation who moved to the city from the villages down the river in search of work. They lived in an elaborate house near the Plaza de Armas, in a neighborhood where everyone tried to outdo each with displays of metal and brick that their dealings in rubber had bought.
The Alhambra Theater, opened by Clement Alcala and Francisco de Paula Secada in 1898, was a fixture in Iquitos from its very beginning. Alcala was an eccentric, old man from Madrid with a moustache that anticipated Salvador Dali’s. He had settled in Iquitos at the end of the 1800s for reasons known only to himself. He used his fortunes to travel around the world and bring back things to display in the theater: swords from a market in Palestine; silk from Damascus; artistic pretentions from salons in Paris. These he displayed in long lectures on the poetics of desire in Méliès and the camera’s destruction of objective reality before the start of each film. The talks were a source of endless ire to Secada.
If Alcala was responsible for the theater’s heady intellectual atmosphere, then Secada can take the credit for its financial success. He was a younger man, endowed with some entrepreneurial spirit, and he devised endless strategies for getting the youth into the theater. The posters he produced for new films, drafted by art students from the fledgling university, were elaborate and often not strictly true to the films they advertised. When a long-awaited roll of film arrived to Iquitos too damaged to show, he hastily organized a dance to be held in between the Turkish divans and Persian carpets in the lobby. The dance was so successful that it became a fixture.
The theater became, for Iquitos’ young, not just a place of diversion, but a symbol of everything magical and exotic that might lie outside the city, in lands beyond the impenetrable curtain of the rainforest. And for many of them—to Alcala’s disgust and Secada’s willful ignorance—the Alhambra’s shadowy back rows were the site of their first explorations of other exotic regions, beneath different curtains.
For Blanco, however, the theater brought a different kind of freedom. He was not one to take part in the amorous adventures of his peers; he was quiet and absorbed in his studies. He excelled in French, and he spent his free time in his parents’ study reading novels by Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, at first in translation and later in their original language. He had been to the cinema, like all children from the bourgeois families of the city, but he didn’t understand what was so exciting about a picture of a train rushing at you, or a man pretending to swallow the camera.
He was twelve when “Voyage to the Moon,” the film by Georges Méliès, reached the Alhambra. His father persuaded him to see it in a part of his constant campaign to get his son out of the house. The young Roberto was skeptical—“I suppose it will have men dressed up to look like monsters”—but when the film began, something happened to him. The film, which portrayed its journey in fifteen minutes of the most dazzling technical innovations ever seen in film, was famous for the effect that it had upon practically every filmmaker who ever saw it. For Blanco, however, it had an almost religious effect. “It was the first time it occurred to me that the images I conjured up in my head when I read could actually exist outside of me,” he said later on. “Perhaps that sounds silly. At that time, though, ideas and imagination were almost all I had. It had never occurred to me before that I could make them real.”
Meanwhile, things were changing at the Alhambra. Secada had banned Alcala from giving his talks before the movies, claiming that people were unhappy when they ran longer than the films they came to see. Alcala, in retaliation, had begun after-hours meetings for Iquitos’ intellectual elite to discuss developments in the European world of cinema. These developed an enthusiastic following from the university’s art students, who, being too poor to travel to Paris, practically memorized everything the old man said. The students also purchased liberal amounts of the cinema’s wine, and so Secada did not protest.
Roberto, after his experience with Méliès, started to go to the cinema whenever he could. He was too young to attend Alcala’s meetings, but he tried to make his acquaintance anyway. He desperately wanted to get his hands on a camera, even for a moment, and he thought the theater owner was his most likely bet. But Alcala, when he visited the theater during the day, scrupulously avoided meeting any children that might be present. His eyes were fixed upon the lofty zone of Ideas, not on the scurrying of children.
Then one day, Roberto discovered that one of his classmates, Gustavo, had an older brother in the art school. He persuaded the boy to introduce him to his brother in exchange for help with his brother. Gustavo invited him over for dinner that night.
According to Blanco, the older brother was a man by the Pancho Hambre. He was a lackluster student—nothing is known about him except for what Blanco recalls. Blanco tells us this about their meeting:
“Hambre was a mediocre painter at the university, but he informed me that Clement Alcala did, in fact, have a camera, which he rented it out to students to make films to play in private showings in the theater. I was very quiet as a child, and I relied on Pancho’s brother to introduce me. He didn’t warm to me until we began what I recall as a quite lively dialogue on Méliès. I must have seen the film close to a hundred times by then, and he, of course, had already heard Alcala’s take on it. I think I was driven out of my shell a little and I managed to convince him to let me sit in on one of the days he was filming. That felt like the luckiest day of my life.”
Soon, according to Blanco, he was feeding Pancho ideas that the student would pass off as his own after-hours at the Alhambra. Blanco refers to the short films that Pancho submitted to the group at this time as his first short films. The films captured images of Iquitos’ sailors unloading cargo onto the muddy Amazon banks of the city; the stoic nuns in the city’s missions; the tin-roofed shanty houses of the indigenous poor in areas far from the Plaza de Armas. Pancho started to gain notoriety.
Roberto’s father, when he found out that his son was hanging out with a bunch of Bohemian riffraff, decided that cinema was a malicious novelty, and certainty no career for the son of a rubber baron. He banned his son from the cinema and intensified his efforts to make his son into a real rubber baron’s son. He made Roberto join a soccer team and take dance lessons. He said that his son needed to find his voice and sent him to public speaking classes. Roberto, abashed, stopped going to meet with Pancho and stoically endured his father’s nonsense until the day he took away his books.
It had been a year since his father had banned him from everything to do with film. He had gone back into his shell and taken refuge in reading. Efraín kept Pancho away from his home by force, but Pancho still came to see him at school from time to time, trying to fish for ideas. In return, he brought Roberto books. The latest was a book of poetry, which Roberto thanked him for and then went upstairs and threw under his bed. Poetry didn’t interest him—he liked books with a story.
He tried to convince Roberto to go back to the cinema, but Roberto knew he wouldn’t be able to sneak out to without drawing his father’s notice. He had grimly resigned himself to his fate.
The day his fate changed, it was one of Iquitos’ endless days of rain. Roberto left soccer practice when the rain came on and walked home through Iquitos’ muddy, rutted streets, enjoying being soaked and free from practice. He settled down to read. He read in the conservatory to be free from the watchful eye of his father, and because he liked the sound of the rain pounding on the glass.
A tap on the window interrupted his reading. He looked up and saw a mustached face, and got up to open the door.
“Hello there, young man.” Alcala seemed to be struggling with the idea that he was talking to a child. Roberto was likewise in disbelief at the idea that he was talking to Alcala. Alcala was about to invite the boy to join his école de cinéma when Efraín, coming home from work, spotted him talking to his son. He recognized the man and his moustache from the papers (which had made all kinds of accusations about him) and dealt with him the way a true rubber baron should: he picked him up and put him on the street outside his house. After that, he took all the books out of his son’s room and put them in the same spot on the street, put his son in his room, and locked the door, saying, “I’ll put some industry into this boy yet!”
Roberto on that night: “If the day that I found access to a camera was the best day of my life up until that point, then the day my father left my books out on the street was surely the worst.”
However, this time Roberto was determined not to quietly acquiesce to his father’s wishes. Furthermore, his father was not industrious enough himself: he had neglected to snatch the book left under the bed. Roberto fished it out. It was a slim, battered volume called Poems of Rimbaud.
He spent the night reading and hatching a plan. At school the next day, he convinced Gustavo to take him to see his brother. Pancho would shelter him.
He couldn’t believe he had neglected the book of poetry before. Reading it erased the last of his doubts. Furthermore, it had planted the seed in his mind for the new film that he was going to create. The next day, they would go to the harbor to find a boat bound for one of the villages down the river. He would pose as Pancho’s little brother; they would bring Alcala’s camera to film life in the Amazon.
“No,” said Pancho, when Blanco told him his idea. “We can’t take Alcala’s camera on the river. It’ll get wet and break, and then he’ll have us thrown in jail. I can’t smuggle you out of the city—it could be dangerous, and besides, I have class. And what makes you think you can just stay in my apartment? What would your father think?”
Bajo del Sol de la Selva was the film that would make Roberto Blanco famous, but he would have to wait to film it. However, reading Rimbaud had left him with a surplus of courage; and before Pancho shut the door on him, he informed Roberto that there was a dance going on that night at Alhamba’s, and suggested that maybe it would do him good to act like the rest of the kids his age and go along and try to meet a girl.