Juan Francisco Pardo: Stories for the eye

Filmmaker Juan Francisco Pardo tackles tough topics in nuanced style. Melanie Archer discovers where his passion for visual storytelling comes from

Filmmaker Juan Francisco Pardo. Photograph by Miquel Galofré

It takes significant skill and perhaps even more restraint to tell a good visual story in just sixteen minutes. To lead the viewer through scenes of breathtaking beauty, through enchanting and surreal and nuanced frames in order to move into that space that every director wants: for those witnessing the arc of that story to care deeply about the main character, even after the credits roll.

Aruban director Juan Francisco Pardo achieved this and more with his courageous yet subtle 2011 short film 10 Ave Maria, which he co-directed with his longtime collaborator Ryan Oduber. Made for a budget of next to nothing, the film has been screened to critical acclaim in Canada, as well as several locations in the Caribbean. In 2011, 10 Ave Maria picked up the jury prize at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, and a year later Pardo received special mention at the same festival for another short film, Awa Brak, which also won the audience award for Best Aruba Flavour at the Aruba International Film Festival (AIFF).

Pardo’s directing style is described as “atmospheric and controlled” by Rebecca Roos, co-ordinator of the Caribbean Spotlight Series at the AIFF, and a film producer who has known and worked with Pardo for most of his adult life. “I think Francisco’s passion for tackling social issues through film is already enough to make him someone to watch in Aruba,” she says. “But that, combined with his determination and talent, makes him someone to watch in the region.

“His films truly touch the audience,” Roos continues. “This is his talent, I believe, and his chosen topics are issues that people need to discuss (which is part of his character); they find an ‘excuse’ to do so by discussing his films. The fact that his films are accessible and have earned awards has made many young filmmakers believe they can also achieve this.”

Pardo was born in Oranjestad, Aruba, in 1977. As a child, he always went along with his father to the video store to rent movies, most often opting for something in the sci-fi genre. He displayed an aptitude for film when he started creating movie scenes with his friends with a VHSC camera he received from his uncle on his seventh birthday.

When he expanded to screenwriting, after receiving an analogue typewriter from his grandmother, Pardo realised his passion for using film as a medium to tell stories. He went on to study film direction, first in Spain and then in the Netherlands. After graduating he returned to Aruba, where he continued making films while also working in television production, for which he has won local media awards.

In addition to producing his own work, Pardo is also committed to the advancement of the film industry in Aruba. To that end, in 2010 he founded AVI — the Audiovisual Institute of Aruba — an organisation that produces movies but was primarily established to educate youth about television and film, and to give them knowledge and tools so that they can express themselves through this medium. “AVI plays an essential role in helping the art of filmmaking in Aruba to advance,” Pardo says. “I’m also open to helping other people through AVI, because I believe that, together, we can do more. I want to see more people starting to make films in Aruba. We don’t have a film history in Aruba, but we can start creating it.”

Asked about the main challenge he faces as a promising filmmaker working in Aruba today, Pardo — with his typically gentle yet assured demeanour — points to a lack of funding, which he acknowledges as a regional issue. But, in spite of this challenge, he remains optimistic about the future of Caribbean filmmaking, noting that “the Caribbean is rich in stories that need to be told.”

To wit: in April this year, Pardo finished directing his first feature-length film, Ab So (Only You), a musical centred around the songs of Padú del Caribe, Aruba’s “father of culture.” At the heart of this story is a young woman, Tatiana, who finds love in an unlikely place. But to think of Ab So as merely a love story would be reductive, as the narrative promises to deliver on themes of immigration, integration, discrimination, and life in a multicultural society — the kind of complexity and drama often found in the work of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, whose work Pardo deeply admires.

All the films Pardo has made to date have been shot entirely on location. Abo So was filmed over a mere ten days in a Oranjestad neighbourhood called Seroe Patrishi, and caused a great deal of excitement in the community, where film crews are a rare site. Pardo talks about the willingness of people from the community to help in whatever way they could, and the overall reception he has had locally.

“The films I have made until now have been well received,” he says. “People are always curious about what I’m going to do next. I have a lot of fans and people that admire and that are proud of me. I wasn’t aware of that until now. When I meet them on the street, most of them say to me to keep doing what I’m doing, because not only am I promoting the culture, but I also tackle important social issues in my stories.”

Once post-production work on Ab So is complete, Pardo plans to write more screenplays. Undoubtedly, these works, though centred in the Caribbean, will focus on what is typical in Pardo’s filmmaking to date — the universal struggle to deal with the problems of everyday life, as well as how we relate to each other in the search for ourselves.