UCSC professor premieres explosive documentary at Pacific Rim Festival

film poster for Playing with Fire
UCSC film professor Gustavo Vazquez behind the camera

Gustavo Vazquez, UCSC professor and chair of the Film and Digital Media Department.

WATCH THE TRAILER of his new documentary film, Playing With Fire.

Fireworks in northern Peru
Grinding gunpowder in the Peruvian Andes

“The very first day of shooting the film there was a huge explosion,” said UCSC professor of Film and Digital Media Gustavo Vazquez.

“I actually turned off the camera and ran. I just escaped. There were about 200 pounds of gunpowder, but luckily it didn’t catch on fire.”

Vazquez was high up in the Peruvian Andes filming Playing with Fire (Jugando con Fuego), a kaleidoscopic portrait of the small town of Celendín--a traditional community whose inhabitants celebrate the annual fiesta of its patron saint with candlelit parades, brass bands…and spectacular fireworks.

Fortunately nobody got killed, but there were a few close calls. Vazquez noted that the town drunk did get severely burned when fireworks exploded under his armpit.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Vazquez. “We were there a little more than three weeks filming the fiestas."

"The film is a tribute to the town, capturing all the spectacles, rituals and ceremonies…and all the eccentricities of the characters,” he added.

Playing With Fire will have its premiere showing on Monday, October 22, at the Pacific Rim Festival in Santa Cruz.

The screening takes place at the Rio Theater, beginning at 5 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.

The film was co-produced by former longtime UCSC assistant arts dean Keith Muscutt, who has spent the past 20 years as an anthropological explorer in Northern Peru.

Vazquez said it was Muscutt who inspired him to make the film.

“Keith brought back pictures and videos of the grinding of gunpowder—the same way the Chinese were making gunpowder in the 15th century,” Vazquez recalled. “And it struck me how these people with little or nothing created a spectacle of light.”

“I realized as we were filming that this was their cinema in the past—before there was cinema,” he added.

Muscutt was instrumental in pre-production, using his contacts to coordinate small plane flights, drivers and equipment to navigate the remote dirt roads.

Most of the time, Vazquez was filming while Muscutt recorded sound with wireless microphones. Occasionally, when two cameras were simultaneously needed for things like reaction shots, Muscutt would man a second camera.

“A technique that worked well for us was that I could act as a "spotter" for Gustavo--attracting his attention to peripheral scenes that he might not have noticed with one eye glued to the viewfinder,” said Muscutt. (‘Psst... three o'clock high... the character on the ladder...’).”

The two-man crew financed the film entirely out of their own pockets—paying for all travel, equipment and post-production.

They ended up shooting 30 hours of footage that was ultimately trimmed down to 54 minutes.

“I'm usually more interested in the process of creation than in the outcome,” Muscutt reflected. “By the time I finish a project, it's usually about as interesting as a stuffed animal…inanimate.”

“But for some reason I keep going back to this one,” he added. “It still lives and breathes for me.”

Playing with Fire (Jugando con Fuego) premieres at the Pacific Rim Festival on Monday, October 22, at 5 p.m., in the Rio Theater (1124 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz). All festival screenings are free and open to the public. WATCH THE TRAILER.