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Lucho Fuentes: Engineering the Sounds of Revolutions

“Lucho has taught us to listen to the sounds of the achievements and frustrations of our people’s struggles.”

Before he was swept down a rushing river while fleeing the ambush of a guerrilla group; before he had visited a mass grave and filmed an assassination, Luis Fuentes was in charge of the projector in a movie theater.

When he’d see an airplane in the sky, he’d dream about going around the world – and he did. His first stop was Nicaragua; not for a pleasant journey, but to record the sounds, lamentations and clamor of a country at war.

Luis Fuentes is Costa Rican and an outstanding cinematic sound engineer who has contributed to creating audiovisual memoirs of the social revolutions that took place in Central America during the decade of the seventies and eighties.

With nearly 40 years of experience capturing the sound for dozens of films, Luis – affectionately nicknamed “Lucho” – guards enormous boxes in his house full of movies he’s worked on, and a sack full of empty packages which once held medications for Parkinson’s disease.

The role of film in Lucho’s life

During the seventies, Latin America was experiencing a boom in artistic production.  Filmmakers formed movements bent on breaking with the traditional formulas for making movies. Following this trend, four Costa Ricans, a Nicaraguan and an Englishman founded the first cinematographic production and distributing company in Central America – Istmo [Isthmus] Films, based in Costa Rica.

In 1977, at the same site where Istmo Films was located, they inaugurated the “Garbo Salon” to show non-commercial films.  That’s when Lucho arrived, accompanying his father who was the Salon’s projectionist.  He was “a smiling, very likeable young guy, with a great desire to work and be useful,” recalls Antonio Yglesisa, the Costa Rican co-founder of the Garbo Salon.

Lucho Fuentes (left) operates the sound during the filming of a documentary in Nicaragua. Courtesy photo

Lucho was 18 and would help his Dad in the smaller tasks, something that led him to become interested in this field. He learned to use the equipment for recording sounds and images, and when his father had to move on for reasons of work, he took over the job.

“Little Lucho said that he liked the field of sound, and he applied an extraordinary dedication to learning the skill,” recalls Oscar Castillo, Costa Rican filmmaker and the other co-founder of the Garbo Salon.

Oscar and Antonio offered the youth the opportunity to manage the sound and in this capacity to become part of Istmo Film’s production team. “They felt that I had a good ear for film, and from that time on I began to learn the sound engineer’s trade,’” recalls Lucho.

His contact with war

Istmo Films lent their office space to the Solidarity Committees of the Nicaraguan FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front], which at that time was fully engaged in the struggle to oust dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The production team was charged with making a documentary to shine a spotlight internationally on the situation in the country. That was Lucho Fuentes’ first close contact with the nation that would become his new home.

Lucho Fuentes carrying his recording equipment. Courtesy photo.

The documentary, produced in 1979, was entitled “Patria Libre o Morir”  [“Free country or Die”, the FSLN slogan during their struggle against the dictatorship]. Lucho collaborated with the sound mixing and the photo development from his base in Costa Rica, a process that forced him to closet himself in for many hours a day.  That’s how “my romance with this country” began.

Four months after the defeat of Somoza, Lucho was invited to form part of the film “Insurrection” that would be shot in the city of Leon, Nicaragua. That’s when he “fell in love with this country.” After the shooting was finished, he returned to Costa Rica to say goodbye to his family. His decision to remain in Nicaragua and collaborate with the recently founded Nicaraguan Film Institute was irrevocable.

“At times, I feel more Nica, and at times I feel I should go back to Costa Rica, but this country won’t leave me in peace. Nicaragua casts a spell – the people, the climate, the Nicaraguan sense of humor…I can’t explain it,” Lucho says.

From his work as projectionist at the Garbo Salon he went on to become a war correspondent. His social commitment led him to forget his fear and to experiment in his own body the sufferings of the wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Lucho Fuentes (white shirt) with revolutionary guerrillas in the mountains of Guatemala. Courtesy photo.

In 1981, he was asked to film the documentary “El Salvador Vencerá” [“El Salvador Will Win”], a project that aimed to be something similar to “Patria Libre o Morir” and use the big screen to focus attention on the war that had enveloped El Salvador. His dedication led him to look closely at death and to confront it. The filming he did of a mass grave and of an assassination still disturb his mind. “War is a monstrous thing, it affects you,” he assures.

The Nicaraguan filmmaker Frank Pineda remembers Lucho as not only a revolutionary who denounced social injustice through film, but also as a very likeable person with a great sense of humor.

Living with Parkinson’s

Lucho’s life changed when he was 45.  He began to feel a degree of paralysis on his left side, which he attributed to stress. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the news took him by surprise. Discovering that he had an incurable illness sent his anxiety soaring, and for more than two months he shut himself in at home.

“He didn’t want to know about anything or anybody; not about work, either,” Valeria Valle, his wife, confesses.  It took him a year and a half to assimilate his condition and to tell his family and friends.

Lucho Fuentes // Photo: Carlos Herrera, Niu

Parkinson’s is a disruption of voluntary movement that occurs when the neurons fail to produce a sufficient quantity of dopamine, an important chemical substance in the brain. There are treatments to control it, but up until now it’s incurable.

The pills that Lucho has taken for the past 13 years have caused damage to his motor systems and altered his movements. When he has a crisis and suffers temperament changes he becomes frustrated and says to his wife: “Ay! I wish I were already dead, this disease is tiring me out so much.”

His tremors begin lightly in his left hand, then like a current running through his body they extend outward uncontrollably, spreading the vibrations to the chair that he’s using or an object he’s carrying. His disease has advanced, and Lucho can’t thread a needle anymore.

For two years now he’s been keeping a sack full of the empty packages of the medicines he consumes.  He takes 15 pills a day.

His passion for film has motivated him to continue working with the same dedication as always. He’s had to tolerate the jokes of other crew members who say: “Here comes Lucho with his little jumps”; “He’s just starting to dance”; or “He’s got the shake-‘em-ups-every-which-way”, making gentle fun of the involuntary movements that the disease causes. 

Roger Mantica is an audiovisual producer who’s worked with this sound engineer since 2012 and affirms that he’s always been “jovial, very boisterous and a jokester.” This helps him keep the whole team in a positive spirit. Mantica adds, “I’ve seen him at his best and worst with his illness, and in no way have I seen it affect his work.”

When he can’t control his strong tremors, he pauses, turns to the people that he’s going to interview and explains: “I suffer from Parkinson’s”. Then he goes back, takes up his recording equipment and continues his task.

Currently, he’s experimenting with audiovisual production. He wants to obtain financing to make two documentaries: one on the Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegria, and another about the situation faced by those in Nicaragua who have Parkinson’s.

“As one more Parkinson’s sufferer, I’m going to try harder to collaborate with all of these people by making a documentary to publicize the Nicaraguan Parkinson’s Association, to look for help from doctors and organizations that might collaborate with this association,” he affirms.

Annoyingly perfectionist with sound

Lucho can’t recall how many audiovisual productions he’s worked on: “Imagine, nearly 40 years working only in this…”

After his passage through Central America and his participation in the best film productions in Nicaragua in the eighties, there was still an entire adventure in Latin America and the world waiting.  There, he recorded the sound for dozens of works commissioned by organizations and audiovisual producers, the majority dedicated to the defense and promotion of human rights. 

At 58, he’s still the same “perfectionist” with his work. Roger Mantica describes him as “very picky” in his work and someone who “involves himself in all aspects of a project, not just in the sound.”

To the filmmaker Frank Pineda, Lucho is one of the best film sound engineers that Nicaragua has.

He describes himself as “pushy with sound, and a pest with film,” and states with sadness “the only moments when I want to leave Nicaragua are when I see that there’s no longer any encouragement for film here.”  He misses the years of work in the Nicaraguan Film Institute and the adventures in the Nicaraguan mountains. He doesn’t feel ready to die until he’s collaborated with “a big movie in Nicaragua” and return to those years when there was “so much production.”

“Film is everything for me, it’s my big dream, it’s the medium through which I’ve been happy,” he admits.

Since his arrival, he’s helped in the formation of young people from different generations. Moises Rodriguez was his co-worker in the Nicaraguan Film Institute and assures that Lucho always pushed him to give his best.

“He’s known how to teach us to listen to the sounds of the achievements and frustrations of our people’s struggles,” he affirms.

Translated by Habana Times


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