Young Filmmaker’s Take on His Native Costa Rica

This article first appeared in New American Media.

The mean streets of a decaying downtown. A guy in black eyeliner whaling on an electric guitar. Barred windows, and the barrel of a gun. Chances are these aren’t the images that spring to mind when you think of Costa Rica.

But that’s what we see in the trailer for “The Return,” a film by Costa Rica-born, San Francisco-based director Hernán Jiménez. The story of a young man who goes home to Costa Rica after a decade of living in the United States, the film shows a returning immigrant’s “head-on collision with underdevelopment, bureaucracy, crime, friends he barely remembers, streets he doesn’t recognize, and a family in crisis.”

Jimenez’s work on the film had stalled for lack of funds. Now, thanks to a little online intervention, this filmic antidote to rainforest-touting tourist brochures is set to premier in June.

“One of my biggest frustrations with Costa Rican cinema,” says Jiménez, “is that it never seemed to portray daily life as I experienced it there.”

In trying to bring his vision to the big screen, the director also encountered another kind of frustration. Against all odds he had put a together a talented cast and crew and finished filming on location in six manic weeks. What happened next will be familiar to any artist whose ambitions tend to outrun his or her bank account. “The Return” sat languishing on Jiménez’s computer, needing color correction, a final sound mix, subtitles, and—the biggest expense—conversion from HD video to 35 millimeter film.

Enter a new kind of online grassroots financing that’s known as “crowdfunding.” Jiménez was no stranger to online buzz — his first feature film, “A Ojos Cerrados” (With Eyes Shut), had 35,000 fans on Facebook. If everyone of those fans were to give just a dollar, Jiménez mused, he could get back to work on “The Return.”

He had heard about, an arts funding site, and knew that a lot of artists — not just unknowns — were trying their luck there. Gary Hustwit, director of the critically acclaimed 2007 documentary “Helvetica” recently netted more than $98,000 from a kickstarter campaign for his new film, “Urbanized,” about the design of cities. And it wasn’t just filmmakers who were using the site: Bands created campaigns to fund CDs. Artists pitched fashion shows, dance performances and video installations. There was even a campaign for start-up money to sell Native American fry tacos at farmers’ markets.

Other sites, like, specialize in charitable causes. emphasizes “community-powered reporting,” and is where you can raise money for anything from “Kidney Surgery Fund” to “Get me to Miss Virginia USA 2011.”

Jiménez went with kickstarter, choosing a monetary goal, a time frame and a set of incentives, like getting your name in the final credits if you gave more than $10 (that’s going to be one long credit sequence!). He set his goal at $40,000 though he knew he needed more, because this kind of funding is an all-or-nothing proposition. If you meet your goal by the deadline, contributors’ credit cards are instantly charged; if you don’t make your goal, no money changes hands.

Then Jimenez told the story of his project in the most compelling way he could, with a video of himself, in gray sweatshirt and five o’clock shadow, making a direct plea for help.

Much to the filmmaker’s astonishment, his campaign reached its goal of $40,000 in the first five days of a six-week campaign. And people just kept giving; in the end, more than 1,700 people had donated a total of over $57,000.

Soon, those contributors (and the rest of the viewing public) will see Costa Rica through the eyes of a native son rather than through the lens of a widespread tourist campaign that presents the country as a tropical paradise.

And although the filmmaker wants to show, in his words “the daily complication of living in a Third World country,” he also thinks the film is essentially about “our relationship to where we come from. A return in a return whether you’re from a small town in Kentucky and live in New York City, or you’re from Colombia or Mexico and are going back there.”

Jimenez is not only the director, he also wrote “The Return” and acts in it. He’s also a comedian—he funded his first feature film with money he made doing stand-up comedy in Costa Rica. “At first they didn’t know what to think of it—people don’t really do stand-up there. But then they responded really well. There’s a lot to make fun of in Costa Rica.”

Jiménez does whatever he has to do to make his films. He sees online funding as an extension of asking your nearest and dearest to support your creative work. “We have now made two films solely based on the support of friends, family and professionals who wholeheartedly believe in us,” he writes on his kickstarter page. “No big studios, no fancy film funds, no political grants, no greedy investors. Just friends of our project and us.”

He finds that the online approach “takes the awkwardness out of asking for money. You send a link and that’s it. It’s so formal–the payments go through Amazon.” He has family and friends who “never would have come up to me with a little envelope of cash and say, ‘I really believe in you. I want you to use this for your film.’” But the online campaign, he says, “detaches me from the project –in a good way. So all of a sudden friends I haven’t seen in 10 years are supporting my project.”

The campaign was truly grassroots: of the more than 1,700 people who contributed, the great majority gave between $25 and $50, with some contributing as little as a dollar. Jimenez appealed to a wide circle of friends and fans who know him from his early short films and his first feature, “A Ojos Cerrados” (With Eyes Shut), all filmed in Costa Rica and made on a shoestring. But the campaign for his current film also “went viral,” says Jiménez, especially in Costa Rica, where audiences are hungry for work that reflects their everyday reality.

The filmmaker is obsessed with complete transparency, perhaps in response to people suspicious of the whole enterprise, who fear that the director will “become a millionaire on the backs of my 1,700 or so backers.” Jiménez says he will show supporters exactly how the donated funds are spent. “We’re going to publish bank statements and scanned receipts on the film’s web site.”

When asked why he thinks his campaign was so successful, he says, “Maybe people like the underdog.”