Juliana details the life of Lima’s streetkids with warmth and affection, and is in some ways a surprisingly optimistic movie. Made by the pioneering Grupo Chaski, it is apparently filmed mostly with non-professional actors, who in a couple of scenes speak directly to the camera as if perhaps in their own voices: first to tell stories of the past, of abuses and lost parents; but later to recount their dreams, of their hopes for a future that combines the magic and the mundane.
Indeed, towards late on in the film one of the characters declares that “In the end, life is made of the same cloth with which dreams are made.” And the movie’s finale is gloriously utopian, imagining on the one hand a self-reliant community of children living on a derelict ship down by the seashore, and on the other hand a city bus making its way through a darkened city with all its lights on and full of dancing and singing.
The conjunction of boat and bus is rather appropriate, because these kids are something like urban pirates. They board the decrepit but often gaily painted vehicles that serve as Lima’s urban transit system, and sing songs for the passengers in return for whatever spare change that they can beg. Though they also indulge in some petty thievery, over the course of the film they begin to take the music itself to heart, encouraged largely by the newest member of the troupe, the exuberant Julián.
Julián is one and the same as the movie’s titular Juliana. We first meet this twelve-year old tomboy in her former occupation, cleaning graves at the cemetery. She uses spit to moisten the dirty old rag with which she wipes down the tombs, but assures their inhabitants that she means no disrespect. We also see her home life with (almost inevitably) a drunken and authoritarian stepfather who prevents Juliana from enjoying her few pleasures by stealing her radio or interrupting her soap operas by insisting that she go to the store to bring him more beer. Eventually she can stand it no more, so betrays the old man to an insistent creditor, cuts her hair so she can pass as a boy, turning from Juliana to Julián, and runs off to follow her brother who already works on the buses.
The streetkids’ activities are coordinated by a Faginesque figure by the name of Don Pedro, who teaches his motley crew the tricks of the trade and tells them tall stories, demands their money but also feeds and shelters them, falls into rages but also has a tenderer side that at times clearly enjoys the company of his young live-wire charges. The kids themselves are a cross-section of Peru, who come from the jungle and the Andes as well as the coast. They have to band together for survival, but regional and ethnic distrust doesn’t necessarily disappear: when Don Pedro tries to recompose the teams of two that go out onto the streets, he receives outraged resistance from kids who don’t want to pair up across ethnic lines.
But the greatest marker of difference for the group is gender. And when Julián is revealed as Juliana, the gang comes to its crisis point. The perhaps predictable result, however, is that the majority of kids choose to side with Juliana and abandon Don Pedro and his stool pigeon sidekick. Choosing to rely only on themselves, they set off in search of collective dreams in this urban ocean.
The ending then is too good to be true: a child’s fantasy realized on celluloid with echoes of other self-reliant groups from the famous five to Swallows and Amazons. But the bulk of what has preceded has successfully treaded the fine line between romanticism and grit, portraying tensions as well as enthusiasms. There’s a particularly memorably scene in which the kids live out their fantasies, if only temporarily, in a trip to a local shopping center. But it’s in that same scene that the gang starts to fall apart with a misconceived robbery that ends with the tragi-comic spectacle of a panicked child slowly descending in a glass-walled elevator, knowing the police await him at the bottom of his ride.
There may be no deserted ships down by the Lima shore that can be refurbished as a pirate base. And it may be that pirates are almost always fleeing trauma at home only to be flung headlong towards an unfortunate and early end. But Juliana captures some of the inventiveness and joy that also attends these urban nomads.
YouTube Link: the final confrontation with Don Pedro.