In the pinewood savannahs of Belize, a young boy climbs a makeshift ladder up to an arboreal termite nest where another nest is concealed. Two yellow headed parrot chicks grow day by day in the hope they will survive to become adults.
Yochi, the boy who is the titular character in a beautiful short film by New Mexico State University professor Ilana Lapid, finds that he must protect the chicks not only from natural threats but also from threats of the human kind.
Yochi has become selectively mute due to two connected traumas – the departure of his older brother to the big city and the ensuing death of his grandfather. Despite the encouragement of his grandmother, who has even gone so far as to bring in a shaman to cure the boy, Yochi has stopped speaking. There is an underlying irony in this situation since the yellow headed parrots are considered among the best loros hablandos, or talking parrots. It is this ability that has made them so sought after and valuable in the exotic bird trade. So, a non-speaking boy watches over two parrot chicks who are prized for their ability to “talk.”
The value of the yellow headed parrots makes them a prime target for poachers. When Yochi’s brother, Itza, comes home owing some money to some bad people, he turns to poaching to make some quick cash. Therein lies the dramatic tension of the film. On the one hand, things might be returning to normal for Yochi – recovering his beloved brother and maybe even the ability to speak – but on the other there is the distinct possibility that the boy may suffer even more if the parrots are taken.
The audience is swept into the beauty of the locale through the wonderful camera work, and the natural quality of the “non-actors” lends such an air of authenticity and realism that it draws one into the relationship between the brothers, heightening the tension as the story reaches its climax. I was, by turns, breathless with surprise and holding my breath as the story played out.
Lapid is a world-travelling filmmaker. She became interested in film while on a Fulbright scholarship to work with Gypsy children in Transylvania. A Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale and that trip to Eastern Europe led her to the University of Southern California, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in film.
“My family had moved to Las Cruces when I was twelve,” Lapid said. “So between all these chapters of my life, I always considered Las Cruces my home. I was very excited when the Creative Media Institute was created, and I came here to teach in 2011.”
She also led students on a trip to Ireland this past summer after making her film in Belize. This recent experience was not her first in the Central American country. She took students there in 2013 for a field school in documentary filmmaking and became interested in returning to make a narrative film. She was invited in March of 2016 to direct a feature documentary film about the yellow headed parrots, and while she chose not to make that film, she had the idea for “Yochi.” Lapid wrote the script in April and then left in early May to start filming. She had about ten days of pre-production in Belize and nine shooting days on the twenty-five-minute film.
According to Lapid, “Yochi” was never intended to be a message film about the plight of parrots in Belize; it is a story of two brothers and the loss of trust between them. That the film works to bring this conservation issue to the attention of audiences is a welcome side effect, however. Tim Wright, a biology professor at NMSU who specializes in the vocalization of parrots, has written a letter of introduction to the World Parrot Trust encouraging them to get behind the film “because it could really change minds.”
The arduous – and expensive – task of submitting the film to film festivals has already begun. It has been accepted at the Belize International Film Festival, and Lapid plans to return to Belize after that screening to show the film to other audiences there.
For more information about “Yochi,” go to the film’s website www.YochiFilm.com or Yochi Film on Facebook.