Behind The Urban Frontier

The story of Reed Purvis, a skier and filmmaker who discovers a higher calling in the villas of Buenos Aires

Reed Purvis grew up skiing in the Cascades, eventually making a go of it as a big-mountain competitor and ski filmmaker. After a tough run trying to make it all work, he was invited down to Las Leñas, Argentina, to shoot videos for the emerging South America Snow Sessions backcountry camp. It was there that he made friends with an Argentinean from the villas—Argentina’s shanty slums similar to Brazil’s favelas—that dot the capital city of Buenos Aires, including next to Retiro, the main bus terminal that vagabond ski bums pass through on their way to Leñas and Bariloche. The unexpected experience he had there would eventually cause him to leave the ski world to make a documentary about the dynamic reality of life in the unseen world of the villas.

POWDER: How did you first become interested in the villas and what was your first visit like? Who brought you in? How did they receive a hulking gringo?
Reed Purvis: I had been to Central America as a little kid and had experienced poverty, so spending time in poor neighborhoods wasn’t anything new to me. But when I first saw urban poverty I was blown away. I had never really spent time in a big city in Latin America and seen informal barrios, and the contrast in Buenos Aires is really strong and visible between rich and poor. So naturally I wanted to go exploring and see the villas. It was like the same feeling you get when you climb a mountain and look over to the other peaks and want to spend a week or a month climbing and skiing all the lines you see in the distance. It was just like that, except exploring the streets and culture of the villas.

The first time I went with a friend that I met in Las Leñas. He had grown up in a villa in the north of the city in the wealthy neighborhood of San Isidro and was working in Las Leñas as a waiter to try snowboarding for the first time. His family had moved out of the villa years before, but we went there to visit. The first visit was an experience and it was actually really fun. It’s a very social experience; I realized the villa had a warmth that was often lacking in the formal city, with everyone in the street in front of their houses listening to music, sharing beer, food, etc.

The villas are everywhere but often following the tourist path you don't see them.

For the POWDER readers who might be flying into Buenos Aires and switching planes to Bariloche, Mendoza, or Ushuaia or getting on a bus to the Andes, where can they look out to see these villas you’ve been living and shooting in?
The villas are everywhere but often following the tourist path you don´t see them. However, a new part of the villa near the Retiro bus station has emerged over the last two years and you can easily see it from in front of the bus terminal. I live in one of the older neighborhoods there. Also, if you go to the ecological reserve, there’s a small villa next to it, but you can’t see it unless you go walking past the second entrance to the reserve. There’s really good Peruvian food in that villa.

When thinking about the kinds of conflicts laid out in your trailer, most Americans will more readily think about Rio de Janeiro and the favelas, especially since their residents have begun protesting against the lack of basic services despite the country’s growing wealthy population. How do you compare the situation in Brazil to the one you’ve been covering in Argentina?
I’ve been dreaming of going to Brazil for a while but I haven’t made it there yet. I keep wondering why I didn’t try and make this film in Rio de Janeiro; I could have been surfing all this time. Anyway, I’ve read a decent amount about the favelas and the situation is really similar to Argentina. The difference is that there is a higher percentage of residents living in favelas in Brazil than there are residents living in villas in Argentina. Also, the favelas developed powerful drug gangs and in Rio specifically, it created a situation of daily civil war between rival gangs and the BOPE (basically the Brazilian version of SWAT teams).

In the villas that doesn’t exist. But since there is no group controlling the villas, street crime is much higher and I believe they are actually more dangerous for people like me since there are no rules. In many favelas, there are strict rules enforced by drug cartels against thievery and street crimes.

What did it take to gain people’s trust, first as a gringo, and then secondly to be able to film their lives?
I met a lot of people and spent a lot of time socializing, going to parties, hanging out and that goes a long way in people opening up or being willing to be interviewed. Many of the people I filmed I became friends with first, so when I wanted to film it wasn’t that difficult in convincing them but often difficult in organizing a time and walking there with my camera without being robbed.

Before, I never went into the villa with my camera if I wasn’t with someone. I made it a rule. So sometimes I would have to wait at a friend’s store in the entrance for an hour for someone I knew to pass by and accompany me—such a pain in the ass. In terms of filming in the streets out in the open, it’s really dangerous no matter what, so I always have to be with someone, or do it quickly. The thieves, even if they know you, if they see you with something of value they send others to follow you or try and rob you, mostly if you’re by yourself.

I met a lot of people and spent a lot of time socializing, going to parties, hanging out and that goes a long way in people opening up or being willing to be interviewed. –Reed Purvis

In a separate interview, you mentioned you had one friend who lived in the villas simply because he enjoyed it more, had better connections with people, and more family time. What was your reaction to that and what was your experience with common complaints about the villas, like crime and poverty?
I talked to a few people who had the money to rent outside the villa, but returned to be closer to family and friends. In a formal city you have to call a friend, organize and take a bus or train to meet them. In the villa you just step outside your door and there are friends and people to talk to, or maybe you walk a block. It’s much less isolating socially than living in the formal city. I totally understood why they moved back to the villa. The flipside is you have to deal with more crime, more noise, and more people everywhere. Sometimes it sucks your energy away.

There are a lot of people who have money to rent in the city, people who own cars and trucks. The problem is many of those people have businesses in the villa and rent out the top two stories of their houses, so it’s difficult for them to move out. Also, they own houses in the villa, and although they have money, they can’t afford to buy a house in the city. So many people prefer to be homeowners in the villa rather than renters in the center. It’s basic economics.

You’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign for the film. How far have you gotten, how have you funded the film production thus far, and what is the goal and obstacles from here on out?
Yeah, it doesn’t look like the Kickstarter campaign has a chance at this point. The executive producer who I mentioned above and two Argentineans that have a production house here in Buenos Aires have funded the film so far. The goal is to finish the very last part of the production and begin post-production and have a finished film before the end of the year that will ideally be accepted into film festivals. But really, I just want to make a film that I’m stoked on.

Do the mountains even relate to the people of the villas? How much could you tell that the Andes were a part of the culture there?
The mountains don’t really relate to the people of the villas. There are many Bolivians that live here that come from Potosi, Cochabamba, and La Paz, which are mountainous areas, but the Bolivians don’t venture up the mountains as far as I know.

However, I do see some similarities between the sacrifices people make to pursue skiing and become pro skiers. I remember at a comp in Canada back in the day, Dave Treadway and Sarah Oakden and perhaps others were crashing at an abandoned house. I don’t know if it was abandoned, but it had no furniture and no heating. The dirt-bag lifestyle many people live to hopefully become pro skiers or even just compete on freeskiing tours is similar to the sacrifices immigrants make coming from poorer rural areas in order to have more opportunities in the city and give their kids a better education. They often live in shanty houses, wood and corrugated tin, plastics, and rug structures in order to invade a small piece of land to later build a house of solid materials with electricity and plumbing.

If you’d like to help Purvis finish his documentary, go here.

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