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How do you depict what it is to live at a specific moment in a specific place? Two Uruguayan artists have the recipe, and it involves many, many YouTube videos. Stephanie Nolen reports

Christmas Day back in 2012 was horribly hot in the Uruguayan capital. Filmmaker Agustin Ferrando was hunkered inside in the air-conditioning, and idly trawling YouTube on his laptop. He entered the search terms “Uruguay” and “today” – and up came a home video of a woman cutting flowers from a public median, shot by an irate man out his window. It was funny and poignant – the fellow behind the camera points out in the audio that the thief had driven up in a fancy car, and clearly didn’t need to be nicking community flowers.

Ferrando turned to his partner, Fernanda Montoro, and asked, “How is it nobody is doing anything with these kinds of things?”

Within a week, they had: Ferrando had searched each day for new video posted publicly on YouTube and cut it together into a narrative they called Otra Semana en Uruguay (Another Week in Uruguay). They put it on YouTube. A half-dozen friends watched it.

Two and a half years later, there have been 54 chapters and more than 3.8-million views – 500,000 more than their country has citizens. The project is a cult hit with Uruguayans of all ages: It’s beloved as “the smell of home,” as Ferrando puts it, for Uruguayans living abroad, and it has devoted fans around the world who may not understand the Spanish narration but have no trouble following the quirky spirit.

The pair screen 2,000 videos each week, and sample from 100, to cut together a six- to eight-minute piece. There might be a tractor parade in a farming town in the interior, a precocious baby who has learned to wave, a Rubik’s cube convention, a kid who crashed his bike, some senior citizens playing cards, a lady showing off the complicated pudding she mastered, a water main that broke, and a South Korean TV crew making an earnest documentary on the beef industry here. Seconds of each, over which Ferrando narrates in a sombre deadpan, gently mocking his small, misunderstood country and his earnest fellow citizens.

Does it sound weird? It is. And irresistible.

“It’s people getting to know a country from the inside out, from the intimate details,” mused Ferrando over tea in the capital.

It takes the pair a 40-hour marathon of screening and editing to make each chapter, posted on Sunday nights. They don’t earn a penny from it.

“We’ve had literally thousands of offers,” Ferrando said, sighing.

“But we haven’t found a way of monetizing without compromising the program,” finished Montoro. Recently they cut back to biweekly chapters because they could not maintain the schedule without starving. (In their real lives, Ferrando, 32, makes documentaries and music videos, while Montoro, 40, is a photographer.)

The artistic vision is rigid: They only use video from or about Uruguay, and only items that were uploaded in the previous week, or, now, fortnight. Only twice have people ever complained about their videos being used; the pair immediately removed the clips. Because people know the producers are not profitting, they tend not to mind if their videos are being used. And they know the spirit is affectionate. “You can manipulate in a good way,” Ferrando said. “We’re used to malicious manipulation. But you can make heroes out of common people.”

Indeed, most people are thrilled to appear – Ferrando and Montoro are flooded by e-mailed videos with pleas to be included. They refuse: “It has to have spontaneity,” he says. “You can tell if it’s authentic.”

Only once has a fan succeeded in getting his unsolicited material used: A repeat contributor, he submitted footage of Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler rooting in a Montevideo garbage can after a performance here last year, and pulling out a painting, which he carried off. Ferrando used the clip. The painting turned out to be the work of renowned Uruguayan artist Gonzalo Delgado, who learned via the video that some of his early paintings had gone in the rubbish bin of his teacher. The story made CNN.

Montoro and Ferrando call their channel Tiranos Temblad, from a line in the national anthem – while the show has nothing at all to do with defying tyranny, they wanted a phrase familiar to all Uruguayans, something insiderish, intrinsically Uruguayan, without being overtly nationalistic.

Another Week in Uruguay often features foreign-made content about Uruguay – excerpted in the original Japanese or Swedish or whatever. “Uruguay is a synonym for unknown, so there a lot of documentaries made here, about this unknown place,” explained Ferrando. Many feature bumbling “stranger in a strange land” narrators. Uruguayans eat it up. “For a country with low self-esteem, you feel you can laugh at them because, for the first time, they’ve made the mistakes,” he added.

Another fixture is a Crack of the Week – the hotshot, in Spanish slang. A young girl who can shuffle like a casino dealer, for example, or the kid who fixed the tent on his class camping trip.

“Before YouTube, you had to enter people’s houses to see this intimacy, because if you put a camera on people, they changed they way they acted,” mused the filmmaker. “Now, for the first time in history, we’re so used to it that your kid or your grandpa is filming and you don’t change the way you would if a documentary cameraman had a camera on you. For me as a documentarian, I find it so exciting to have this raw material.”

From that raw material, much of it innocuous, even banal, the artists distill images of the lives of strangers that are often funny, and yet somehow achingly beautiful, sometimes even haunting.

While Ferrando’s enduring love for his fellow humans comes through in the episodes, Montoro admits that sometimes she rolls her eyes or berates people on her screen for their foolishness.

A sixth-generation orthodontist, she had left Uruguay to work in London, where she happened to meet Ferrando; he was there shooting a tango show. Eventually he wooed her back home and she swapped her dentist drill for Polaroid cameras. Seven years later, they each listen beaming when the other speaks. While he is scruffy and vaguely elfin, she is striking, with long inky hair and Louise Brooks bangs, wide eyes and an even wider grin.

Neither is flustered by the way their peculiar artistic project has come to dominate their life.

“As a child, I thought I had to be a millionaire to be successful,” Ferrando said. “And one day I woke up and I was successful and totally broke. So that’s interesting.”