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The evident poverty of the characters is a reality for most of Paraguay’s 6.5 million people. While booming soy prices have raised the country’s gross domestic product for three straight years, a tiny upper class has held onto nearly all the wealth. Democratic governments have failed to budge the 55 percent poverty rate since a 35-year dictatorship ended in a coup in 1989. Of the nation’s impoverished, 31 percent live in extreme poverty, according to U.N. statistics.

International distributor Shoreline Entertainment is expected to bring “7 Cajas” to audiences around the world next year, shaping first and lasting impressions about Paraguay.

“I don’t understand why people come out laughing from the movie theaters like it was a comedy,” said Silvia Mongelos, 31, who works in an environmental foundation. “The movie is a social protest, from beginning to end, of our terrible reality.”

Maneglia, the director, emphatically denies trying to send that message.

“It’s too big of a responsibility,” Maneglia said. “I don’t think it encompasses all we are.”

Shoreline Vice President Sam Eigen agreed. “Before it focuses on any kind of social issues or relates to a particular situation in Paraguay, the feeling after watching the film is that its first priority is to be fun and entertaining,” Eigen said.

The filmmakers got funding from Paraguay’s government, cultural foundations and a private bank, but still came up short until they won a 100,000-euro ($128,000) “Films In Progress” award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain last year, allowing them to finish the low-budget project.

The finished film won San Sebastian’s Youth Award this year, along with Best Dramatic Feature at Sydney’s Cockatoo Island Film Festival. Showings then sold out at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where Shoreline outbid other distributors for the international rights.

“People couldn’t stop clapping, some had tears in their eyes,” Schembori said of the Toronto event.

“7 Cajas” isn’t among this year’s record 71 submissions for best Foreign Language Film. Without any experience in such matters, the producers and the government’s culture secretary missed the Academy Awards’ submission deadline.

The film has sold a national record 300,000 tickets at about $5.50 apiece since “7 Cajas” premiered in August. Its producers now plan to travel the country showing the movie in churches and gathering halls, sometimes to people who have never seen films on a big screen before.

They’re also organizing a free showing inside Municipal Market No. 4, keeping a promise they made to the workers there.

“They feel like this is their movie,” said Schembori. “It is their movie.”