By Pedro Adrián Zuluaga
Translated by Gabriella Munoz
Colombia has gained a place in the international landscape mainly because of two predominant narratives. As the country where, thanks to the literary genius of Gabriel García Márquez, an aesthetic-political programme was coined: the magical realism that, supposedly, makes justice to an exuberant and excessive reality. Or as a nation that war has splintered: a country that is victim to a civil conflict that has dragged on and where one of the oldest guerrillas in the world (the FARCS, organization that in 2016 signed an agreement with the Colombian government that transformed it into an unarmed political entity) as well as drug dealers famous for their vicious and evildoing rule. The first narrative has been reproduced by a cinema that nurtures and exaggerates the fantastic and improbable. The second narrative, with a predominant realist aesthetic and few melodramatic traces, is always anchored to the facts and reality. This is an aesthetic that the film industry could have inaugurated but that has had a relay and a second life on television and the new audio-visual formats, starting with series such as Narcos, a Netflix production.
These two narratives, of course, are not enough to explore Colombia’s complexity but they frame it in an easy-to-comprehend way that satisfies the international thirst for the exotic and different. Our difference is produced from the outside though complied from within. But those who believe that inside and outside correspond exactly to the local and global are wrong. Thinking in those terms entails ignoring that subordination requires approval and consensus; to say the least, it’s a measured and administered difference and, for it to be executed, it needs a bureaucracy that thrives in funds, festivals, institutes, ministries and businesses. Oftentimes, the artist acts almost like another bureaucrat (with a key to interpret reality and, above all, with the tool to divulge its interpretation) who gets its matching salary. This means that the mechanisms of exoticization can work both in Paris and Cannes, in Bogota and Medellin. Understanding why they work, more than just providing a diagnostic, is one of the purposes of this article.
The tension between magical realism (something essentially misunderstood, where people tend to omit the subjection of the magic to the most profound structure of reality) and plain and simple realism has been expressed in an emblematic showcase of twenty Colombian films (a mix of feature films, documentaries and short films) that was exhibited in 1990 at an exemplary venue: New York’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoMA). MoMA’s retrospective provided both pattern and logic from its own title: ‘Colombian Cinema-Frommagictorealism’. It seemed, in fact, to describe an inevitable progression from a primitive estate of grace (magic) to a fall (realism).
Magic and realism would summarize, according to this vision, the two stages that illustrated the historical becoming of the Colombian cinema. The title suggests a displacement where the realist extreme of Rodrigo D. No futuro (Víctor Gaviria, 1990), the most recent film in MoMA’s showcase, would annul the validity of the magical realism linked to Garcia Marquez’s literary world. In the last few years, however, some films have tried to synthesise these two tales. The best example of this new aesthetic-political programme is the oeuvre of the young director Ciro Guerra and his producer Cristina Gallego (with whom he shares the direction credit in their fourth film together). Both in Pájaros de verano (Birds of Passage, 2018) and El abrazo de la serpiente (Embrace of the Serpent, 2015), magic and realism are reiterated and at the same time confronted. Both films, therefore, have become almost a summary of all the challenges, contradictions and paradoxes in the relationship between Colombia and its cinema.
Embrace of the Serpent was released at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and in 2016 it was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the Academy Awards. Guerra’s film portraits the exuberant Amazonian nature but instead of giving way to a spectacular visual feast, Guerra decides to show it in abstract black and white. The same anti-celebratory toil can be seen in the treatment of Colombia’s cultural and linguistic diversity, which the 1991 Constitution, still in force, has recognised in an elated tone.
Embrace of the Serpent shows and comments in a critical and disenchanted way on the representation of the first people nations in the literary and iconographic tradition. It builds its narrative starting with the cruel history of killings and violent writings that allowed the entry of these nations, at the cost of their almost annihilation, into history and progress. The film pretends to make a historical reckoning, bringing to the centre of the national narrative geographic and cultural borders; and in bringing these borders to the centre of the film, Guerra repeated a constant gesture in Colombia’s contemporary cinema: shooting peripheric geographies, registering with anthropological will spaces threaten by war and predatory capitalism, and bringing to the centre of the narrative an unavoidable contradiction between progress and tradition. The narrative vehicle is an internationally accessible style that allowed the entry of this cinema to the prestige festival circuit. Among these films we have to mention titles such as El vuelco del cangrejo (Crab Trap, Óscar Ruiz Navia, 2009), Porfirio (Alejandro Landes, 2011), La Sirga (William Vega, 2012) and La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade, César Acevedo, 2015).
Almost in parallel to these exercises of ‘poetic justice’ the government and the FARC guerrilla started talks and then a long process of peace that, despite its many tumblings, managed to put an end to the longest conflict in Latin American history. This process sharpens all discussions on the enormity of scores that need to be settled in a society such as contemporary Colombia. In the difficult post-conflict times through which the country is going through, there is enough space to raise a question about the tales submerged a propos of the war’s centricity and the possibility that, now, in a different scenario, new narratives come to life and different characters, landscapes and zones of reality are brought to light.
All this discussion is happening during a moment of ambiguous bloom in Colombian cinema, with a production of almost 50 feature films per year. With this number of films, our industry has become the largest fourth in Latin America, coming right after Mexico, Brazil and Argentina (historical giants). This growth can be explained through the confluence of various phenomenon, including a generational renovation that has made extremely appealing all audio-visual related professional careers, a strong economic investment in service businesses and, particularly, a legal frame that guarantees the creation of State policy that guarantees private investment in combination with government patronage.
The inflexion point of this new stage of Colombia cinema can be traced to 2003, when the Colombian Parliament approved the Law 814, or Film Law. This legal frame recognizes the existence of productive forces and social agents that needed an institutional frame to be able to go from the adventurism of filmmaking to the consolidation of an heterogenous but vital cinematography in which, given the lack of great individual oeuvres, one can recognize a notable effort of collective expression and organization.
The body of the nation and the nation without body
During the past few years, Colombian cinema has faced multiple questions and paradoxes that have to do with the basis of its identity. For example, what defines ‘the Colombian’ in the cinema of our country, one that has a history of innumerable diasporas, disintegration and violence? Which traditions are worthy of revindication? Where are the forefathers?
A year after the approval of the Filming Law, San Sebastian Film Festival premiered the Ciro Guerra’s debut film, La sombra del caminante (The Wandering Shadow, 2004), which was exhibited in 2005 in Colombia during another controversial processes of demobilization, that of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group. In Guerra’s film, a murderer (the victimizer who carries people inside a silleta or chair tied to his back) and one of his victims are face-to-face, which leads to an ethical confrontation that echoes Emmanuel Levinas’s expositions and his idea of recognition based in the face-to-face experience of the other. 1 When looking at and recognising each other, the victim and the victimizer of this film find that that which ties them is much more profound than what separates them. Their common experience of loneliness and abandonment becomes common ground from where a new brotherhood can bloom.
The Wandering Shadow was a pioneer film of what we can described as ‘post-conflict cinema’. Of course, this is not the only possible option but certainly an option that recognises the urgent need to summon the ghosts that the war has left behind to try to materialise them into a narrative that displays a pedagogical sorry tale and reconciliation. In a much more pragmatic way, the film showed that it was possible to make low-budget films combining local money and international funding.
This film started to outline not only new aesthetics but new production techniques and the paramount, although almost always discreet, role of the producer. The company Ciudad Lunar was behind The Wandering Shadow, and their producers Diana Bustamante and Cristina Gallego, both graduates from the Escuela de Cine de la Universidad Nacional, the most important audio-visual school in the country and an important factor in our cinema’s renovation, met there. Bustamante and Gallego worked together in Ciro Guerra’s second feature film, Los viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys, 2009) and then, with their respective production companies, Burning Blue and Ciudad Lunar, they became the cornerstone of Colombia’s international film presence. Burning Blue produced César Augusto Acevedo’s Land and Shade, which in 2015 won the Golden Camera in Cannes, the most prestigious award that Colombian cinema has ever received in its history; and is leading the pre-production of Memoria, a film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul which will be shot in Colombia in 2019.
Bustamante produced Óscar Ruiz Navia’s Crab Trap, which premiered in Toronto Film Festival in 2009. This film is a landmark of contemporary Colombian cinema because of the way in which it captured a particular moment of the country’s history in a narrative that managed to insert itself in the international cinema discourse of that moment, in particular with the one produced in other countries of the Southern Hemisphere and recognisable in stylistic characteristics such as the incorporation of non-professional actors and a strong documentary vein.
Five years after the implementation of the 814 Law, the debut of Ruiz Navia indicated, just like The Wandering Shadow did years before, a road towards what can be called a ‘new Colombian cinema’. The paradox of this novelty is that, at the same time, it updates the questionings and answers present during Latin America’s literary boom. Uruguayan critic Ángel Rama identified the modus operandi of the early narratives of García Márquez: “Modernization of the narrative writing and profound Americanisation of the matter and its signification.” 2 This new cinema recovers the dialectics that Rama mentions, although in the conditions that the historical present allows. The triangle completes itself with the European gaze (or in general of the Global North countries) towards this production, which again brings back memories of the literary boom, invented as an editorial phenomenon in Europe.
Filmed amongst a community of African descent in the Colombian Pacific, Crab Trap examines a political and cultural conflict that allows us to read the footprints that the Colombian War left and its main motives: land property, tension between the traditional and divergent ideas of progress and development. The film is indeed heir of the films about violence and their realist charge (it is one of the dominant tales in Colombian cinema). Here this legacy is re-framed and filtered by what Rama would call a modern narrative take: dull and problematic characters hard to reduce to simple psychological notions, faint argumentative anecdotes in the surface but clearly tense in depth (sometimes suggested or out of view) and realist take on rural everydayness. These are narrative and stylistic characteristics that can well be seen in other international films of this period and also produced in Global South countries, what, undoubtedly, facilitated the circulation and success of this and other films.
Crab Trap renegotiates with the recurrent themes and topics of the anterior Colombian cinema, assuming the legacy uncomfortably but willing to take it somewhere else. On one hand, the philosophical substratum of the Filming Law demanded re-thinking of the place that film has and its responsibility in the creation of a body of foundational and identity tales in a country that was failed from its beginning, in part because it has narrated itself many times from the negation of its fundamental heterogeneity. Mainly a young group of directors, which has other interests and different learnedness to the previous generations, has assumed this heritage. Most of these directors, who today have appropriated cultural and symbolical capital to make films in Colombia, have studied film or related areas both locally and internationally, and have recognition rituals that make them different to the directors of other epochs: their life experience is anchored more towards the city and have defined part of their identity in relationship with film studies and pop culture, which are not necessarily antithetical. Cinema (or everything audio-visual) becomes a substitute country in which the porous geographical frontiers are better recognised than the ones in which one has grown up.
A good chunk of their films, however, instead of getting lost in the representations of no-place, move towards the borders of the country to provide a narrative entity to a few geographies rarely named by the cultural tradition. This ethnographic exercise has been happening for a few decades. The oeuvre of Víctor Gaviria hence becomes a key reference of contemporary Colombian cinema, even if his importance isn’t recognised explicitly. Gaviria’s personal poetic had a strong visibility, endorsed by his presence in Cannes’ Official Selection with Rodrigo D. No futuro (1990) and La vendedora de rosas (The Rose Seller, 1998). His films have also been showered in academic, social and mediatic attention. So much, in fact, that the discussion surrounding poverty porn ended up touching upon these films.
To better understand the historical context in which the discussion on poverty porn is inserted, it’s necessary to go back to 1978, when Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo premiered the short film Agarrando pueblo (The Vampires of Poverty, 1977), in which they displayed the moral and aesthetic misery in the dominant representations of poverty and the social margins in Colombian cinema and the so-called ‘third world’. This ‘documentary’, ironic and self-conscious, unveils the triangle that makes ‘misery vampirism’ possible. First, social beings marginalised from the promises of development and well-being; second, the filmmakers who took advantage of the situation, and third, a European gaze hungry for validation, in which very schematic representations denote its good (fake) conscience. It was based on this triangular scheme that Mayolo and Ospona minted the term pornomiseria (poverty porn), which has become a word that sometimes clarifies and other blackens the judgement on a film corpus that keeps growing.
Many of the discussions surrounding Colombian cinema end up questioning if in this new era and considering the new Colombian cinematography there could be traces of those practices, given the persistence both of social inequality and the Eurocentric gaze (that’s not only based in Europe, as I’ve explained before) which is condescend upon these realities. The (partial) answer is that it’s almost indispensable to re-examine concrete situations and films, one by one.
The new directors and their oeuvre aren’t homogeneous. There’s no collective political agenda, although there are gazes that overlap. My hypothesis suggests that this has to do with our times: after all the film’s unconscious creator is always the epoch to which it belongs. Films such as Crab Trap, Los colores de la montaña (The Colours of the Mountain, Carlos César Arbeláez, 2011), Porfirio and La play D.C. (Juan Andrés Arango, 2012), La Sirga (William Vega, 2012), Violencia (Jorge Forero, 2015), Land and Shade (César Acevedo, 2015), Siembra (Ángela Osorioa y Santiago Lozano, 2015) and Oscuro animal (Felipe Guerrero, 2016) refrain, for example, from the ‘pornographic’ temptation of showing the war, which is something always obscene or very difficult to represent. Instead, these directors chose to portrait its footprints, focusing on those who suffer the consequences of the conflict, even if they are the victimizers. In films such as the thriller Perro come perro (Dog Eat Dog, Carlos Moreno, 2008), the horror films El paramo (2011) and Siete cabezas (2017), both by Jaime Osorio Márquez, or the regional western Pariente (Iván Gaona, 2016) the will to make oblique commentaries on Colombian violence, despite the subjection to genre codes, is notable.
Porfirio is an extremely representative case of narratives without a big climax and the emphasis of this new cinema on hurt bodies as the main landmark of the war. Landes’s film, which had its world premiere at rthe Cannes Director’s Fortnight, is based on a pirate who kidnapped an airplane seeking attention from the government to receive compensation after being shot and left unable to perform several basic functions. The most interesting narrative moments, according to a conventional perspective, such as the plane kidnapping, are avoided. Hence the public centres their attention in Porfirio’s familiar surroundings and in the war’s subjective trace as well as its immediate relationships.
What is known in Colombia as cinema of violence has a long and uninterrupted tradition. Its foundation is found in the short films Esta fue mi vereda (Gonzalo Canal Ramírez, 1958) and El río de las tumbas (Julio Luzardo, 1965). As mentioned before, the new films don’t underestimate this tradition, they just displace and refocus it. Recent films, such as the ones mentioned above, centre on the symptoms that the bodies, both social and individual, express after decades of conflict. If the cinema of the past was abundant in motifs such as corpses in the river, devastating fires, and rape of women and places, the new cinema revisits ruins and works towards the idea of a nation as a ‘sick body’. 3
This macro-tale is present both in fiction and nonfiction, though with very different production processes. Abandoned houses and towns, nostalgia for the lost home, the invention of the self through memory, props such as letters, pictures and audio-visual archives, intense desire and real impossibility to bring back a centre of the world that is always affective although it can spread out architecturally. These are themes that obsess and that films such as Land and Shade take to unexpected places.
The so-called auteur films (a wrong term that quite a few critics and academics consider obsolete because it lays down a false disjunction between these films and those defined as commercial), which are also filtered through cinephilia’s international influence, are the ones that gather more attention from festivals and the institutional web that surrounds them. This production lives together with the local market, which is a very different cinematography: national movies, particularly comedies and a cinema whose clear mission is to entertain and make sure people go to the multiplexes. For authorial films the challenge is the great division between international recognition and the local public’s reception. There is also the need to find different ways to evaluate the life, or commercial success, of films, considering longer consumption periods than those of their commercial premiere, which lead to the false disjunction mentioned above.
Another cinema?! Other countries?!
With the arrival of FARC as a left-wing party to the political arena and the triumph of the extreme right in the elections of June 2018, many questions about the immediate future of the country and the flexibility of its democratic institutions to admit those who think differently were asked. The latest electoral campaign politicized society sectors that had spent years feeling comfortable in their own apparent neutrality. The leftist candidate, Gustavo Petro, who was defeated during the second round, had the support of filmmakers, writers, plastic artists and intellectuals, something unusual in Colombia’s cultural scene. On the other side, the increasing violence against social leaders, and the transformation (but not the dismantlement) of the Colombian conflict, poses an enormous representation challenge.
During the last few years, themes that were engulfed by the war’s centrality, were starting to mushroom on the film landscape. Films about family or couple conflicts are a clear example: Gente de bien (Franco Lolli, 2014), Ruido rosa (Pink Noise, Roberto Flores, 2015), Anna (Jacques Toulemonde, 2015), Días extraños (Strange Days, Juan Sebastian Quebrada, 2015) or Adiós entusiasmo (So Long Enthusiasm, Vladimir Durán, 2017). There was an emerging screenwriting of emotion and sociological conflicts, which hadn’t been widely explored in the Colombian cinema tradition, and a dialogue with other influences (ashamed of being displaced) such as telenovelas or theatre. The last two films, both shot in Argentina, also show film production displacements and the way in which these flows have intensified transnational exchanges that were always present in the film industry.
Although the fiction feature film continues to be more visible that other formats, and is granted the majority of the official packages that sprout from the Filming Law, it’s impossible to understand Colombian cinema’s creative crossroad without considering its documentary production, short films or films produced sans official stimulus (and outside the country). The Colombian documentary has a robust tradition and has been particularly linked to counter-information, denunciation and political compromise. Without getting rid of this history, although trying to tame it, the contemporary documentaries made in the country continue to expose community struggles and individuals surfing through Colombia’s conflictive history of exclusions and violence. This type of documentary co-exists with much personal gazes, a collection of films gathered under the umbrella of ‘reflexive documentary’. The distinction that the self is manifested in myriad ways in our documentary production is not easily spotted. For example, arranging the narrative material in a sequence in the case of La impresión de una guerra (Impression of a War, Camilo Restrepo, 2015), which was awarded in Locarno, or researching family and personal history to understand more complex social processes such as in The Smiling Lombana (Daniela Abad, 2018).
Documentaries such as Réquiem NN (Juan Manuel Echaverría, 2013), Memorias del Calavero (Rubén Mendoza, 2014), Un asunto de tierras (Patricia Ayala, 2015) or the trilogies Campo hablado (En lo escondido, 2017; Los abrazos del río, 2010, and Noche herida, 2015) by Nicolás Rincón Gille and Jorge Caballero’s work on institutions (Bagatela, 2008; Nacer, diario de maternidad, 2013, and Paciente, 2016), which take the documentary to new searches which are not related with the urgent or current but with long processes that need to be patiently observed to be fully understood. These themes and topics do not gather mediatic attention.
Veteran documentarians such as Luis Ospina, Marta Rodríguez and Óscar Campo, keep on working on an oeuvre that gives continuity to their obsessions. With them, a national landscape which is rich in expressive intensity and points of view is completed. Cuerpos frágiles (Campo, 2010; Testigos de un etnocidio: Memorias de resistencia (Rodríguez, 2007-2011) and Todo comenzó por el fin (It All Started at the End, Ospina, 2015) reacted to the new circumstances and tendencies of the documentary, including a rich narrative framework which incorporates archives.
Colombian directors who reside outside the country have articulated a production with a clear documentary signature that allows them to keep emotional and creative ties with Colombia. Their projects are a sort of in-between bridging their place of residency and the country that they never truly left, and where the filmmaker’s subjectivity (and identity) is redefined and renegotiated by the contact with other traditions and mirrors. The oeuvre of Ana María Salas (Frente al Espejo, 2009 and En la ventana, 2011), Felipe Guerrero (Paraíso, 2006 and Corta, 2012), Laura Huertas Millán (Aequador, 2012 and Sol negro/Black Sun, 2016), Juan Soto (Estudio de reflejos, 2014 and Parábola del retorno/Parable of the Return, 2016), Carmen Torres (Amanecer /Down, 2018), and Felipe Monroy (Los fantasmas del Caribe, 2018), among many others, belong to this category.
Many of the tendencies here mentioned (routine reiteration, a quest for the personal, intimate and familiar narratives, and the return to the urban) have originated or at least have a notable presence in short films and, from this experimental space, they have become success stories. Simón Mesa’s short film Leidi (2014), which is reminiscent in many ways of Víctor Gaviria’s universe, won the Golden Palm in its category in Cannes 2014.
Juan Sebastián Mesa’s Los Nadie (2016) started as a short film but became a feature one. It premiered in 2016 during Cartagena Film Festival, the most important in Colombia. This film is reminiscent of Rodrigo D. Mesa and Gaviria’s films show youngsters in the same city but two decades apart. While Gaviaria’s debut film was a potent declaration of powerlessness towards a future that looked almost proscribed, Los Nadie is a celebration of friendship and utopia, although with many difficult circumstances. The adventures of five friends in Medellin that resist to be pigeonholed by violence, and who seek to travel together in what seems an initiation journey, expressed at a symbolical level the best of the energy of a country that longs, despite its contradictions, not to repeat its tragic history. A country that recognises its forefathers (and a cinema that does the same, Los Nadie with Victor Gaviria’s influence) but that seeks to transform that legacy for those who are here, and those who will come, so that they have a second chance in this land.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Totalidad e infinito: Ensayo sobre la exterioridad (Salamanca: Sígueme, 1999). ↩
- Ángel Rama, ‘La imaginación de las formas,’ en La hojarasca de Gabriel García Márquez (Bogota: Círculo de Lectores, 1984), p. 11 ↩
- Juana Suarez. “Economías de la memoria: Imaginarios de la violencia en el documental colombiano 2000 – 2010”. Lecture, Segundo Encuentro de Investigadores de Cine, Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogota, October, 2010 ↩