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Colombia is a hopeful country. Against our best instincts, after nothing but catastrophic disappointments and broken promises, people hope that the current peace process will come to something. This is not naive hope – even in the best possible scenario, the current agreement will only address one aspect (and one actor) in our historical clusterfuck. But there is no other option. It is either trying again or accepting that the world’s oldest ongoing conflict is a permanent feature. Even those who want to continue the war sell their militaristic programme on the basis of hope: for security and growth.
In Colombia people think about identities. Not just academics either; concepts from critical theory (‘the other’, ‘symbolic violence’) permeate journalistic and political discourse. This much attention given to cultural or ideological categories in a country with so much material inequality and physical violence may seem surprising. And yet, in 2015 Colombian film production hit a record high of 36 feature releases, while around 80 film festivals are active. This is an unprecedented scenario, and the hopes are also high. It is therefore an interesting moment for me to go back to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a festival I had not been to in almost a decade. Much has changed.
On the year the Festival started, 2000, only four Colombian films had been released, and there was no structure for state support of film production, after the collapse of the previous awards and tax credits system. A critic remarked that year on “the precariousness of our environment and the effective lack of a national film industry”.1 In 2015, the festival starts with a morning meeting of the National Cinematography Council, a body that includes representatives from all branches of the trade (except, as a vehement student noted, the universities). It was set up to oversee the execution of the 2003 Film Law, which established a tax on exhibition, distribution and production to be reinvested in the making and promotion of Colombian films. Nowadays, most Colombian films receive some support from this fund, as well as using other tax incentives for national and international production. Festivals like this one also apply for these public funds, in combination with an intricate mix of in-kind or cash support (the programme lists over 20 supporters, plus a dozen media partners and a longer list of local businesses).
While this ensures a professional organisation and smooth delivery, this festival is not aiming to compete with Cannes. It doesn’t have the same purpose. The aforementioned critic also described the event as “after all, a provincial festival”. This is still true, though the festival’s sense of locality has changed. Initially the explicit purpose of the festival was to reinvigorate film culture in a town that did not have a cinema. There was a focus on engaging the local audience, not only as spectators but also as budding filmmakers. The festival’s relationship with the municipality and schools is still strong, and many locals do attend. However, the audience has changed since the start of the festival, due to the increase of tourism in the region, and the nurturing of an audiovisually inclined milieu in the many Media and Communications university programmes in the nearest city, Medellin.
Located in the valley of River Cauca, some 35 miles north-west from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia has long been a tourist town, due to its hot, dry weather and colonial architecture. However, since the opening in 2006 of a new tunnel that shortened the travel time from Medellin in half, Santa Fe’s appeal has increased considerably. Wealthy Medellin couples choose it for picturesque weddings, thrill-seekers find a variety of lightly regulated adventure sports, and the less well-off visit on day trips by motorbike or bus. The festival’s own crowd, however, is mostly students, who come as much for the parties as for the films. Many of them are more interested in making films than in watching them, or at least watching them while sober. I don’t know why, but many people here really want to make films, and the festival has found ways to show their work to an audience mostly of peers. The talks, panels and workshops take a practical angle, from independent film production to film acting and 3D animation. There are also a number of open-air panel discussions with filmmakers and actors, a festival tradition. The presence of well-known actors (likely to be familiar to the audience through their work on television) continues to create popular interest in the academic programme.
Throughout the day, the programme of screenings, talks and workshops is spread around various indoor spaces in the town, through agreements with the municipal theatre, the Chambers of Commerce, the state university, and other public and private entities that have appropriate venues. The free-of-cost and unticketed nature of most events is in the festival’s ethos, but it creates a variety of logistical problems. During the day, the small spaces available are not enough to accommodate the demand; people were turned away from many of the screenings I attended. Many film festivals wished they had this problem – keen audiences for films that are not necessarily brand new or exclusive. Screenings of shorts by young and emerging filmmakers are also full to capacity.
Open-air screenings start at about 6.30 or 7pm, after the sun has set, and face other issues. The presenters introducing each screening explain their censorship rating and try to persuade parents to take home their children if the film has more adult content, like the lyrically sexual Cheatin’ (Plympton, 2013) which opened the festival. In any case, there are plenty of unaccompanied minors who are unlikely to heed the advice. The efficacy of the four walls and single entrance of a cinema as a device for exclusion is obvious by comparison.
Walls are also rather good at keeping light and noise out, and a tourist town on a busy weekend is definitely not a quiet place. The light from street lamps and shops makes the darkest parts of a dark movie, Violencia, completely undecipherable. The three quiet, naturalistic, devastating stories distil the tragedies and dignity of thousands of victims and survivors, and commit them to memory. They deserve better than competing for attention with the party music blaring from the corner of the park, or the tuk-tuks racing down the cobbled streets. And yet, it was important to have this film there, and La Tierra y la Sombra on the following night. This town has its own history of violence, and the watchful eye of the paramilitaries is still an unspoken presence in these colonial squares.
On Saturday evening, people are leaving mass at the Nazarene church, and in the cosy, secluded square outside it, a conversation follows two shorts. Like other events in the festival, the panel includes film actors and the director of Violencia. But the event is organised by the National Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the International Organisation for Migration, and one of the other participants is a demobilised guerrilla combatant. As she speaks plainly of how hard it has been to work alongside the people she once fought, I fear for her. Some of her old enemies may still be circling around on their motorbikes, I think. She is brave, and speaking of peace here is a courageous act, and peace is going to take a lot of courage.
Trailer for Jorge Forero’s Violencia:
1Braulio Uribe, “I Festival de Cine y Video de Santa Fe de Antioquia: Pueblito de mis cuitas”, Kinetoscopio No. 58 (2001), pp. 107-111.