Cinema as a document or cinema as exploitation? The responsibility of cinema and TV series in stunting public debate, and encouraging a culture of easy money. Making a biographical film while close to death, his life really passed in front of his eyes.
His latest film “It all started at the end”, was conceived with the plan of making a retrospective film about the history of Colombian cinema, but he suddenly found himself dignosed with a rare form of cancer that required immediate hospitalization, to actually have a chance of surviving.
This exemplifies why he doesn’t believe in making plans, he says, because they can suddenly change. Luckily he enjoys surprises. And by extension he has a life-long mistrust of idealistic theories and ideologies, ‘sold to us by philosophers and politicians’, which, when put into practice quickly fall apart at great human cost.
But there is still the question of legacy, both personal and of Colombian cinema, tied up with the question of responsible film-making – he detests the way that cinema and especially TV have exploited drug-related violence in Latin America, and glorified criminals like Escobar as if they were the brand-image of Colombia.
His film looks back over his life in cinema, and thanks to his illness it worked as a classic example of a person’s life passing before their eyes near to death, complete with a breaking-up of chronological sequence, and flashbacks: life truly imitating art.
In his musings, he also reflects on his place in the creative triangle he formed for many years with Carlos Mayolo and Andrés Caicedo, and how so many artists of that period burned out and died young.
Today, with all the inequalities in the world, and in countries like Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, where there is so much violence, drug trafficking and other problems, do you think that documentary cinema has an important role to play?
It is important, and not only documentary, but also fiction films. The subject of violence, drugs and trafficking must be part of audio-visual expression. This is so evident in our countries, and it has changed our own reality in a very brutal way. What has also happened is that we have begun to normalize and trivialize the subject of drug trafficking, violence and ‘miserabilism’. Personally, I think that the job of the artist is to be a witness to the events of their time, not to propose solutions. If reality is violent, show it as violent, and leave the spectator to work out what solutions there might be. It isn’t for me to suggest solutions, since even the politicians don’t know what to do.
In the past you have criticised European cinema for making ‘poverty-porn’ films about Latin America. But isn’t it also true that some Latino directors are making ‘violence-porn’?
Yes, I believe they are simply exploiting the themes of violence and drug-trafficking, and TV more so than cinema. TV has trivialized and distorted it a great deal, and since it is a mass medium, especially now, because TV series are more important than cinema.
There are phenomena like “Narcos”, about drug-trafficking in Colombia, which are being watched all over the world.
But for example, the actor who plays Pablo Escobar could be Brazilian, as in the “Narcos” series, or Spanish, like Javier Barden in a recent film. So, the subject is situated in a kind of ‘no-man’s-land’ – the characters don’t speak in the accent they should have, and there is a kind of ‘writing degree zero’ [Roland Barthes’s term] – and a lack of any anchorage to reality. And I think it a kind of new ‘miserabilismo’.
And, there is also a tendency to glorify people like Pablo Escobar, who has become a kind of hero around the world: they even sell T-shirts of him.
This kind of distorted representation of reality has a very negative effect on young people, because they start to believe in easy money.
More recently you made some films about Fernando Vallejo and Pedro Manrique Figueroa – why about them?
Making films about these figures, is for me an opportunity to talk about my generation. They are artists who were involved in the problems that my generation had to face, and with the solutions and the failures that we experienced: those of us who grew up with the Cuban revolution, with May ’68, with the hippie movement, and the culture of drugs and Rock ‘n Roll. These films are like an investigation, not so much of the characters, but of the decades in which they were situated. They are generational films.
Are any of your films not heart-breaking, because they always seem to be about death, pain and dark places?
I don’t have a very optimistic view of the world, nor of the human being. So, I identify very much with Luís Bunuel, when he said that he used to make films to show that we don’t live in the best of worlds. The politicians, leaders, philosophers, have always been selling us an ideal vision of a world, which doesn’t work in practice – from Marxism to other theories. When utopian theories have been put into practice they have been big failures.
Isn’t this a personal theme that you have had a vision of failure and fear of death since you were quite young?
I feel myself very fortunate, that at least I have been able to have the illusion that things could change. At the present time, it is very difficult for a young person to recover their humanity, and to think that the world could be better, when they see the planet being destroyed, and global warming; that politicians are more and more corrupt, brutish, that the world we live in is governed by Donald Trump in the USA, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and Theresa May in the UK.
I think Obama was nearly the same, he killed so many people with drones…
Yes, Obama was the president who started more wars, more than Bush. Young people, and the majority of the Black population had a lot of hope in a Black president that there had never been before.
But in practice the result was the same as with a Reagan or a Bush – an imperialist like the rest of them.
This new film, “It all started at the end” is set in an apartment in Bogotá with your friends. So, in a way is it also like a return to the beginning when your father was making home movies?
In some way, all my films are ‘home movies’ about a dysfunctional family. A group of our friends whose work is connected to cinema, at that time when we didn’t have children, and cinema and our work shaped us into a family and in friendship. So, it isn’t by chance that the film would be a home movie, and the film was made in my home. And it’s an autobiographical film, at a very particular moment in my life, when I had to face death – which I had dealt with in other films, but never so directly. Then it was the death of other people, not the possibility of my own death.
Before your health problems arose, was your intention to make a film that looked back over the history of cinema in Colombia?
Yes, initially it was a more informative historical project about the ‘70s and ‘80s, but due to circumstances, it changed into something about the period I was going through, and how when someone feels close to death you look at the past in a very different and more chaotic way. Time begins to jump. And because of that the film moves a lot between the beginning and the end, without keeping a chronological sequence, because this idea also exists in literature, that when someone is close to death they will remember their life as if it were a film. This happened in Ambrose Bierce, in Tolstoy or in Ivan Illich, it’s a recurring theme in art.
In your film, Carlos Mayolo is characterized as the ‘wild genius’, would you see yourself as a more logical, sober character in contrast?
Let’s say that the basic triangle was formed between Andrés Caicedo, Carlos Mayolo and myself in the middle between the very precocious genius Caicedo – who committed suicide at 25 and left behind a huge amount of work – and the brilliant personality of Mayolo, who also lived his life to the limit.
To some extent the film is about self-destruction in the short- and the long-term. Carlos Mayolo was to a degree a victim of his time. It’s a very common theme in the 20th Century, of very talented people who just burn out. A Dylan Thomas, or a Brendan Behan, or a Jack Kerouac, characters who are like martyrs for their generation.
Do you have any plans for a new film?
I don’t like to talk much about plans for the future, because as I told you, this latest film began with one plan and ended with a different one. Part of what I enjoy about my work is that there are surprises, and I’m not repeating myself, or just copying an idea and putting it into a different medium.
(Photos provided by Luis Ospina)