Comments, Culture, In Focus, Screen

Luis Ospina (Part 1): It all started at the end

After a long battle with cancer, the well-known film director died last week. Last year Ospina gave an extensive and exclusive interview to The Prisma and he talked about the unsteady history of cinema in Colombia.

Beginning in his native city of Cali he was part of the renaissance that began in the ‘60s with the Caliwood movement. He talks about the fine line in his work between fiction and documentary, described by the controversial term ‘mockumentary’.


Luis Ospina

Graham Douglas


Luis Ospina, who was deeply involved with the resurrection of cinema in Cali (Colombia) where it had begun in 1921, is looking back over the history of cinema since his first involvement in the ‘Caliwood’ movement in 1971.

Colombia, of course, is no ordinary country, and the development of cinema has not been smooth: a repeated process of life – death, life – death as he puts it, where the State took a long time to offer effective support.

His own film-making leans towards documentary, but only leans, because he is fascinated by the fine line between fiction and documentary, and how cinema techniques can either reveal truth or hide it.

In Caliwood, he was involved with two other creative people, film-maker Carlos Mayolo (1945-2007) and writer Andrés Caicedo (1951 – 1977), and one of Ospina and Mayolo’s most influential films was “Agarrando pueblo” (The vampires of poverty, 1978), criticizing the way European cinema was using Latin America as a source of ‘poverty-porn’.

He describes this film and the later “A paper tiger” (2007) by the ambiguous term ‘mockumentary’, viewed negatively by some critics. Vampirism and cannibalism became important metaphors for capitalism in their approach to film-making at this time.

I met Luis after the showing of his film “Todo comenzó por el fin” (It all begins at the end), at the Ibero – American Film Festival in Lisbon. The film was conceived as a review of the history of Colombian film-making, but reality, in the form of a potentially fatal illness intervened and became interwoven with the story, which, “like all my films is a ‘home – movie”, he says. But it’s a home movie which deals with some very un-homely topics and documents an important phase of cinema history in Colombia.

Cali seems to be the epicentre of your work. What is special about it?

I was born there, so the connections with the city are in my roots, my blood and my family. The first silent film, “Maria”, was made in Cali in 1921. It was very successful, but it has disappeared. Because of its success, several other silent films were made in Cali, but the majority of them have been lost, as happened with silent films elsewhere in the world. Then the first talking film, “Flores del Valle” (Flowers of the Valley), was made there, and in 1955, the first colour film, “El Gran Obsesión” (The Great Obsession). After that no more films were made in Cali until the end of the ‘60s, when people like my friend Carlos Mayolo appeared, who began making his first short films. And I started making films in Cali in 1971, the year in which the Grupo de Cali, also known as “Caliwood” – was formed. Although I studied cinema in California at UCLA, I never intended to work in the USA or in Hollywood, but to make films in my home town, because there was a lot of work to be done: it was a city that had lost its audio-visual heritage. There was no audio-visual record since the ‘50s. I wanted to document the city, its popular culture and to highlight certain important characters in Cali that made the city what it is today.

I began making a series of films around this theme, and on what differentiated Cali from other regions of the country. And also, about important writers such as Andrés Caycedo. And I dedicated my work to Cali during the period 1971 – 1995. I made over 20 documentaries, ending in 1995 with a series of 10. So, I had a very close relationship with the city during that period. Then I moved to Bogota, and after that my work was more concerned with other topics.

That documentary, “De la ilusión al desconcierto” (Hopes and confusions), which focused on the relation between cinema and the State, was made in 2007. Why did it only cover the period up to 1995?

The National Cinema Archive planned to make a history of Colombian cinema. They appointed one director to cover the period of silent cinema and up to 1969: I was contracted to do the period 1970 – 1995, and a third person to deal with the period from then until the present. So, I was treating those 25 years that coincided very much with my career, which began in the ‘70s. I focused a lot on the relations between cinema and the State, because when I arrived in Colombia, there was no legislation dealing with cinema, no state funding, and everything had to be done independently. But then the State began to take an interest in cinema, and created the Focine fund, which failed later. My period of the history was concerned on these attempts by the State, and their failures.

Is your work more about fiction or reality, or is one the means of describing the other?

I alternated between fiction and non-fiction. The first film I made in the UCLA Film School was fiction. It was an adaptation of a story by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Erostratus”, which was called Acto de fe (Auto da Fe). After that I made a purely documentary film with Carlos Mayolo, called Oiga y Vea! (Listen and see!, 1972).

Carlos and I made a fiction film, and several documentaries, but my preference has always been more towards non-fiction. Still, I made two purely fictional films – like “Pura sangre (Pure blood) in 1982, which was a horror film about vampires, the first one in Colombia on that subject. And 18 years later, I made “Soplo de vida” (Breath of life, 1999), a Colombian film noir. And this difference of time – 18 years – between one film and the other says a lot about the history of cinema in Colombia. It is born, it dies, born-dies. So, the period I dealt with was the very difficult one where the project of a State-supported industry ceased to exist.

For personal reasons, I dedicated my work more to non-fiction, because video had arrived, which allowed me to work with less money, more independently, and I saw it as more appropriate for making non-fiction. On the other hand full-length fiction films took up a lot of my time, each film needed five to seven years of work. And besides, the structure of production itself doesn’t suit my temperament, because there is one director in charge of 60 people, and he feels the pressure of time. And another thing I didn’t like was the fact that a fiction film has to start from a previous script, that you have to translate into an audio-visual medium. I always felt that I was copying something that often didn’t satisfy me much, and that the written text was better than the resulting film, after the problems had been solved and the images created. So, after “Soplo de vida”, I gave up fiction completely, although in my documentaries there is a fine line, where you don’t know which is fiction and which is documentary. I’m talking about films like “Agarrando pueblo” (The Vampires of poverty) made with Carlos Mayolo in 1978, which is a fake documentary – a ‘mockumentary’ -and then “Un tigre de papel” (A paper tiger, 2007), which is also a full-length mockumentary. Because what interests me most is to investigate what is a documentary in itself, to question the mechanisms that cinema – and documentary in particular – has for transmitting the truth or lies.

I read a review of “Pura sangre”, where someone commented that ‘capitalism is a vampire’. This is even more true today. Do you think that cinema has an important role in dealing with this?

The vampire myth, which crystallized with the myth of Dracula, which in turn is based on the story of Vlad the Impaler of Romania, is a myth that is closely connected to power. The Dracula story is about the great lord who lives in a castle, belongs to the nobility and literally lives on the blood of his subjects. I translated this myth to a Colombian context. In other words, taking vampirism as a metaphor for power, which still operates. In English, people always talk about capitalism as a bloodsucker, that lives off the blood that it sucks from the people. And what is power?  As Pasolini put it very well – the greatest power that exists, is that of one body over another –  which is what happens in vampirism. Once the victim has been bitten, they belong to the other person, they are subjugated.

And all this is very much linked with sex. Carlos Mayolo (the person with whom I developed a cinematic work on this) and I were very interested in the phenomenon of cannibalism, which is another example of power, and about which there are many myths, for example in Brazil or the Caribbean.

Our idea was to transform cinematic genres which were supposedly from other countries to our own, because it was valid to do this, giving a political reading to these myths. (Next week Part 2)

(Photos provided by Luis Ospina)

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