Along the Pacific Coast of Colombia, Afro-Colombian fishermen are forced into the drug trade by paramilitary groups and guerillas threatening to kill their families and steal their land. Out of countless stories collected firsthand from the people living this nightmare, director Josef Wladyka has fashioned a heart-stopping tale of two brothers forced to deliver a shipment of cocaine stuffed into a homemade torpedo. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 •Availability: Check local theater listings here. •Thanks to Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.•
DT: Let’s talk about your research into representing the Colombian drug trade authentically.
JW: The research started in 2007 when I was just backpacking with my friend through Ecuador and Colombia. We were going along the coast, talking to locals in all these towns that are under siege. You’d hear stories about people getting inside homemade submarines and doing all sorts of crazy things trafficking drugs. It sparked my initial interest: What’s going on here?
I speak enough Spanish to get by, but I’m not fluent, so I was always with someone who spoke perfect Spanish. When I went with the very specific intent of researching these areas and trying to find people who were involved in actually going on a mission, a friend of mine from Tumaco [Colombia] went with me I also went to Malaga Naval Base, which is near Buenaventura. I got permission from the government to see captured narco submarines and narco torpedoes. It was probably five years of researching and just going back to Colombia and Buenaventura, and starting to meet with some of the theater students and actors in the film. It was an evolving process. The script was always changing as I learned more.
DT: At what point did you know you wanted to make a film?
JW: In 2009. I was going through the graduate film program [NYU], and I was starting to think about what I was going to do for my thesis film. This Colombia material was always in the back of my mind. A lot of stories were starting to come out in the newspapers about the narco submarines and all this stuff going on, and that’s when I really wanted to research this and see what type of film there was here: What was really going on in these places? This script evolved from there.
DT: The film included a lot of references to guerillas and the paramilitary, and even witches. Who are they and how are they involved in the drug trade?
JW: That’s an extremely long conversation. Buenaventura is a place that’s very much historically been forgotten by the government. It’s over the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast. It’s the biggest port in Colombia, so lots of imports and exports come and go. It’s the richest port, but the people who live in the area have been completely left out of that economy, and since it’s in a specific region of Colombia with hidden mangroves and jungles and all this dead stuff, it’s the epicenter for a lot of narco trafficking.
Paramilitary groups and guerilla groups control different regions. In Buenaventura, the barrios have these things called invisible borders, where the barrios are controlled by different groups. For example, in real life, my lead actors couldn’t go to each other’s neighborhoods. A lot of the time people are extorted into doing this stuff; the drug traffickers come and take over their land and force them to plant cocaine, or they’ll come and start killing people to take control of the place. The right-wing paramilitaries are one group, but there are also these bands of gangs. It’s an extremely complicated thing. In this area of Colombia there’s also a lot of superstition about witchcraft. Those little motorcycles on the tracks at the end of the film are called brujitas (little witches). It’s a place that’s very much under siege. Last month [April 2014], Buenaventura had become the most violent it’s been in several years, so there was a lot of protesting going on, people asking the government to come and help stop the violence. It was all over the news in Colombia, and our film was premiering in Colombia while all of this was going on.
DT: How was it received?
JW: Colombians loved it. It’s interesting—now that I’ve sat with the New York audience, I see it’s completely different. Colombians are a lot more emotive. It was beautiful. I was extremely nervous; the actors hadn’t seen the film. The production coordinator, who was from Buenaventura, was very, very emotional. A lot of laughing, a lot of crying. It was intense.
DT: Imagine…all that from your thesis film. Can you tell me about the folk music you used? It was very powerful, and a great use of music.
JW: There are three types of music in the film. There’s the score that was done by Scott Thorough, which is the music in the cinematic moments of the film. There’s hip-hop and rap from Buenaventura, so we have some songs from two very popular rappers in Buenaventura. The third type of music, which you’re speaking of, is called currulao. It’s African-Colombian folkloric music very specific to this region of Colombia. It’s very beautiful. My friend from Tumaco sent me two hundred songs from the area, and I listened to all of them. Halfway through the editing process, we started editing the a cappella parts over the images and it became very beautiful and powerful. There’s not a lot of women in the film, so it was almost like the voices of the women longing for the men as they go on these crazy journeys. They’re singing about the ocean, and the beach, and God, and I hoped we could use the music, since it’s really hard to track down the artists who make the actual music. We found them, though. There’s two groups: Grupo Gualajo and Grupo Socavon. They did all of the folkloric music. We feel very lucky to have permission to use that music.
DT: In the rap song the younger brother was singing, there’s this notion of fighting to maintain harmony. What does that mean?
JW: Buenaventura is a complicated place. There are people who are just trying to maintain and go to school and have a normal life while all this madness is going on, and there are rappers who are trying to be artists while all this stuff is going on. He’s basically saying, There are a lot of problems here, but we’re trying to be at peace in my neighborhood. He’s talking about a specific neighborhood in Buenaventura.
DT: Can you talk about the filmmaking workshops you did with the local community to maintain a positive impact on the region?
JW: That happened when the production crew saw Buenaventura for the first time. Elena Greenlee [producer] and my cowriter/cinematographer Alan Blanco had never been to Buenaventura before. It’s a very intense place, and we went on very extensive location scouts to talk to the community leaders in these neighborhoods. We were always extremely upfront and honest with them. We said, This is exactly what the film’s about, this is why we want to do it; we’re gringos, and if you don’t feel comfortable with us doing this film here, that’s fine. But they wanted us to make the film and tell the story so much because it’s reality. It’s a matter-of-fact way of life. But they also said, What are you going to give us?
We were a very small-budget film. We didn’t have big money, and that’s when Elena and all of us came up with the idea of doing filmmaking workshops. She had worked on the film City of God and they had done a similar type of thing, so she was really brilliant in championing the whole curriculum of how we were going to do it. We did it all during preproduction, which was a crazy intense time, but we made sure to do it. It was a beautiful collaboration, and a lot of our crew came from these workshops. A lot of the cast came from them as well. And that’s how we earned people’s trust for them to say, OK, we’ll let them come and shoot in these neighborhoods; they want to use us. Buenaventura’s a place where a lot of things are promised but little is followed through, so people there have this natural defense: You guys are just talking. At first, because I’m American and they saw that Americans were coming to these displaced communities, they thought, Maybe this is something real. And I kept coming back, and they thought, Why does this Japanese Polish guy keep showing up here?…maybe he’s for real. Then once the production people started to show up, the locals thought, OK, this is really happening, and we’re going to get on board with this.
DT: From what I’ve read, it sounds like the offscreen relationship between the actors who played the two brothers was very much like their onscreen relationship. They were really terrific.
JW: They’re in my heart. I love them so much. They’re both from Buenaventura, they both have had extremely difficult lives, but they’re both very serious actors. They went to the same theater school in Buenaventura, and they take their acting very, very seriously.
When they were first cast, they didn’t know each other very well and were feeling each other out. I wanted them to be in the same hotel room from the beginning of it all so they’d really be like brothers, could really form that relationship. I remember the moment Jarlin told Cristian, We’re going to be the first guys from Buenaventura headlining a film—this may never happen again, so we’ve really got to come together and work hard. They were in their beds every night studying the script together. They took it very, very seriously.
DT: In the press notes, Jarlin said, It’s a social responsibility to show the pain.
JW: Yeah. He wanted to put his own personal stories and things that have happened to him out there. Alan and I wrote the script based off my research. Then one of my good friends, Orlando Cordozo, who lives here in New York but is from Barranquilla, translated the script into Colombian Spanish. I brought him down with me to be my translator, to be attached to me, because he knew the script so well, and he’s my friend and I needed someone as a reflection of me. I speak Spanish, but to articulate intellectually, especially with the actors during the rehearsal process, I needed someone there with me. He was a godsend.
Once we’d cast the two main actors, we went through the whole script scene by scene and changed all the dialogue to local Buenaventura dialogue. At the same time I was always open. Because I wanted to be as authentic as possible, I was open to their ideas about changing stuff around. For example, we had written a scene where one of the brothers is crying and talking about his son who was killed, but the actor brought a real story that happened to him, and that’s what he’s saying in the film—that he was one of those little kids at the soccer field where all his friends got killed. We did a lot of stuff like that to include as much as we could. There’s a lot of racism in the film. In Latin America in general there’s still a lot of racism toward Afro Latinos, so I asked, Does this seem real to you; is this too much? And they said, Do more, do more. We didn’t want to beat that over the head too much, though, so it was a process.
DT: One of the things your film made clear is the fact that film is such an international language.
JW: Film is a powerful thing. When you backpack as a traveler, you only learn about a place to a certain extent, on the surface. But if you make a film somewhere… Buenaventura is a part of me forever. Probably seventy-five percent of my friends on Facebook are from Buenaventura. They’re making and posting videos, so I get to watch all this stuff they’re doing.
Our film deals with an international issue, so I think it transcends Colombia. Obviously Colombians know about Buenaventura, but we’re really hoping that the rest of the world can go past that. That’s why the film has action-y elements to it. It’s accessible. Alan and I always felt that it still had to be an entertaining piece of fiction so that people would go see it. Then, if we leave the audience with something to think about at the end, we did a good job. It’s not a documentary. We could have made a documentary, but it’s a narrative film, so it should be dramatic, it should tug and pull on the audience and be a good ride. Our whole style, and the way we shot it, and the way we wrote it was to just ground the audience immediately in going on one of these trips. Not a lot of stuff is going to be explained. It’s just all happening, and you’re going with them.
DT: What’s the biggest difference between what you learned in film school and what you learned on set?
JW: The biggest thing you’re not going to learn in film school is what you have to do to get people to jump on board and actually get a film made—navigating all the different personalities you need to help you make your film. In film school you make a little short film and that’s it. But if it’s a real feature film, there’s a lot of people involved. Just the sheer size of a feature is overwhelming. I don’t know if that can ever be taught.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015