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After five decades of internecine bloodletting the civil war has finally ended. Now, more than ever, Colombian film-makers feel it is their duty to examine the lacerations, to reflect on half a century of conflict that led to more than 250,000 and displaced almost 7m people from their homes and land.
“It is important to talk about the war, of what happened, what it has left us, its protagonists. Because if we don’t talk about all of that, we cannot look at the mistakes we made and we won’t be able to heal the wounds,” explains Jhonny Hendrix, a Colombian film-maker and double award winner at the Cartagena film festival.
After almost four years of peace talks, the Colombian government and negotiators from the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) recently signed a deal to end the fratricidal war, which over the years has involved these two opposing sides, as well as rightwing paramilitary groups and drugs gangs.
“This is a moment of healing, in which one has to fill one’s heart with hope, look back at what happened in order not to repeat it,” Hendrix says. “Cinema is the place that allows all of us to saturate ourselves with what we don’t want to see any more, in order not to do it again.”
Hendrix recently finished the script of The Troop about a sergeant in the Colombian army who is kidnapped by Farc guerrillas, escapes after an air strike and returns to his old life, only to find that his family has abandoned him. He realises he hates war more than anything else. “It is a metaphor that shows that war only produces losses,” says Hendrix.
This war has been an overarching theme of Colombian cinema since 1965, roughly a year after the beginning of the civil strife, when Julio Luzardo’s The River of the Tombs was released. Notwithstanding, argues Pedro Adrián Zuluaga, a Colombian film critic, “it has evolved; now it is about the footprints left behind by the war”.
That is patent in Felipe Guerrero’s Dark Beast, acclaimed at this year’s Guadalajara film festival, about three silenced women fleeing their war-torn lives. Filmed in Colombia’s lush Magdalena Medio region, these women — one whose village has been ravaged, one who has been raped by what could either be a guerrilla or a paramilitary fighter and one who was a combatant who buried corpses and provides sexual distractions to her commander — escape this “dark beast” that is the war. “The focus is the suffering of these women so as to put the voiceless victims at the centre,” says Guerrero. “The radars of Colombian film-makers are now set on the impact of violence.”
The preoccupation is understandable given that this generation of Colombian film-makers have all been affected in some way by their country’s violent recent history. They range from Ciro Guerra, director of the Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent, who is now exploring the origins of drug-fuelled violence in the upcoming Birds of Passage, to the lesser known Sebastián Mejía who, with co-director Alice Tabard, has released They Return, a heart-wrenching account of forced displacement.
As the peace deal, which was reached in Cuba in August, faces stiff opposition from Colombia’s conservative sectors, Mejía believes it is “crucial for these movies to reach those who do not trust this peace”. He adds: “I have hopes based on what’s happening in Havana, but movies should be a mirror of what still needs to be solved in Colombia.”
To do that, directors should keep bringing human stories to the forefront, says Claudia Triana, director of Colombia’s film development fund, Proimágenes. “Film-makers have the challenge of trying to humanise this peace, and by humanising stories from all sides of the armed conflict they can promote a dialogue,” she says.
Even animated films are making war and reconciliation their focus. Unbreakable Boy by Anamaría Castiblanco tells the story, due on screen in 2018, of a child who loses his father and one of his legs after stepping on a landmine, but who nevertheless becomes a cycling champion and forgives his estranged uncle-turned-trainer, who placed the mine.
Landmines were a central feature of Colombia’s war. The country was second only to Afghanistan for the number of casualties by landmines in 2014, as recorded by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Last year, the warring sides agreed to clean up the battlefields.
Castiblanco started writing the story when the Colombian peace talks started. “Now, we are in a moment which inspires us to make these kinds of films,” she says, adding: “This is the moment of turning a new leaf and telling stories in which the central theme is forgiveness. We already have many movies about the conflict, so here we are looking at the post conflict.”