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Víctor Gaviria: Cinema as a Tool of Social Knowledge

Escrito el 29 julio, 2021 @Kenny_DiazPR
* Esta entrevista también está disponible en español.

Last year, I wrote one of my favourite pieces for Palomita de maíz: an analysis of the Colombian film The Rose Seller (1998), directed by Víctor Gaviria. Gaviria’s cinema is important to me because it deals with one of my main interests in academic research: the phenomenon of violence. I had the opportunity of talking to him via Zoom about the challenges of the pandemic, the recent protests in Colombia, the situation of Latin American cinema, and his next film, Sosiego.

What is your opinion or general reflection on the way that the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the Colombian film industry? What are the new challenges you face or the new views you adopt from cinema?

It has been so shocking on a personal level. We have all, in some way, taken stock of our entire lives. The fact that we are facing the impossibility of a clear future has made us think about many things: what we have done, what we are. The pandemic also stopped certain hyperactivity and rushing in our lives. That’s the good part about the pandemic: it slowed the rhythm of daily life.

We have questioned many things about power and advertising. Advertising that sometimes sells patriarchal and misogynist values. The planet itself is in crisis. The pandemic is one of the symptoms of this global warming crisis and, in general, of the confrontation between the planet and the capitalist mode of production that has caused the planet to collapse. Even the values ​​of cinema. That authoritarian cinema, with big machos and powerful people, in a certain sense is making us nauseous. I don’t know if that sickness will pass, and then we’ll return to the same as always. To try to act as if everything is okay and to be close to the powerful.

In the case of my new film that we will start shooting in January (we are in the last stage of pre-production), it is a neighbourhood story about a poor family. The pandemic also made more obvious the situation of people who live day by day, with savings for two or three days, but that in a matter of a week, life becomes an insurmountable difficulty. Our film is about those people.

I don’t know if other people will continue with their own ideas and films, but I think that the pandemic has called everything into question. Even how films are expensive in that “semi-industrial” cinema that we make in Latin America. Sometimes a film costs $500,000 dollars. It is now necessary to advocate for a cinema, as the new generations are doing, that is simpler, with small groups, without large production costs. Cheap films that can be made for $100,000 dollars.

Colombian cinema has stopped violently. The 2003 Cinema Law, through an audience tax, provides savings to promote national productions through awards, but since there has been no cinema, that money has been practically non-existent this year. Before, at least eight projects were boosted, but this year everyone is competing for a single award. Everyone is thinking of the way to make things cheaper. My film is expensive, it is at least $400,000 dollars, but we cannot go back to do something else because it requires a very complex staging.

Sosiego is the name of your new film. What place does it take in your filmography compared to your previous work? Has your filmmaking process changed?

It is a film that continues with that quest of making social chronicles. I make films that are halfway between documentary and fiction. In the case of Sosiego, I did research into a commune family. I have been very close to this family. The mother is Doña Bernardita Correa. She has three children whom I’ve known for many years because one of the daughters, Marta Correa, is one of the rose sellers. I don’t know why, but at some point, Doña Bernardita went to work with us in the office for about two years. She used to tell me stories about her neighbourhood. That scene of a woman who works in an office serving red wine and doing the cleaning, and who suddenly approaches the “boss” and tells him about things in her neighbourhood was constantly repeated, and I took it as a starting point for this film.

Lady Tabares and Marta Correa brought to life Mónica and Judy, respectively, in The Rose Seller (1998).

She is a very humble woman who, at 45, has gone through all the paths and stages of poverty. I decided to make a film about the moment she told me that her life has been a struggle and a mountain of experiences that have led her to nothing. She is getting poorer every day. Her children have been a disappointment to her. All of them have ended on the other side of the social pact. One of them, Martica, lived for a long time as a prostitute, going to work in the villages. The eldest son joined a criminal gang and ended up being the local leader. The youngest daughter, the third of the children, started skipping school. Unexpectedly, she ended up at the city centre, in her juvenile adventures, with other young girls taking drugs in a furious way, sometimes prostituting, in a tremendous existential disorder.

This is the family she used to tell me about. In the film, I show the life of this family with its tragic and alarming problems that are common in many families. It is not something strange. Rather, it is one more chapter in my path about the natural actor, about real cinema where the script arises not from something that I invent or imagine, but from something that I investigate and talk about with these people. It is not the imagination about social things, but the social things as they are.

When will the film be released?

Next year we will have a final edition.

The past months have been intense in Colombia. There have been protests because of the tax reform proposed by President Duque. Sadly, in many cases the confrontations between police and demonstrators have ended in tragedy. Since you have pondered about the violence in Colombia in your work, what do you think about this scenario?

This social protest has surprised us all because its background is a huge group of young people who are very offended and desperate. They have said that they have nothing to lose. They have information and thinking tools. Social media has allowed people to have an idea of ​history, of their country, and of politics. Young people know many things that make them revolt, they become rebellious, and they are under the obligation to not stop these protests. They know how many promises have been made over the past decades that have never been kept.

It can no longer be said that they are external enemies: Venezuela, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or even drug dealers. All protests have been delegitimized and attributed to subversion and terrorism. These young people won’t stop protesting until it is truly understood that these demonstrations are valid and legitimate. We are living an important moment in history, on the edge of tragedy, because there has been a lot of repression. Many young people have died or have been maimed and disabled. But the hope lives in those protests. Hopefully these guys, to put it in a pragmatic way, will vote and this Uribe government will not repeat itself next year.

Some people wonder why violence is still talked about in Colombian films. Do you think that we should move on, or should the issue of violence continue to be addressed on film?

Colombian cinema has been stigmatized for its obsession with violence in recent decades. Young directors are clamouring for other things and are making other interesting stories. If you see a film such as Los nadie (2016), made by a group of boys that are just turning 30, the emphasis is not on the “young sicarios” as I did in Rodrigo D. No Future (1990), trying to understand their existential meaning. The emphasis is on boys who are not involved in violence, but rather are forced to flee from the violence to go all over Latin America and seek culture and knowledge.

Los nadie (Juan Sebastián Mesa, 2016).

Simón Mesa Soto, another young director from Antioquia, just finished a movie (Amparo). We want to see it. It is now in Cannes during Critics’ Week. There are some Colombian directors of short films from Medellín, for example, Mauricio Maldonado, doing different things where violence is no longer at the centre of the story.

But we are in a moment of truth. These peace agreements have an important moment of truth, justice, reparation, and non-repetition. That moment of truth and justice is very important. There are many true stories of victims who must tell what happened to them, how the conflict hit them, martyred them, destroyed them. So, in that sense, I think the relevance of violence has not gone away. We may have to invent other ways to talk about it. But I believe that Colombian cinema has the obligation to draw attention to victims and tell their stories. I believe that the issue of violence doesn’t go away.

What is lacking?

In these days of pandemic, a film called Dogwashers (2020) directed by Carlos Moreno, came out. He made Dog Eat Dog (2008), a mafia film, and now he presented a sort of second chapter about that mafia of Cali. People protested because it was the same mafia, the same portrait, the same stereotypical and macho violence. The problem is not violence but how it is narrated.

We are all looking for the way to get to those stories of truth, but in a way that allows us to show that explosion and devastation of what violence means, to build consciousness, memories, customs, and personal entities that somehow rise above the violence that has devastated everything.

Dogwashers (Carlos Moreno, 2020).

Let’s start building a world of respect, people, affections, love, things that must replace that scorched earth that violence has left everywhere. We must start working on violence itself, but in a way that it captures images of respect, people, and customs. That is the challenge of today’s Colombian cinema.

In my film, for example, there will be violence, but it will try to understand the voices that have been accompanying those moments of violence, failure, and disappointment. I have high expectations for this film.

Since you mentioned Simón Mesa Soto and his film Amparo (2021), this is another story about Medellín in the 90s, starring natural actors. I know that Medellín has been an important feature in your work. How can you portray such a contradictory city? What are the characteristics of the cinema made in Medellín?

Medellín and cinema have had very interesting encounters. That moment of Rodrigo D. No Future was key because a city that was unknown to us became suddenly visible. We broke several stereotypes, we managed to gain access to the knowledge of a city of which we were very distant, the people who made movies and culture, such as those that came from universities, but that always had an unknown city around us. With Rodrigo D. we opened a small door to start a dialogue with that city.

The natural actor is a very strong and interesting social and aesthetic experience. The natural actor has a message and a life. When they are placed in front of the camera, the most interesting thing is what they can bring to life about Medellín. That life in the city that is ignored. A life of surrender, suffering, deficiency, humiliation, classism, racism, etc. The natural actor presents that. They say, “Here I am. This is our story. Our local story. Our country’s story.”

Rodrigo D. No Future (Víctor Gaviria, 1990).

Then came The Rose Seller, a second moment of conversation with the city. Kids speaking up that impressed everyone so much. The lives of those children and their families.

The universities also talk with the city, but I don’t know why their results, conclusions, and writings aren’t known. Sometimes professors’ books don’t emerge. They get nowhere.

Later, Medellín started to appear in a decisive way showing good aesthetic and cinematographic products. There is the moment of Los nadie. Also, when Laura Mora made Killing Jesus (2017) was key to the conversation between films and the city. Many families and young people have had the unexpected experience of witnessing the death of their parents at the hands of hitmen. Laura makes that reflection; she makes a beautiful allegory about that.

Then came Days of the Whale (2019), another fine film, like a second chapter of Los nadie, showing the dispute in the neighbourhoods between young people that make culture and those that belong to criminal gangs.

Simón Mesa has a very peculiar way of making films in the neighbourhoods of Medellín. He privileges characters and feelings, and cleans the scene of social disorder to focus on threads of feelings. He has great humanity. Leidi (2014), the short film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is a film of extraordinary humanity and sensitivity. The same with another of his shorts, Madre (2016). It has a sensitivity in which the perpetrators are totally invisible. What matters is what is at stake every time you move through those worlds of inhumanity.

Simón Mesa Soto wins the Palm d’Or for best short at the Cannes Film Festival 2014.

Speaking of new generations, your daughter Mercedes Gaviria recently premiered the documentary The Calm After the Storm (2021), as an answer to your work. What is that family dynamic like? You being a filmmaker with a vision and trajectory, and she entering this world and finding her own voice. How do you describe that generational contrast?

When Mercedes presented her first shorts, she received comments from critics in Medellín with the idea that, “How is it possible that Víctor’s daughter is so shallow and doesn’t pick up her father’s legacy of making social cinema?” That bothered her very much. How come they didn’t give her the opportunity to have her own quest? She somehow reacted and rebelled against a certain imperative of social cinema that was automatic, without reflection. Social and denunciation cinema tends to become a stereotype, it becomes easy, to be thought that it does not have any type of investigation, that it is a thing of simply taking out the cameras and interviewing people.

What bothered her about that cinema was the need to give up talking about her life. To me, the character was the social character. I was interested in cinema as a device of social knowledge. That imposes the acceptance of not talking about myself or my life experiences. She is part of a rebellious movement regarding that journalistic cinema, that social cinema of journalistic chronicle, which is the one that we’ve made.

The Calm After the Storm (Mercedes Gaviria, 2021).

She has chosen a movement called documentary of creation, which tries to break the relationship that we had between investigating reality with an object of knowledge. She says, “I want a cinema that talks about us, about me as the daughter of a filmmaker.” About a filmmaker that left her films when she was a child, and suddenly, she picked up those films and said, “I’m going to know who I am through those films and through my family.” She makes a family documentary where she begins to wonder who she is, who is her family, who are her parents, what is the city, what is cinema. That is the change.

Going back to Cannes, you competed for the Palme d’Or on two occasions. How was that experience?

We were in 1990 with Rodrigo D. No Future at a time when there hadn’t been another Colombian film in the official competition for the Palme d’Or. Then we went back with The Rose Seller. They were two very interesting moments. Not as important to Cannes as they were to us. It allowed us to show some films here in Colombia that, if we had not gone there, would have surely been more censored and criticized.

Gaviria and The Rose Seller cast at the Cannes Film Festival 1998.

What is the current place of Latin American cinema in the international market? How do you define the cinema that is being made in the region?

There is an explosion of enormous talents, especially in Mexico. There are these three filmmakers who have won the Oscar several times already: Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro. But around them there are many filmmakers with very interesting language revolutions. Currently we have everything. Mexican cinema has an incredible creativity.

Argentinian cinema is also vigorous with young directors offering genre proposals. Films that deal with sexual diversity in experiences that are uncomfortable for the heterosexual viewer, but that really teach to rethink about the body and desire.

In any case, we are in a crisis in the national markets. Colombian cinema, for example, can no longer hope to have box office success. The box office has become so brutally fragmented that now a film that has 200,000 viewers is an impressive success. In my time, any film had 500,000 viewers. The Rose Seller had 700,000 spectators. It was normal for films to reach a million or 500,000 viewers without being a great success. That was normal, but not now. You must look for investors and tell them that the movie is going to have 30 or 40,000 viewers, nothing more.

In my case, films are made primarily as documents. The people who get to invest in the film don’t expect commercial success, but artistic success. With The Animal’s Wife (2016) we didn’t recover any money, but what satisfies us is that we made a film that had a social journey, it created awareness and women often thank us that the film exists.

The Animal’s Wife (Víctor Gaviria, 2016).

Some people are unaware of your side as a poet. How do these two artistic vocations dialogue between one another? Is Gaviria poet the same as Gaviria filmmaker?

With the pandemic many people have taken the time to find those poems that are from my youth, around six or eight little books of chronicles and poems. They even republished El pelaíto que no duró nada, which is a chronicle I did after Rodrigo D. They are going to publish a small volume with my poems.

The yielding that I made in cinema to talk about my life, I have always done it in poetry. That is the real Victor: with parents and family, in a neighbourhood, with friends, thoughts and reflections.

Obviously, I am in there all the time, assessing and feeling, but the films make a more documentary enunciation. Consequently, the private Victor hides and becomes invisible in films and is more present in poems.

Finally, as we are a community of moviegoers eager to continue learning and discovering film gems, which movies have you recently discovered that you would recommend to our audience?

I have gone back to films that everyone knows. I had to see in an exhaustive way the great masters of Italian neorealism. Partly because I was in a course, as assistant and lecturer, on Italian neorealist cinema. It was a real discovery because, despite my love for that cinema, I had never studied it. Rossellini, Visconti, Vittorio De Sica. All those masters.

In this investigation, I came across a character that always presents himself with new facets. He surprises with how deep and concrete he is: Pier Paolo Pasolini. It is a later chapter of neorealism. I have been in awe seeing the beauty and commitment of those films. In addition, I have learned about the commitment of these directors to a suffering community after the war, having spent twenty years trampled by fascism. That commitment becomes brutal with Pasolini. I had never understood that Rodrigo D. No Future was such a Pasolinian film. When I think about the future of cinema, I go back to those early Pasolini films.


This interview has been edited and condensed to give more clarity.


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