ComingSoon.net Visits Colombia! – Part 1

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You read that title correctly, as ComingSoon.net’s Weekend Warrior spent an entire week in the country of Colombia. You may wonder what this has to do with movies, but we were in fact invited down to Latin America by the directors of Proimagenes Colombia and the Colombian Film Commission to learn more about the film industry down there.

Needless to say, this is going to be a very different feature than you might normally read on ComingSoon.net, because our time spent there was not just about movies but also about learning how the country has changed since the earlier days of the conflict between the government and guerrillas when the country was plagued with crime and violence.

I honestly hadn’t seen many Colombian films although there certainly have been a number of prominent Colombian directors coming to Hollywood, including Rodrigo Garcia and Simon Brand, and the country does have a burgeoning film industry. In fact, it’s been thriving since 2003 when the government passed a law that offered incentives to Colombian productions and even more since the country started to offer rebates to films made in the country. And yet, it’s still such an insular place where the films made there don’t travel as much as films from other Latin and South American countries, such as Mexico or Argentina. 

Our week was spent meeting with filmmakers and those who fund the films down there, finding out exactly what they’re doing, culminating in a visit to the Cartagena International Film Festival. 

As background, Colombia is about the size of Texas and it has three major cities: Medellin, Bogota and Cali, which are as different as Austin, Dallas and Houston, although they’re also more spread out across the country. The fourth major city and one that’s become one of the biggest tourist destinations is Cartagena, a walled city conveniently located on the Caribbean Sea where much of the original architecture has been maintained.

Possibly the biggest obstacle faced by Colombia as a whole is its reputation as the drug capitol of the world, something that it’s worked hard over the past few years to overcome after the drug cartels had been quelled by the administration that took power during the ‘90s.

colombiamedellin1Our first stop on the trip was Medellin, which thanks to Hollywood has become almost synonymous with those drug cartels, thanks to it being the hometown of one Pablo Escobar.

My arrival in Medellin on Day One was fairly uneventful although I did get a good idea of how different the actual city of Medellin was from the surrounding areas as my driver drove me from the airport through the farmland area, thriving with cows and chickens, to the city itself which was situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. But first, we had to get over the first mountain, the driver zig-zagging up the winding roads, passing cars even when there was no way of seeing if there were cars coming in the other direction.

Once we reached the peak of that mountain, it was a sight to behold as you could take in the entire city of Medellin lying far below… and that’s when I realized that we would have to go down the side of the mountain in equally winding roads, my driver barely applying the brake as she swerved from one lane to the other as necessary.

First night, we went out to dinner with one of our hosts, Maria Otero Palau from ProImagenes, at the hotel restaurant, which was mostly of note because it was our introduction to a tea-like drink called Aqua Aromatica, which was literally dried fruit drenched with hot water. Maria told us a little about Colombia’s lack of seasons but how it either rains all the time (known as El Niño) or goes through dry seasons (aka La Niña).

colombiamedellin4The next day we were joined by the wonderful Lina Maria Sanchez from ProImagenes, as we were taken out to Medellin’s Innovation Center, a large eco-friendly building in the center of town that houses a number of start-up companies in its five levels of office space. It’s part of the city’s initiative to bring international companies to set-up shop in Medellin to help promote the city as Latin America’s Silicon Valley.

We were introduced to Francisco Plgarin, Medellin’s Film Commissioner, as well as two of his employees, Manuela and Miguel, the latter who gave us a tour of the Innovation Center where the Medellin Film Commission was based. Besides the burgeoning companies that had set-up shop within the center, they also held classes in animation to help add to the workforce of qualified animators for the local production company, Pipeline Animation Studios.

Right after being told that we were in the technical center of the city, we got into an elevator, which promptly got stuck between floors. Fortunately, it was busy enough at that time that the doors were pried open and we were able to get out since the elevator had only moved a few feet before stopping. 

After checking out the rooftop—taking the stairs because we were all superstitious of elevators at that point—we were given a presentation by Manuela from the commission, who showed a video (which you can watch below) that explained the city’s rebate. 

Essentially, Medellin offers a 15% rebate on all below-the-line services as long as the film project spends a certain amount of money and shoots a certain percentage in Medellin. That 15% is on top of any other rebate or incentive, so if a production is able to get the 40% rebate from the Colombia Film Commission, then the 15% would be on top of that. Being able to get 55% of the money spent by shooting in Medellin back could be a huge boom to many mid-scale productions, and in turn, it could help to train and improve the local crews that work on the production.

colombiamedellin2As far as we could tell, Medellin didn’t have as many soundstages available as Bogota, even though it did have two local television networks that could provide technical crews. One of the recent films to take advantage of the rebate was Elijah Wood’s The Boy, which just premiered in Austin as part of South by SouthWest Film.

A short walk from the Innovation Center took us through the city’s beautiful Botanical Gardens to a plaza where the city holds its annual Flower Show. There, we met up with one of Medellin’s most noted filmmakers, Victor Gaviria, who brought two of his earlier films, Rodrigo D and La Venderosa de Rosas, to Cannes, as well as producer Alejandro Arango, who is currently on post on Kirk Sullivan’s thriller City of Dead Men, starring Jackson Rathbone, which was also shot in Medellin. You can see scenes from the film being shot in the video below.

We spent much of the lunch talking to Gaviria about the differences between the American film industry and that of Colombia and how the recent initiatives and rebates have greatly helped the production of his latest film. We also had our first conversation with a Colombian filmmaker, who lamented the fact that despite Colombia producing more films for the regional audiences, they were bringing in a smaller percentage of the market share due to the influx of foreign films, particularly those from Hollywood. Medellin itself only had 40 theaters, which may seem a lot for a metropolitan city, but that included the outlying regions which weren’t nearly as catered to by cinemas as the downtown area.

After lunch, we were met by Juan, a tour guide from the Colombia Tourist Commission for the sightseeing portion of the trip, which would be a lot more meaningful than we could have imagined thanks to the gracious hosts who would make us feel so welcome.

colombiamedellin3Before reaching our destination, we were brought to a plaza that was surrounded by a trio of bronze sculptures created by master artist Fernando Botero, one of Medellin’s cultural icons. The plaza was significant because it was the site of a terrorist guerilla bombing in the late ‘80s that killed 20 people, but could have been worse and caused more deaths if not for Botero’s statue of a pigeon, which was mostly destroyed. Since the city had just paid $800,000 to have the sculpture made, Botero created a second one with the stipulation that the previous one would be kept next to it as a reminder of the terrible event. All 20 victims of the bombing are commemorated with a plaque on the destroyed statue.

After that detour, we were brought to the Comuna 13 region of Medellin for what they call the “Graffitour.” Once there, we met hip-hop artist Kbala, who had been working to change the impression and nature of the once-dangerous area of the city. He escorted us to the part of the area called July 30 (after the date of Colombia’s independence from Spain) and we followed him almost straight up a mountain road to get a gander at one of the biggest technical developments in the area as the government spent millions installing a series of escalators to help those in the upper reaches of the area get to their houses easier. 

colombiamedellin7bThe area reminded us of an upscale version of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, having been built by fugitives from the outlying villages during the guerilla activities during the ‘80s and ‘90s, driving thousands of people into the center of Medellin. They essentially started building homes wherever they could, filling up all the space on the sides of the mountains without having electricity and the normal comforts for many years.

As part of the initiative to change the image of the region and make the area more appealing for visitors, houses had been painted in bright colors and gardens planted to make up for the foliage that had been razed to make room for the houses. They also had been painting flowers on the roof to make it look more appealing. The walls were covered with amazing graffiti art that showed what sort of artistic talent was present in the area. On top of that, there were large photo portraits of some of the community leaders including a woman who had been helping the women of the area overcome violence and abuse–just as we were being told about her, she walked out of the house on which her portrait can be seen and waved to us!

The escalators themselves were basically the type you might see in any big industrial city metro system and they seemed very out of place considering their surroundings, which were so colorful and tropical. It was actually surprising that there was no graffiti or art on them, but we were told that the residents were very respectful of how the escalators have helped the elder people of the community get to their homes higher up in the mountains. (Kbala–seen below–admitted that he wasn’t a huge fan of the expensive project, because it only helped the residents of that immediate area and not those in the surrounding mountains, which had just as many hard-to-reach dwellings, but he also felt that all that money—roughly 8 million dollars–could have been used for more worthwhile purposes.) On our trip up the escalators, we also stopped and were treated to an absolutely delicious ice cream which was chunks of mango frozen with sugar, salt and lemon. Delicious!

colombiamedellin6Our last stop for the day was at Casa Kolacho, named after a friend of Kbala’s who was killed during the area’s most violent period. There, we met his partner, fellow hip-hop artist Jeihhco who took over the tour to talk about what Casa Kolacho had been doing to help the community, especially the younger local kids who can learn about hip-hop, graffiti, break-dancing and other activities that can keep them from joining gangs and adding to the crime problem that once plagued the area.

Jeihhco showed us around the surprisingly small space where Casa Kolacho set up shop and after explaining what they did there, he and Kbala decided to give us a demonstration on graffiti and hip-hop, first showing us the basic techniques of using aerosol spray. He then offered us a wooden board where each of the journalists could show off their graffiti skills by creating their own tags. Kbala and Jeihhco then followed that up with an impromptu bit of freestyle rapping as we clapped and stomped along to create the beat.

Again, this doesn’t have much to do with movies except for the fact that the Medellin Film Commission really wants filmmakers to realize how much the city has changed and how safe it is for those visiting to make films. It also helped to confirm how rich the city’s identity has become in terms of its own culture and art as typified by what Casa Kolacho has been doing in Comuna 13.

From there, we were on a plane to Bogota for the next leg of our tour, which we’ll cover in Part 2, but in the meantime, you can check out pictures from our visit to Medellin in the gallery below.