Why is there a Colombian film festival in South Africa

A group of Colombian artists who live in South Africa on "the incredible amount of similarities between Colombia and South Africa"

A small group of Colombians expatriates who have been living for several years in Johannesburg and Cape Town organized the first all-Colombian film festival in South Africa: SUR.

The festival’s name translates as ‘south’ in Spanish. According to their organizers, activist Marcela Guerrero and journalist Salym Fayad, this festival is an effort to show how much their native South American country and South Africa have in common. Both because both countries share similar political and social issues  (like inequality or house evictions) and because both countries are sometimes portrayed unfairly in international mainstream media.

Last week they held a number of screenings in Johannesburg. The festival moves to Cape Town next week.  Below is an interview with the organizers.

Why organize a Colombian film festival? Why not a Latin American one?

Salym: First, because Colombia is the country closest to us: SUR is a collective of four Colombians, two based in South Africa and two in Colombia. And we are trying to challenge many stereotypes that picture Latin America, but specifically Colombia, as a place only associated with drugs, terrorism, and violence. Latin America is a continent pictured in the media as if it was one closed entity. There are many people here in Johannesburg that approached me talking in Portuguese because they assume we all talk Portuguese. Or drink mojitos, or hear mariachis. Well, no.

Marcela: Right, because Latin America is not a country either. Latin America has multiple faces, it is a very a complex continent. Since we are Colombians, and we know our territory, part of the idea of this festival was to put a real face to Colombia.

And why choose old Colombian movies like The strategy of the snail (1993) or Vampires of Poverty (1971)? What do these movies have to do with South Africa?

Marcela: The strategy of the snail touches a very sensitive and complex problem in Johannesburg:  house evictions. We wanted to show how Colombia has also faced those challenges.

Salym: It is not only about house evictions, is also about gentrification. The strategy of the snail is a movie about people who don’t want to leave their houses; it is about their struggle, about their dignity.

Salym: The film Vampires of poverty also touches an issue that is very frequent in South Africa, that is ‘suffering-porn’: when the media sensationalize poverty, making a spectacle out of poverty when they show the African continent. That is something that, not only the media, but many people in general do. Even NGOs sometimes portray places in this way to get funding. This documentary mocks that simplistic view used in the media, that patronizing way of interacting with people that disrespects the complex situations people are living.  Colombia is also a victim of that, and that is what this documentary shows. The documentary is focusing on how German filmmakers portray poverty in Cali, a city that has a considerable afrocolombian population.

Here’s the trailer (with English subtitles):

So let’s talk about the movies that focus just on afrocolombian communities: Don Ca, La Playa DC (image at the top) and Palenque. Why these movies? How can South Africans relate to these films?

Salym: When we decided to organize this festival, a year ago, the first movie I though about first was Palenque. [San Basilio de Palenque is a small village situated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The name ‘Palenque’ was given to the communities founded by escaped slaves in the 17th century.]

This movie is about the influence of African music in Palenque. Here in South Africa, nobody knows how important African roots are in Latin American music, or in Colombian music. Many people do not know that there is a huge population from African descent, 25 per cent of Colombians.

Here’s the trailer

But Palenque is a pretty unique place in Colombia. What about all the afrocolombians in the cities?

La Playa DC is a movie that happens in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. But, for the first 20 or 30 minutes of the movie, you could believe the main character, a young black kid, is walking trough Johannesburg, Nairobi, or Kinshasa. His story is the story of many people in those cities: the story about a young immigrant that had to leave a rural area and has to survive in a hostile and very racist city. That is the story that is going on in many places of Africa, a story of displacement. But the movie is also a story about young kids, and the reasons why they wear the hair the way they do, kids who listen to hip-hop. This movie is about their identity and their struggle in a city like Bogotá, after being displaced by the armed conflict.

Here’s the trailer:

What about comparing  Colombia’s complex armed conflict with the experience of violence South Africa lived during Apartheid?

Salym: More than making a parallel, we wanted to show how complex the Colombian armed conflict is by using different formats in films to portray all that violence.

Portrait of a Sea of Lies, for example, is like a road movie. The film starts in a city, and takes you all the way back to the rural area in the Caribbean coast where the main character was forcibly displaced. Viewers can see Colombia’s landscape in the film: the mountains, the weather, but also the paramilitaries dressed like civilians in small towns, or the military waving at cars on the highways. That’s Colombia.

Salym: The Colors of the Mountains is the film to understand the armed conflict trough the eyes of children. This is the story of kids who just want to get their soccer ball back, after the ball ended up in a field full of land mines. That is the story of many Colombian towns, but from a very different perspective, children’s perspective, that is not portrayed in mainstream media.

Marcela: For us the South African context does resonate a lot with the Colombian violent context. It is not about establishing parallels from an academic perspective. Trough all those artistic forms there are common themes, about those violent stories in both countries that are very difficult to explain, to narrate.

What about logistics? What kind of support did you get to make this festival?

Salym: To present these films we got support from The Bioscope, maybe the only independent cinema in Johannesburg that already has experience organizing festivals like this one. Next week we will be presenting the films at the Labia Theater in Cape Town.

Marcela: Unfortunately we were not able to bring any of the Colombian directors for the screenings; we had not funds to buy them plane tickets. We had to contact each of them in Colombia and ask their permission to screen their films in South Africa for free, since we could not afford to pay them any money. This festival has been organized with no funding, from scratch. We only got some help from the Colombian Embassy for posters. But we hope this will change in the future.

Why? Where are you going with this?

Marcela: We are hoping to organize a film festival in Colombia this year, screening South African films. Hopefully, we will start in Bogotá, but also hoping to screen in cities like Cartagena and Cali that are mostly afrocolombian cities and where it might be more relevant. The idea is to continue organizing this festival every year in Cape Town and Johannesburg too.

Salym: This is a long ongoing process. The more you live here, the more you realize the incredible amount of similarities between Colombia and South Africa. For example, how two monstrous cities like Bogotá and Johannesburg have so much in common. We just have a need to make these two countries talk to each other. Because they are so similar countries, but they are so ignorant about each other too.

Further Reading

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The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.