Feb 1, 2023
Content Warning: Sexual violence, Mental illness
Colombia is a country of contradictions. For ignorant gringos and other outsiders, its reputation as a warzone riddled with internal conflict, narcotrafficking, and organized crime precedes it and obscures this South American country’s rich history and cultural vibrancy. Before I went for the first time in 2019, my family fretted over my safety and my friends joked that I might be kidnapped. Yet over the three visits and nine or so months that I have spent in Colombia during the past few years, I’ve grown comfortable with the rhythms of life there, and the more familiar with the country I become, the more convinced I am that its violent reputation is harmful and undeserved.
But it pays not to grow complacent, nor to look at the world—wherever you are in it—through rose-tinted glasses. Colombia, like all countries, has its problems. Some of these are glaring, as many Colombians will be the first to point out. Inequality, poverty, and corruption remain prevalent across the board. The Colombian state, the traditional elite, transnational corporations, and right-wing death squads keep going into business with each other, as they have throughout Colombia’s 50-year internal conflict. For Indigenous and Afro-descendent Colombians, defending their communities’ territorial rights against extractive development projects and illicit cultivation is a deadly gambit. Femicide and domestic abuse are endemic. And should you walk down the street in any Colombian city, you will witness the masses of homeless, displaced, disabled, and immigrant people that the Colombian government continues to fail. For millions of Colombians, life is far from easy. But still, life goes on. When succumbing to despair is not an option—for one’s got to make a living—hope finds a way. For all its problems, many Colombians look to the future with hope, especially following the election of Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, in 2022.
Film has always been an important medium for addressing both social problems and the intimate details and relationships of human lives. Colombia, with its generational cycles of structural violence, has produced its fair share of filmmakers whose cinematic eye and narrative style are clearly influenced by their country’s complicated history and present. Below are three recent Colombian films which skillfully depict the intersection of despair, hope, and motherhood—universal locus of both hope and despair—in this country’s complicated context.
Chocó, 2012, directed by Jhonny Hendrix Hinestroza:
In Colombia’s Blackest state and one of its poorest, where incessant rains make this stretch of Pacific coastal rainforest one of the wettest regions in the world, a young mother by the same name as the state—Chocó—struggles to buy her daughter Candelaria a cake for her birthday. Chocó’s dire poverty is accentuated by grueling mornings spent in the open-pit mines where she and other Black women pan for gold that will make others rich in return for pennies a day. In the evening, she washes neighbors’ clothes in the river to afford to send her children to school. By night, she returns to a ramshackle home where she is greeted—and frequently accosted—by the father of her children, a layabout who spends his days drinking and gambling.
A sense of despair and precarity looms as the viewer witnesses Chocó’s efforts to support her children while suffering racism and abuse from which there seems no possibility of escape. And all she wants is to buy her daughter a cake—until one night she snaps. This film serves as a disturbing meditation on the daily struggles faced by Afro-Colombian women and on the general situation of Colombia’s Blackest region, which is defined above all else by the state of poverty, exploitation, and institutionalized racism that reigns when people and places like Chocó are abandoned to oblivion and decay under an endless torrent of tropical rain. Still, under all that decay there smolders an ember of hope.
Una madre, 2022, directed by Diógenes Cuevas:
Following the death of his father, Alejandro leaves his family home in Medellín to “rescue” his mentally ill mother Dora from a convent in the Antioquian countryside where she has lived sequestered for the past twenty years. Not having seen his mother in all those years, Alejandro doesn’t know what to expect, but he’s sure that she isn’t as disturbed as his family has always told him. He arrives at the convent to witness with horror the physical abuse and condescension inflicted on the women institutionalized there and decides to break his mother out. With the police now after him, and discovering that his mother is indeed less able than he first assumed—she doesn’t even recognize him as her son—Alejandro is forced to make some hard choices as his hopes of a happy life reunited with his mother quickly unravel. This film asks what it means to love and to let go at the intersection of motherhood and mental illness. Alejandro discovers, rather too late, that what is best for both of them is not all that he wishes.
Amazona, 2016, directed by Clare Weiskopf:
Decades after her mother Val leaves her family for an isolated life deep in the Colombian Amazon, British-Colombian documentarian Clare Weiskopf, herself pregnant and soon to become a new mother, retraces her family history to determine just what went wrong between mother and daughter and to begin a journey of mutual healing. The viewer joins Clare in her exploration of her mother’s past, beginning with Val’s youth as an English hippie who ended up in Colombia in the 1960s for one love and left it for another. Treading a fine line between responsibility and freedom, the two women seek to come to terms with an understanding of both motherhood and personal identity. Along the way the viewer learns that it was tragedy—the death of her first daughter—that compelled Val to abandon her family, leaving an eleven-year-old Clare confused and hurt. With the passage of the years, some wounds close and others open, but the power of love and forgiveness—the need for hope to remedy despair—runs through this film’s narrative thrust.