After stumbling for hours around the hot and humid Machu Picchu, getting rained on and sun beaten in turns, biking down the steep slopes of Death Road with trucks taking corners like it’s summertime, looking at the glaciers of Patagonia, reflected in crystal-clear lakes, and feeling a pain so beautiful it tears up the eye, getting pick-pocketed while soaking up on the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, there’s nothing like sitting down to a good, pirate copy of a local blockbuster. You just have to love South America for all the small corner DVD stores selling illegal copies of the latest movies for a few bucks.
This post I’m writing is about specific films shot in South America and related to the continent’s life, culture or history; films nominated or actually winning international awards, films that couldn’t be more different from the average mainstream production. So, if you’re hung on such cinematographic pearls like The Human Centipede, The Flintstones or Antman vs. Spiderman 7, read no more – this is not where you should be.
I have 7 movies I’d like to present, some dating back to 2002 or 2004, some very recent. Some are shot in the Amazon Rainforest, some in the Andes, some in the desert or in a city. And in all people speak languages other than English (yeah, it’s a subtitles time!).
So, why not start with something heart-breaking, depressing and demoralizing?
You know something is wrong with the world when an 11-year old boy is scared to turn 12 because then “the soldiers come and take him away.”
Based on a true-life story, Innocent Voices (Voces Inocentes) is one of the best war movies ever made.
Set in war-torn El Salvador in the early 1980’s when kids were forcefully drafted into the army, the story is told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy who lives with his family in a village trapped in the warfare between the government military forces, trained and supported by the USA, and peasant rebel guerrillas. In a relentless war that lasted 12 years.
What makes the movie unique is not the 2.5 hours it lasts but the raw, authentic and matter-of-fact way it depicts children’s daily life in a war zone. Showing acts of adults through the eyes of children can be very disturbing, but it is also what makes this movie very powerful.
Innocent Voices with its excellent cinematography, visuals and the casting (where did they find the kids!?) won the best film award at the Berlin International Film Festival of 2005.
Does the movie have any flaws, you ask? Sure – the characters don’t speak in Salvadorian accents, and the communist guerrillas were not the good guys as portrayed in the film (they, too, burned down villages, massacred people, kidnapped and executed civilians). But none of that diminishes the intensity of this not at all ordinary war movie.
Even the Rain
A Mexican film crew is coming to Bolivia to shoot a movie about Columbus and his encounter with native people and gets involved – against their will – in a series of local protests against the Bolivian government.
A winner of the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia) is a cleverly made movie within a movie that combines two historical events to show the parallel between the exploitation of native populations 500 years ago and the current oppression still going on.
Starring Gael García Bernal, a guarantee of a good and ‘different’ movie, Even the Rain develops on one hand the story of Columbus, his cruel treatment of the natives and their fight back, and on the other, the Water War protests of 2000 when the Bolivian government sold the local water supply to an American multinational company. Planning a 300% increase in prices of water in a country where the average income of the indigenous population is $2/day and outlawing even collecting rainwater (hence the film’s title), social riots are inevitable. This is when a local actor essential for finishing the movie becomes one of the leaders of the protests, and the historical events play out in real life.
With generally positive reviews, Even the Rain is a very refreshing relief from the usually preachy movies dealing with the same subject. And even though some of the characters could be more developed, and the direction doesn’t always get there to deliver the message, it is a good cinema with a smart metaphor and great visuals of the Bolivian countryside.
The Motorcycle Diaries
If there is a movie that will make you wanna dust off that old backpack and catch a plane for South America, it is The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motocicleta).
Based on Che Guevara’s travel diaries from 1952, The Motorcycle Diaries is a great adventure, a fun story and a genuine road movie about two friends discovering South America on an old beat-up motorcycle.
A journey that led to the transformation of Ernesto Guevara, a twenty-something, middle-class, idealistic student of medicine from Buenos Aires to the world’s most iconic revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
“Filled with restlessness, a dreaming spirit and a love for the road,” he says at the start of his 6-months, 8,000 km journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela in 1952, “we decided to explore a continent we had only known from books.”
Hunger, accidents, women, panhandling, copper mines in Atacama Desert, indigenous peasants in Cusco, Machu Picchu, and a leper colony in the Amazon jungle – exploring the continent and discovering its limitless natural beauty and diverse society is clearly not only a dream come true but also the beginning of what Che was to become.
“So much injustice,” he says at the end of the road trip, referring to the poverty and social injustice he encountered on the road: “Something’s happened to me.”
Some journeys are meant to change who you are.
Avoiding any politics and heroic feats, The Motorcycle Diaries portrays the young Che (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) in a somewhat idealized way but does so at an enjoyable pace, with marvelous cinematography and fantastic acting.
Produced by Robert Redford, the movie won awards at Cannes Film Festival of 2004 and the Academy Awards of 2005.
Maria Full of Grace
To work as a drug mule, you have to swallow up to 100 cocaine pellets of 2 inches each. To avoid the gag reflex, you practice with large grapes, to slow bowel movement, you take anti-laxatives; 24 hours prior to the ingestion, you fast.
A pellet is a small latex condom stuffed with coke, sealed with dental floss and crimped off by a small device. To go down easier, these ergonomic capsules are coated with oil; to adjust them into place, a gentle stomach massage is given halfway through to fit more in. If a pellet leaves your digestion system prematurely – while still on the plane, for example – you wash them in the bathroom and swallow again.
All that for $5,000 (a fortune in a country where the average annual income is $1,700), knowing that if they burst, certain death follows and the pellets will have to be retrieved by cutting you open.
As happens to one of Maria’s friends in Maria Full of Grace (Maria Llena Eres de Gloria), a small budget movie about an 18-year old Columbian girl who strips thorns from roses for a living. When bad working conditions and an unwanted pregnancy force her to quit, she needs to find a new way to provide support for her grandmother, mother, sister and her infant nephew. That’s when a friend she just met offers her a huge sum of money for smuggling drugs into the U.S. Feeling trapped, she accepts.
Simple, real and unpretentious, Maria Full of Grace is one of the most human movies about drug trafficking there are. It won awards at the Berlin International Film Festival of 2004 and was nominated for the Academy Awards in the category of Best Leading Actress.
City of God
The name for a shantytown in Brazil is favela. Some of the most impressive favelas are located in Rio de Janeiro – they ‘boast’ the same views over the legendary Rio de Janeiro Bay like the multi-million penthouses and condos next door. Tourists are taken on excursions to them.
That is not the case of the City of God slum. This one embodies the worst of the world of violence, drugs and gang warfare (I mean, how often do you see 12-year-old killers portrayed on film?). The City of God is definitely a place you don’t want to visit.
Based on true events and characters, City of God (Cidade de Deus) follows the history of a favela of the same name over the span of three decades, from the 60’s to the early 80’s. It explains the vicious cycle of a slum hoodlum lifestyle – the children first become petty thieves, then drug dealers and finally cold-blooded murderers. To make the film as authentic as possible, the production auditioned 2,000 children from the City of God, choosing 200 to act in it. The result is the actors are extremely believable and the film very real.
The story is narrated by Rocket, whose dream is to escape the slum and become a photographer. Lil Ze is the second main character, a relentless sociopath who takes sadistic pleasure in killing his rivals and whose goal is to become a powerful drug lord.
The movie is additionally populated with a myriad of other characters whose stories are cleverly linked into a fast-paced whole, at times funny, at others brutally shocking, but creating a very credible view of the slums.
City of God was nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 2004.
The most different for last
Now, if you’re in the mood for a slow and dreamy movie shot in exotic locations, one of those where you never entirely understand everything going on but don’t let that stop you from being captured by it, here are two names: Embrace of the Serpent and Birds of Passage. Both created by the Colombian director Ciro Guerra and set in Columbia, they are exploring two different indigenous cultures – one inhabiting the Columbian Amazon and one inhabiting the Columbian Desert.
Boasting no special effects, shining sets, cars blown up in slow motion, explicit sex or stylized violence (hell, one of them is even filmed in black and white!), and told in multiple native tongues, these movies are clearly not for everyone.
Embrace of the Serpent
A nominee for the Academy Awards of 2015, Embrace of the Serpent (El Abrazo de la Serpiente) follows the events described in travel diaries of two Amazonian ethnographers – Theodor Koch Grunberg from 1909 and Richard Evans Schuttes from 1940. These diaries remain the only source of information about many extinct Amazonian cultures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Karamakate is the last survivor of his tribe, a shaman living in the heart of the Colombian Amazon and protecting it from intruders. In 1909, he is asked by a German scientist to help him find yakruna, a sacred plant with a powerful ability to heal. Conflicted, as he has no ambition to help ‘the White man’ because his tribe was wiped by him, Karamakate reluctantly agrees.
Forty years later, he is approached by an American scientist looking for the same thing.
As the two closely intertwined stories unfold, we’re shown the tragic history of the Amazonian tribes, exploited, ill-treated and killed by rubber barons, Columbian soldiers and zealous missionaries.
Embrace of the Serpent is a must watch movie for everyone interested in native peoples, ancient cultures, healing plants, shamanism and jungle.
Birds of Passage
If you have no clue how the Columbian drug trade started, and don’t know that Columbia is not just mountains and jungle but also desert, Birds of Passage (Pajaros de Verano) will enlighten you. Fear not since this is not your usual brutal Escobar or Narcos – it takes about half the movie to realize that what you’re watching is a life-and-death drama and not the summer of a peaceful Bedouin tribe somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula.
With long sequences, slow rhythm, expansive desert shots, a regional native dialect and a blind bard singing the events, watching this movie is like sitting on a shore and watching the ocean waves roll lazily on the horizon; unknowingly, you sway with them.
So, what is Birds of Passage about?
Would you believe that the whole drug trafficking business worth $360 billion a year and keeping all the CIAs, FBIs, Coast Guards and Interpols busy for decades, started with a marriage proposal?
Yeah, it all happened in a remote corner of northern Colombia, an arid and sparsely populated area called the Guajira Peninsula. The same Guajira Peninsula that is inhabited by a small indigenous Wayuu tribe with customs and a language completely different from the rest of Columbia.
To win the hand of Zaida, Rapayet must raise a fortune to pay the dowry that will benefit her family clan. And what is a quicker way to do that than to sell marijuana to Peace Corps volunteers always looking for pot? And when the business booms and millions start rolling in, to run the trade themselves?
Based on a true story, Birds of Passage gives an accurate account of the beginning and ending of the cannabis trade out of north-east Colombia called the Bonanza Marimbera. Covering the period between 1960-1980, the history ends with the violent Medellin cartel taking over (substituting marijuana for cocaine) and the region descending again into poverty.
With superb acting, epic visuals and a realistic feel to it (30% of the cast are Wayuu people), this movie, selected as Colombia’s entry for the Academy Awards of 2019, shouldn’t definitely be missed.