César Acevedo walked up to the podium at the 2015 Cannes Film Awards to receive the most important recognition in the history of Colombian filmmaking just three years after graduating from the University UniValle in Cali.

Acevedo’s La Tierra y La Sombra (Land and Shade) won the prestigious Camera D’Or for Best First Feature and debuted recently in theatres across North America for audiences whose understanding of Colombia is limited to sun-splashed beaches, mules hauling coffee through the mist, and news stories of drugs and guerrillas.

There are none of these stereotypes in the 90-minute feature Land and Shade.

Although it has its origins in Cali, capital of the Valle del Cauca department, the film presents a very different reality of Colombia from the eyes of the cane cutters of Valle. It is a tale of social exclusion, family reconciliation, and eventual redemption through the solidarity and humanity of its protagonists.

At 28, Acevedo has emerged as an eloquent new voice in Colombian cinema. Besides receiving the Camera D’Or, he also snapped up three more awards during the festival: the SACD Prize for best screenplay, the Revelation Prize of the Critics’ Week, and the Grand Rail D’Or award of the Critics Week. This marked a record for homegrown talent and shows the success this young director had by abandoning the rigidity of acting, forced castings and bland lighting.

Landscapes physical and emotional

‘Land and Shade’ is a movie about the Colombian landscape and the complex, inner emotional landscape of its main characters. It’s also a plight of a rural family trying to remain in their home while everything around them goes up in flames. Hemmed-in by walls of sugarcane, the open expanse of the horizon is an ever-elusive, sub-character in this plot. Acevedo’s Valle del Cauca is a place where the constant falling of ash from the slash-and-burn techniques of the sugar mills results in a sickness – and an underlying question of an industry’s social responsibility.

Acevedo’s critique of corporate malpractice surrounding these operations, known as las quemas, is as subtle as the snow-like ash that damaged Gerardo’s lungs. He is the breadwinner of his family and spends his final days bed-ridden in a dark room being cared for by his son and wife. Acevedo was motivated to write the screenplay to shed light on such injustice. “I wanted to be a journalist when I was growing up,” said Acevedo. “It’s a way to give back to society.”

Born in Cali in 1987, Acevedo grew up in a city where a powerful cartel and its narco aesthetics were destroying the social fabric and rewarding those whose values institutionalized self-indulgence and the “need to possess”. The power of easy money and the never-ending rumbas of the Calle Sexta alienated those on the other side of the drug divide. Cali was then no place for journalistic exposés and social denouncement.

Wanting to expand his creative horizons and enrich himself spiritually, Acevedo enrolled at UniValle, in their Audiovisual faculty, where many of Colombia’s most-talented directors studied. It is the alma mater of ‘Caliwood’, a filmmaking movement that had its “golden age” in the 1970s.

In his free time, Acevedo watched movies and worked on sets, hauling cables and setting up lights. His father, who had moved to Medellín, insisted that his son stay away from film in order to land “a real job.” His demand fell on deaf ears, and retracted that night in May, when César’s name was called out at Cannes.

The road to the ‘Land and Shade’ was eight years in the making. He conceived the script at university, but fundraising stalled given his lack of experience. So he was initially unable to make his vision of a story that went against the grain, delving into the lives of cane cutters, corteros, and the harsh working conditions they are subjected to, from intense heat in the plantations to the clouds of dust generated by collection trucks during the harvest.

Loss and creation

The long process to get ‘Land and Shade’ made has been intensely personal that provided César catharsis while dealing with his mother’s death to cancer when he was 18. “The solitude this created in me, led me to tell stories,” recounts the director. An estranged father in Medellín and the loss of Alba Lucía, “a woman of strong religious faith,” signified that César was now on his own, facing life as an outsider to the comforts and security of family so many others enjoyed. “The acceptance of loss is something natural in the region.”

In the film, Alfonso (played by Haimer Leal) returns home from a faraway territory to take care of his son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) and establish a tender friendship with his grandson, Manuel (José Felipe Cardenas). The emotional landscape of these spirit-crushing relationships was already deeply embedded in César’s own experience as he traveled across the Valle del Cauca on a motorcycle that he learned to ride in a week to do his research. “There is a sense of resignation in these vulnerable communities,” said Acevedo. “Everything becomes valid in the name of progress.”

Before going out to get financing for the film and cast the actors, Acevedo had to first exorcise his own “ghosts” and come to terms with the painful memories of having lost his “own home”. After his screenplay won several awards for its writing, backing came in from the Colombian Film Fund and several international entities. He found the film’s location on private land, graced by a large tree and with the right distances for the camera to move in order to capture the visual metaphor of physical entrapment and voids of our inner spaces. “Everything was very thought out,” said César.

Being the first feature of an aspiring director, many established actors turned down roles and didn’t respond to the emotional “energy”. The director decided to instead look among the sugar cane for his on-screen talent, discovering 8-year-old José Felipe in a school, Edison driving a cab, and Haimer Leal as the handyman of a local theatre. Seemingly far from Oscar-material talent, the actors of ‘Land and Shade’ give poignant performances in their burning fields and offer griping portrayals of the human condition. “I value the bravery of the actors in taking on their roles,” said Acevedo. “Everyday they had to put their hearts in their hands.” The five unknowns were guided through the whole process by Brazilian actress Fátima Toledo, who worked on the critically acclaimed 2002 tale of Rio de Janiero’s favelas, City of God.

Like the workers in the field, Acevedo also learned the value of teamwork when he proposed to his friend, the Cali-based photographer Mateo Guzmán, that they should make the movie. In charge of cinematography, Guzmán frames each scene with traces of French impressionist Jean-François Millet and the sentimental greys and brown of an Andrew Wyeth painting. In the kitchen and bedroom, Rembrandt extends his hand, casting a golden a hue from half-open windows. In this apocalyptic drama, light limits personal liberty. Freedom is never attainable, it seems, despite the open skies and the chirping of birds. “The film talks about an urgency,” said Acevedo. “The reality of many in which the signs of destruction are everywhere.”

From Cali to Cannes

‘Land and Shadows’ catapulted from the fires of the Cauca valley to the sun-washed broadwalks of Cannes in several months. As post-production wrapped up, the producers at Burning Blue submitted the film as a Colombian entry at Cannes. The film was critically reviewed and the Caleño director was invited to attend. César asked his father to join him. It would be a reconciliation of sorts, a small family reunion to watch on the pristine screens of the movie mecca, the house that took eight years in the making, go up in flames, one more time. As the first award came in, César remembers “crying his eyes out”. David Cronenberg’s director of photography, Peter Suschitzky, was there to console the 28-year old director. “It was very beautiful how so many people who didn’t know the Colombian context were touched by the film,” said Acevedo.

Acevedo stayed in Cannes until the ‘Camera D’Or’ ceremony, one of the most prestigious of this 10-day event. Never imagining he would clinch movie history for Colombia, the jurors handed down their decision. ‘Land and Shade’ won, and a “film which should help make lives better” was recognized for its captivating beauty and staying power.

‘Land and Shade’ hasn’t healed all the wounds between a father and a son, but it has allowed for a step in that direction. So like his film, Acevedo offers Colombia a needed symbol of progress. Only after reconciliation can this land truly emerge from the shade.