”Colombian cinema does not exist.” With these words, Sergio Cabrera, celebrated director of La Estrategia del Caracol — one of the most commercially successful works in the history of Colombian film — may have made a bold, if not definitive statement, 15 years ago.
But time, like film, has an uncanning way of changing reality. Armed with his seminal, multi-award-winning, second feature-length film Los Viajes Del Viento, Ciro Guerra is a force to be reckoned with.
Following a standing ovation at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival this year, Guerra’s work inspired France’s Le Film Français weekly magazine, to hail Colombian cinematography as “the new prodigious Latin American child.”
”I’m not in this for the fame. I’m in this because I love this.”
Despite the well-deserved accolades, Ciro Guerra is a modest man with a vision; given the opportunity to use the medium he considers “the best means of storytelling,” this promising young maverick aspires to tell the untold stories of the land he loves.
Against all odds — the skepticism of his family, the absence of a thriving film industry, the lack of industry support — Ciro Guerra has emerged on the international film front, and is helping to set the standards for Colombian cinema.
Born in Rio de Oro, a small town in the Cesar department, on Feb. 6, 1981 and raised in Bucaramanga, Ciro claims to have experienced “the best of both worlds” living in both urban and rural settings in his formative years.
Since childhood, Guerra has been interested in stories — as both a producer and consumer. Like any child of the 80s, the time traveling, rough-and-tumble action of such films as Back to the Future and Indiana Jones fascinated him. It was not until his early teenage years, however, that he regarded film as something more than simply a spectator-sport.
Blazing a trail in Colombian film
“The first film that really made me change my idea of cinema was Oliver Stone’s JFK … it was the first time that I thought cinema was more than entertainment.” From this revelation — and inspired by the genius of Kubrick and Fellini — Ciro Guerra began filming shorts, at which time he developed “a taste for it.”
Pursuing a career in film in Colombia, however, was more a pipe dream than a possibility at the time. “When I was growing up,” he began, “there was no film culture or film industry here, so for many years I didn’t really consider it … it was always a dream, but it seemed very far-fetched.”
A determining crossroads confronted him at the end of high school. Unsure of his career path, Guerra opted to fulfill his military service.
Serving in Santander in 1996 was “a heavy time,” a period that would prove pivotal in his subsequent career. According to the artist, it was only a matter of luck that he was not involved in direct conflict and it was from this experience that Guerra knew that film was his destiny.
“I got to see another Colombia that I hadn’t really been in touch with … many of the things that I saw during that year were part of what I wanted to express…” His service inspired his poignant debut film entitled La Sombra del Caminante, a tale of two outcasts who form an unlikely bond: Mañe, a one-legged man faced with daily struggles and Sargento, a strange silletero who subsists by carrying people around Bogotá on his back.
Stories to tell
La Sombra, with its subtle socio-political commentary woven around a central theme of redemption, was well-received — if scarcely viewed — and launched a career for Guerra.
When he chose to “walk the path of creation” Guerra was gambling with his future, and the uncertainty of the Colombian film industry made his parents very apprehensive. “My parents didn’t really think it was something I could study … to me, it was the only choice.”
With this passion Guerra entered the Film School at Colombia’s National University, honed his skills as a writer-director, and made the contacts necessary to make the movie he “always wanted to make … a film always dreamed of.”
Shot on 35mm film, in a widescreen, cinema-scope format unseen in Colombia’s cinematic history, Los Viajes del Viento is a veritable tour de force, and a dream come true for its creator. Inspired by the region of his birth, a place that is heavily influenced by coastal culture — most notably, the musical styling of vallenato — Ciro Guerra poured his heart and soul into researching and writing a story that would bring a “mythological hero” to life—the legendary figure of the “juglar.”
Reminiscent of the magical realism found in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, this road tale follows Ignacio Carrillo, his cursed accordion, and his apprentice on a quest to find the instrument’s original owner. Building on the popular vallenato legend of “Francisco El Hombre,” Los Viajes del Viento sheds light on a musical genre that the director believes is “a music that really tells a story about Colombia.”
Shot in 91 locations across unknown swaths of the north, this ambitious project had its fair share of obstacles, and subsequent doubters. Faith in the project ran thin beyond the set; bets about how long the project would take to flop abounded.
Hard work rewarded
“People in the industry thought that we were completely crazy,” Guerra recalls through chuckles. “People told us this was going to be a disaster, you are going to be back in Bogotá in two weeks.”
Forced to endure the blazing sun and almost every form of transportation, including mule and canoe, to reach nearly impossible locations, it is little wonder.
Accompanied by his talented producers and actors, Guerra enters the Cannes Film Festival. that the industry anticipated failure. No one, and nothing, was untouched by the strain working conditions. Even the donkey that starred in the movie experienced stress while shooting after falling into a lagoon and nearly drowning.
Despite the hardships and hassles, the four and a half year journey culminated in countless successes, with perhaps the most noteworthy a few short months ago. Only the third Colombian director ever to be included in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Ciro Guerra mesmerized audiences in the Un Certain Regard category.
Comprised of either unknown directors or directors who are doing something completely different than what they usually do, Un Certain Regard presents “original and different” works that seeks international recognition.
After making his audience cry, and receiving a standing ovation that lasted “ten minutes … people didn’t stop clapping. It was unbelievable,” Ciro Guerra was awarded the “City of Rome Award” and the “Latin Rainbow.”
The jury then announced, “This award is for Ciro Guerra, for his capacity of giving to the spectator an unknown trip of initiation and discovery … a trip to the conscience, as the two protagonists abandon the legacy of all stereotype.”
Abandoning stereotypes in both his films and real life, Ciro Guerra confessed his reason for getting into film. About being approached by agents at Cannes who promised to make him the next big thing, the director comments “… that doesn’t seem so interesting to me … I’m not in this for the fame. I’m in this because I love this.”
Guerra pays credit where credit is due, and is quick to point out the two main reasons for the film’s success. First, the cast and crew who he describes as “the most committed crew — the most loving, professional and human crew,” and secondly, the efforts of his producers who believed this project was possible.
According to the boss, the support of Cristina Gallego and Diana Bustamante was paramount. “They are as much responsible for the film as I am — I just dreamed it, they were the ones who made it reality.”
Although his reality has changed significantly in the past year, Ciro has remained grounded and true to his roots. When asked why he shot this new film in colour, rather than in black and white like his debut, Guerra reveals the genius behind the decision: his son.
While drawing up the storyboard for Los Viajes, his son, who was four years old at the time, started colouring in the pictures. When asked by his mother what he was doing, his son replied, “I want to help my daddy so this movie is not in black and white like the other.”
Change will remain a constant for Ciro Guerra as he continues onto the Toronto International Film Festival next month. Second only to Cannes in terms of high profile stars and market activity, TIFF is the premiere North American film festival and is considered the launch pad for “Oscar buzz.”
Regardless of the newfound fame he is experiencing, Ciro Guerra is truly appreciative for the opportunities he has been given.
“For Latin American filmmakers to make a picture is a matter of life and death. We risk everything in our projects, although we know the future is uncertain. I make each film as if it were the last one.”