When Jorge Giraldo was a young boy growing up in Cali during the 1980s, the capital of Valle del Cauca was a provincial place where members of the higher social classes would expect their pictures to be published in local newspapers. When there were dinner parties, weddings, and baptisms, street photographers would congregate to try and get the best shot and then sell the prints one by one.
Giraldo’s mother, Blanca Antia, plied her trade as an events photographer every day in Cali accompanied by her only son, who would watch fascinated as she went through the entire photographic process from developing rolls to printing the client’s order in her darkroom. “I am a son of photography,” said the now-37-year-old lieutenant colonel of the Colombian Armed Forces, who has replaced the battlefield for an editing room as a documentary filmmaker, not out of choice, but destiny.
And a cruel blow of destiny. On February 4, 2006, while leading a platoon on an undercover military mission near the Pacific port city of Buenaventura, Giraldo and his men were ambushed by guerrillas from the 30th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The officer was shot nine times at close range.
When Giraldo turned up last month at the preview launch for the upcoming Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI) in a Bogotá theatre, the soldier in his dark military attire and insignia caught the attention of the media. Here among the award-winning directors and experienced cinematographers was a new talent, and protagonist, of this festival’s 57th edition, for a self-made documentary titled 9 Disparos (9 Shots).
Giraldo claims that photography was in his blood ever since he stood side-by-side his mother while she photographed families in the park or the circus when it rolled into town. But economic hardship meant that he could only finish high school, and a university education was a luxury reserved for those who purchased “Blanquita’s” photos. When Giraldo turned 18, with no higher education on the cards, he was recruited by the army for obligatory military service and shipped out to Tumaco, a coastal town near the border with Ecuador under constant siege by FARC and other criminal groups.
Unlike his military companions in Bogotá, who for 12 months safeguarded public buildings and escorted dignitaries on official state visits, the young recruits from Cali were sent to “red zones” of Cauca, Nariño, northern Valle del Cauca, and Putumayo. “With few or no opportunities to study or land a job, the military is a brotherhood of the most-poor,” said Giraldo of the experience he lived patrolling the rivers and mountains of southern Colombia.
Even though there was a constant threat of being attacked by FARC, the soldier kept a visual diary of his days in the jungle, thanks to one digital camera and anything that would record his night walks through enemy territory or the conversations with local farmers over mugs of hot coffee after completing a dangerous reconnaissance mission.
Photography and filming came naturally — and to the astonishment of his brothers-in-arms. When he completed his obligatory service in 2001, Giraldo took the bold step to serve his country as a professional marine.
Sent all over Colombia’s Pacific coast to patrol riverine communities, reclaim terrain taken by FARC, and interdict drug-trafficking submarines, Giraldo sensed that every minute he was alive was a minute that needed to be recorded. His superior officers recognized his talent as a field soldier and cameraman. But it would take a tragic circumstance for a life’s mission to evolve into a 52-minute documentary that, according to Giraldo, “shows the sensibility of the men who put their lives at risk for a love of country every day.”
The ambush that changed the course of Giraldo’s life resulted in the death of three of his companions. The injured soldier — with bullet wounds to his chest, stomach, and legs — managed to reach a medical post that had run out of anesthesia. As he lay dying, the doctor looked into his eyes and said, “I will try and save you, but it is going to hurt.” The doctor proceeded to cut open his chest and remove shrapnel from his lungs. Giraldo’s injuries were so severe that he fell into a coma.
After an arduous recovery, and 27 surgeries over the course of five years, he began to regain complete control over his body. Passionate about images, Giraldo taped every aspect of his return to life.
He was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder even though he says he didn’t have the symptoms. “It is only when I hear the sound of a helicopter does the past return to me,” said a now-robust Giraldo, at the Javeriana University of Cali, where he is enrolled at the faculty of visual communications.
Surrounded by students in their 20s who only knew of the conflict in their country by reading the front page of a newspaper, Giraldo showed his academic mentor thousands of images he had captured in the field, as well as hours upon hours of personal video testimony. The Cali-based film director and producer Carlos Rodríguez Aristizábal was overwhelmed by the scope of footage and the terrible up-close-and-personal recordings that made their way from the war fronts of the Pacific to his classroom.
Together they set out to write a script. “I always wanted to be a storyteller,” said Giraldo, “but I never had the formal studies to sit down and write.” The first outline of 9 Disparos covered nine hours of raw material — including pictures taken by his mother as she accompanied him throughout his time in a coma.
Giraldo is emphatic that this first documentary project is not political and “just the story of a boy from the barrio who, like so many other boys from the barrio, find themselves thrust into a war.”
Giraldo’s 9 Disparos became his graduation thesis and was submitted as an official entry in this year’s prestigious international film festival in Cartagena. “There are no good guys nor bad guys in my film,” said the director, somewhat camera shy with the media attention. “It’s just a personal story in which, every time I looked at one of my images, I had to confront the past.”
This debut film is visceral, and even though many hours of footage were filmed during combat situations, it is not a war story. It is a tale of camaraderie among men who are often perceived by the public as uncouth, aggressive, and impersonal. “All this film tries to convey is that, for so many, we are destined to rise within a society because our armed conflicts.”
After an intimate screening at the Javeriana University in Cali, during which the audience was moved to tears, the final version of 9 Disparos will be shown to an audience of international critics and movie stars at FICCI in March. For Giraldo, the fact that his story could be told is the product of many hours of suffering and wanting to stay alive.
“I think that as Colombians we endure so many hardships, because there is a determination to stay alive,” said Giraldo. “War is identical everywhere, and as Colombians we can overcome our hatreds.”
While Giraldo focused the camera on his physical and mental scars, the Colombian government was sitting at the table with the commanders of the very men who ordered countless ambushes to kill young soldiers, like him.
But there were moments of compassion on the battlefield, as well. Giraldo recalls assisting wounded guerrillas. And as someone who lived through the horrors of war, the storyteller still wears his marine cap proudly.
In Giraldo’s intensely personal experience of a decade embedded in the Colombian conflict, which has claimed the lives of some 260,000 since it began a half-century ago, the director of 9 Disparos has faith in a lasting peace with FARC. He warns his countrymen that they must not fall prey to the “hollow discourse of those who want the carnage to continue.” As a witness to war, Giraldo’s dramatic ordeal is all too real and his “reel” a testament for peace.