In his newest film, La Mujer del Animal (The Animal’s Wife), celebrated Colombian director Víctor Gaviria brings his realist filmmaking approach to the theme of gender violence. The feature-length drama, which premiered March 9, draws upon techniques of gangster and thriller genres while showcasing Gaviria’s skillful casting and direction of non-actors, all to break the silence surrounding issues of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Based on a true story, La Mujer del Animal represents an extension of this director’s commitment to give voice to those who are most ignored. He turns his camera not just to overlooked and downtrodden populations, but tells stories at a more intimate scale of the marginalized individuals within these communities. While his first two projects highlighted under-represented groups, angsty punk teenagers and homeless youth of Medellín’s comunas (slums), Gaviria now looks at an invisible subject: women who are violently abused, traumatized, isolated, and lack any form of support in their communities.

Gaviria’s third feature marks a return to a style defined in his first two widely successful films. He burst onto the Colombian film scene in 1990 with Rodrigo D: No Futuro, which follows a teenage boy who becomes a sicario (assassin) for the Medellín Cartel. Despite his passion for music in an emerging punk culture in late 1980s, the protagonist is unable to break away from the cycle of poverty and violence. Gaviria’s debut was well received internationally and was selected for official competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.

His second film released in 1998, La Vendedora de Rosas, was also screened at Cannes, and received even more accolades. Again set in Colombia’s second largest city, the film follows a young girl who lives in the street, selling flowers in nightclubs and is prematurely ushered into a world of vices, drugs, and prostitution.

Apart from earning an international reputation as a socially motivated filmmaker, Gaviria’s first two films established his signature style of using of local youth in place of professional actors. With both projects, multiple cast members died mere months after production as a result of the violence plaguing their slums, highlighting the very conditions Gaviria depicted in his projects. Though tragic, this fact attests to the authenticity of the actors Gaviria chooses to voice his stories.

For his third feature, Gaviria conducted thousands of interviews, both as research for the film and to find his cast. He cast Natalia Polo as The Animal’s wife “Amparo” and Tito Alexander Gómez as the sadistic “Libardo.”

La Mujer del Animal tells a story based on the life of Margarita Gómez. Gaviria recalled that during his first interaction with the future protagonist, she summarized her husband with these words: “My husband was a delinquent, a killer, a rapist.” For the director, it was not the story of the monstrous husband that shocked him the most but the community’s response. In later interviews, Gómez elaborated on the complicity of her sister, neighbors, and other women in the community who witnessed the abuse but never intervened. This reaction to gender violence is what compelled Gaviria to share Gómez’s story.

Many years in the making, with a first draft completed in 2006, La Mujer del Animal is now being released in Colombia, following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Gaviria explains that it took 10 years for the story to come to light because, “it is painful to portray everything that surrounds gender violence. There are scenes and situations that are complex.” The disturbing nature of the subject matter and working with untrained actors demanded extra care. But he and his team persisted, driven by the need to tell this story.

Despite carnage, gore, and multiple rape scenes, perhaps the most disturbing element of the film is how many bystanders passively observe the protagonist’s suffering. The film opens with Amparo escaping her boarding school run by nuns after she has pulled a prank and is punished. Fleeing repression, she goes to live with her sister in a shanty neighborhood overlooking Medellín, and the neighborhood thug “The Animal” immediately takes a liking to her.

La Mujer del Animal tells an individual story of abuse with idiosyncrasies of the Colombian context. But it also transcends the local to become a universal story of gender-related violence.

Responding to this larger context and the shame experienced by the countless victims of abuse, Dani Goggel, the producer of the film, created a documentary based on the experience of making La Mujer del Animal.

This documentary includes footage from some of the thousands of interviews Gaviria conducted as research and delves into the issue of violence against women in this country. Coinciding with the theatrical release of the movie, the television network Señal Colombia will televise the documentary Buscando el Animal this month.