This article was originally published in POV's Documentary Blog.
Due to the limited financial stimuli and distribution available nationally to documentary filmmakers (not to mention the actual risk that the work entails for Colombian nationals), there has been an underwhelming number of productions that just about scratch the surface in representing the Colombian armed conflict and the peace processes that have taken place. The documentary films listed, regardless of country of production, illustrate some of the main causes that fuel the conflict: the fight against the accumulation of land and wealth, state-sponsored violence, the continuation of Cold-War era policies against political dissidence, irregular warfare, and narcotrafficking. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, rather it provides a sense of what kind of discourse has been prioritized in the making of these documentary films.
Colombia is a country with a long history of turmoil and civil unrest. Its history has been marked so decidedly by armed conflict that in its two hundred and six years of existence as an independent republic, it has only known less than fifty years of relative peace. Furthermore, there is no nation in the Western Hemisphere that has confronted such disastrous outcomes at counterinsurgency: an alarming death toll (220,000 dead to present) in combination with an equally alarming internal displacement rate, since the country has more war refugees than contemporary Syria. This is why when the plebiscite to cease the conflict by peaceful means – formulated in the Peace Accord with the FARC Guerrilla – was rejected by the narrowest of margins (50.41% voted No while 49.78% were in favor), it came as a complete shock and against all expectations on early October 2016. Specially since most war-torn regions, encompassing many victims from affected communities, voted in agreement with the accord.
There have been eleven attempts so far to end the counterinsurgency war against the FARC guerrilla by means of dialogue, but most were frustrated in the early stages and lacked the comprehensive scope of the current one. This Peace Accord was put to ratification with an openly democratic referendum, to the effect of a notable international validation (supporters of the peace accord ranged from then-UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon, the Obama administration, Pope Francis, to the Nobel Peace committee). Colombia’s current President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) had begun the peace process with the rebels in mid-2012 and it has encountered fierce opposition from one key figure and his following: Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010 and twitter-abusing warmonger. The slim majority that voted No were largely under the influence of his campaigning efforts; most caved into the unsubstantiated claims regarding how the guerrilleros, once incorporated into civilian life, were going not only to take away their hard-won pensions but would also live amongst ordinary people with absolute impunity. For political analysts and historians alike, these claims warrant hypocritical standards due to the fact that the Uribe administration created a process of demobilization for the paramilitaries that was largely staged and produced no serious conviction of rank-and-file members. Since then, these demobilized criminals continued their delinquency as a group but under different denominations.
- WATCH: Impunity (2014), by José Lozano and Hollman Morris, is an expository documentary that has but one intent: denounce the paramilitaries’ process of demobilization for their non-compliance with reparation and reconciliation agreements. Morris, who has received numerous death threats by paramilitaries for his bold journalism, has stated numerous times that Uribe’s administration (2002-2006 and 2006-2010) was directly involved in allowing paramilitaries to continue their gruesome extermination practices, even though they had disbanded on national television. More than 3,000 common graves have been found, and the relatives of these victims claim justice in vain after 5 years of the so-called demobilization. The film has enough direct testimonies from the victims’ families to make a compelling case against the absence of transitional justice, institutional truth and reparations. It also shows how transnational corporations (e.g. Chiquita Banana) hire paramilitary forces to disband worker’s unions and keep their enclaves safe.
- WATCH: La Sierra (2004), by Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez, shows the intricate urban warfare that the FARC and AUC (right-wing paramilitaries) contingents used to carry out in Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods. Both filmmakers were granted permission by the AUC’s top rank in order follow paramilitary foot soldiers in their everyday. It is shot in observational style and, needless to say, it depicts gory scenes and live shootings (the cameraman was shot at by a sniper while filming Jesús, a 19-year-old sergeant). With the intent of showing a year in the life of the barrio, the film captures with great fidelity the dynamics that turn this type of warfare into a never ending spiral of retaliation and personal grudges, fueling the war from the ground level up. The film broadcasted on PBS’s Independent Lens in 2006.
The Uribe administration’s attitude towards the guerrilla still determines much of the national disposition towards the peace agreement. Thanks to military operations under his command, the FARC was decimated and its leadership was shaken to the core, and that is in part why most Colombians believe there should still be fought rather than dialogued with. Most remain oblivious in that also during this time unspeakable human rights violations were carried out and silencing dissensus among the press, community leaders, and activists was a common practice. Surely the unacceptable facet of Uribe’s administration was the complicit entanglement of the military forces with right-wing paramilitary death squads. In this state of things, where paramilitaries would forcefully displace and murder civilians suspected of having ties with the guerrilla, Colombia’s ruling classes were able to keep up with their century-old practices in regards to the accumulation of land whilst shedding the fear of being kidnapped and extorted by the rebels.
- WATCH: Robatierras (2010), by Margarita Martínez and Miguel Salazar, follows Lucho Acosta in his role as a resilient leader of the Nasa indigenous community of the Cauca region. The Nasa stand out as Colombia’s politically organized indigenous community, due to the fact that they have been fending off plantation owners and monocrop corporations that impinge on their ancestral territory for decades. The film’s title translates literally to “land robber”, and its premise lies in that there is perhaps no other agent that ultimately deserves this title more than the Colombian government itself. This character-driven story is a testimony to the many weakening struggles that the community faces against the official and nonofficial (i.e. by paramilitary force) deprivation of their lands. It must be noted that the guerrilla were once widely popular amongst communities like the Nasa, until they allowed for the forced recruitment of child-soldiers.
This is not to say that the guerrillas are not to be regarded as the merciless, unrelenting force of illegality that they have proven to be throughout fifty years of fighting. Now sitting atop a drug empire valued in USD $10.5 billion, the marxist-inspired group owe their existence to an ever-present discontent of the underclasses in regards to the concentration of land and wealth that has paved the way for a dire regional social inequality (the country’s Gini coefficient is almost the highest for South America). But, little did the first campesinos who joined the nascent ranks of the guerrilla know, the war against the Colombian establishment was going to make them recur to means (i.e. use of landmines, kidnapping, extortion, force recruitment of minors, etc.) that would in turn make them an enemy of the very social justice that they claimed to represent. Nevertheless, the FARC guerrilla groups did try on several occasions to contest politically these challenges by forming a party, called the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union), but whose members and candidates were ultimately hunted down and assassinated in an unprecedented episode of state-sponsored violence, from the late 1980s until the early 2000s.
- WATCH: 50 años en el Monte (1999), by Yves Billon, is a film produced at the time President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) held the ninth peace negotiations with the FARC high-command. What is truly remarkable about the film is the unrestrained access Billon had to one of the most wanted man in Colombia at the time: FARC commander and founder Pedro Antonio Marín aka Manuel Marulanda Veléz, and nicknamed Tirofijo (“accurate shot”). Intercut with valuable archival footage and views into the daily life of the FARC battalions, the film is one of a kind also for its intent; as any good journalist would do, Billon allowed the Commander to speak uninterruptedly about the history, operations and political agenda of the group. In its mix of expository and observational approaches, the documentary serves as the most comprehensive testament of what the FARC high-command believes and how it regards itself.
- WATCH: El Baile Rojo (2003), by Yezid Campos Zornosa, is a film with such limited distribution in Colombia that it seems to confirm what it is set out to denounce. Chiefly, that the Colombian government initiated the genocide of the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union) political party affiliated with the FARC. It is estimated that 4,000 members and candidates were the victims of targeted assassinations, and that almost brought the party to permanent dissolution. The interviews in it focus on the testimony of researchers that have substantial evidence to prove that elected officials, the military and the paramilitary commands should take accountability in perpetuating these crimes against civilians. It also details the creation of the party itself under President Belisario Betancur’s (1982-1986) in an attempt to provide the FARC-EP with a legitimate representative platform. However, the systematic eradication of socialist influence in the political arena was in full effect thanks to Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy legacy. Situated at the tail end of the US-led Operation Condor, which instated dictators capable of eradicating the socialist agenda in South America, the genocide of UP party members stands out as the ultimate anti-leftist chapter in Colombia’s history. The title translates to “Red Dance,” which was how the perpetrators code named the operation.
The Colombian armed conflict is truly complex in its range of actors, causes and consequences. As of December 2016, both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the Peace Accord following an intense period of dialogue with the opponents of the deal (mainly the Centro Democrático party, whose leader is former President Álvaro Uribe), taking into consideration their objections. The Colombian Supreme Court is yet to approve the mechanism by which the President, with this executive action, can bypass another plebiscite and rely solely on Colombian’s representatives in Congress. Both the ELN (National Liberation Army) and EPL (Popular Liberation Army) guerrilla groups remain in arms.
- No Hubo Tiempo para la Tristeza (2013), which translates to “there was no time to mourn,” was produced by Colombia’s National Center for Historic Memory. It recapitulates the findings of their exhaustive reports in regards to the causes and consequences of the war, especially in regards to reparation and reconciliation processes for victims.
- Falsos Positivos (2009), focuses exclusively the extrajudicial that army officials carried out in order to receive promotions or other benefits. These executions targeted the poor and the powerless, dressing them up as guerrilla to make them appear as casualties of war.
- Colombia’s Hidden Killers (2013), is a short documentary film produced by Vice on the deadliest weapon the FARC has at its disposal: landmines. With a style that borders on sensationalism, the film interviews innocent bystanders that have been victims of this irregular type of warfare and follows military units that set out to deactivate them.
- Tirofijo ha Muerto (2010), is a rather celebratory documentary film marking the death of alias “Tirofijo.” It provides an overview, from an institutional or governmental perspective, of how the guerrilla came to be Colombia’s foremost “terrorist” group. It premiered on National Geographic and was produced by RCN cable TV and Semana publications.