Collaborative filmmaking for socio-political transformation in Colombia: a decolonial perspective

by Keya Saxena and Gabriela Martinez

Social Documentaries—documentaries with human subjects that have as primary objectives descriptive or transformative concerns—have a rich history in Latin America (Burton, 1990). Since the late 1950s, documentary filmmakers on the continent have conceptualized their praxis of filmmaking as transformative tools and spaces that can dialogically engage subjects and audiences. Contemporary activists, artists and scholars in the region continue to use documentary film as a tool for social purposes: cultural exploration, re-imagining national definitions, socio-political transformation, and epistemic inquiry. Some classic examples that set the tone for Latin American documentary praxis include the 1960s and early1970s film manifestos—Imperfect Cinema by Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa; Third Cinema by Argentine filmmakers and media critics Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino; and the Aesthetic of Hunger by Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. These manifestos were not only prominent in their times but have continued to be key referents for many filmmakers who came afterwards.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, many Latin American filmmakers played instrumental roles in depicting and participating in the struggles against military dictatorships, progressive social movements, and workers and indigenous peoples’ struggles. They also engaged in political and social activism confronting, with their stories, governments in post-dictatorship democracies or democracies going through peace processes which

“have neither resolved the deep ideological and social crises brought to the region by neoliberal reform nor adequately responded to the demands for truth, justice, and reparation of survivors and relatives of victims of human rights abuses” (Traverso and Crowder-Taraborrelli, 2013: p.6).

A promising kind of Latin American documentary, although not as publicly salient, includes films that are produced or co-produced by indigenous communities and peoples. With the arrival of video technologies in the 1980s—analog first and digital later—indigenous peoples in the region began asserting themselves through self-representation. Both indigenous peoples and their non-indigenous allies “began to see media-making as a powerful way to promote advocacy, and ultimately, to foster self-determination.” (Amalia Córdova, 2014:123).

The history and trajectory of Latin American documentary and its major directors who managed to distribute their films/videos through festival circuits, theatrical releases, television networks, or academic markets in the United States or Europe have been, and continue to be, well-studied. However, scholars rarely, if ever, have sought out or analyzed film/video productions by educators teaching filmmaking in Latin America. Probably such media is hard to find because few educators produce their own film/videos due to funding and time constraints. Also, media productions done by educators are not necessarily aimed at film festival circuits, theatrical exhibitions, or mainstream distribution. Furthermore, there is scant information about film collaborations that may emerge between faculty and students as part of the pedagogical and learning process, including the frequent collaboration with grassroots organizations and communities in the localities around an educational institution.

Often these alternative media that originate from academic collaborations between professors, students and communities have the potential to be a source of ‘counterinformation’ that is oppositional to hegemonic structures, dominant ideological agendas; for example, they often question official interpretations of historical events. However, there has not been much research done about the processes of academic and grassroot collaborations, especially in the realm of films as media for social transformation. These are the questions we think it is important to ask:

Here we seek to explore such questions and fill the above-mentioned gap by focusing on a documentary film project led by professors Pablo Calvo de Castro and Alejandro Alzate Giraldo, who taught at the Department of Communication in Universidad de Medellín, Colombia. In 2019, they engaged in a collaborative process with grassroots women’s organizations in Medellín by working in collaboration with Luz Elena Salas, a member of Casa Morada (Purple House) and Mujeres caminando por la verdad (Women Walking for Truth), both grassroots women’s collectives from Medellín’s Comuna 13.[1] [open endnotes in new page] The result of this collaboration is Palabras de Luz (Words of Light), a short documentary (36 minutes) based on the testimonio [2] or life story of Luz Elena Salas. As documentaries have played an instrumental role in soliciting, preserving, and utilizing testimonies of individuals who would not find spaces in mainstream discourse (Burton, 1990), the story of Salas gives a face and voice to the thousands of women who survived and lost loved ones in the Colombian conflict. This conflict lasted for more than 50 years between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the state. Despite the signing of an official peace accord in 2016, violence has continued, only in different forms (Human Rights Watch, 2020). The legacy of political violence has roots in and exacerbates many unresolved social and economic issues affecting rural people and the urban poor, along with the disorder that comes from the lack of a strong presence of the state across the country.

Comuna 13 of Medellín.
Source: a screenshot from the documentary Palabras de Luz.

Graffiti in Comuna 13.
Source: a screenshot from the documentary Palabras de Luz.

The pedagogical documentary collaboration, Palabras de Luz, took place between 2019 and 2020. We examine the collaboration and production of this documentary film within the Colombian context of media/film education and as a crucial political act that aims to contribute to discussions of peacebuilding, transitional justice, and memory processes. Simultaneously, we shed light on issues of power differentials between those involved in the collaboration and the neo-liberal structure providing funds for this educational documentary film. Furthermore, we will discuss the international nature of this collaboration including our own participation and that of the University of Oregon, as part of the larger project.

Brief background on the Colombian conflict

The two main leftist groups that took up arms since the 1960s are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the largest and best financed guerrilla groups in Latin America; and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). Right-wing paramilitaries arose in the 1980s as a response, and most of these were organized under an umbrella organization, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) (CRS Report, 2016). In addition, violence was exacerbated by the growth and expansion of organized crime connected to drug trafficking; since the mid-1980s and 1990s such connections permeated the political armed struggle (CRS Report, 2016).

Women’s resilience and activism
in post-conflict Colombia

“Many of the victims of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances were thrown in La Escombrera, right in Comuna 13. This place has been classified as the largest urban mass grave in Latin America.”
Source: a screenshot from the documentary Palabras de Luz.

The process of peace building does not constitute mere signing of Agreements or Peace Accords, but it also gives a country an opportunity to tackle the underlying issues of discrimination, inequity and injustice that are usually the root causes of long conflicts (UN Women, 2016). Though the worst casualties of the Colombian conflict have been women, they have also proved to be the most instrumental actors in peacebuilding. Women’s activist organizations such as Organización Femenina Popular (Popular Female’s Organization) and Ruta Pacífica de la Mujer (Pacific Route of Women) were demanding a discussion between the state and the guerrillas for almost two decades prior to the formal conversations that eventually laid a fertile ground for peace talks in Oslo, Norway and later in Havana, Cuba in 2012.

According to a UN women’s report on gender and peacebuilding process in Colombia, women have constantly tried to keep the public attention on the suffering of the victims and the war’s impact on civilian population. For instance, Ruta Pacifica de la Mujer and the Asociación de Mujeres del Oriente Antioqueño (Women’s Association of Eastern Antioquia) negotiated a local ceasefire that was maintained for months in an area (Bouvier, 2016). Several women throughout the country spoke directly with the armed groups to facilitate the release of hostages, prevented displacement, and secured back children recruited by the different armed entities. Women not only navigated their way through paramilitary territories, but they also persuaded insurgents to ease the movement of medicine, food, and the basic necessities (Bouvier, 2016). 

Initially, when the formal peace talks began in 2012, women and women’s organizations had no presence in the peace talks, but soon several women’s organizations pressed for inclusion in the process. In October 2012, Mujeres por la Paz (Women for Peace) was established, grouping more than forty NGOs advocating for the inclusion of women in the peace talks (Céspedes-Báez and Jaramillo, 2018). Women articulated the need to abandon simplistic visions of peace that only conceived it as the end of the armed conflict. They directed the government’s attention to deeper structural issues of gender-based violence, poverty, and lack of state presence as well as addressing trauma and collective reparation for the victims of the violence. They also advocated for the recognition of gender equity and the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, and the LGBTQI community. Women asked for full participation in the economic and political development of the nation (Manifiesto de las Mujeres Colombianas por la Dignidad y la Paz, 2013).

Since 2001, the collective Mujeres caminando por la verdad (Women Walking for the Truth) in Medellín has been active in the struggle to look for disappeared people and seeking justice for the thousands of cases of false positives—innocent civilians who were killed extrajudicially by the Colombian army and were later labelled as enemy fighters. The protagonist of the documentary Palabras de luz, Luz Elena Salas, is an active member of this organization. Many women in this grassroot organization of Comuna 13 lost family members throughout the conflict and were victims of violence themselves. The events that further fueled their drive for justice are the 2002 and 2003 military operations carried by the local and state forces in conjunction with members of the Cacique Nutibara paramilitary bloc, where thousands of false positives were produced by illegal executions. Mujeres caminando por la verdad works to strengthen the processes of training and defense of human rights, promotes the creation of political subjects capable of demanding justice, and seeks to promote peacebuilding through political participation (Mujeres caminando por la verdad).

Making of Palabras de Luz:
documentary film education for social change

During the production of this documentary, professors Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo taught at Universidad de Medellín, a private university founded in 1950. We define their pedagogical approach to teaching media and particularly documentary film production as critical pedagogy—where their goal, technical skills aside, is to train students as agents of social transformation through gaining consciousness of the reality they live in. Critical pedagogy is not new in the context of Latin America, where Brazilian Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) made a profound mark in most educational systems in the region, including that of higher education. Freire’s ideas on teaching remain relevant to this date. Current social, cultural, economic, and political conditions in Colombia and other countries can benefit from critical pedagogy that can equip individuals with tools to understand, develop, and realize their capacities through “participating in the pursuit of liberation” of themselves and the society (Freire, 1970; Kellner and Kim, 2010). Paired with critical pedagogy, social documentaries provide a promising framework for collaborative projects between teachers/filmmakers, students, people from marginalized communities, and grassroots organizations.

Palabras de Luz, as a documentary project, functions as a tool for breaking down sharp social barriers. The project empowers participants by bringing together individuals of different backgrounds and lived experiences from the same city of Medellín, which has a complex history of violence, oppression, and resistance. In Colombia, higher education, especially at private universities, is a privilege mainly accessed by the middle and upper classes. Universidad de Medellín, as a private university, is costly. Therefore, most students going there come from Medellín’s middle and upper classes, and few have had exposure to the daily life experiences of communities from the city’s peripheral Comunas. Thus, a project that teaches about a new-to-them social reality through research, filming, transcribing interviews, editing visual materials, and witnessing the life of their fellow citizens opens new ways of self-inquiry, and of understanding the history of their country from different vantage points. Learning while creating offers a more profound, effective, and long lasting educational experience. As Mateo Sierra, a student who assisted editing the trailer of the documentary said,

“[Professors] Pablo and Alejandro are always talking about doing documentaries that have a meaning… not only looking inwards but outwards…and be communicators for people who do not have a voice.”

For Salas, collaborating on this documentary has further validated her ongoing activist work. She was able to choose the topics and parts of her story to tell. It is in conversations between all three—Luz Elena Salas, Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo—that they decided to focus on her lived experiences in making the documentary and emphasize her poetry through writing and publishing a book. Salas also participated in defining the documentary’s questions, which were born out of conversations between them working as a team. Speaking about the collaborative nature of the documentary, Alzate Giraldo said,

“Luz Elena, Pablo and I are united by the mutual desire to contribute to our society and build a better future. The three of us have worked through the creative process as artists; each of us departing from our own internal processes and sensitivities. Our work with Luz Elena engages her as our colleague, as an artist, and not only as the protagonist of a documentary” (vocesdeotraparte.org).

The teachers’ process of finding Salas has roots in the relations established between Calvo de Castro, Alzate Giraldo and the women’s organizations in Comuna 13 Casa Morada (Purple House) and Mujeres caminando por la verdad (Women Walking for the Truth) during the pre-production phase of the documentary. Casa Morada is a space that promotes art and culture in the Comuna; and the collective Mujeres caminando por la verdad works in training people to defend human rights, promoting the cultivation of agency to demand justice, and promoting peacebuilding through political participation (Mujeres caminando por la verdad). Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo met Salas in Casa Morada where she participates in writing circles and workshops. At that time, she struck them as a “quiet force of nature” (Calvo de Castro, personal communication 2020). According to Calvo de Castro, Salas’ activist work for resisting systems of oppression against civilian populations exemplifies the struggle of many women in her Comuna, and in Colombia at large. He describes her as a person with “a very special manner to look at the world and stand before it. She has a unique way to process her experiences, especially through poetry” (vocesdeotraparte.org). As the teachers got to know Salas more during the pre-production phase, they found her poetry moving and powerful. Thus, along with producing the documentary, they worked with Salas for the publication of a book of her poetry, something she dreamed of but deemed impossible due to logistics and costs.

Luz Elena Salas: “a quiet force of nature”

Luz Elena Salas is almost as old as the internal conflict in Colombia and is one of hundreds of thousands displaced people. Born in 1963, Salas is now a woman in her early sixties. With her black hair falling till her shoulders, the white hair strands near her forehead distinctively shape her face and give a sense of the depth of what she has experienced. The hazel-greenish eyes reveal a kind politeness but are also determined and certain. She has found a way to articulate her and her community’s pain, grief, and experiences through poetry, while also using it as a way of healing. She arrived from Pequé (Antioquia) to Medellín when she was roughly 11years old (otraparte.org). She was one of the thousands escaping war and extreme poverty from Colombia’s rural areas to come and settle in Medellín’s periphery, making that territory their home. In 2007, when she was an adult and mother of three, she lost her son Damián in Comuna 13, where they lived. After extensively looking for him, she found him 10 months later at a common grave in a cemetery where bodies are deposited as “NN” or unidentified persons. She lived in Comuna 13 until recently but has been displaced due to threats for her activist work and for standing up to ex-members of the militias and the paramilitary (Palabras de Luz-Documentary).

The process of collaboration between
academia and grassroot communities

All documentary production has three phases: pre-production, production, and post-production/distribution. This process is similar even when producing a documentary within academia, including for instructional, scholarly, or academic purposes. In this case, one of the first steps entailed Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo’s writing a proposal for acquiring funding that included a brief treatment of the documentary’s topic. The documentary is part of a larger project entitled Mujeres como agentes del cambio en el contexto del post-conflicto colombiano (Women as Agents of Change in Colombia’s Post-Conflict Context), which will be discussed in the next section. The pre-production process included identifying certain goals: the university’s need to attract external funding and a fundable topic that would contribute to the local and national dialogue on peacebuilding in post-conflict Colombia. Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo reached out to local grassroots community organizations to determine what would be a strong story to focus on, and to ascertain which organizations would be willing to participate. The most responsive and receptive organizations were Comuna 13’s Casa Morada (Purple House) and Mujeres caminando por la verdad (Women Walking for the Truth)—the places where they met and cultivated a relationship with Luz Elena Salas.

Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo also read Salas’ poetry published on her Facebook profile, which enabled them to learn more about her at a deeper level. In their several meetings, they eventually discussed how to represent the story of her life and produce a compilation of her poems. At that point, the production phase was unexpectedly challenged by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the limited participation of students and other COVID-related restrictions, they still managed to film. Then Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo showed the rough-cut of the film to Salas to ensure if they have accurately represented her story, struggles and experiences. The continuous dialogue between them facilitated a collaborative process where Salas had ownership of her story and its portrayal (Calvo de Castro, personal communication 2020). The initial dissemination of the documentary occurred across online venues and shared with their students as well.

It should be noted that Calvo de Castro and Alzate Giraldo are, first and foremost, media scholars and teachers. Teaching at the university level is their primary activity, and both are deeply committed to their students. Identifying themselves as teachers who believe in social transformation, they urge their students to tell untold stories, revealing what is not visible in mainstream media, bringing other points of view to the public conversation, and learning through documentary praxis different aspects of social issues affecting their city and their people.

A memorial site in Comuna 13.
Source: a screenshot from the documentary Palabras de Luz.

An important dimension of film/media educators’ work consists of shaping their students’ experiences and adequate exposure to new ways of thinking during their journey in schools. Numerous scholars and educators such as hooks (1994), Freire (1996), Denzin (2003) and Giroux (2000, 2001) have now advanced the concept of critical performance pedagogy, advocating a transformative way of teaching. Teachers engaged with documentary production for social transformation can train their students in a way that helps the students to challenge neoliberal media frameworks and mainstream money-minting productions. Critical and transformative pedagogy (McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2001) resists homogeneity through conversations, which can deal with representations of culture, history and people’s different lived experiences based on class, gender, race, and ethnicities. Media educators can set an example where film/video can serve for insightful representation and self-representation. They can explicitly name and make the marginalized and oppressed visible; challenge conventional teachings in schools and reimagine the politics of social democracy in the larger education system; and provide a necessary, transient view of a new, freer society (McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2001).