The Director and Producer of ‘Alias Maria’ on Humanizing Colombia’s Child Soldiers

Colombia made history last year when it earned its first ever nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. The recognition (by way of Ciro Guerra’s masterful Embrace of the Serpent) spoke to the growing assessment that the country’s film industry is experiencing a boom: in addition to Guerra’s film, Cannes winner Land and Shade and festival darling Siembra have been upping the profile of a still growing local cinema.

Enter: Alias Maria. With its timely plot and its award-winning festival run, José Luis Rugeles Gracia’s film has been submitted by Colombia to compete at this year’s Oscars. Set in the unforgiving jungle in the middle of the country’s armed conflict, the film follows María: a young guerrilla fighter who’s tasked with taking a newborn to safety. This perilous mission is a stark reminder of who gets the privilege of bearing children during war — all the girls who are sexually active even in their early teenage years are subject to mandated abortions lest they jeopardize the fight.

Giving us a firsthand account of the day-to-day life of a girl soldier, Alias Maria immerses you in the drab and olive-green world of the Colombian conflict. It’s the type of story that, as Rugeles Gracia told Remezcla, rarely gets the exposure it deserves: amidst the blood and politics of this decades-long armed conflict are small-scale human stories of children being made to grow up too fast. We hopped on the phone with the Colombian filmmaker and his producer, Federico Durán, to talk about the perils of shooting in the jungle, finding great child actors for the project, and the importance of this story as the country faces more setbacks on its peace talks. Check out some highlights below.

On Finding The Right Child Actors

Federico: There were two sets of research. The first was with interviews to set up the script and the story — that was just Jose Luis and Diego, the screenwriter. Then we were just trying to understand who the kids who’d perform this would be. Simultaneously we understood that there were a lot of entities and NGOs that were working to give the kids in rural areas of Colombia a different option than to engage in illegal groups and the guerrilla. So we found out that there were a lot of workshops and theatrical/audiovisual workshops being done. We decided that it would be great to do theatrical workshops and within those theatrical workshops look for the kids that would be the lead roles in the film.

José Luis: It’s important to say also that when we found Karen, it’s not like we found a non-professional actor. She’s a real talent — she’s an actress only she didn’t know it yet. It wasn’t about finding someone who wouldn’t be able to play a character but about someone who had a very special talent, which is what we found in her.

On Nurturing Spontaneous Performances

José Luis: The thing worth mentioning here is that the kids, they didn’t ever see a script. What we did was give them notebooks where they’d jot down their own dialogue after I told them what the scene would be about. It was a way to not lose the spontaneity of their performance. It wasn’t about getting them to access these lines via memory, but by tapping into their emotional truths.

On Shooting The Film Guerrilla-Style

José Luis: For the shoot, one of the first things we had to decide was how to move the camera and make it work in the tricky terrain we’d be filming in — you know we were shooting in the jungle, with brooks, and rivers. Not easy to shoot in. Our first option was the Steadicam but it’s very sterile; I didn’t much like it. On the flip side, we’d have to use hand-held cameras but that was just too rough. So we researched a bit more and found this equipment called Movi, which is a mixture of the two, and allows a more gentle shooting style but not quite to the extent of the Steadicam. It still allows for some movement and helped our Director of Photography Sergio Iván Castaño get the style we wanted.

The other thing was the locations. Every single shot we did was at least an hour, hour and a half away. We’d have to get to them by horse, by boat, by foot. Access to anything was very complicated. We ended up becoming a kind of guerrilla-style crew. We had very portable equipment and we worked pretty fast: as soon as we got to our location, the crew would set up the shots and they were ready right away.

On The Film’s Humanizing Message

In seeing the guerrilla fighters as people, you can begin to make change.

José Luis: The film, I think, forces reflection. What needs to happen in Colombia (perhaps what’s happening now) is that people are stopping to think and trying to figure out how we move forward. What I’ve seen happen when people watch the film is that they end up coming out asking what they can do. What can I do for the country? What can I do for these people who I didn’t really understand before, who I thought of as soulless, nameless people? Who are they? In asking those questions, in seeing the guerrilla fighters as people, you can begin to make change. If the film can contribute effectively to creating a different consciousness about these people, then we’re building a better place for them when they are inserted back into society. Which is what we’re aiming for in this moment.

On Getting The Film Seen Outside Colombia

Federico: For us it was very important that this film would go abroad, outside of Colombia. In a way it would be a story that could be told outside of Colombia, and that it could teach outside of the country. We started to talk with sales agents and the film proved to be very emotional, and several sales agents attached themselves to the idea of doing the work. At the end we found a French company called Urban Distribution. They have been doing a great effort, and so far the film has been shown in all five continents and over 60 international film festivals. It’s been released in France, Belgium, Holland, Mexico, Argentina, not yet in Canada but soon! It’s been a very interesting work that they’ve done.

And in Colombia we knew that for commercial theaters, it would be a tough subject matter. So we started doing parallel work to the commercial run, something that was very important for us that was to screen the film with teenagers in schools. So far we’ve been able to bring the film to more than 23 schools and even a juvenile hall. The film has been engaged in festivals and screenings around the country in places where there’s no access to cinema. And that’s on top of the film’s theatrical run, which was on the average side for local films; but these showings have been very much successful and really helped the film shine in Colombia.