Colombian Director Maria Gamboa Explains Why There’s No Salsa or Cumbia in Her Film

It’s 9:00 AM on a Sunday and I find myself walking amongst the tall red brick buildings that make up one of Bogota’s residential neighborhoods on the north side of the city. At a nearby bakery I purchase a chocolate muffin for Maia, filmmaker Maria Gamboa’s three year-old daughter who I know will be joining us for breakfast. As I reach their building, I spot Ms. Gamboa herself standing by a fruit vendor on the corner. The man is squeezing orange juice for her while Maria chomps on some salpicón, a typical fruit salad beverage made from a variety of fruit — whatever is available — chopped into small pieces, combined with fresh fruit juice and mixed. Add ice and drink/chew. It’s super refreshing and given the lushness of Colombia’s fruits, it’s naturally sweet and delicious.

As a child my mother would never allow me to eat anything off the street including salpicón; she worried about vendors using unfiltered water in the punch in order to save costs. “Don’t worry we’ve been buying from him for years,” Maria said, staying true to the unspoken social custom that anything in Colombia has to be negotiated with some degree of trust. “Come on, it’s on me,” she spurred as I hesitated. I agreed and indeed it was not only delicious but also a coup for young me.

Once at the breakfast table, Maria fried some eggs for Maia and I: mine with a soft yolk, hers with a hard yolk. Meanwhile Maria and I talk about her film Mateo, which is making the rounds across film festivals internationally and was recently released in theaters in Colombia. More importantly, it is the country’s submission for the 2015 Oscars. The film centers on Mateo, a sixteen year-old budding criminal who is required to take theater classes in order to stay in school. He uses the assignment as an opportunity to gather information about the troupe’s members for the local thug and, in the process, gets a fascinating glimpse of what his life could be.

Mateo is based on research Gamboa conducted in and around violence prevention and organizing practices in Barrancabermeja, a town in the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia that has been plagued by violence. Most notably on May 16th 1998, paramilitary forces entered the town, rounded up suspected leftists guerillas and massacred them before terrified onlookers on the town’s soccer field. It’s on this same soccer field where Maria wants to hold a screening of Mateo. “It’s about recycling, reclaiming that space,” she says.

“The people who are capable of telling their stories through art have the keys to peace in this country.”

The film has been lauded for presenting how art can be a powerful tool in places like Barrancabermeja by establishing and maintaining worthwhile creative alternatives for teenagers to participate in and providing an opportunity for them to dream themselves into someone or someplace new. Most recently, Maria took the film to Italy where it screened at the Giffoni Film Festival, which is aimed specifically at young people who act as jurors in the selection and awards process. The film won the Crystal Gryphon at the festival and will be promoted within communities that deal with similar issues as they relate to the Italian mafia. For Gamboa and writing partner Adriana Arjona, this is a huge accomplishment as that was one of the intended uses of the film: to inspire community involvement that traverses fear and that uses arts and culture to cultivate the strengths of the communities affected by violence.

After breakfast, we move to the living room where Maia shows me the two kittens she had just gotten for her birthday and the chair where she sits to meditate with her mother. Maria squats onto a hammock that hangs by the bay windows in the living room and swings softly, her bare feet planted on the wooden floor, as we talk about the growing film scene in Colombia, about the on-going peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana, and how culture plays an active role in the peace process.

“Just because the government signs a peace agreement doesn’t mean the country will change overnight.”

“Just because the government signs a peace agreement doesn’t mean the country will change overnight. But I do think that a peace accord will at least make us think of other things. And, of course, the same questions will remain: How are we going to give young people more opportunities? How are all of us going to have more opportunities? And how do we all connect with what’s happening? In other words, just because people are from another region other than my own doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with me. So how am I connected to everything? I really think that art is a great source of healing. A good friend once said, peace is far but it’s the people who are capable of telling their stories through art that have the keys to peace in this country. And I believe that; that they can open doors. And we have to open many.”

The music in Mateo struck me because it was not stereotypically Colombian; there was no salsa, cumbia, or champeta. Music was used sparingly, mindfully not manipulating, as can often be the case in films that deal with somber subject matter. She included a sonata by Mozart not for the sake of romanticism but because “that’s what the kids in the theater troupe listen to,” she said, referring to the young people in Barrancabermeja who Gamboa worked with while doing her research. There are other, more contemporary tracks in the film and during our talk Maria explained each one’s significance.

Kanaku y el tigre “Caracoles”

Maia’s squeal bursts over the music when one of her new kittens scratches her right hand after an overzealous squeeze. Gamboa sticks up for the cat and tells her daughter she was just defending herself. We continue listening to some of Maria’s favorite tracks as Maia dances and flutters around us.

Manu Chao “Expresso del hielo”

In the nineties, Manu Chau traveled through Colombia in what proved to be an inspirational trip. This track speaks specifically about Barrancabermeja, the town where Mateo takes place. The “expresso” in the song is a train that cuts through the town. The rail line has since been retired, but its crippled wagons were used by Gamboa in one of the scenes in the film.

Bomba Estéreo “Respira Paz”

A new track by Bomba Estéreo written specifically for the United Nations’ Respira Paz campaign. Mateo is also a part of this campaign, selected as one of a series of films the UN will show in remote communities across Colombia by converting the outside of a bus into a movie screen. A huge Bomba Estéreo fan, Gamboa had the opportunity to hang with the band during the campaign launch held at the Planetarium in the city’s center.

Calle 13 “Latinoamérica”

Calle 13’s lyrical ode to the richness present in our home countries and the people that embody it is one of Maria’s favorites. “It shows what we really are and the things that bring us together,” she said. “The video in particular visually presents so many of our commonalities.” What may be tostones for one is patacones for another but plátanos nonetheless.

Julieta Venegas “Eres para mi”

This is a song that Maria and Maia sing to each other, especially while driving. As soon as Maria plays this song, Maia comes over to us and starts dancing. Mother and daughter point to each other while singing, “Eres para mi.”

Jorge Drexler “Todo se transforma”

Maria is a big Drexler fan, of his style and lyrics that tend to resemble a meditation. “This song in particular has a spiritual vision,” she says. Maria doesn’t believe that war is sustainable. She believes that at one point or another it starts to affect the collective unconscious and that people will tire and look for ways, politically or communally, to find peace. “Colombia can be a despelote,” she says, “but in spite of that or perhaps because of it, there are wonderful opportunities to do great things here.”

Mateo is Colombia’s submission to the 2015 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.