Viviana Gómez Echeverry On the First-Ever Feature Film Shot on the Colombian Island of Providencia

When Tribeca Film Institute unveiled the ten projects that had been awarded this year’s TFI Latin America Fund, it was a joy to see two Colombian projects represented. It adds fuel to the narrative that Colombian cinema, hot off its first Oscar nomination, is experiencing an unparalleled renaissance. Given the country’s diverse topography, it’s no surprise that one of these submissions, Viviana Gómez Echeverry’s Keyla, looks to a locale that’s yet to get the cinematic treatment it deserves: Providencia, an island off the Caribbean where pirate Henry Morgan set up base and where many believe his many treasures still lie hidden.

The population on the island, owing to the many British and Spanish peoples who have anchored there over the last couple of centuries, have made it a surprisingly diverse Caribbean enclave. Indeed, English creole rather than Spanish is the most spoken language. That it’s also an idyllic natural paradise adds to its allure and you can see why Gómez Echeverry fell so in love with the place. Her film tackles the darker recent history of the island which has begun to feel the large-reaching effects of the Colombian drug trade. Her film centers on a young woman dealing with the sudden disappearance of her father.

Gómez Echeverry, who co-directed the Joshua Oppenheimer-produced documentary Life is Sacred — in itself a previous recipient of another Tribeca fund back in 2013 — is now working to raise enough money to put the finishing touches on her film. We hopped on the phone with her to talk about her intriguing project and learn more about what it is about Providencia that so seduced her.

Did you have that one moment where you realized you wanted to be a film director?

I’m not sure. Because i’m a cinematographer so I started working in film that way. I worked mostly in documentary films, but what I most enjoyed about working as a cinematographer, especially in documentary films is that you’re the first one to decide how to frame the story. You can have a director there by your side but eventually, you’re the one with the camera, you’re helping to construct the story. I realized that I had this need to tell stories. I love to write so I found this story about Keyla in Providence Island, and I just sort of found myself writing a script about and telling myself, I have to make this film, no matter what. And that was like 10 years ago.

What is Keyla about?

Keyla is about this young woman, Keyla, who lives on Providence Island which is this small island in the Colombian Caribbean. This is a community that’s a mix of African, Spanish, and English people. What interested me were the pirates — these English pirates that used to live here. Like Morgan and all of them. One day Keyla’s father goes out fishing but he doesn’t return and she’s greeted by an unexpected visit. Her father’s ex-wife, a Spanish woman, comes with Keyla’s half-brother who she’s never met before. And she’s forced to receive them. So this is a story about a broken family.

What drew you to Providencia and to this story?

I fell in love with Providencia over thirteen years ago. Because I had to make a documentary for a project. I stayed there for 5 weeks. And what’s fascinating about Providencia is that it’s beautiful and the people you find there are very special. In particular their outlook on life. But one of the curious things that happened in Providence is the union between different foreign women and islander men. That’s something strange because these women come, become fascinated with the place and the men’s beauty. They stay for a while. They fall in love, have children. But after a few years they get tired because it’s a very small island and the machismo is very strong. So they leave the country and take the children with them. So this causes a lot of broken families; children who grow up away from their fathers, from their siblings. I wanted to explore that because it’s a reality in the island. The other thing that was very strange to me, and which is a hard reality, is that there is a high number of men who have just disappeared, or are killed, or in jail, because they work piloting drug boats. So almost every family in the island has a man in this sort of situation. And what that means is that new generations decide to make easy money rather than learn the ancestral activities of fishing and farming. The narcotrafico is something that’s been infecting everything.

Could you tell us a bit about the process of getting the film made?

I was trying to get this film made for eight years. So I’ve applied to many funds. I received support when I was developing it from the Colombian Film Fund. But I tried through many ways to get the money for years and it was just frustrating. A friend, who’s the main producer in Keyla, Raquel Imedio — a wonderful and crazy woman — suggested we do a crowdfunding campaign. And we did. We also created a foundation called the Old Providence School, because the love for Providence is so big that we expect this won’t be the last project we work on here. We also partnered with a French guy [Julien Laumond], who’s the executive producer of the film who contributed some money. Between that and the crowdfunding campaign, we raised enough money to do this project. It was a bit of guerrilla cinema since we got certain people to donate their time and work. Everyone really helped and right now we’re just trying to get more money to finish the film.

How did you hear about the TFI Latin American Fund?

I applied to Tribeca because I’d heard of this fund when I worked in a documentary called Life is Sacred, which talks about Antanas Mockus, who is a Colombian politician. And the Danish director I’d worked with, Andreas Dalsgaard, had applied to a Tribeca fund and had got it [2013 Spotlighting Women Documentary Award]. So that’s why I knew about the fund and that’s why I decided to apply. And I have to say I am very excited and grateful for the support that Tribeca Film Institute is giving to Keyla. It is a very big boost, because it opens the possibility of finishing the film. And it’s not just the financial support, but I’m grateful for the way they’re allowing us to make international contacts and get new partners to contact film festivals. For the first time our team will be able to evaluate how the public will respond to this story. For me this whole process is a great learning experience.