César Augusto Acevedo Is Fighting Hollywood’s Negative Stereotypes of Colombia One Movie at a Time

The Colombian film industry is having a moment in the spotlight. Not only did the country earn its first ever Oscar nomination for critical standout Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) and a major win at Sundance for Between Sea and Land (La ciénaga), but films like Violencia (dir. Jorge Forero), Alias María (dir. José Luis Rugeles) and La tierra y la sombra (dir. César Augusto Acevedo) made splashes at film festivals around the world. In fact, Acevedo’s has proven to be one of the most highly regarded films to come out of the country this past year. It won the writer-director the esteemed Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an award bestowed on the best first film screened at any of the festival’s selections. Previous winners include Steve McQueen, Mira Nair, and Jim Jarmusch, putting Acevedo in pretty great company.

Set in the Valle del Cauca, Acevedo’s film is a contemplative look at a family in crisis: when Adolfo (Haimer Leal) returns to the home he abandoned seventeen years earlier, he finds his son Gerardo (Edison Raigosa) bedridden, and the entire landscape surrounding his modest house overridden and destroyed by the effects of sugarcane monoculture farming. Evoking the moody filmmaking of Terrence Malick and, as the director notes, taking inspiration from filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, the film is a quiet meditation on our connection to the land and to one another.

We sat down to chat with the acclaimed director ahead of a recent screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Below are some highlights where the César Augusto Acevedo discusses everything from his “poetic style” to the current state of Colombian cinema.

On What Inspired The Film

“I knew there’d be very little dialogue because this is a story of a broken people who cannot express their feelings in words.”

Well, I’m from that region — the Valle del Cauca — and all my life I lived within those sugar cane plantations. But at the start this was a film really about my family. It’s a film that was very personal to me that I began thinking about after my mother passed away. I wanted to reclaim, in film, that lost loved one, but then I quickly realized that such an autobiographical film wouldn’t muster much enthusiasm, so I decided to pivot it towards this social problematic about monoculture farming with the sugarcane, and talking about how that’s closed off the land.

I wanted the film to hinge on feelings not on statements (“sentimientos no acontecimientos”). So, I began thinking about the personal side, my memories of that microcosm — that house, the tree, those characters. And then looking not just to where I came from but looking at the courage, the grit, and the resilience of the people out in the country.

On the Film’s Poetic Style

Well, from the very beginning I knew there’d be very little dialogue because this is a story of a broken people who cannot express their feelings in words. So we began looking for ways to materialize those feelings via images and sounds. In looking for a metaphorical way in, we attempted to create a much more poetic type of film, which is the type of films I really enjoy. And from there, what was crucial was the use of time and space, giving the audience a chance to feel that it wasn’t just what was blatantly on screen, but that there was a deeper level — that’s what we tried to do with those long takes, those camera movements, finding ways of giving more depth to the feeling of the film.

And well, when I say “poetic” I don’t mean moving away from reality, but actually reshaping that reality to think through specific ideas and feelings. The key to the film was to show that the physical world was an emotional metaphor to talk about the distance between bodies and feelings through the camera and its movements.

On Why Audiences Worldwide Have Connected With the Film

On the one hand I think its the formal aspects of the film. At a time when the majority of films are just throwing images at you, and give you no time to really see or feel much, this film gives you, in a way, an opportunity to live and share things with these characters. And on the other hand, I think what’s most important is that it’s a story tied to our culture, but to themes that concern us all—like family, the difficulty to stay in contact with our loved ones, and the identity that’s tied to our land, and what happens when we lose it. And I think those are very strong themes that people really connect with. I mean, the sugarcane crop could easily be swapped for something else and the essence of the film, its humanity, would remain.

On Colombian Cinema Culture

“We know how Hollywood sees us: as savages, as narcos, as hitmen, but well, we have to keep working.”

Well, our film culture is living a great moment but it is still a work in progress. When the first “Ley del Cine” was written into law twelve or so years ago, Colombia produced a mere one or two films a year. But now in 2015 I think we released 50 or 60. And with that number of productions there’s cinema for all types of moviegoers. The government has started to enforce cultural policies that have worked, and have helped nurture filmmakers, giving us a chance to support ourselves. This was a film that was in part financed by a government film grant and was co-produced with four other countries. It took eight years to find the full funding, but that government support was essential. What’s important is that with new filmmakers come new voices that are trying to tell stories about that unexplored country; telling regular stories, with everyday characters. Talking about who we are and what we go through.

On Hollywood’s Possible Takeover

That said, the future doesn’t look all that promising. Just now they approved a second Ley de Cine which looks to entice foreign productions — Hollywood in particular — to come and shoot their films here, and they’re offering a lot of financial incentives. For example, if a Hollywood film comes to shoot here, they will get 40% of their investment back. And that’s a lot of money. And in a way it may even make it harder for us working here. Furthermore, what might happen is that outsiders will continue telling our stories. We know how Hollywood sees us: as savages, as narcos, as hitmen, but well, we have to keep working. With my fellow filmmakers, we see cinema as a sort of resistance. You just gotta have faith and see what happens.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated by the author for Remezcla.