Meet Natalia Santa, the First Female Colombian Director to Screen at the Cannes Film Festival

Natalia Santa. Courtesy of Director.

The Cannes Film Festival, whose red carpet has helped kick-start a thousand careers, held its 70th edition last month. And while the festival’s most overt display of Latino presence may have taken place at its anniversary gala dinner – where a star-studded mariachi singalong took place – the Directors’ Fortnight program also provided a stand out moment: With her feature La defensa del dragón, Natalia Santa became the first Colombian female director to screen at the fest.

Written and directed by Santa, La defensa del dragón follows the life of a glum chess player, Samuel (Gonzalo de Saraminaga). Samuel devotes himself to winning his matches and mentoring other pupils at a legendary chess club, as well as hanging around with a pair of down-on-their-luck friends – Marcos (Manuel Navarro), a homeopathic doctor, and Joaquín (Hernán Méndez), who struggles to keep his watch shop open. In between chess matches and poker games, Samuel, Joaquín and Marcos must deal with their lives’ failures and endure unexpected tragedies.

Still from “La defensa del dragón.” Courtesy of Natalia Santa.
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Santa, 40, who studied literature, thought for a long time she would be an academic. Back in her twenties, while she was living in New York working as a waitress, her mom asked to her to come back to Colombia to write a soap opera script with her. “I wrote this script for two years and then I started working at a TV channel for nine years as a script reader. I worked for other TV projects and, in the meantime, I started writing my first film script,” she told Remezcla before her flight to France.

La defensa del dragón’s aging locales stand in for Bogotá’s memory and tradition.

While Santa’s debut film delves into the mind of a chess player, she actually knew very little about the game when she got started on the project. “I was looking for a theme for my script and my husband [suggested] it could be about a chess player. I thought that making a story about chess was complex and might not be attractive – but this topic brought me to Lasker, a chess club, and I thought it was a great place for a story.”

Still from “La defensa del dragón.” Courtesy of Natalia Santa.
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Not many recent Colombian films have centered their stories on emblematic Bogotá locales like Lasker, or La Normanda, a traditional coffee shop. La defensa del dragón’s setting is carefully composed and its aging locations stand in for Bogotá’s memory and tradition. “The visual proposal, the still camera, the composition and art design came from the pictures (by photographer Iván Herrera) that inspired the movie. These are photos about emblematic spots in Bogotá that are like, stopped in time and haven’t changed in the last 40 years.” The vintage aesthetic captures the characters’ monotonous universe and the atmosphere portrays the isolation that they inhabit.

Being selected for Cannes was very unexpected. It was a surprise that at first seemed almost impossible.

Working with Ivette Liang, a Cuban producer Santa met in Havana while taking a script class, helped her on her path to Cannes. They struck up a friendship, and when Liang moved to Bogotá, they started working together with La defensa del dragón script.

“She was the one who told me that we were going to produce the film and that I would direct it. If it wasn’t for her being so sure that I could direct, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Each step of the film production was a big challenge, but the momentum grew throughout the six year process. “We were selected to join Cartagena Encounter at FICCI (Cartagena’s International Film Festival) in 2014, then we were part of Tribeca’s workshop at Bogotá, as well as Ibermedia’s workshop in Nicaragua,” Santa told me.

Eventually the film, which explores the midlife concerns of male characters, captured the attention of Fortnight Artistic Director Edouard Waintrop.

Still from “La defensa del dragón.” Courtesy of Natalia Santa.
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Santa, the first Colombian woman at Cannes, never expected to get to the most famous French film festival. For the director, “It is an honor to be in the Directors’ Fortnight with these renowned names and at this place where I never expected to arrive. Never.”

“Being selected to be at Cannes was very unexpected. It was a surprise that at first seemed almost impossible. We always doubted whether it was true or if someone was playing a joke on us. At first we did not believe it, then after the stupor, it was total happiness, as it’s an opportunity and a huge window opening for our cinema that will help us to make contacts, negotiate the film, distribute it,” she told Remezcla at her apartment in Bogotá.

Despite the lack of women directors in the film industry and festivals line-ups, Santa says, “The fact that two women were in charge of the film drew a lot of interest and we were always super welcome and never felt that we had fewer opportunities.”

“I never felt that because I was a woman I had to fight more,” adds Santa.