Mateo Arias, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guerrero, Moises Arias, Blast Beat

Why Director Esteban Arango Recruited Moises Arias, Diane Guerrero & Kali Uchis for Colombian American ‘Blast Beat’

Mateo Arias, Wilmer Valderrama, Diane Guerrero, and Moises Arias appear in 'Blast Beat' by Esteban Arango. Photo by Brian Douglas. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

For director Esteban Arango, his first feature film is a call to arms. Co-written alongside
Erick Castrillon, Blast Beat follows a pair of Colombian teenage siblings (played by Mateo and Moises Arias) who, along with their mother (Diane Guerrero) are forced to leave Bogotá and join the patriarch of the family (Wilmer Valderrama) in the Atlanta suburbs where they must adjust to a new life in the U.S. Arango borrows from his very own upbringing (which, full disclosure, overlapped with mine; we both attended the same private school before he and his brother, a classmate of mine, left for Florida) and offers an immigrant story that’s rarely seen on the big screen. Scored by heavy metal, featuring a high schooler who dreams of working for NASA and another who loves nothing more than to skate through life, Blast Beat is a coming of age tale that mines specificity to create a new portrait of what a Colombian American story can look like.

“Growing up we saw Hollywood movies,” Arango tells me during the Sundance Film Festival, where Blast Beat competed in the U.S. Dramatic section. “That’s what entertained us and what made us dream of becoming filmmakers. But every time that we saw Latino stories in Hollywood we didn’t necessarily associate those narrative with border crossing or prostitution or drug smuggling or any of that stuff. That wasn’t my story. And it wasn’t yours. Or Erick’s. Or anybody that I know.”

Arango wanted to broaden how we think about immigrant stories in the U.S. In doing so he wanted also to offer a different kind of on-screen representation for Colombians. Like the sibling characters in Blast Beat, Arango experienced the narrow-minded vision of Colombia his new classmates had been fed. “Oh you’re from Colombia?” he was asked. “What part of Mexico is that?” or “Oh, you’re Colombian? Where’s the blow?”

Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama, Kali Uchis, Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Esteban Arango, Erick Castrillon, Blast Beat
Cast and crew attend the World Premiere of ‘Blast Beat’ by Esteban Arango. Photo by Caydie McCumber. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
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Those stereotypes haunted his late high school years in the U.S. and exposed him to the way Hollywood warped people’s idea of our country. “There’s this huge stigma of being Colombian,” he adds. You can’t avoid the fact that drugs and narcos are part of Colombia’s history. “But it’s not the only story. And I feel like we carry this responsibility of trying to show a different side of it and address it in a more responsible way.”

The movie is “for the displaced generation,” for those who had to flee the country and create new roots abroad. And so, while its coming of age story feels distinctly American, its concerns and its language are decidedly Colombian. Here is a script that handily drops words like “cucho,” “paila,” “parce,” and, yes, quite tactlessly, “marica” (which my classmates used as casually as if they were saying “bro”) in its Spanish-language conversations. But it’s also a project that makes its sibling duo fully fluent in English, a reminder that not all immigrant stories need focus on ESL struggles.

Indeed, Blast Beat is as bicultural a film as it gets. Arango shot it in Colombia but cast mostly Colombian-American actors. “This movie wouldn’t have been able to be made in Colombia,” he adds, before noting that his casting choices — including giving Kali Uchis her very first big screen role — were informed by trying to bring together a group of people who’d have an attachment to its story. Uchis, for example, caught Arango’s eye after a producer suggested the Colombian-American singer for a small role. Hearing her music intrigued him but it was her Selena-inspired and politically-motivated outfit at last year’s Central Park’s SummerStage that convinced Arango that the “After the Storm” performer would get Blast Beat’s timely message.

“We wanted to work with people like that — that knew what the vision for the movie was at large. Not just for the screen, but as a movement.”

Blast Beat premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.