During the month of February, when the US is in the dead of winter and we drape ourselves in Canadian goose down and lambswool scarves in order to trudge through snow and slush while heavy winds hinder our every step, people in Barranquilla are wearing sequin and spandex and literally dancing in the streets in a month-long celebration of the city’s biggest event: Carnival.
These festivities are the backdrop of Luis Ernesto Arocha’s short experimental documentary, La opera del mondongo (o A mal tiempo buena cara). A classic of Colombian cinema, it was released in 1974 and went on to win Best Short Film at the Cartagena Film Festival. In the forty years since its creation, it has screened at museums and galleries throughout Europe and the Americas.
The title of the film comes from a popular song of the time also called La opera del mondogo by barranquillero Jose Maria Peñaranda, one of the first Colombian salseros to have his albums branded with “For Adults Only” stickers and to favor images of bikini-clad ladies with voluptuous derrieres. The track is obscene and contains references to the phallus, intercourse and disgorging flatulence.
Arocha’s La opera del mondogo was shot during both the 1973 and 1974 Carnivals and contains some amazing images of the massive floats, the ornate costumes and the everyday, working-class folks who participate in the processions and who truly make the feast what it is: the largest tourist draw of the Colombian Caribbean.
The film opens with a poster featuring Puerto Rican singer Daniel Santos and was created by then well-known street artist named Belismath, popular in Barranquilla for his murals and the artwork adorning the picos (or pick-ups) that provided the music at the city’s verbenas.
Not only is the film a portrait of the festival, but it also serves as social commentary. It depicts the grandeur of Carnival while, at the same time, the city’s inhabitants have no potable water and lack proper health services. The film seems to praise the ability of barranquilleros to forget their troubles and come together in celebration but also condemns their inability to organize, protest and demand the infrastructure they lack. This ironic state of affairs, one that continues to characterize the costeño attitude, is what makes the film perpetually relevant and powerful.
Luis Ernesto Arocha was part of the Grupo de Barranquilla of the 1950s, which consisted of some of the most well respected philosophers, artists and writers of the Caribbean. It was in fact an invitation from artist Enrique Grau that brought him to New York in 1964, where he became familiar with the underground cinema of Andy Warhol, Stan Brackage and Kenneth Anger, and which spurred his interest in experimental cinema.
At eighty-four years old, Arocha lives in Puerto Colombia and continues to write. After several decades of being largely inactive, there has been a resurgence of interest in his work. 2015 saw the release of a short film he wrote and co-directed called El extraño caso del vampiro vegetariano, a thirty-minute long short about a fearful vampire who only eats flowers. While at the Carnival, the vampire runs into Van Helsing, who happens to be in Barranquilla for a psychiatry conference. The two lock themselves inside a bathroom and develop a friendship over spliffs of marijuana and bumps of cocaine. Check out the trailer below.