Outside the Adolfo Mejía Theater in Cartagena.
Daniel Loria Outside the Adolfo Mejía Theater in Cartagena.

"General Santos, son of a bitch!" The impassioned cry broke the tense silence last week at the Adolfo Mejia Theater, disrupting the world premiere of "Family Portraits" at the Cartagena International Film Festival. Alexandra Cardona Restrepo's documentary focuses on the surviving relatives of a group of young men from a low-income Bogotá suburb who were murdered by the Colombian army and buried anonymously in a mass grave; officials claimed, erroneously, that the executed men were guerrilla fighters. It took seven months for the victims' bodies to be identified and the remains returned to their respective families.

Sporadic heckling continued throughout the screening, much to the vocal dismay of the rest of the audience, but the incident represented a rare commodity: Engagement. Like the rest of the region, Colombia's national cinema has struggled to establish itself with domestic audiences. For the last couple of years, FICCI has become more accessible to its own community, building a film culture across class lines and bringing that audience into theaters.

With the exception of the opening- and closing-night films, all festival screenings were open to the public free of charge. Screenings were held in parks and in squares of the city's surrounding barrios. For people who lived in those barrios and wanted to attend screenings held in Cartagena's gentrified, tourist-oriented downtown, there was complimentary transportation. The result was a lack of elitism; indignant viewers have no problem speaking up.

"Colombian filmmakers have been muted for a very long time, but we are finally hearing their voices," said Diego Ramírez, a producer who heads 64-A Films and acts as the VP of the Colombian Academy of Arts and Sciences. "When someone has been kept quiet for so long, the first thing they'll tell you are the things that have upset them the most."

Films from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico have traditionally anchored Latin American cinema. In recent years, filmmakers from Chile and Uruguay have also gained international recognition. So why has Colombia lagged behind?

"The turning point in Colombian cinema didn't come until 2003, when the 'Cinema Law' went into effect," Ramírez said, referring to a multi-tiered government initiative with the goal of revitalizing production by promoting and facilitating private financing. The law has served as a catalyst for the proliferation of Colombian film over the last decade, with a second similar measure going into effect earlier this year.

"Colombia went from making two or three films per year to producing over 20," Ramírez said of the change. "If there is a national film industry to speak of, it is thanks to these laws."

The increased production has brought along a surging crop of new filmmakers producing an increasingly diverse slate of films. "Right now we're turning that corner and hearing more voices looking to tell stories that depict a broader Colombia," Ramírez said. "The first films we made at my company, for example, had a strong sociopolitical slant. Today we're exploring romantic comedies and horror films."