By Daniel Loria | Indiewire March 1, 2013 at 9:00AM
"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."
The programming in this year's edition of FICCI reflects these developments. Ten of the 15 films in the fiction competition are first features from up-and-coming directors. There is a varied selection of films across all of the festival's sections -- from the mainstream and over-produced "Roa" that opened the festival, to "Señoritas," a film with a distinct indie sensibility made for around $35,000 by Lina Rodriguez, a Colombian-born/Toronto-based filmmaker.
"Lina's film is important for a bourgeoning industry like ours," said Orlando Mora, FICCI'S chief programmer. "There's been a recent tendency in Colombian cinema to see inflating budgets, and it's very hard to recoup the investment made in those films. A film like 'Señoritas' shows us a different approach to filmmaking in both an aesthetic and commercial level."
Other filmmakers under 30 were also present with films in competition including Chile's Fernando Guzzoni ("Dog Flesh"), Mexico's Pablo Delgado Sánchez ("The Tears"), Brazil's Gabriel Mascaro ("Housemaids), and Colombia's Irene Lema ("The Blue Pond") and Gabriel González Rodríguez ("South Star"). It indicates that the festival is committed in establishing itself as a destination for young Latin American filmmakers and seeking out the region's top new talent.
"The Tears," from Pablo Delgado Sánchez, is a touching story that focuses on the fraught relationship of two brothers in a broken family. Its director told Indiewire that Mexico's new generation of filmmakers look beyond the paths forged by the success of Mexico's contemporary art house directors.
"I think it's important my generation finds new stories to tell and develops its own unique styles. We don't want to be recognized as 'Carlos Reygada's children,' he said, referencing the famed Mexican director. "It's important for us to diversify and branch out in a new direction for Mexican independent cinema."
Other standout films in this year's fiction competition include juggernauts from the festival circuit like Pablo Berger's "Blancanieves" and Miguel Gomes's "Tabu." Both films garnered strong accolades over the past year, calling into question whether it was even fair to include "Tabu" in the competition. Already a critical darling and an NYFF 2012 selection, it was hardly a surprise when the film was awarded as the best fiction film in competition.
"The Mayor," took home the top prize in the documentary competition. The Mexican documentary from directors Emiliano Altuna, Carlos F. Rossini and Diego E. Osorno tackles the nuances of Mexico's Byzantine drug war by profiling Mauricio Fernández Garza, the charismatic mayor of an affluent Monterrey suburb. As Monterrey quickly becomes engulfed by violence, the mayor is somehow able to keep his district practically intact. Viewers might not empathize with Fernández Garza, but it's difficult not to be charmed by him. There is a larger-than-life aura to him, and he comes off as a bizarre combination of Gene Hackman's uncompromising Sheriff in "Unforgiven" and the guy from the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad campaign.
The big question coming out of this festival and its kin will be if audiences can continue supporting these films during their theatrical run, a crucial prerequisite if the industry is expected to grow. "Any American studio film is going to come in with a significantly bigger marketing budget and will have a stronger presence in people's minds," explained Diego Ramírez. "We compete by trying to identify directly with viewers, but there is still a long way to go in terms of communicating with our audience and giving films a better visibility with the general public."
Digital distribution presents itself as an intriguing option to ensure the growth of Latin American cinema, but Ramírez warned that audiences in the region might not be ready to shift to this model in the short term. "We need to change the culture around digital platforms first," he said. "People here are used to getting digital content for free. There definitely exists an engaged audience looking for this content, but we still need to develop the right business model to monetize that interest."