Filmmaker and NYU professor Spike Lee loves discovering new talent behind the camera. One of his protégés is Josef Kubota Wladyka, a first-time Japanese/Polish director who studied under Lee and debuted this US/Colombian co-production in Cartagena and then Tribeca in Spring 2014.
This gritty, well-reviewed drug smuggling drama opened this month from The Film Collaborative and is getting attention for what Wladyka calls its “Apocalypse Now”-stye shoot in the treacherous environs of Buenaventura with nonprofessional actors. The Colombian port city is among several key cities in the country that has begun to attract movie-making talent.
Wladyka talks to The Dissolve about shooting in Colombia: “It wouldn’t have worked anywhere else, because they speak such a specific way in Buenaventura. It looks such a specific way, with its gray skies and dense jungle and murky Pacific Ocean. There’s just no way Puerto Rico would have worked. Even when I scouted other parts of Colombia, like on the Caribbean Coast, it just wasn’t the right feel. I felt like so much of the success of the film would hinge on the actual real place, photographing places where this goes on, places that have never been photographed before. Probably the biggest challenge of the film was getting the access to shoot in some of these places. There’s all this crazy stuff, all this narco-trafficking going on through these beautiful mangroves and these beautiful rivers, and a lot of it is so untouched. The locations are such an important part of the film.”
We caught up with Spike Lee, executive producer of “Manos Sucias,” after the Sundance Film Festival. As seen in his Kickstarter-produced, low-budget vampire flick “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” the intrepid director is all about chasing new models and new discoveries out of NYU.
Here’s what critics are saying about “Manos Sucias,” now in select cities. Watch the trailer below.
Two Colombian men attempt to smuggle cocaine up the Pacific. That’s the slim, basic trajectory of director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s first feature, “Manos Sucias,” and it rarely ventures beyond those restrictions. But that very minimalism gives its drama a personal quality steeped in the desperation of its lower class anti-heroes. Shot on location in and around Buenaventura, the movie has a frantic, gritty energy attuned to its characters’ frustrations—not unlike the fiery sentiments found in the most polemical output of Spike Lee, who serves as an executive producer. Even so, Wladyka’s debut has a more claustrophobic feel than anything in Lee’s oeuvre; running just under 75 minutes, it’s a fierce snapshot of reckless behavior enacted by helpless men.
Inexperienced as they are, the actors slowly draw you in; neither bad guys nor good, the brothers resist easy judgment. Immersing himself in the sights and sounds and rhythms of the region, Mr. Wladyka breathes life into steely skies and gunmetal waves. The light is menacing, the mood watchful and the action scenes have a crude, desperate energy that gets the job done. Here, violence is neither weightless nor glorified, but just another obstacle on the way to a better future.
Although the screenplay, by Wladyka and Alan Blanco (who also lensed the film), leaves a lot to be desired in terms of motivation, character development and context, its main selling point — to a Colombian audience accustomed to other sorts of films about the drug trade — will be the depiction of these under-represented Afro-Colombian youth, capturing their lifestyle, aspirations, frustrations and humor. One of the best elements is the use of local music, from the hip-hop and rap favored by the youngsters in the clubs, to the rapturous, swelling tones of funeral choirs at key moments in the plot.
Much of the value of “Manos sucias” is in its authenticity. The language , for example, is authentic Buenaventura dialect, painstakingly transcribed from Spanish via a first version in English, and could be baffling even to Spanish speakers. And if the narco torpedo comes across as an unlikely method of transportation, then the motorcyle-powered train carts that run up and down the abandoned railway lines between villages are even more surreal: they’d be comically absurd if the circumstances were not so tragic.