The cinematography of this country, located on the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, has originated in the fires of colonisation, as a combination of Native American and Spanish influences. This is the reason why watching films made in Colombia is one of the best ways to learn more about the culture of this country. Is it really true that films by Colombian directors celebrate extreme cruelty, excessive violence, and drastic details?
The history of Colombian cinema starts in August 1897, when the Municipal Theatre in Cali screens the first film by the Lumière brothers that ever reached Bogotá. In the first half of the 20th century, the Colombian cinema was primarily inspired by their native literature. It was dominated by romanticism and large doses of nostalgia, while the majority of film productions were set in the provinces. The first film was made in 1922, by Maximo Calvo, and it was based on a novel by Jorge Isaacs Ferrer (it was a story about romantic love, which took place on the borderline between reality and fantasy). Other famous film titles include Alma Provinciana (1925) by Felix Rodriguez, and Flores del Valle (1941) by Maximo Calvo. Most copies of the mentioned films were lost of destroyed, as the result of the numerous civil wars that swept through Colombia.
From the very beginning to 1940s, Colombian films presented an idealised image of the country, showing Colombian traditions, customs, and folklore. The same tendency was continued in 1950s, and it was only for El rio de las tumbas (1965) by Julio Luzardo that became the first Colombian film to comment on contemporary political issues. The mentioned film was preceded by Pasado el Meridiano (1967) by Jose Maria Arzuaga, another big production, which is considered by many film critics to be the turning point in the history of the Colombian cinematography.
In 1960s and 1970s, the Colombian cinema was largely under the influence on international trends, such as the Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and — naturally — Cinema Novo in Brazil. The changes in cinematography were also the result of interest in the Marxist ideology and the growing popularity of documentary films. The domestic film industry was reinforced by a large number of young filmmakers, who were educated abroad. They decided to film stories inspired by social inequalities and inner conflicts. At the same time, many filmmakers and critics were calling for a change in the film industry. Some filmmakers were accused of choosing a simple way of reaching larger audiences, by making popular films. The reason for that was predominantly the influence of the Mexican cinema that had dominated film industries in Argentina and Brazil. However, there was a difference between Colombia and other countries in Latin America — Colombians were a conservative society, which was afraid of controversial topics. This resulted in a significant reduction in the number of produced films. Ironically, the same period of time was also one of the best in the history of the Colombian cinema. 1993 saw the premieres of La Estrategia del Caracol (The Strategy of the Snail) by Sergio Cabrera and La gente de la Universal (The People at Universal) by Felipe Aljure. The Colombian cinema was dominated by films that demonstrated the dark side of Colombia, i.e. first and foremost drugs, crime, and guerrilla wars. The 1980s started the fashion for drugs, which was followed by a war between cartels and the state – the war that left its mark on the history of Colombia, until the end of the 20th century. Jorge Franco, a Colombian writer, reflected on that in one of his interviews, saying: “We were ruled by fear. After dark, streets were completely empty and it wasn’t just because of the curfew. The city would empty much earlier; people locked themselves inside their homes, and did not go pubs or restaurants. Gang warfare, exploding bombs, sounds of gunfire – that was our everyday reality.”
That only helped to reinforce the negative image of Colombia in the world. One cannot ignore one of the latest films from Colombia, Maria Full of Grace (2004), which showed a well-known problem of the people who smuggled cocaine in their own stomachs, and travelled by plane. The film was given a Special Award at Berlinale, an Audience Award at Sundance IFF, while Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for Academy Awards, in recognition of her portrayal of the main heroine. As for El Rey (2004) by Antonio Dorado, it is a story of a drug lord, who was involved in a political scandal. In 2007, we saw the premiere of Love in the Time of Cholera, based on a famous novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, set in Carthage – the most frequently filmed city in Colombia. However, it was Rosario Tijeras, an adaptation of the book by Jorge Franco that got cult status, among teenagers in the entire Latin America. The novel was transferred to the screen by Emilio Maillé, in 2005. The film tells a story about a beautiful and intelligent Rosario, who lives in the slums of Medellín, where violence and brutality occur on a daily basis. Rosario decides to become an assassin, so as to change her current life situation. The film by Emilio Maillé was just as powerful as the book itself, and as many as 500,000 people watched it during the first weekend of screening, which was a record-breaking event. In fact, it was an unprecedented event in the history of Colombia, as only The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson gathered more audience.
In the last decade, the Colombian cinema was a frequent visitor to international film festivals, the proof of which is the number of films listed in the official selections for the most prestigious festivals in the world, where they won awards and enraptured both audiences and critics. In 2003, the government introduced new regulations and established a film fund to support new film productions. In 2004, during the Carthage IFF, Paula Marcela Moreno, Colombian Minister of Culture, told CNN: “The new strategy was developed particularly for the international market. We want to make many good films and attract investors from abroad.” The films from Colombia that are currently triumphant around the world include: Fat, Bald Short Man by Carlos Osuna, awarded with the Audience Awards at the IFF in Montreal (2012), or Crab Trap by Oscar Ruíz Navia. The film won the FIPRESCI award at Berlinale, in 2010, and a Special Mention of the Jury, in Buenos Aires (2010). “The Colombian cinema is becoming stronger, as we tell unique stories, and not all of them reflect the reality we live in. Unfortunately, we are still far away from a completely balanced cinematography,” says director Riccardo Gabrielli.