Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez are the team behind the award-winning documentary La Sierra. They have extensive experience as journalists, covering Colombia and Latin America for a wide range of international and regional news outlets. La Sierra, their first film, is an intimate, meditative exploration of violence, youth, and community. A small neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia, the barrio of La Sierra is ruled by a gang of young men, mostly teenagers, affiliated with Colombia’s illegal paramilitary armies. Over the course of a year, the documentary unflinchingly follows the lives of three young people and their searing experiences of war, death, and love.

 Why did you want to make this film? 

We both knew the reality of neighborhoods like La Sierra through our work as journalists, Margarita as a writer for the Associated Press, and Scott as a photographer for AP, New York Times, and other newspapers. Margarita had been to La Sierra, and Scott thought it would be a compelling subject for a documentary, our first.

The aim of the film was to show the cycle of violence in Colombia, specifically among Colombia’s urban youth. Remember, this is a decades-old conflict. From one generation to the next, marginalized youth get caught up in drugs and violence, all of which is ultimately connected to the wider national conflict. Because of the allure of gaining power and respect (often through fear) in their communities, thousands of Colombian youths take up arms.

And this world is actually very unexplored. More often than not, the stories that come out of Colombia only reflect the views of powerful leaders, whether in the government or in the various illegal groups waging war across the country. So this film was really an attempt to explore this forgotten or unseen side of the conflict. We were also very determined not to just show the violence, in isolation, the way you often hear about violence in the news, with no sense of who is involved and why, and what are the repercussions. Rather, we wanted to give a deeper, human context to it, the effects on families and communities when their young men decide to become warriors.

Was it hard to get access to this area, in light of the fact that it is controlled by paramilitaries?

Filming in La Sierra was only possible because we had explicit permission from high-level paramilitary commanders on the national scene. Once we had that permission, and the contacts that came with it, it made our work in the specific neighborhood of La Sierra much easier, because the higher-ups essentially told the local commanders that we were their guests.

Getting those original contacts with the national commanders, of course, was very difficult indeed, and was a product of years of working as journalists in Colombia. Margarita’s connections with participants in the Colombian arena are second to none, ties and relationships that she has cultivated over years as a journalist. Without connections like that, it would be impossible to do what we did in La Sierra.

Was it dangerous? 

Since we were basically the guests of the paramilitaries in the neighborhood of La Sierra, we didn’t have anything to fear from them, although you could say many of them were very violent, dangerous people. Our problem in this respect was that there were insecure periods when the guys in the barrio would switch allegiance from one paramilitary group to another. They didn’t know if their new bosses would approve of our presence and the work we had already done. They felt very insecure in that situation, and so did we.

The most obviously dangerous thing was following them when they were patrolling or fighting. At one point in the film Scott is following Jesus (one of the main participants in the documentary) as he patrols at night, and a sniper starts firing. Jesus is screaming, “Get down, gringo!” as everyone dives for cover. At other times during the production Scott accompanied paramilitaries engaged in intense combat. And as you also see in the film, stray bullets do kill people in La Sierra, so trying to document this kind of thing certainly has its dangers.

What was the most difficult part of making this film?

Coming to a place like La Sierra over such a long time did take a toll on us personally. You’re worried that your welcome is going to wear thin (or that your luck is going to run out), and maybe you should quit with what you’ve already got. And of course, there were the problems all documentary filmmakers face, of building trust with people, of waiting for when they want to open up and really talk, of being in the right place at the right time when things are happening in their lives.

In our case, it was particularly difficult to have built that personal connection, because the tragedy of the situation affects you more than if you just came for a day or two as a journalist. When one of the main participants in the film was killed during filming, we were devastated. This is someone who shared his life with us, helped us out, who became our friend. And then he is shot dead almost in front of our eyes. We didn’t go back to La Sierra for a long time after that, and for a while we wanted to abandon the project completely. Of course, in a sense we had it easy. We had the luxury of always being able to leave La Sierra, whereas the people who participated in the documentary have to make their lives there.

What do you want to communicate with the film?

We want to show that the closer you get to a place like La Sierra, where young men are deeply involved in war and violence, the more you realize that it isn’t so much about fighting for a cause as about getting ahead, about seizing power and prestige through violence, since it isn’t available by normal, peaceful means.

This affects how you see the people in the film, specifically the young guys who are involved with paramilitary groups. Are these guys nothing more than murderers and thugs, or are they just young men following the only obvious path to respect and prestige? Audiences often identify with and even begin to care for Edison, a young man who is an admitted killer. This reflects the complexity we wanted to explore.

We also want the audience to wrestle with ideas of choice and responsibility. Although it is a film about violence, at a deeper level it is a meditation on personal choice. All of the people in the documentary address these issues, talking about they want to do with their lives, and whether or not they actually have the power to make those choices. They are in very difficult circumstances, with a powerful surrounding culture and history of violence pushing them in one direction. But they still feel, of course, that they have a role in where they’re headed. That they have a chance to choose their destinies. Some of them take that chance, and some of them don’t.



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