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,
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.
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
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.
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.