Watch Xenia Grubstein’s documentary trilogy inspired by the life of Colombian coca growers both amidst the recent peace talks and afterwards.
In 2012 something quite unexpected happened in Colombia. After many decades of armed conflict, finally there appeared to be the hope of successful peace talks. If Colombia could pull this off, the future direction of the country could be very different from the troubles that have dominated its recent past. Yet the media in the US were barely covering the news; the US’s fondness for local news and lack of interest in events that occurred overseas once again astounded me. I knew that there were local stories to be told, and unreported events to be highlighted.
Born on the Pacific Island of Sakhalin, at that point I lived in New York, where I was working on an HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Having previously travelled through South America, I was familiar with Colombia and, without a clear plan or a script, I sought to get contacts in Colombia to begin exploring these unfolding events. Fast forward a few months, and I was able to get a hold of a prominent campesino (farmer) organization called AsCamCat – Association Campesina del Catatumbo.
My Spanish sucked at that point, and I could barely formulate the questions, let alone understand what people’s answers were. Nonetheless, I continued traveling, talking to coca growers to the best of my ability, and learning more about the intricacies of Colombian and global politics, especially the war on drugs.
Going to the remote region of Catatumbo (still partly controlled by the guerrilla) was dangerous, but from my new Colombian friends I learned more about FARC. I learned that FARC were forced to take the extreme militarized stance after many of them were killed off and tortured for being on the political left, because politics in Colombia often equalled death. My new friends the campesinos understood the guerrilla’s predicament because of their own complicated background, having come to those remote territories in the 90s as internally displaced people, along with 5 million others displaced by the conflict. On top of that, over two hundred thousand people died as a result of the decades-long violence, many of whom were my protagonists’ family and friends.
After talking to many people I decided to stick with Delmira, who had become the head of the household after the untimely death of her husband. Since the area where they lived, and she still lives, has zero public services such as health care, and traveling to the nearest hospitals takes days, and is very expensive, he was not able to get properly diagnosed, so he died. Delmira struck me as empowered and empowering, very eloquent and extremely resilient, all while managing to preserve her life-saving sense of humor. On top of being a mother of four and grandmother of seven, she is also the President of the village’s Women’s Committee and an overall activist. This trilogy is inspired by the time I spent with her and her neighbors in Colombia over the course of several years. The three-part structure helped me to focus on a slightly different angle each time: the first short film gives an intro to the cocalero’s predicament as such; the second one focuses on the issues of family, education, and health care. The third segment is dedicated to the very common practice of working as a hired laborer, or raspachin, on someone else’s coca farm for those who don’t own any land themselves yet still need to make a living.
P.S. – Since this trilogy was filmed and edited, there have been several important developments in Colombia. In 2016, after much back and forth, FARC and the Colombian government came to a peace agreement. According to a part of it, coca farmers are supposed to get subsidized by the government to switch from coca to legal crops such as cacao, avocados, and plantains. This plan indeed began to be implemented in some regions, without directly affecting my protagonists at the point I saw them last time, in 2018. However, the new president Ivan Duque has since reversed this policy and returned to the previously condemned practice of coca eradication, increasing violence in the Catatumbo region two-fold, compared to 2017. At this point it is unclear what the next step of the government will be. The protagonists of this trilogy along with thousands of other coca growers are stuck in limbo…