A collaboration grew from inside a New York University graduate classroom and expanded beyond the Pacific Coast to one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
The result is “Manos Sucias” (“dirty hands” in Spanish) an action-packed film with a humanitarian bent that’s helped train the spotlight on living conditions in Buenaventura, Colombia, a place filled with talented people who are exploited and forced into the narco-trade in order to survive.
In “Manos sucias” a fisherman-turned-drug-trafficker partners up with a youngster and together they sail up Colombia’s Pacific coast while towing a narco-torpedo filled with contraband. They come to face with an environment that’s hostile all the while negotiating the growing tension between themselves.
Screen Comment met with Josef Wladyka who took his first feature film “Manos sucias” to the recent Tribeca Festival.
SCREEN COMMENT: “Manos sucias” was shot in Buenaventura, one of the most dangerous ports in Colombia. How did you gain access to such a place?
Josef Wladyka: It was through years of building trust with people. I had traveled there several times before with my producer (Elena Greenlee) and my co-writer and cinematographer (Alan Blanco), researching and meeting with some of the theater kids that are from these barrios, like the ones we shot in.
In Buenaventura people are promised a lot of things that don’t happen. At first they thought: this gringo Japanese-Polish guy came here and wants to make a movie but he’s not really going to do it, but when I kept coming back (he laughs), they thought, oh maybe he’s for real.
When I showed up with actual film people and we really started going into the different locations it became clear that we were making a film on them. It’s a sensitive theme and we were always honest up front [about it]: Here is my producer, co-writer and cinematographer. What do we need to do for you to allow us to shoot here. This is exactly what the film is about. I don’t know if you know through the press document but we did these filmmaking workshops with all the people in the community. It was a collaboration with people from the area, a lot of actors from the real barrios which is what gave us access to shooting in a lot of those places.
Were the locals officials skeptical about the way in which you would represent their environment? Did you get any pushback from them?
Honestly, no. They wanted the world to know that this stuff is going on. There was a time when I went on this very intense research trip and there is [sic] only so many stories you can hear about really messed-up shit going on.
Because I’m not Colombian I’m sure that there are going to be people that are going to give us pushback, people who will feel like we’re doing exploitative stuff, but our intention never was that. The locals knew it and those who worked with us knew what our intent was. We were extremely sensitive and aware of what was going on. And we were embraced for the most part.
I was just like, I can’t make this film, there’s just no way I’m going to be able to make this film. I speak Spanish but I’m not fluent. There is absolutely no film structure here and it’s extremely dangerous in all these different areas. I can’t make this film.
It wasn’t until I started meeting with the kids from the barrio and I heard them say, “please come and make this film. No one cares about us, no one,” that I was like, O.K., no matter what, even as the film stands now, if people hate it, or whatever, from that moment on I was like, all right, I’m gonna give them my word and I’m going to follow through. I think the fact that this “Japolish” guy kept showing up proved to them that, O.K., he’s for real. He’s really going to keep his word.
Can you tell us about your own team, the people who have worked with you on this film? How did that take shape?
I was in the same New York University film program as Alan Blanco, the cinematographer and co-writer, and Elena Greenlee, one of the producers. We were all in the same classes so we were like family, a dysfunctional family (laughs).
Another pivotal moment is when Marcia Nunez joined our team. She did her Masters at Gallatin N.Y.U., in the business side of film. She is Brazilian.
Together we make up Team Manos, which is kind of our core team. Once we all got together we worked on the script for a really long time, then Marcia and Elena got into the film independent producing lab and that really opened a lot of doors for us and got things moving.
It’s crazy how all this stuff works. A long time ago I was a P.A. on a film, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, and there was a cameraman who was Colombian and we kept in touch.
I lived in Bogota [Colombia] for three months, taking Spanish courses. I went to Chapinero in Bogota everyday. I asked him “hey man, I’m trying to make this film, can I come and stay at your place?” He happens to be the best foquista (focus puller) in Colombia. He’s one of the top guys, so he knows people in the industry. He linked us up with our co-producer and it all just came together.
You’re obviously giving a realistic portrait of the people and the living conditions in Buenaventura. When you direct local actors, sometimes, that means compromising professional rigor in favor of more authenticity. How do you direct non-professional actors?
The actors are actually theater actors and they take it very seriously. They come from from the same program at Universidad del Pacifico. As director working with these actors was the best experience I’ve ever had working, because they’re fearless, I mean they’re so fearless. They have craft. They haven’t been in a film before so a lot of the rehearsal process, the preparation that we did, is like sticking a camera in their faces (laughs) hours at a time and making them do it over and over again “you good dude? I mean you’re gonna have to do this twenty times.”
Yes. They don’t have opportunities in Buenaventura but you gave it to them with “Manos sucias.”
And that’s the most beautiful thing! The fact that Cristian is here in New York and has some Q&As makes me so happy. It gives so much hope to his classmates who study acting in Buenaventura. It’s interesting because a lot of places that are under siege like this create such great artists. The music, the actors, the rappers, it’s a place full of very talented people which just happens to be under siege.
The word “community” comes up a lot in both your director’s statement. Would you say that your decision to “not glamorize” cocaine and the drug trade, and instead represent its brutality, is necessary in healing the community?
I mean, I think so. That’s what we wanted to do, show the reality. We didn’t want to show stacks of money and drug lords with beautiful girls. That’s not what it was about. The drugs are kind of like the Macguffin. It’s more about the people who have been historically exploited, their situation and the fact that they had no other choice.
The conversation that takes place between the two brothers and Miguel about soccer players Pele and Zico underscores the rift between the characters’ nationalities. Miguel, especially, sees the world through the prism of race. Do you think that his position on race absolves him from responsibility? Does he feel justified in doing what he does?
That’s beautiful but I don’t think it was ever really that. There is a lot of racism in Buenaventura, and in speaking with the actors there’s actually a lot more of it in “Manos Sucias.”
But the editor and I decided that we didn’t want it to be too much of an issue. We knew we wanted to touch on those issues but, for [the] Miguel [character] we wanted to have a person that [sic] happened to be from Antioquia, a region where people have historically been racist towards Afro-Colombians. We wanted to touch on that racism in the film and Miguel was the face of that. You have to create some kind of drama because there are just three characters. You need that tug and pull, and there has to be a bad guy.
At first they seem to be getting along and, then, all of a sudden it changes. Race comes to the foreground. It was telling that you used soccer as the subject of conversation in which racism surfaces.
Yeah, that’s something that my co-writer and I thought about. When we constructed that scene we designed it to be kind of what guys sitting around talking about sports and stuff would look like. When this young kid (Delio), who doesn’t know anything about soccer according to Miguel, brings up the player Zico, it starts to turn and ends in a totally different place. This scene is the only scene in the film that is almost exactly the way it was written.
The cinematography of “Manos Sucias” merits discussion. One of the scenes I really liked occurred four minutes into the film, when the narco-torpedo, packed with drugs and other illegal substances, is dragged under water.
Because of certain production restraints we couldn’t afford to get a real underwater housing for a real camera so we had to use a go-pro. We creatively came up with the solution of the point of view of the torpedo, out of practicality. It’s interesting because the nature in that area is so beautiful, and yet there is so much darkness.
The theme of exploitation looms large in “Manos sucias,” as highlighted by the scene of the really young kids bringing the torpedo to the narco-traffickers.
Yes. That’s the reality of it. One time we were on a boat going through these mangroves near Barrio Hardinez on a location scout. We see kids swimming in the water and thought, it was just kids having fun, but it turns out they’re lookouts, working for the narcos. The reality [of it] is [that] they are involved in it from a very young age. It’s like a vicious cycle, there’s so much unemployment there, there’s a lot of issues going on that unfortunately continue this cycle of the drug trade and violence. We just wanted to give a glimpse of that but not overdo it.
You are bringing awareness to a whole other world with this film: a world that a lot of people know nothing about. What are you hoping this film will do for people who don’t live in those kinds of conditions?
I’m hoping, because the film is a combination of like a “thrillery” genre, that it’s entertaining so that it reaches a maximum audience. That’s the power of “Manos sucias” being a narrative film; it’s a piece of entertainment but the audience can also be left to question and ponder over its international issues. This film is a very small, under the microscope, view of a the beginning stages of this place, these people, exploitation and it’s messed up man. It’s a fucked up situation. I would be happy if people just watched the film and googled Buenaventura, Colombia cause once you do that man you get it all. And like I said, there are extremely talented people there: the rapping in the film is all from the Pacific Coast. There is great rappers in this completely under siege place.
Yes, you see that during the scene on the boat when Delio is listening to music, dancing, and having a good time while Jacobo is thinking about his dead son. Delio is able to get Jacobo, momentarily, out of his suffering with singing and dancing.
That’s actually both actors’ favorite scene because they feel like that’s what represents Buenaventura; the people are happy but they are suffering, and they are stuck in this boat. That’s their favorite scene in the whole movie.
The music gives people from Buenaventura exposure because people from outside Colombia are really responding to this very specific and unique music, especially the women singing the folkloric music; it’s a type of music called currulao.
What will happen now?
Jarlin couldn’t come to Tribeca because he got cast in another film and is shooting right now with Johnny Hendrix [an Afro-Colombian director]. The film will be theatrically-released in Colombia, although we are waiting for after the World Cup, ‘cause no one goes to the movies during the World Cup.
So after that, I think it [the movie] will open a lot of doors for a lot of the actors.
Wladyka received the Best New Narrative Director Award at the 2014 Tribeca Festival.