August 23, 2010

Returning to La Sierra

Watching Restrepo earlier this summer I was reminded of La Sierra, a similarly styled you-are-there war documentary about the deadly urban battles between Colombian paramilitary units and rebel guerrilla factions, which killed more than 30,000 people during the late 90's/early 00's. Within this setting La Sierra plays like a non-fiction version of City of God, which was inspired by true events but never given the documentary treatment (unless you consider parts of Jeff Zimbalist's hopeful Favela Rising; coincidentally Zimbalist also knows a thing or two about Colombia having recently directed the excellent The Two Escobars).

Anyway, I saw La Sierra years ago at a small film festival in San Diego, and it was unforgettable enough for me to name it among the best documentaries of the decade. Revisiting again last week thanks to Netflix (add it now), I was struck by the rich layers it efficiently provides in 84 minutes, as well as its ability to haunt me with dozens of unanswered - and perhaps unanswerable - questions.

Like Restrepo, La Sierra was made by journalists (Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez) who embedded themselves and risked their lives in an extremely dangerous, highly complex political situation. Both films juxtapose disturbing raw combat footage with serene scenes of nature and poignant interviews with jaded fighters. One of the main differences, however, and one that lends a profound sadness to the film's eventual outcomes, is that the interviews in La Sierra all take place in real time, within the period documented by the film. The characters talk a lot about living one day at a time, not being able to plan or even imagine their lives past the next week. Death is ever present, and when it arrives suddenly and violently for one of the film's main subjects you experience a sickening realization that this story was not planned out. There was no script. The camera was simply turned on and life was lived, at least for a while.

The year is 2003, and in an ongoing effort to quell a violent uprising led by multiple guerrilla factions, the Colombian government recruits and arms paramilitary units to protect Medellín, the country's second largest city (throughout the country, many paramilitaries sprung up without the commission of the government as well). On the lush hillsides above Medellín lies La Sierra, a poor barrio bearing the scars of years of fighting. People over the age of 30 are rare, and men in particular are nowhere to be seen; children and teens are the face of the community. Indeed, La Sierra resembles a sprawling playground in the hills, but the quarrels are deadly and the guns are not plastic toys but government-issued assault rifles and black market handguns. "We are in the hands of kids with guns. That's the whole problem," laments an older man in the barrio who impossibly boasts a head of silver hair.

A younger, but nevertheless "old" man is Edison Florez, who at only 22 years old is the celebrated commander of Bloque Metro, the paramilitary unit based in La Sierra. Edison recalls how he always wanted to be an engineer but, as battles raged near the school grounds during his youth, he decided to drop out as a 15 year-old and join the fight. Thinking aloud one afternoon Edison briefly fantasizes about a hypothetical future for the community in which people would respect someone not for their weaponry but their intelligence and service to society. Snapping back to reality, he laughs at the absurdity of the notion, as if dreaming about flying cars. At home, Edison nonchalantly describes the "obligations" of fatherhood (he has six children by six different women girls, with another three kids on the way) and jokes about how the girls in La Sierra are jealous of his 16 year-old "main woman". Later, one of his three pregnant girlfriends tearfully explains, "I don't know what I feel for him, but I hope it isn't love."

Love is a rather fleeting experience when life is so short, of course. La Sierra also aims its lens at 17 year-old Cielo, one of many teen mothers in the community (yet one who somehow happens not to be pregnant by Edison). Cielo's father and brother were killed fighting the guerrillas when she was young and her mother brought her to the relative safety of La Sierra when she was 11 years old. By age 15, Cielo was a mother and a widow, her husband having died in her arms after being shot in the head (their son, not yet 4 years old, repeatedly vows revenge for his father's death). Cielo is impossibly optimistic and, of course, "in love". She sees her new boyfriend once a week, on Sunday afternoons, when she and dozens of other bag-toting women are allowed to visit the penitentiary in Medellín. That her boyfriend is also an urban soldier does not phase Cielo; nearly every young male in the area is, and besides, maybe he's safer in prison - and less likely to cheat on her. Despite the urging of her friends to join them in selling their bodies in the local prostitution market, Cielo believes she can still earn a meager living selling candy on the bus until her boyfriend is released. Considering all things, she is a rather carefree spirit in the early months of the film.

And then there is Jesús, a baby-faced 19 year-old member of Bloque Metro under the command of Edison who is not so much carefree as just numb. Most of his time is spent snorting cocaine, smoking marijuana, playfully shooting weapons into the air and, during downtimes, waxing philosophical about the nature of war and the hopelessness of peace in La Sierra. Jesús is laid back and affable, but his fearless manner combined with (and maybe because of) his constant high makes him the perfect soldier: deadly and yet completely detached.

It was sad for me to revisit the sorrow experienced by these characters, but I'm glad I watched La Sierra again because I've been curious about what has happened to the violence in Colombia since the official demobilization of the paramilitary units (which began in 2003 and is briefly documented in the film). There was relative peace at the conclusion of the film, but part of the confusion that I still have about Colombia's bloody past is the exact source of the violence, if a single source even exists. My pathetic knowledge of the country's history is in many ways limited to the films I've seen (everything from Clear and Present Danger to The Two Escobars) and articles I've read about the activities of FARC. I've never visited Colombia, but my wife was there last year and reports that it is a beautiful nation (indeed, the decline in violence over the last decade has led to a huge increase in international tourism).

But what of La Sierra? I happened upon an article from a Colombian news source from August 2009 about a documentary made by a group of students from La Sierra who produced it with the explicit purpose of shining a positive light on their barrio and clearing its name. A student interviewed by the national paper insisted that drugs and prostitution are no longer prevalent and that, "La Sierra is spectacular, positive", while still admitting, "of course we have difficulties, just as any other community."

That was an encouraging find, but less so was my discovery of the fate of Jesús, who has since assumed the nickname "El Mocho". At the end of La Sierra we learn that he is ineligible for amnesty in the demobilization process because he lost his identification cards, thus leaving him vulnerable to prosecution by the very government that surreptitiously supplied his weapons. Apparently this was a common fate for many former paramilitary members, and so Jesús bounced around different groups before joining the arrogantly named "Los Desmovilizados" (the Demobilized). He was arrested earlier this year, right at home in La Sierra. His words from the film ironically resonate: ""This neighborhood is our life. As long as we're here, as long as we're alive, they won't get us out of here."

And so despite the public perception it seems that throughout Colombia, formerly demobilized paramilitary members like Jesús are apparently still creating trouble. According to a United Nations report from just a few months ago, a special investigator found "an alarming level of impunity for former members of paramilitary units" and suggested that "the vast majority of paramilitaries responsible for human rights violations were demobilized without investigation, and many were effectively granted amnesties." He concluded that "the Government’s strategy appeared to be too focused on military defeat of the guerrillas and suggested that the State should also consider humanitarian accords and negotiations to end the conflict once and for all."

Considering this conflict has raged for decades, a humanitarian solution is probably not that simple. At a deeply subconscious level, wars like this affect the very mindset of a population. As Edison describes, success is not represented by an education and a steady job, but by surviving and maintaining control of your turf. In La Sierra we observe that the young men in Bloque Metro are listless about the birth of their children and holiday celebrations, but they become giddy, almost tearfully emotional, when they claim the territory of a rival gang. They know no other reality, so what else would they aspire toward? They've been seduced by the romance of war, and the powerful rush they describe feeling when holding their guns. They live for it, until they die from it.

But I don't want to promote the stereotypical image of Colombia as a dangerous, hopeless place. Despite the bloodshed in La Sierra I discovered some encouraging insights on this second viewing, and the article about the local students' documentary suggests that peace is gradually descending on the hillsides above Medellín. Ironically, if La Sierra is really the reason those students want to change their barrio then the film has had a very positive impact indeed. Such can be the power of documentary film, not only to illuminate a local story for a global audience, but to hold up a mirror to the people involved and catalyze change in the real world.


  1. "Because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theatre."

    These heavy posts--you might soon convince a casual observer that watching movies is worth the price of, say, a walk lit by sunset. Like, that one actually ought to scold oneself for ignoring the film medium, reading French novels, and growing out one's moustaches. This, perhaps, is what happened to Geraldo Rivera at some point, with Spanish Soaps substituted for novels?

  2. Cheeky, but for the record I have never read a French novel.

    I hear your feedback and encourage you pass on these "heavy" posts and instead check out many posts that feature videos only. They may be more suited for your reading comfort.

  3. Ah, I guess sleeplessness is not a good excuse for cheekiness, and one should never write something at 1am unless it will also be read by someone at 1am.

    The above translated: your heavy posts indicate that it would be worth spending more time with films as opposed to frivolous pursuits.

    I don't often read for comfort, but that's hardly salient, and I appreciate your inclusion of difficult topics on your excellent blog :)

  4. Wait, so the French novel I just picked up is a frivolous pursuit? ;-P Kidding.

    I really appreciate your kind words and hope you visit often. Cheekiness is welcome at any hour of the day, especially from someone who "gets" why I'm writing.

  5. The French have a magical power over frivolousness sort of like the absent minded professor with flubber--it can do lots of things in their hands one never imagined possible.

    Ok, so now I'm not going to post any more comments unless/until I've watched the film in question first.

  6. No worries, Will, your comments are welcome any time!

  7. What a lovely thing it is to have politicians and so-called leaders.I have watched this film and it makes you wonder how they manage to come by the latest weapons?AR15s are highly sought after,yet here are barely adults with every firearm you can think of.Not to mention the drugs,do you notice how much they are taking at a time?At least half gram a go,a lot of coca.

    1. Interesting observation...and thanks for dusting off this review. I still strongly urge whoever comes across this to give La Sierra a thoughtful viewing (it's less than 90 minutes and packs a real punch).

  8. Whenever I watch this kind of documentary . I am ashamed for myself when I think that my life is hard.

    I am so curious about their present life.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, and it is always frustrating to get close with characters in documentaries and then never hear or know of them again. Unfortunately I can't find any update other than the August 2009 article I reference above.


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