It’s 9am on a Sunday and I find myself walking amongst the tall red brick buildings that make up one of Bogota’s residential neighborhoods on the north side of the city. At a nearby bakery I purchase a chocolate muffin for Maia, filmmaker Maria Gamboa’s three-year-old daughter who I know will be joining us for breakfast. As I reach their building, I spot Ms. Gamboa herself standing by a fruit vendor on the corner. The man is squeezing orange juice for her while Maria chomps on some salpicón, a typical fruit salad beverage made from a variety of fruit—whatever is available—chopped into small pieces, combined with fresh fruit juice and mixed. Add ice and drink/chew. It’s super refreshing, and given the lushness of Colombia’s fruits, it’s naturally sweet and delicious. As a child my mother would never allow me to eat anything off the street, including salpicón; she worried about vendors using unfiltered water in the punch in order to save costs. “Don’t worry, we’ve been buying from him for years,” Maria said, staying true to the unspoken social custom that anything in Colombia has to be negotiated with some degree of trust. “Come on, it’s on me,” she spurred as I hesitated. I agreed and indeed it was not only delicious but also a coup for young me.
Once at the breakfast table, Maria fried some eggs for Maia and I: mine with a soft yolk, hers with a hard yolk. Meanwhile Maria and I talk about her film Mateo, which is making the rounds across film festivals internationally and was recently released in theaters in Colombia. More importantly, it is the country’s submission for the 2014 Foreign Language Oscars. The film centers on Mateo, a budding 16-year-old criminal who is required to take theater classes in order to stay in school. He uses the assignment as an opportunity to gather information about the troupe’s members for the local thug and, in the process, gets a fascinating glimpse of what his life could be.
Mateo is based on research Gamboa conducted in and around violence prevention and organizing practices in Barrancabermeja, a town in the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia that has been plagued by violence. Most notably on May 16, 1998, paramilitary forces entered the town, rounded up suspected leftist guerillas and massacred them before terrified onlookers on the town’s soccer field. It’s on this same soccer field where Maria wants to hold a screening of Mateo. “It’s about recycling, reclaiming that space,” she says.
The film has been lauded for presenting how art can be a powerful tool in places like Barrancabermeja—by establishing and maintaining worthwhile creative alternatives for teenagers to participate in, and by providing an opportunity to dream themselves into someone or someplace new. Most recently, Maria took the film to Italy where it screened at the Giffoni Film Festival, which is aimed specifically at young people who act as jurors in the selection and awards process. The film won the Crystal Gryphon at the festival and will be promoted within communities that deal with similar issues as they relate to the Italian mafia. For Gamboa and writing partner Adriana Arjona, this is a huge accomplishment as that was one of the intended uses of the film: to inspire community involvement that traverses fear and uses arts and culture to cultivate the strengths of those affected by violence.
After breakfast, we move to the living room where Maia shows me the two kittens she had just gotten for her birthday and the chair where she sits to meditate with her mother. Maria squats onto a hammock that hangs by the bay windows in the living room and swings softly, her bare feet planted on the wooden floor as we talk about the growing film scene in Colombia. We discuss the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana, and how culture plays an active role in the peace process. And then we pulled out her computer and started to talk about music.
The music in Mateo struck me because it was not stereotypically Colombian; there was no salsa, cumbia, or champeta. Music in the film is used sparingly and mindfully, without being manipulative, as is often the case in films that deal with somber subject matter. Gamboa included a sonata by Mozart not for the sake of romanticism, but because “that’s what the kids in the theater troupe listen to,” referring to the young people in Barrancabermeja who she worked with while doing her research. There is one contemporary track by the Peruvian band Kanaku y el tigre called Caracoles.
Maia’s squeal bursts over the music when one of her new kittens scratches her right hand after an overzealous squeeze. Gamboa sticks up for the cat and tells her daughter that she was just defending herself. We continue listening to some of Maria’s favorite tracks as Maia dances and flutters around us.
Manu Chao - Expresso del hielo
In the nineties, Manu Chau traveled through Colombia in what proved to be an inspirational trip. This track speaks specifically about Barrancabermeja, the town where Mateo takes place. The “expresso” in the song is a train that cuts through the town. The rail line has since been retired, but its crippled wagons were used by Gamboa in one of the scenes in the film.
Bomba Estero - Respira Paz
A new track by Bomba Estero written specifically for the United Nations’s Respira Paz campaign. MATEO is also a part of this campaign, selected as one of a series of films the UN will show in remote communities across Colombia by converting the outside of a bus into a movie screen. A huge Bomba Estero fan, Gamboa had the opportunity to hang out with the band during the campaign launch held at the Planetarium in the city’s center.
Calle 13 - Latinoamerica
Calle 13’s lyrical ode to the richness present in our home countries and the people that embody it is one of Maria’s favorites. “It shows what we really are and the things that bring us together,” she said. “The video in particular visually presents so many of our commonalities.” What may be tostones for one is patacones for another but platanos nonetheless.
Julieta Venegas - Eres para mi
This is a song that Maria and Maia sing to each other, especially while driving. As soon as Maria plays this song, Maia comes over to us and starts dancing. Mother and daughter point to each other while singing, “Eres para mi.”
Jorge Drexler - Todo se transforma
Maria is a big Drexler fan, of his style and lyrics that tend to resemble a meditation. “This song in particular has a spiritual vision,” she says. Maria doesn’t believe that war is sustainable. She believes that at one point or another it starts to affect the collective unconscious and that people will tire and look for ways, politically or communally, to find peace. “Colombia can be a despelote,” she says, “but in spite of that or perhaps because of it, there are wonderful opportunities to do great things here.”
Mary Angelica Molina is a writer, director and editor. Her films include OH BABY, I LOVE YOU! which won the prestigious cinematography award at Cameraimage in Poland (2009) and is available online via iThentic.com; and LA ROSA Y EL GATO (2006), which won the audience award at the Santa Ana Film Festival and is currently available via iTunes. Mary is currently developing her feature directorial debut DOLORES, MI AMOR, a surrealist story about a woman who has the voice of a man. At present she is also editing the feature documentary THE STATE OF ARIZONA for Camino Bluff Productions (FARMINGVILLE, Sundance, 2002) about Arizona's controversial anti-immigration law SB1070. Mary received her masters degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. She was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.