FORGETTING ESCOBAR: Colombia's Cinematic Revival
FORGETTING ESCOBAR: Colombia's Cinematic Revival
By Ida Alwin /

I’m standing on a film set in Bogotá.  The Colombian comedy being filmed centres on a young local man who has returned to his home country from New York where he has worked as a trader.  He has returned to take over the family potato business after the death of his father.  Unbeknownst to our naive protagonist, the potatoes serve a more sinister purpose than simply that of a common staple and their controversial contents extend beyond just complex carbohydrate.

The subject of the drugs trade has plagued Colombia’s social landscape, and to a certain extent continues to do so in global reputation. 


When one thinks of the Colombian conflict and the tentative steps towards its resolution, one does not naturally draw a parallel to post-apartheid South Africa.  But it was during this period of transition and reconciliation that South Africa took decisive steps to develop its film industry, and through that signal its wider ascendancy onto the international film production arena.


In 1994 South Africa held its first full and fair elections.  This was the beginning of a period of relative stability, pivotal growth and development for the country.  As early as 1995 the Film and Video Foundation (a branch of the Department of Arts and Culture) was set up to lay the groundwork for a successful local industry by not only overseeing the production, distribution and administration of films, but also the harder, essential task of educating a future workforce.  Skip to 2010 and a film industry that started with 4,000 employees now had numbers standing at 30,000.  By 2013 South Africa’s film industry was contributing roughly R3.5 billion ($300m) a year to the economy with the production of international high-end commercials, TV shows like Homeland and local Academy Award nominated and winning films like District 9 and Tsotsi.


Against the backdrop of crucial peace talks to end a decades-long conflict between the Colombian government and FARC rebels lies encouraging evidence of the emergence of an era of stability for the country.  Although Colombia has had the long-held confidence of an international business community, the recent peace talks have re-affirmed that confidence.  Consistently strong GDP growth and in 2015 a rise to its highest ever ranking on the Economic Freedom Index, things are looking up for a country with an ambitious local professional community intent on guiding the country through a meaningful catharsis.


Deon Opperman, South Africa’s prolific writer, director, producer and co-founder of South Africa’s preeminent South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance (AFDA) shares some insights on why South Africa’s creative industry blossomed.  In addition to the end of apartheid with its “censorship and crony system”, Mr Opperman cites governmental and broadcaster support as key contributing factors.  AFDA also did its part by outputting a majority of South Africa’s most talented and awarded industry professionals who now more recently have the Hollywood-style Cape Town Studios at their disposal.


I chatted to the energetic and resourceful Colombian Film Commission who are tirelessly promoting the latest incentives to attract foreign productions to Colombia.  With Netflix’s Narcos already taking advantage of these, we have arrived in Colombia ourselves to assess the feasibility of filming our independent feature here.  The incentives have caught our attention.  With the announcement of a cash rebate of 40% on Colombia-based production spend and an additional 20% on logistics such as travel and accommodation, they are hard to ignore.


In 2003 the Colombian government took an active role in promoting locally produced films by passing of the “Law of Cinema”, allocating funds specifically to encourage home-grown filmmakers.  In 1993, before the law’s inception, Colombian films brought in just 0.72% at the box office.  This rose to 10.8% by 2012.

Colombia is now taking the crucial step towards attracting foreign productions.  Alejandro Toro Canal, Head of Co-production at one of Colombia’s biggest broadcasters, Caracol TV tells me that the industry incentives have encouraged a new benchmark for local productions.  This in turn is creating an audience that demands high quality local content.  He continues on to say that this demand encourages broadcasters such as Caracol TV to “invest in local and international productions… to help the industry develop in many ways, promote local employment and generate IP.”

The international business community has consistently held Colombia in high esteem when it comes to investment.  Establishing that same confidence with the creative industries, the country that brought us Gabriel Garcia Márquez would diversify an economy some say is too heavily reliant on the export of energy and encourage the accelerated development of a highly skilled industry workforce.


Back on the set of ‘El Cartel Del La Papa’ there’s a youthful buzz on location with what seems to be a very young median age among the crew.  Add to the mix a presence of high-end kit (Sony recently invested several million dollars with the implementation of the latest post production equipment at Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogotá ) and you have the ingredients of what one could say is lacking in the more seasoned production environments:  A newly energized and fresh-faced production hub.  


What films are doing in darkened cinemas across the globe is reflecting the state of our societies back at us. To create local films for local audiences signifies a national dialogue about the state of things. Colombia is going through an important reboot, exploring their troubled past with pragmatism and humour, while making very serious moves to engage meaningfully with their future.  And that means your next shooting location may just be the other “SA”… South America.


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FORGETTING ESCOBAR: Colombia's Cinematic Revival