Interview: Colombian filmmaker

BOGOTA — Ciro Guerra is a young Colombian film director who’s just made a big splash in Cannes where his film, “Los Viajes del Viento,” or “Wind Journeys,” won a prize in the category “Un Certain Regard” ("A Certain Regard").

The story follows Ignacio, a renowned juglar, or traveling musician, who has swayed audiences across Colombia playing soulful ballads on his accordion. But after Ignacio’s wife dies, he decides to return his instrument, fabled to be cursed, to its owner and Ignacio’s mentor. As he begins a journey by foot, mule and canoe across the unforgiving landscapes of the country’s north, a teenager and aspiring musician, Fermin, insists on joining him, despite Ignacio's reluctance. Together, they journey across sweeping and stark landscapes and encounter colorful characters.

The film — more than four years in the making — was a logistical feat, with shoots in 84 locations, many of which could be reached only by mule, canoe or a 4x4 truck. One scene at a mountaintop hut involved 20 mules carrying equipment and a crew of 40 along with them. None of the actors were professional — for six months, those in charge of casting scoured the country's north for talent.

I spoke with the 28-year-old Guerra in Bogota shortly after he returned from Cannes. (Note: this interview has been edited.)

GlobalPost: Where did the idea for this film come from?

Guerra: I was born and spent parts of my childhood in the region where the film is set, and I grew up with the oral tradition and mythology and the legends and the music in its purest state. This character of the juglar was a character that always fascinated me.

This was the first time a Colombian film screened at Cannes in over a decade. What was the reaction like?

The screening in Cannes was very special. We got a standing ovation for 10 minutes, it was unbelievable, people wouldn’t stop clapping ... people from all over the world. This figure, the juglar, the minstrel, every culture has a variation of that, so people can relate. People say it’s a vision of Colombia they had no idea about. People are very used to the cliche of drugs and violence and maybe some touristy places like Cartagena, but really a profound version of Colombia like this, people have never seen before and they are very moved by it.

Do you think the film surprised Colombians also?

A lot. Because this is an unseen Colombia, an unknown Colombia, and they’re discovering it for the first time. The people in the region where we shot, they feel this is real, this is finally a portrayal that is accurate of them and their culture. But in the rest of Colombia, people say "We had no idea Colombia is like this."

Tell me about the decision to cast locals.

This region has always been played in television or film by actors from other regions of the country and they tend to make a bit of a caricature portrayal of the people. For example, the cliche of this region is that people are very lazy and people party all day and do nothing else. We wanted to do a faithful portrayal of the people, the way they talk, their accent, the dialects, the way they see the world. So very early on, I understood it was not possible to do it with actors because it’s not a world you can get into so easily, it’s a world that you have to … live and know.

There are many references in the film to sorcery and scenes where things happen that seem other-worldly. What is the role of mysticism in the film?

In this part of the country, the supernatural, legends and myths have a very strong influence on people, so people believe in things like sorcery and the devil. It’s a bit like religion I think, it’s like believing and guiding your life through something that is intangible. That mythical aspect is inherited through their traditions. People use myths and legends to understand the world, to explain the world and to guide themselves in the world.

Ignacio has vowed to never play the accordion again, but then he breaks his own promise. How does that decision happen?

The first time he plays [at the accordion duel] is because he sees this accordion and this other accordion player using sorcery to beat the other guys and it’s like a betrayal and a matter of honor for him, to beat him because he’s cheating. And the love of music and the love of the accordion is what makes him break his promise. And once he’s done it, he can’t go back.

When we think about the relationship between Ignacio and Fermin, we’ve got this older man who could be a wonderful mentor to a young boy who’s eager to learn. And I think that the audience expects a story about a beautiful friendship, and that doesn’t happen.

They do form a very, very strong bond, but it’s not a friendship in the usual way. Because that’s what the audience expects, that’s sort of the obvious way to see it, and this wasn’t going to be an obvious film. If I wanted to make this postcard movie, it would be a beautiful friendship and everyone would be happy, but that doesn’t say anything about the real world. Relationships are much more complex than that. Learning, and finding your place in the world and achieving your dreams is a lot more complex than that.