– Summer 2009

Pornomiseria: Or How Not to Make a Documentary Film

Michèle Faguet

Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, Agarrando pueblo, 1977, 28min, film still

In the summer of 1971, while on vacation from film school at UCLA, Luis Ospina met with his childhood friend Carlos Mayolo, and together they decided to film the sixth Pan American Games taking place in their hometown of Cali, Colombia. The idea came after an earlier attempt to record Pope Paul VI's visit to Colombia that didn't happen due to a lack of economic resources. Equipped with a 16mm camera, which Mayolo had 'borrowed' (without permission) from the advertising agency in Bogotá where he worked, the two aspiring film-makers travelled to Cali, where they arrived just in time to miss the opening ceremonies and all of their pomp and political rhetoric,1 only to find that they would be excluded from all official venues without the proper permits, and that their arrival had been preceded by a film crew contracted by the Colombian state. Significantly, this official film crew was headed by Diego León Giraldo, a filmmaker iconic in Colombian film history as an early proponent of Cuban revolutionary cinema, and whose 1967 documentary Camilo Torres represented the first instance of militant cinema in Colombia.2 León Giraldo, however, had come to exemplify the ideological ambiguities and betrayals of a nascent national film industry struggling to define itself amidst the contradictory impulses of political commitment and aesthetic value, economic viability and mass visibility.

Initiated as a spontaneous exercise in simply going out to film without imposing any specific narrative, the experiment inevitably would produce a portrait of the thousands of others who had also been excluded: the majority of Cali's population, for whom admission fees were far beyond reach, and

  1. This rhetoric was represented throughout the film by the sporadic and strategically placed voice-over of Conservative President Misael Pastrana, who had assumed office the previous year after a fraudulent election. The use of this voice-over, and the way it contradicts the image, is reminiscent of Glauber Rocha's juxtaposition of Governor's José Sarnay's political acceptance speech with images of his destitute constituents in Maranhão 66 (1966), a film that Mayolo and Ospina had not yet seen at the time.

  2. Although its significance is never disputed, Luis Ospina has identified this film as the first militant film in Colombia in his memoirs Palabras al viento: Mis sobras completas, Bogotá: Editora Aguilar, 2007, p.59. All Spanish citations are translated by the author unless otherwise noted.

  3. This song was written in homage to a young dancer from Cali, whom the Nuyorican salsa duo met in 1968 while on tour in Colombia.

  4. It is something like Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), although perhaps here the break is about the precariousness and not the drama of what the film contains, or is unable to contain.

  5. All quoted film dialogue is translated from Spanish by the author unless otherwise noted.

  6. Ronald Kay has written about the 'temporal discontinuity' represented by what he argues is the visual conquest that resulted from photography's arrival to the Americas. See Ronald Kay, Del espacio de acá: Señales para una mirada americana, Santiago: Editores Asociados, 1980.

  7. In Colombia shantytowns are called 'barrios de invasión' or literally 'neighbourhoods of invasion', 'founded' or established by a group of individuals or families who illegally appropriate and build houses on private or public lands. El Guabal was one such case.

  8. Londoño died aged 53 from a condition that would have been treatable had he had the resources to seek proper medical attention. In his column 'Sunset Boulevard', which he published under the pseudonym Norma Desmond, Ospina wrote: 'Fifteen days after (his death), (in)competent authorities arrived (to his house) with an eviction order but Londoño, just like in the movie, expelled the vampires of poverty from the premises.' El Pueblo (Semanario Cultural), 19 November 1980, p.11.

  9. Here I am paraphrasing Andrés Caicedo's excellent reading of this film in Ojo al cine, no.1, 1974, pp.51-55.

  10. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (trans. Hélène Iswolsky), Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp.11-12.

  11. Alberto Navarro, 'Entrevista con Carlos Mayolo', Cinemateca, no.5, August 1978, p.74.

  12. Alberto Rodríguez Hernández, 'Entrevista con Hernando Salcedo Silva', Ojo al cine, no.3-4, 1976, pp.52-57.

  13. Carlos Mayolo and Ramiro Arbeláez, 'Secuencia crítica del cine colombiano', Ojo al cine, no.1, 1974, pp.17-30.

  14. See Julio García Espinosa, 'Por un cine imperfecto', Aleph, no.4, September 1972, pp.167-76.

  15. See Fernando E. Solanas and Octavio Getino, Cine, cultura y descolonización, México D.F.: Siglo XXI Editores, 1978 (reprint).

  16. C. Mayolo, La vida de mi cine y mi televisión, Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2008, pp.49-50 and 61.

  17. Ramiro Arbeláez and C. Mayolo, 'Chircales', Ojo al cine, no.1, 1974, p.50.

  18. The Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Arts and Industry was founded in 1959, shortly after the Cuban Revolution, and produced films by seminal figures like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (such as Memorias del subdesarrollo, or Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) and Julio García Espinosa, but also produced works by film-makers from other parts of Latin America, most notably Patricio Guzmán's The Battle of Chile (1977-78).

  19. Here Rodríguez is quoting Cuban film-maker Santiago Álvarez. Andrés Caicedo and Luis Ospina, 'Entrevista con Jorge Silva y Marta Rodríguez,' Ojo al cine, no.1, 1974, p.42.

  20. Cuadernos de cine, no.1, March-April 1975, p.17.

  21. These statistics are taken from ibid., p.21 and Carlos Álvarez, 'Una década de cortometraje colombiano, 1970-80', Borradores de cine, no.1, 1982, p.40.

  22. Cuadernos de cine, op cit., p.22.

  23. Among the most vocal critics of the Committee for Quality Control was Umberto Valverde, who argued that it was nearly impossible for film-makers to work within this context without subjecting themselves to self-censorship. See Umberto Valverde, Reportaje crítico al cine colombiano, Bogotá/Cali: Editorial Toronuevo Ltd, 1978.

  24. Alberto Navarro, 'Entrevista con Luis Ospina', Cinemateca, no.1, 1977, p.24.

  25. A major problem in Colombian cinema that is commented upon extensively in existing scholarship is that most professional actors were actually theatre actors, which resulted in exaggerated performances.

  26. Alberto Aguirre, 'II Festival de Cine Colombiano: Radiografía veraz de un cine embrionario y pobre', Cuadro, no.3, 1977, p.11.

  27. Carlos Mayolo and Marta Rodríguez, 'El De$precio del $obreprecio', Ojo al cine, no.2, 1975, p.9.

  28. Translated by Randal Johnson and Burnes Hollyman, and reprinted in Robert Stam and Randal Johnson (ed.), Brazilian Cinema, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982 pp. 69-71.

  29. C. Mayolo, La vida de mi cine y mi televisión, op. cit., p.67.

  30. A. Aguirre, 'II Festival de Cine Colombiano', op. cit., p.13.

  31. Ibid., p.21.

  32. L. Ospina, Palabras al viento: Mis sobras completas, op. cit. , pp.149-50 and 340.

  33. This is the official English translation of the title. In France it was called Les Vampires de la misère. Ospina wrote, 'In order to have some distance, I edited Agarrando pueblo in Paris, where, thanks to the generosity of Denise de Casabianca and the enigmatic Chris Marker (who I never actually met), I was able to finish the movie'. Ibid., p.36.

  34. This unpublished document (written in Spanish) turned up recently in the archives of Luis Ospina.

  35. This film has been translated into English and subtitled.

  36. This anecdote was revealed by Mayolo in an interview. Apparently the angry man had threatened to stab him, leading to a confrontation that ended, finally, in this collaboration. See 'Entrevista con Carlos Mayolo', op. cit., pp.73-74.

  37. This phrase is difficult to translate into English and means something like 'to grab or seize the people', but in an aggressive and potentially exploitative manner. According to Ospina, 'Agarrando pueblo' is a popular term from the Valle del Cuaca region (of which Cali is the capital), which means 'to trick or manipulate the people'. He cites the example of a snake charmer who gathers together a group of curious spectators with his show. Harold Alvarado and Hernán Toro, 'Con Luis Ospina agarrando pueblo desde París', El Pueblo (Semanario Cultural), 11 June 1978. In 'Entrevista con Carlos Mayolo', op. cit., p.73, Mayolo describes how the term came to acquire a negative connotation in relation to activities perceived to be exploitative, for example anthropology or sociology students conducting field research in marginal neighbourhoods but failing to return upon completion of their projects or foreigners taking pictures. 'There was always a violent reaction against those individuals who attempted to invade these spaces without asking for permission or collaboration.'

  38. Alberto Vides, 'Agarrando premio', Diario del Caribe (Suplemento), 18 June 1978, p.6.

  39. Oscar Jurado, 'Agarrando pueblo y Cuartito azul', Cuadro, no.6, 1978, pp.2-3.

  40. The last scene of Agarrando pueblo is an informal interview conducted by the film-makers with Londoño.

  41. According to Haroldo de Campos: 'Antropofágia is the idea of the critical swallowing up of the universal cultural heritage, elaborated not from the submissive, reconciliant perspective of the "good savage" but from the disillusioned viewpoint of the "bad savage", the white-man eater, the cannibal.' Cited in Catherine David, 'The Great Labyrinth', Hélio Oiticica (exh. cat.), Rotterdam: Witte de With, 1992, p.252. While de Andrade's idea of anthropofagy sought to resist and transform a situation of cultural dependence, Mayolo and Ospina used images of cannibalism to represent the structures of exploitation that determine social relations in Colombia.