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Colombia Behind the Scenes: A Country Swallowed by a Stereotype

The first trailer for the Colombia inspired Disney movie ‘Encanto’ was recently released. It brought tears to my eyes to see all the traditions and images I grew up with finally being represented in a big blockbuster. For decades, Colombia’s image in international films has followed the trope of a poor country waging war against guerrillas and drugs. It is depicted with a humid environment and deep jungle, such as in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.


It is this kind of depiction that not only creates a standard to expect from Colombians (or from a whole group like Asians or Native Americans), but also feeds nationals a distorted narrative which is dangerous and at best annoying.


Let us look back at the case of Mr. & Mrs. Smith for a moment. The movie portrayed Bogota, the capital, as a dusty little town located in the jungle with tropical climate. In reality, it is a big metropolis with colder weather, created due to its situation upon a mountain. Even the mayor at the time, Luis Eduardo Garzón, was upset about this portrayal. Why would not he be? Usual depictions of Colombia and its inhabitants involve clichéd stories and misinterpretations of this country’s reality. The people, their characteristics, and their traditions are shown poorly. Even the name of this nation, Colombia, is frequently misspelt.


It is no secret that representation in the media is currently one of the most debated topics. Black, Asian, indigenous people, Latinos, are just some of the cultures that have been historically misrepresented in media. In the Latin American case, there are not many movies that show Latinos with backstories that do not involve coming from a developing country, drug trafficking, or turning to a life of crime . Some of these are XXX (2002), Collateral Damage (2002), Colombiana (2011), Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (2009), Blow (2001), Romancing the Stone (1984) and Proof of Life (2000).


Colombia’s history is one laced with violence and suffering, so the image painted in this productions is not that much of a lie, nevertheless they show only half of the picture. Yes, it is true that this once was a war filled land with dangerous drug cartels and where fear reigned. But the situation changed drastically, even if Colombia still has a great number of political, social and economic issues. 1980 was 41 years ago and it seems like Hollywood decided to just stick with that narrative to represent the Latin American country. In most of these productions, we can see the common trope referred to as ‘white savior’, a quick search on Wikipedia can demonstrate this, but that is a story for another day.


What is the most saddening is that, thanks to this repetitive stereotype, all Colombians are labeled as drug dealers or related to a drug lord. Let me take you back to the summer of 2015, when the trailer for the second season of Narcos had just dropped on social media. The series about Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was set to be a success. I was living in Canada at the time, and I remember clearly that a friend of mine tagged me in the video along with the words “isn’t that your grandfather?” They were referring to one of the most hated men in Colombia’s history. Our identity is not defined by the awful things this man did but our reputation is highly scarred by the likes of him and many others in our history.


There is more beyond the stereotype Colombians have been trying to fix for decades. Romanticizing the hurtful actions of those that are best remembered for their crimes leads to a misconception of their real story and how the pain inflicted upon thousands is still present among us by painting over it with a “cool” façade.


We can not ignore our history and we’re not trying to. Colombians are well aware of everything they carry as part of their history, telling glamourized and action-packed versions of it is lying to the audience. But it would be inaccurate to blame international media alone for this image. Colombia’s film industry is also at fault by producing TV shows and films for years that glorify law breakers.


While it is important to show Colombian stories through the eyes of Colombians, the film industry could focus more on doing its research like in the case of the 2018 movie Birds of Passage. It portrayed the story of a Wayuu clan in Colombia’s Guajira region and how they slowly lost their customs when drug trafficking came into the picture. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra researched and collected real stories in order to build the movie about the marimbera bonanza. This is one of the movies that can actually show what happened in a time in Colombia’s history without glorifying anything, but instead demonstrating an understanding of the facts and the consequences to the community.


Another example that shows the street art scene in Medellin is Days of the Whale from director Catalina Arroyave. The movie is said to be one of the best Colombian films, it depicts two young lovers and graffiti artists in one of Medellin’s neighborhoods as they defy family struggles and a local gang through art. It is an approach to the city’s urban art scene that does not treat its subjects or themes superficially.


And there are many other examples of Colombian productions that portray real stories and their context in a way that explores the issues that not only the characters deal with, but which are also the reality many inhabitants of the country live. Movies like La Estategia del Caracol (1993), La Tierra y la Sombra (2015), and documentaries such as Colombia Magia Salvaje (2015) or La Sierra (2005), do a better job at showing the social, political, economic and environmental truth.


We all like to see ourselves in the characters we see on screen, and when the only ones you see are the ‘bad guys’ you can not help but feel disheartened. That is the main reason why seeing a company like Disney showcasing the beautiful aspects of Colombia is so encouraging. From the colonial house and landscape of the Cocora Valley, to the arepas and black coffee (or tinto in Colombia) ‘Encanto’, with only a trailer to go by, shows the parts that we want the world to see. Of course, a movie will never erase history nor the current events that the nation goes through, but hopefully this release will add to the list of admirable things that Colombia can be recognized for.


Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro


Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey