By Josh Gardner
Filmmaker Violeta Ayala grew up down the street from the San Sebastian prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia. An overpopulated and understaffed prison filled with foot soldiers of the cocaine industry, Violeta returned in 2010 to teach English classes to the prisoners and their children. Inspired to expose the myths of the drug trade and its many effects on the everyday people of Latin America, Violeta spent five years making the heartbreaking and indicting documentary Cocaine Prison / Los Burritos.
The film had its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where Violeta sat down with TropicalFRONT to discuss the origins of the project. “I always wanted to make a film that demystified the gun toting narco and this idea of Narcos, Pablo Escobar, El Chapo because they are just a little bit of the reality,” said Violeta.
The film is rooted in the story of Hernan and his sister Deisy, relatively well-off teens who wanted to start a rock band. Lacking the funds to buy a drum kit and hoping to make some quick cash, Hernan took a job smuggling cocaine across the border to Argentina and was quickly caught, detained, and sent to San Sebastian prison. Violeta met him the first day he arrived and followed his journey till he was released.
She explained further, “I think we’re tired of this portrayal of indigenous people in Latin America as dumb and in need of saving. We don’t need anyone to save us. We need everyone to respect us. And I think that’s what this film is doing. People get involved in drug trafficking, not because they are stupid or they don’t have any options. In this case, Hernan and Deisy wanted to have a rock band, and that’s the reality.”
Visiting the prison every week for English classes and filming, Violeta established strong bonds with the film’s subjects. “One of the prisoners, Mario, said to me, ‘you can’t be here to film everything, so why don’t you give me a camera?’ And we thought, oh, that’s a good idea! So we gave him a little Sony camera. He was terrible in the beginning, but it was cute, and it was interesting to get his point of view. Soon after, we had a full crew of prisoners and in a sense it gave them power because they felt that they could tell their stories as powerless victims in a web.
They felt like they could take power in their own hands a little bit.” In the end, the prisoners’ footage makes up 30% of the film. “Very interestingly, they used to delete scenes off the camera they didn’t like. In the beginning I really wanted to recover the scenes, then I realized it wasn’t my right. Actually, Hernan deleted a lot of what he filmed. Everything is pretty much curated by them.”
Through Hernan and Deisy’s journey Violeta hopes to humanize the massive war on drugs. “I want people to realize that the kids and the people working in the drug trade are not senseless, heartless human beings, but are people, too. We have families, we care. Cocaine Prison is more about the reality of the war on drugs than any other film. Not everyone will end up being El Chapo.”
“The war on drugs is harming us all. It’s harming everyone here in Canada, in the States. For a very long time we’ve seen the consumers as victims because they are white, but the kids who traffic, we see them as criminals. Yet they are as much a victim as the next person in line. For me, this is the important thing, to humanize, to put a face on the people working in this industry and to demystify the war on drugs.”
“I think there are two films related to the drug trade at TIFF, the other one with Javier Bardem as Pablo Escobar. I laugh. I’m not going to say anything, I just laugh. This is damaging, this is really damaging. This is not the entire truth, this is just a little bit of the truth. But until we hear from the foot soldiers of the war on drugs, we’re not going to understand what’s going on. Like you put one Hernan in jail and you have hundreds more. They are replaceable, they come and go.”
Violeta also feels passionately that the world of cinema is not just for Western audiences and sensibilities. “Another thing I want to tell all my fellow filmmakers from Latin America is that we can take the power in our hands. It’s time we tell our own stories and find our own narratives and were doing it! I think it’s very important that we keep doing it and that filmmakers in Bolivia start owning our own stories and telling things in our own ways.”