Cartagena Dispatch: A Film Festival in a City That Feels Like a Movie

 By Josh Siegel

I’ve long thought that film festivals should take place in dingy cities that offer little else in the way of cultural distraction. Sequestering oneself in a glorified starchitect mall in Potsdamer Plotz, watching movies and brokering deals from the crack of dawn until well into the night, seems a particularly soul-killing brand of masochism, especially considering the riches of Berlin to be found a single U-Bahn station away.

Or so I thought until I served on a film jury in Cartagena, Colombia, this past February. Nestled within the oldest surviving colonial walls and fortress in South America—built by Spain for the modern-day equivalent of $2 trillion to thwart any further occupation by Sir Francis Drake’s naval forces—lies the oldest continuously running film festival in South America, the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI), founded in 1959 by Víctor Nieto and now in its 53rd year. Monika Wagenberg has adroitly served as FICCI’s Director for the past two editions (she is also the co-founder of Cinema Tropical with Carlos Gutiérrez, an organization for which, in full disclosure, I serve on the board).

In a very short time, Wagenberg has infused the festival with new sense of vitality and intelligence, attracting some of the world’s leading filmmakers, actors, critics, curators, and industry professionals, and programming an ambitious array of screenings, tributes, panel discussions, premieres, and special events, including an homage this year to the San Sebastian Film Festival on its 60th anniversary. 

FICCI and Cartagena offer an intimacy and friendliness I’ve rarely encountered at other festivals, and my fellow jurors and I had the good fortune of having a fun, generous staff to watch over us. (That I can no better samba or salsa than I did when I first arrived is no fault of Nasly Boude, Analucia LeCompte, Rosario Margarita Meneses Rojas, or Emilia Ferreira—their forbearance is admirable.) Particularly heartening is FICCI’s commitment to free screenings and to the community of Cartagena, which contributed immeasurably toward attracting a broad and diverse audience. It behooves other international festivals to follow suit.

Isabella Rossellini was a graceful yet irreverent presence this year, gamely taking part in onstage conversations and introducing films in her tribute retrospective, which traced her career (thus far) as an actress, director, writer, and producer. After presenting her delightfully bawdy explorations of the sexual life of polyps, dolphins, and other creatures great and small, Rossellini managed to steal away from the festival for a day trip to observe a rare species of monkey. I still envy her terribly for this.

The French writer and director Claire Denis, also the subject of a tribute retrospective, was particularly touched by a new Colombian film entitled Chocó, the debut feature of Jhonny Hendrix Hinestroza. Chocó bears certain affinities with Denis’ own work—a commitment to politics, dispossessed characters, and elliptical storytelling—and is also noteworthy for having taken as its subject (and title) a region and people rarely depicted in Colombian cinema. The opening-night audience was equally moved to give Hendrix and his cast and crew a standing ovation, and the film won the Cinecolor Audience Award at the close of the festival.

Claire Denis served on the Official Dramatic Competition jury with the Argentine filmmaker Hector Babenco and the New York-based film critic and programmer Dennis Lim (who moderated an illuminating onstage conversation with Denis in which she reflected on her recent film projects in Suriname, a country approximately 750 miles east of Colombia on the Atlantic coast).  Together the jury awarded the prize for Best Picture to Santiago Mitre’s El Estudiante; for Best Director to Alejandro Landes for Porfirio; and for Best Actor to Esteban Lamothe for El Estudiante.

Meanwhile, my fellow jurors in the Colombia al 100% competition and I got on like gangbusters: Anna Marie de la Fuente, an editor for Variety in Latin America, and Edouard Waintrop, the former film critic for the French daily Liberation who has recently ascended to Artistic Director of Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight. We gave prizes to Alejandro Landes for Best Director and Best Picture for his film Porfirio; Andrés Crespo for Best Actor for his performance in El Pescador; and a special jury mention to Andres Burgos for Sofía y el terco.

On several occasions we found ourselves watching movies and breaking bread with the members of the Documentary Jury: Ricardo Giraldo, an installation artist and the artistic director of the Ambulante documentary festival in Mexico; Ricardo Restrepo, a journalist, filmmaker, and the director of the Colombian Association of Documentary Filmmakers Alados-Colombia and the International Documentary Film Festival; and Debra Zimmerman, the indefatigable Executive Director of Women Make Movies, the world’s leading non-profit distributor of films by and about women (Zimmerman is also a board member of Cinema Tropical). The Mexican filmmaker Tatiana Huezo won both for Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director for El lugar más pequeño / The Tiniest Place; and a Special Jury Award was given to Everardo González, also from Mexico, for Cuates de Australia / Draught.

Other jury sections included the Short Film Competition (Clara María Ochoa, Jorge Pergorría Rodríguez, Sebastián Cordero); New Creators (Jorge Caballero, Pablo Giorgelli, Sandro Romero Rey); Video Art (Gelis Lombana Alexandra, Carlos Triviño, Carlos Osuna); New Designers (Giorgelli Paul, Jorge Caballero, Romero Michael King); and FIPRESCI (Renzo Fegatelli, Gustavo Noriega, and Pedro Adrian Zuluaga). A full list of jury prizes is available here.

Beyond the pleasures and discoveries of FICCI, I’ll not soon forget stumbling upon a pickup game of baseball in the vibrant working-class neighborhood of Getsamaní, all 18 players impossibly but contentedly shoehorned between the sea wall and a row of parked cars in makeshift diamond field that seemed to be no larger than a batting cage; or my visit, thanks to Margarita de la Vega-Hurtado, with one of the grande dames of Cartagena, Teresita Román de Zurek. A chef, cookbook author, and heiress to the Kola Román fortune (an enduringly popular pink soda), Teresita inspired a character in a story by Gabriel García Márquez. She shepherded us through the legendary Casa Román, the Orientalist folly her family built in the late nineteenth century that she has since populated with more than 1,500 dolls from every corner of the earth, a collection to rival Disney’s “It’s a Small World.” (Props to Carlos Gutiérrez for spotting the Osama Bin Laden action figure hidden behind the Indonesian puppets and the Japanese geishas at the foot of a glass case.)

In the unlikely event that these wonderful experiences in Cartagena—and the not-so-wonderful ones brought on by excessive amounts of aguardiente—begin to fade from memory, I need only recollect them through the evocative photographs of Robert Herman. There’s something of FICCI’s quiet sophistication and warm feeling in these pictures.

Josh Siegel is Associate Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art

Photos by Robert Herman,