“I thought the prison would be like in the movies,” Deisy Torrez says upon visiting her brother Hernan at the San Sebastian Prison in Bolivia, while she herself is being filmed for “Cocaine Prison.” Contrary to the image of prisoners in orange jumpsuits and sterile cells she may have had from Western movies, the situation is far more dire at San Sebastian where a deeply flawed legal system has led to a pileup where men imprisoned for minor crimes have no idea when they’ll have their day in court, filling the prison for less than 200 with more than 600 and requiring prisoners to pay if they want to have their own cell rather than to sleep on the ground. The inmates loaf around in street clothes in the courtyard bereft of purpose, and the majority have been ensnared by the criminalization of the cocaine trade, which is one of the only means of income in the impoverished region, from the farmers to the young people who can help support their family by selling it.

Remarkably, Violeta Ayala is able to capture the entire spectrum of the situation from the vantage point of just three people – Mario, an older prisoner who spends years behind bars without knowing if he’ll ever actually get a court date, and the aforementioned Hernan and Deisy, whose father grows coca leaves in the small village of Chaparre to make ends meet. After being in possession of two kilograms of cocaine ground from the leaves in the city which Ayala makes clear can be chalked up to a youthful mistake, Hernan is thrown in jail with no obvious exit date and Deisy, the only one with enough education in the family to pursue recourse, is determined to get him out. Like her characters, Ayala had no idea whether her subjects would ever be released and over the course of three years captures a truly jawdropping story of injustice, social inequity and the futility of an unconsciable war on drugs.

Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Ayala spoke of the unbelievable commitment it took on both her part and her subjects to make “Cocaine Prison,” creating a film that could deconstruct the image we have of the war on drugs in human terms, and how she managed to sneak cameras in to film inside a prison.

Deisy Torrez in "Cocaine Prison"How did this crazy film come to be?

It’s not so crazy for me, because I’m from Bolivia, and this was my reality. This is the prison I knew, two blocks away from my grandmother’s house. I didn’t know how it was inside the inside the prison, but I always saw the prison and the war on drugs is the biggest problem for all Latin America – I’m not even saying drug trade, but the war on drugs has created so much harm to our society, and as an artist and a filmmaker, I need to tackle, for me, the biggest issues that are happening within my own societies, so that’s how I came about.

The opening images of ants carrying the coca leaves are so perfect – if you’re from the area, has that been an image you’ve had in mind for a while?

No. That was something that came up while filming. We were walking in the jungle, and I remember I said very innocently, “Oh, why are [the ants] taking this?” And [our guides] answered, “To make a cane.” We thought, “What a perfect moment,” just after shooting it and it was because I had the camera up at that moment and we didn’t think. We tried to do it again, but it never worked because it was just such a moment that came very naturally.

Did you actually know Hernan and Deisy before filming?

No. I was going to the prison before met Hernan even arrived. I wanted to tell the story of the people whose lives are affected by the war on drugs, but from a different point of view, not this idea of the gun-toting narco because that’s not true. I’m not saying that El Chapo Guzman does not exist, but he’s also a human being, and he actually comes from a very, very poor background, and I was tired of the dehumanization of people on the other side of the border. I was tired of being shown as people who like killing [who] don’t care about our lives and we kill each other and that’s it. I was so sick of [that image], but where else are people telling the stories? In prison, because they have nothing else to lose. So we went there and we talked about with the prisoners, and we said, “Maybe we can come and teach English to the kids.” They said, “No, this is a male prison. You have to teach us English.”

I didn’t [actually] go to teach English – I always went to make a film. Sometimes the cameras got in. Sometimes they didn’t. We went almost every day for three years. I met Hernan the first day he arrived into the prison, and he was so scared, but he was trying to put on a brave face. I think that he walked into the class because maybe he felt it would be a safer place, and we stayed there talking. He was trying to pretend he was a big trafficker, saying, “I got caught with 25 kilos of cocaine and two guns.” Then I met Deisy a few weeks later and she said to me, “Must be like the toy guns, because he’s never seen a gun in his life.” [laughs] She showed me his paper, and he was caught with two kilos of cocaine. He was just a little, young guy, and the idea that we met him the first day was interesting [because] we could start following him straight away. He also told us he comes from El Chapare, where the coca leaf grows, so it just made perfect sense.

Then we met Mario, and the chemistry between [he and Hernan] was so nice. It took a while until we decided that these are the characters we’re going to follow. We followed another four or five guys, but more stuff was happening to [Mario and Hernan], and then we just showed it. As humans, we’re fascinated by prisons, but prisons are boring places. They do the same [things] every day and it looks the same, because it’s just a courtyard. This is where they move. They don’t have anything else.

I discovered the best and the worst of humanity. I had to give everyone a chance, because I’m no one to judge. It was tough. Some days after filming, I just went back home and I fall asleep for four hours. I was so tired because the energy was so strong, and I’m a woman in a male prison. We helped Mario. He went to class inside the prison to learn, and we helped him to learn to read and write. I feel very, very happy about it. On Fridays, we had a projector. We took a projector, and we showed movies, and we discussed them. It was so wonderful to see all of these ideas coming from prisoners, but it was challenging too. You also have rapists in the prison, and it was horrible [to] feel this energy. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t want these people here, but I have no power over anything. I had to learn so much to about my own character and my own beliefs, and I realized that we all are human beings in the end.

Hernan Torrez in "Cocaine Prison"There’s a point where Mario gets a camera – were you actually the one to provide that for him?

It was Mario’s idea. I couldn’t sleep in the prison. I could maybe, but I wouldn’t choose to. Mario said, “To tell you my story, I need to film it myself, so you should maybe give me a little camera.” So we gave a camera to Mario, a camera to Hernan, and then we ended up giving five cameras to five people within the prison. We realized one of them had a talent… Mario was terrible, but he loved to have his camera and he loved filming, and giving [them] the cameras changed the whole dynamic. They became protagonists in their own stories. They also made us very conscious decisions [in terms] of the little bits that they didn’t want us to have. In the beginning, I wanted to get [these specific elements] badly, but then, I realized there’s no point. Because they don’t want to tell me this, why should I try to [get it]? It’s their right.

They’re caught in this web of a system that goes beyond our own understanding, and they’re so lost inside the prison. They don’t know how to fight in this system. This is a very colonial, Western/Spanish legal system so far away from their reality and where they come from. Mario is an indigenous man from the middle of the mountains, and Hernan and Daisy are from the mountains, but they live in the jungle. They have no idea how to navigate [the legal system], but having the camera helped them to take the power in on their own hands a little bit and fire back in a way that they could understand. We all can relate to images, and storytelling is universal.

Probably from my ancestors, I was a storyteller. Today, the difference is that I have the camera, but if I didn’t, I would write or I’d paint. And this is, for me, is [about] the universality of them wanting to tell the story the way they wanted, especially Mario. He is the most keen on everything. Hernan takes life more as it comes and he deleted almost everything that he filmed. Mario, it empowers him a lot. Also, Herman deleted more than Mario at the end.

As a woman, what was it like to film in the prison?

I never went into places by myself. I don’t even think I ever walked by myself. I always walked with people who I knew from the prison, like Herman or Mario or Dan Fallshaw, my filming partner since the beginning of my career. Sometimes he used to go by himself, and I always went with him everywhere. He’s a tall guy and I was very careful about how I dressed, how I talked to the people and how I walked in the prison. Only once I stayed until 8 pm, and it was very scary because the night came and everyone that slept during the day came. It was a lot of people. But I wasn’t a foreigner trying to tell a story in the middle of this place. I knew how far I could push my limits.

The film has a beginning, middle and end naturally, but you make the point in the film that Mario may never even gotten an arraignment date for his trial because of how haphazard the legal system is. As a storyteller, were you concerned there might not be any arc?

This was the hardest film in that sense, of all of the films I made, because of that fact. Five times Mario went to trial, and it looked like [an official date was] ever going to happen. The moment that he learned to read and write in prison – because he needed it to write letters to the judge [or] to the journalists who come and interview him to put pressure on the legal systems when he could have the trial – I think that gave him a lot of power. Then things started to happen. That’s why this film is made over such a long time. I was thinking I’ll never have a film if nothing happens. It’s only so interesting to watch inside this prison, but if nothing happens, then what you do? We had to be very patient and persevere.

Up until the riot towards the end of the film, you rarely see the guards. Was it an obvious decision for you to keep the focus on the people that you follow versus maybe the larger prison infrastructure and the authorities?

Of course, you’re not allowed to film inside the prison, so I couldn’t film guards inside the prison.

That makes perfect sense. I didn’t even think about that.

Usually, when something’s happening outside [in the courtyard], like parties or some event, they could take the cameras out. They filmed the guards in the night when they go [do] rounds when they do the list. There are not many guards in the prison, and the guards are on the roof with guns, making sure that [the inmates] don’t escape, and also at the door. It’s so interesting. There’s a lot of foreigners caught with drug trafficking in Bolivia, but they find a way to escape, but Bolivians don’t. I asked, “Why don’t you guys escape?” They said, “Because the police are very good. They always catch us.” When [Bolivians] escape, they are indigenous and very poor and vulnerable people – they just go back to their houses in their communities and then, the police just go and bring them back, and then their sentence goes longer. That’s why they don’t escape. They don’t have this possibility to go to live in another country or don’t want to.

A scene from Violeta Ayala's "Cocaine Prison"Have you actually been able to show the film to Deisy, Hernan and Mario yet? If so, I imagine that must have been really interesting to see what the other was going through at certain times.

We haven’t shown the film to Hernan yet, because I haven’t been back in Chapare, but I showed the film to Deisy – we showed her a lot of cuts, actually, and she watched the finished film with her younger brother. Then she said, “This film is very sad. It’s beautiful, but it’s too sad.” Then I said, “Are you worried about something that you said and that you wouldn’t like it?” She’s like, “No.” You actually can see it yourself that the justice system is corrupt and doesn’t work. I don’t need to say anything. [Deisy] loves the film, I guess, and Hernan wrote a comment on my Facebook saying, when he saw the trailer, “These are very, very difficult, very ugly times to remember.” I haven’t shown the finished film to Mario yet, but I showed him a version before.

Because Mario’s older, he can see things from a different perspective. He remembers this moment, and maybe, not everything was so bad, while for Herman, everything was. He doesn’t have one good memory of this prison. He doesn’t even want to think about it even existed in his memory, while Mario can have a different perspective with this. Deisy wasn’t in prison herself, so it’s a different perspective for her to see her life in a film. She feels very proud that she’s the first person in her community to finish university. I don’t know if many people in Canada or in the States will understand what it means. She comes from a tiny [place] and it’s a massive achievement for her to leave all this behind.

When I was growing up, my father said to me, “I’m going to Australia to give you a better life.” I said, “No, Daddy, become a narco police. You should be a narco, so you can give me a better life.” I also remember Mario said to me, “I think coca leaves are very good, so [why] can’t we share a lot of coca leaves with the world? We have to make it a powder. What’s wrong with that?” And this was interesting to me [because] what’s different between cocaine and wine? It’s a chemical process, so why should we have to pay the price of this war on drugs? When the victims – the drug addicts – in the West are white, we care about it, but we still see the people from south of the border as these horrible demons who want to just take away our children’s lives. No, the kid who sells your kid marijuana or cocaine is as much a victim as the kid who takes marijuana or cocaine tomorrow. It’s a chain. Most of this chain is not violent. Most of this chain is just how the world works.

“Cocaine Prison” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 12th at 9:15 pm at the Scotiabank 9 and September 15th at 3:15 pm at the Scotiabank 14 and at the Camden Film Festival at the Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine on September 16th at 6:30 pm.