When Josef Kubota Wladyka was in his mid-twenties, he went backpacking through South America, inviting himself to join a friend who had lived there for some time on a trip that would take them both through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
“I’m just going to come along with you and see what we get into,” Wladyka told his friend, his desire to be a filmmaker driving his interest in seeing places that he hadn’t seen before.
Wladyka found just that in the coastal community of Buenaventura, Colombia, which houses the country’s biggest port, but also one of its most impoverished communities that has been under siege in recent years as rival gangs have used the city’s geographical benefits to build up their drug business and engage in brutal turf wars. True to their perspective, it isn’t the cavalcade of violence that you end up seeing in “Manos Sucias,” the zesty thriller that Wladyka concocted, but rather the tensions of a place where only illicit activity seems to be a way up in society and everyone’s lives have been touched by the drug trade as much people there resist taking part in it. The film tells this story through the tale of two brothers, Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez), who turn to smuggling cocaine throughout the country’s waterways since opportunity elsewhere is scarce.
Fortunately, for every bit as responsible as Wladyka is in telling the story of these inadvertent narcotraffickers and the conditions that drove them to use their fishing boats for drug-running, drawing on the seven years of research he did in the region, he demonstrates the daring recklessness of a first-time director, infusing extra energy to the already riveting chase sequences once Delio and Jacobo find themselves in over their heads and in trouble with the guerrillas. Anything can happen in “Manos Sucias” — and often does, but the film is anchored in its deep consideration of its environment and the canny conceit that Delio and Jacobo reconnect as brothers while forces beyond their control are keen to drive them apart. Shortly before the film, which received the blessing of Wladyka’s NYU professor Spike Lee after its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the co-writer/director spoke about working with few resources and no production infrastructure to rely on to take audiences to a place even few in Colombia dare to go.
Had you actually been keeping an eye out for something to do as a first feature or did this come about organically?
This trip was for a few months and it was right before I started the graduate film program at NYU. I had been a waiter [while I was] making these short films and luckily, they were good enough to get me in to the graduate film program at NYU. Right before I went, I saved up money and went on this backpacking trip and over the course of the years in studying in the program, I was always thinking, “Okay, what’s going to be my first feature film?”
As the years progressed, I kept going back to Colombia over the summer and kept researching. There was news starting to come out about these narcosubmarines that they’d build in the clandestine jungles of Ecuador and Colombia that the fishermen were trying to get jobs on. One summer, I got permission from the Colombian government to go to Malaga Naval Base where they have captured narcosubmarines and narcotorpedoes, so I could see them first hand. I brought a little DSLR camera and simultaneously with a local from the region, I would travel to fishing villages around that area to try to collect more stories of the people that have actually done this crazy journey. The plot, more or less, comes from some people that have actually done this job.
The characters in the film will occasionally compare their lives to how it is in other places, whether somewhere else in Colombia like Bogotá or Cuba. Is Buenaventura, where this takes place, really that different?
Yeah. Buenaventura is a totally different world than Bogotá, the capital, where I lived for three months. It’s a very controversial place because it has the biggest port in Colombia. All the imports and exports that come in to enrich the economy come through Buenaventura, but the people that live there are not a part of that economy at all. Also, the city is hidden on the other side of the mountains, but it’s very much an epicenter for a lot of the drug trade. You can go up the coast to Panama, you can go to Central America. You can go to Mexico by water. My research basically brought me to Buenaventura and it’s where I found out that this is the specific place where this stuff is really going on.
With the help of a friend, Kelly Morales, who’s an associate producer on the film who has family in Buenaventura, I was able to just start going there and meet people. All of the cast is from Buenaventura and a lot of the references of what they’re talking about in the script are from what people would really say there. The character Don Valentin [in the film] references a Cuban rap group, Los Aldeanos, and that is actually his favorite rap group from Cuba. They are very popular in Buenaventura because they are rapping about similar social issues that are going on there. Also, there are Afro-Colombians in Bogotá, but it’s not like almost 90% like it is in Buenaventura.
You mention rap and music plays a huge role in this movie, even when it’s just on in the background. Was the importance of that something that emerged from being there or was it something you grew to understand about the culture?
Music, dance, art, acting… all this stuff is really huge culturally in Buenaventura. Hip-hop and rap [in particular] has a huge presence in Buenaventura, so we knew that we wanted to show that in the film. But then also there’s this old Afro-Colombian folkloric music called curalao, which is the chant of the women singing throughout the film. It’s a very important, special music to the region and we were really honored to have it in the film because it adds this almost inexplicable power. There’s not a lot of female presence in the film, but yet these women are singing about all these powerful things like the ocean and it’s almost a lament for the men that go out on these dangerous journeys. The song they sing together, “Buenaventura y Caney” is by Grupo Niche, a classic salsa song specific to Buenaventura, but very popular outside of Colombia too.
The way it got in the film was Alan [Blanco, the co-writer and cinematographer] and I were writing the script and I love salsa dancing, but I’m not great at it — I’m okay. I can get by as a gringo. But we we knew there were going to be these downtime scenes where it would just be two guys on a boat —these two brothers reconnecting. We didn’t have millions of dollars to make it, so we just started to talk about the different things that brothers do and what are the things that bring people together? We just had this idea, they should sing a song, one that they both love, at some point. That’s how that scene came to life and without question in Colombia, that is everyone’s favorite scene.
You’ve said there was some influence visually from classic films, but the aesthetic also seems to have emerged from the environment you were in, particularly navigating the waterways. How did you figure out how to shoot this?
A lot of it was just out of practical circumstance. Since Alan and I wrote the script together and he was cinematographer, we already pre-visualized so much of the film just in the way we wrote. But we formed this pact very early on that what was most important was figuring out a way to get these faces [from Buenaventura] in front of the camera and not try to do too much because we didn’t have a lot of resources. We’re not going to have a crane or a Steadicam out there. The whole thing was going to be shot on an Easyrig and Alan had two LED panels to light the whole entire thing, so the approach was very practical. At the same time, the way we would make bold choices would be in our lens choice. Certain times we’d want to do wide-angle closeups to exaggerate the movements of people. When the camera is skimming along the surface of the ocean or along the railroad tracks, we had nice wide lens so it feels like we’re going really fast. Stuff like would ground the audience subjectively into the experience.
We love the Dardenne brothers [because of] how they cover — it’s not simple, a lot of their shots are actually very complex but that style [appears simple visually]. We also referenced classic films like “Lawrence of Arabia” — the desert is like the ocean for our film. Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” we looked at, and there’s a really awesome film called “War Witch” from a couple years ago about this girl who gets recruited to become a soldier in Africa. That film is amazing aesthetically. “The Wages of Fear” was another one, just because it’s similar [in how it’s] men going on a dangerous journey. But what it really boiled down to was embracing the location and the situation and trying to make it as cinematic as possible.
From what I’d imagine, there probably wasn’t much infrastructure for filming to fall back on. Was the challenge part of the appeal or just intimidating?
There’s zero film infrastructure. There’s some in Cali, about four hours away and there’s a whole film industry in Bogotá, but in Buenaventura, there’s absolutely zero. For us, the caché of the film was getting access to shoot in these places that had never been photographed before. We always knew that if we just get the access, that’s what’s going to be really special about the film. In Colombia, because people know very much the situation there, they really have such an emotive reaction to the film because they know that we went to this place that no one has filmed before.
But there were many, many challenges. The biggest one, of course, was getting the community and the people in the barrios where we shot to come on board and do this film with us. There was a lot of cultural exchange that we had to do because we didn’t have any money, so we would have to offer other things. For example, our producer Elena Greenlee [set up] these filmmaking workshops for anyone in Buenaventura who wanted to learn really basic, simple stuff about putting together a little short film. We would break people up into groups and one week would be writing a little three-to-five-page thing and the next would be visualizing it and breaking the group up into “you’re the director,” “you’re the camera person,” and “you’re the actor.” The last week, we’d go out and shoot [the short films] just on a little camera.
Also, a lot of the agreements that we made with the people that controlled certain neighborhoods were that we would incorporate a lot of them into the production and hire them. A lot of people from Buenaventura had never worked on a film before, but they were a part of our crew. Every department was assigned at least one or two locals from Barrio el Jardín, which is one of the main places where we shot. It was very much a collaboration between the people [in Buenaventura] and us, trying to incorporate them as much as possible. To be honest, the film wouldn’t exist if that relationship wasn’t as established.
Since finishing the film have you been able to keep up with the people you met there?
Yes. Right now, I’m sitting with Cristian [Advincula, who plays Delio] here in my apartment in New York who’s here for the premiere in New York. Me, Jarlin [Javier Martinez], who plays Jacobo, and Manuel David [Riascos] all talk pretty often on Facebook. Jarlin is actually doing really well. He is blowing up in Colombia right now and getting cast in all kinds of stuff, so I’m extremely happy for him. The majority of my friends on Facebook are from Buenaventura — I think I’ve befriended probably 50% of Buenaventura, or they’ve befriended me and your first film, you’ll always remember. It’s like a child that you gave birth to. I will always remember the people and try to keep in contact moving forward.
Since this all started seven or eight years ago, is it interesting to be coming to the end of this process and looking back on it? That seems like a really big chapter in your life.
Yes, because I was a completely different person. Not only did it take many years to make the film, but the changes that I was going through just in normal life at that age, I changed completely. It’s a little scary. It just takes a lot of emotional wear on you, so I’m looking forward to be able to move on. There was definitely my life before this film and there’s my life after this film, but it’s a huge chapter in my life. There was definitely not money made or anything, either. Just a lot of blood, sweat, and tears and a lot of people. Now I really got to focus on how I can make a living for myself making movies.
“Manos Sucias” opens in New York on April 3rd at the Cinema Village and in Los Angeles on April 10th at the Music Hall before expanding into other cities.