Shilpa Jindia

Could a new film hold the key to ending Colombia’s 50-year war?

Natalia Orozco’s When the Guns Go Silent gives a voice to both sides of this longstanding conflict.

How do you construct peace? This is the central question of Natalia Orozco’s timely documentary When the Guns Go Silent, which opened the 2017 Cartagena International Film Festival. It offers an intimate look at the peace talks held between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the Farc) – making a loud statement amid the country’s volatile political climate.

The film opens with the election of President Juan Manuel Santos in 2010. Having served as defence minister under his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, Santos presided over the government’s hardline military approach that greatly weakened the Farc and resuscitated an almost lawless nation. At a time when any armistice seemed impossible, Santos extended a diplomatic olive branch during his inauguration speech, which broke enough ground to begin secret talks.

Once the news broke, Orozco realised that it was her last opportunity to tell this story and lobbied for unprecedented access to both sides. Over the next four years, she captured the peace talks, which always seemed ready to crumble under the weight of suspicion and skepticism. But whereas such talks typically lay flat as headlines, here this exceptional moment unfolds with the momentum of a political thriller.

The film, like the war, is not contained to one setting. It was mostly filmed in Havana, Cuba, where the negotiators could escape the charged atmosphere in Colombia. Yet distrust and uncertainty followed them there. Orozco returns to Colombia throughout her film, unravelling the war’s long history through archived clips and visits to Farc territory within the dense jungles of Colombia’s interior. Labelled terrorists during the Uribe government, the Farc have become increasingly isolated, seen only through the media’s fixation on their violence over that of the government and its paramilitaries as well as smaller guerilla groups.

In one unintentionally meta moment, the Farc are shown grappling with new media technologies, highlighting the urgent need for a digital strategy through which to communicate with a wider audience. As empathy and understanding has hardened over the years, Orozco’s portrayal of Farc leaders and combatants provides a significant opportunity for Colombians to see the Farc without arms, a key step to encourage their reintegration. This is almost amusingly accomplished in the unlikely glimpse of one Farc commander and his mother watching television, amiably disagreeing over politics. Orozco manages to humanise the Farc without sensationalising or romanticising their cause.

Orozco traces the war’s unsparing violence but crucially adopts a neutral stance. Her restrained but ruminative narration conveys the conflict’s enormous toll without blame or judgment. At the outset, Orozco questions whether corruption is the mother of all war, or if it is, in fact, indifference. Does responsibility lie solely with those on screen? “The people” figure prominently in the film – as victims and as combatants, all fighting each other. Both sides claim to be speaking for the people, and though Orozco makes sure to include some of the engagement with victims groups during the negotiations, their voice remains indistinct.

Despite the historic progress made, the film ends on a sombre note – it was completed shortly after the October 2016 referendum, in which the Colombian people narrowly voted no to the signed peace accords, sending the Farc and the government back to the table. At such a critical juncture, Orozco’s documentary offers a chance for Colombians to reconsider the costs of war and peace, and to look past the desire for retribution and punishment. The horrors of the past lay mostly unplumbed in the film; they’ve been covered elsewhere, and will continue to be. But peace is ultimately about the future.

Santos’ and Farc commander Pastor Alape’s attendance at this festival screening underlines both their commitment to maintaining an open dialogue, and to engendering a culture of peace as endorsed by the film. As fear gives way to pessimism, Orozco’s painstaking efforts add to the rich vein of Colombian cinema that engages hard truths and, quite possibly, shows the way forward.

Published 20 Mar 2017

Tags: Natalia Orozco

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