In 2015 I traveled to the remote Pacific coast of Colombia to make a film with and about the community of Coqui. Hopes and anxieties were high, as Colombia was on the very cusp of ending its 50+ year civil war. For decades, the FARC rebels had trafficked the bulk of the world’s cocaine trade up this coastline to pay for its war efforts. The area is so off-grid that the only way in is boat or light plane: there are no roads, and almost no government services. As one of the characters in the film said, “It’s like living in the mythic village of Mocando,” made famous by Gabrielle Garcia Marquez in his magical realist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Most goods are bartered or traded, as there is only a marginal cash economy. Due to its remoteness, the region is rife for exploitation – there are reputedly many illegal gold mines or coca leaf plantations hiding up the tributaries running down from the Andes mountains – and young people are tempted to leave their villages to make hard cash.
But here on the very fringes of the world’s consumerist economy, a very special sense of community can be had – where villagers band together to harvest crops, clean the village, dance in the streets, forage, farm, and fish. It's the wettest place on earth and one of the most biodiverse. I went there to help put the community on the ecotourism map, and hopefully make it more resilient.
The village was founded more than 150 years ago by descendants of African slaves who managed to escape from the Spanish-run gold mines. The area’s remoteness kept them safe from the Conquistadors and slavery. One of those descendants is Fausto, a community leader and main character in our film. It was with him that we planned how to represent the community – in a way that would be genuine and beneficial, and importantly, not make them vulnerable to outside forces.
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We chose four characters to follow that would create a multifaceted portrait: Ovideo, the artisanal fisherman and jungle farmer, keenly caring for his two young daughters; Cata, an environmental engineer working with villagers to develop vanilla production that doesn’t damage the forest; Maria, a restauranteur who takes everyone on a foraging expedition into the mangroves; and finally, Fausto himself, who ties the story together.
Our coverage didn’t extend beyond the community – for example, to the Colombian army regiment that was stationed a mile up the beach. These soldiers in fact pitched in to help clean up the village, but we didn’t include them in the film due to fear of potential retribution from the FARC or other rebel groups.
It was hot in the jungle – my camera and I both threatened to overheat. I didn’t speak Spanish, so I relied on my guide and translator Gregg Bleakney from WhereNext Productions. And at night, I’d shine a torch on my face as I walked up the beach, so the soldiers would know who I was. But my biggest challenge was finding the delicate balance in the story that evoked the warm embrace of the community and artlessly made the audience feel they were participating in the experience itself.
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