As part of our All Roads Film Festival coverage, today IT talks to filmmaker Roberto Arévalo, whose film Weaving Life is featured in this year’s festival. Set in a mountainous coffee-producing region of central Colombia, Weaving Life beautifully documents the details of the daily life of Rubiel Velasquez, one of the few basket weavers remaining in Filandia, Quindio. Arévalo artfully weaves into Rubiel’s narrative the social issues that shadow his family’s existence: the fear of violence, the absence of public health, and a diminishing livelihood.
The 2008 All Roads Film Festival comes to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC this Thursday and runs through the weekend. A National Geographic program, All Roads provides an international platform for indigenous and underrepresented minority-culture artists to share their cultures, stories, and perspectives through the power of film and photography. Read more from this series here, and here.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I immigrated to New York City in 1981, leaving behind my mother and sisters in my native Colombia. For several years I worked in factories, cleaned offices, washed dishes and bussed tables. Eventually I obtained my GED and received my green card. I worked as a waiter while studying media communications at Hunter College. During this time I felt that most of the images and stories I saw in magazines, newspapers, television, and movies did not reflect my neighborhood, the people around me, my workplace or my way of thinking.
During my junior year in college I bought a camcorder and videotaped everything that caught my eye: at school, at the World Trade Center in the restaurant where I worked, in Central Park, and on the subway. I was fascinated by the uniqueness of the people I met in my daily life. As I examined the footage I collected, I began to understand myself better and realized that I could create documentaries that more accurately reflected people's experiences and the way I perceived the world.
What brought you back to Colombia as a documentary filmmaker?
In 2004 I visited Marlene, one of my four sisters, who lived in Filandia, Quindio, eight hours from Bogotá, Colombia. Her friend nicknamed "Falladera" or "No-Show" took me to meet Rubiel Velasquez because he believed that he and I would get along. It was about 8 p.m. and Rubiel was weaving a big basket in a small brick room with a bald light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I spoke to him for a few minutes and soon he called in his wife and five children who were in the next room watching television. I asked him questions about the town and his trade and he responded but never stopped weaving the basket.
I was mesmerized by the unique skill and hard work required to make baskets. I felt the story of the Velasquez family represented the story of many artisans in rural Colombia. People like Rubiel, who despite their hard work and talent are often ignored both in and outside of Colombia. I asked Rubiel if I could make a documentary that would show his work and tell his personal story. I told him that his baskets were art and that the world should know about him. He smiled in disbelief and said "Esta bien" (Okay).
Why did you choose to tell his story?
The individuals featured in all of my documentaries are people I admire and who I want to learn more about. In Tejiendo Vida/ Weaving Life, I used an ethnographic participant observation approach as well as direct cinema and cinema verité to create the story. I involved Rubiel and his family in the conception and planning of their story. I used the rhythm of nature and the peaceful simplicity prevalent in Filandia's land and culture as the guiding force in editing the documentary. Despite the modest lifestyle of the Velasquez family, the documentary highlights their richness in creativity and dignity without hiding the harsh realities of poverty they confront everyday.
Just as 45-year-old Rubiel, the father and main character of the documentary, weaves his basket, I decided to weave the segments of family members into one coherent piece. The guitar players, a father and son who both work cultivating coffee in Filandia and know the Velasquez family, became an element that reinforced the themes of love, passion, beauty and struggle that are an integral part of the Velasquez daily life.
How does carrying your camera influence the way you travel, and the interactions you have with the people you encounter?
One Friday night when I was waiting tables at the Vista Hotel in downtown New York, I shot footage at the restaurant. When I looked at the footage later, I was struck by seeing my co-workers and myself wearing uniforms. The waiters and waitresses dressed in black pants and skirts with white shirts and white aprons and a black vest and bow tie. The bartenders wore white jackets and blue pants, while the cooks wore white hats and shirts with striped pants. The dishwashers wore beige overalls, and the host/ hostesses wore business suits. Although I was used to seeing this scene every day, viewing it on video accentuated for me how the social hierarchy in our society works to divide people from different backgrounds.
I was also struck by the wide range of people I saw in the footage. Some were born in the United States, but many more came from other countries including India, Chile, Bangladesh, the former Yugoslavia, England, Ghana, Algeria, Colombia, Vietnam, Jamaica, Cuba, China, Haiti, Sweden, Morocco, Mexico, Angola, Austria, Cambodia, Holland, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and Germany. I realized that many of the people I worked with had similar experiences of poverty in their countries of origin. Like me, they were struggling with issues of separation from their families and cultures, trying to cope with the strain of learning a new language and culture, and facing economic difficulties in the U.S.
Watching the footage enabled me to begin developing my understanding of society. For me, it was like having the chance to put the pieces of a puzzle together. Realizing how my own culture and the cultures of others were shaped by the similar political, economic, and social values of colonialism and capitalism was in many ways a liberating experience. At the same time, my developing understanding made me quite uncomfortable.
How have you worked through this discomfort? Your films seem very self-aware.
It became increasingly obvious to me how mainstream media distorted the images of people and their cultures, and I wanted to create media that was a better reflection of the realities I knew. I had discovered a way to use documentary videos to develop an awareness of myself and society. I was particularly motivated to work with teenagers, because they are among the most misrepresented groups in mainstream media. Media-makers often sensationalize the lives of young people living in the inner city by telling stories fixed on either "success" or "failure." As a result, stories that deal with the issues that affect most young people are seldom told or given the level of respect and attention they deserve. I believed that the way they experienced life should be exposed with dignity and a sympathetic perspective based on an understanding of the extreme conditions they face and cannot fully comprehend.
Today, I continue to incorporate my camera into my everyday experiences. Having the camera allows me to connect with people. For me it serves as a tool to promote communication and encourage people to talk about issues they may never otherwise discuss. Through the camera I observe moments in a meticulous manner and it helps me to go back and examine the way people think and the way I react to them. This dialogue is the foundation of my constant learning process.
How has Colombia changed since you grew up there?
Colombia has been in immersed in an armed conflict since I was born. When I moved to the United States during the '80s violence intensified due to drug trafficking. Today the biggest cities of Colombia have grown dramatically as have the number of displaced people forced to leave the countryside to escape violence.
What are some common misconceptions people have about Colombia?
Through the news media and Hollywood stories Colombia has become best known for three things: violence, cocaine and coffee.
What insight do you hope viewers will gain from this film?
Unlike most stories about Colombia that focus on violence, drugs or coffee, the story of Rubiel Velasquez represents the struggle, endurance, and talent of most Colombian people. The way I tell his story offers a unique perspective that I hope will allow people who view this work to have a more tangible understanding of a Colombian family. In addition I hope that by viewing Weaving Life, people from all over the planet, including Colombians, will embrace my documentary approach and challenge mainstream media approaches that are detached from cultural, social and political understanding.
Do you have any advice for travelers on the best way to experience your country and its people?
Be yourself and think of Colombians as a collection of short stories you have never imagined. The characters of these short stories will help you experience your own selves in a new way.
Visit the All Roads Film Festival website for more information on the films and to see a schedule for the upcoming D.C. events.