Written by Caballero Oscuro
La Sierra opens with a somber statistic: in the past decade, over 35,000 people have been killed in Colombia’s bloody civil conflict. The first image on screen is a fly-covered human corpse sprawled in a ravine, a gruesome victim of the ongoing violence. Right from the start, we’re thrust into the midst of a brutal urban war zone, immediately informing us that we’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
The documentary focuses on the effects of the ceaseless violence on the residents of the hillside community of La Sierra, a barrio located on the outskirts of the metropolitan city of Medellín in Colombia. Although Colombia is known as the cocaine capital of the world, and La Sierra’s young residents make no attempt to hide their frequent use of the local product, the armed conflict is portrayed as strictly a turf war, not a grab for control of the lucrative drug trade. It’s puzzling at first why anyone would bother fighting over control of the dilapidated and impoverished barrio, until the filmmakers turn the focus to the personal stories of three of its residents.
Angél is a 19-year-old footsoldier in the local gang protecting La Sierra, a victim of a homemade grenade that took his hand. Cielo is a widow and mother at the age of 17 struggling with leading a virtuous and poor life while trying to avoid the lure of easy money in the red light district. Edisón is the 22-year-old leader of the paramilitary gang, a veteran of the conflict and a father of six (by six different girls). Through their willingness to share their experiences, we’re granted an intimate and mesmerizing glimpse of their horrific lives.
Shockingly, the young adults have been surrounded by violence for so long that they’re largely desensitized and nonchalant about its implications. They realize they can be killed at any time, but with the time they have they’re content to live their lives to the fullest. This is particularly evident in their sexual histories, as they all have children well before they exit their teens.
While Angél and Cielo have compelling individual stories, they pale in comparison to gang leader Edisón. He’s a fascinating individual, a charismatic and intelligent young man who offers extremely insightful and unguarded thoughts on the effects of the conflict. In spite of his history as a murderer and womanizer, he somehow manages to become a sympathetic character. He’s not overly macho or conceited about his power, he’s just a normal young man trapped in an abnormal situation. He’s the heart of the community and the film, a big fish in a very tempestuous pond. It’s sobering to consider what could have become of him in another environment, and all the more tragic when we learn of his fate.
While the film draws easy comparison to the fictional City of God, an earlier movie focused on the effects of violence on the youth of a Brazilian slum, the reality of this documentary puts it above its predecessor in terms of overall effectiveness. The violence is omnipresent and stifling, the hopelessness of their situation is heartbreaking, but they greet each day as a gift and strive for as much simple happiness as possible. Ultimately, the film is far more life-affirming than depressing, a small miracle considering its harrowing subject matter.
The filmmakers captured their footage over the course of a year, putting themselves in constant danger as they followed their subjects through the war zone. At one point, Angél’s group comes under surprise enemy fire but the camera keeps rolling while they dive to safety. The paramilitary gang agreed to have the filmmakers in their midst, but those same subjects were packing weapons brandished with abandon throughout the film, leaving the distinct impression that even in a relatively safe zone the cameraman could have been a victim of careless friendly fire at any time. This unprecedented level of immersion in the conflict and the lives of its participants helps to make the film a powerful and memorable experience.
La Sierra is now available on DVD, for more information visit the First Run Features website.