Colombian Documentary Encounters: Ricardo Restrepo Interview @ Havana Film Festival 2014

I saw quite a few documentary shorts at Havana Film Festival 2014, including the immensely entertaining A Conversation with García Márquez About His Friend Fidel, directed by Estela Bravo (a film that is soon playing at the 16th HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL New York) but Ricardo Restrepo‘s The End of the Terrible Night was by far the one that touched me the most for the rawness of its images and the urgency of its message.

Below is an interview with Ricardo Restrepo taken in Havana,  December 2014 at Hotel National de Cuba.

Could you please introduce yourself and the documentary film you are presenting at Havana Film Fest 2014.

My name is Ricardo Restrepo, I’m a Colombian filmmaker, DP, independent producer, working alongside other independent filmmakers as part of the Colombian production company Pathos . For about 15 years I ran the Colombian Film Academy for Documentary and The International Documentary Encounters. My latest documentary short, The End of the Terrible Night, was selected in competition here at Havana Film Festival and I really think it’s the best place to show it because the film talks about what we call in Colombia our “internal war”. As we speak, in Colombia, in the same city, the guerrilla forces are in talks with the government trying to find peace after 65 years of war. It’s perfect timing.

The End of the Terrible Night is a 25-minute short, it was finished in 2014 and premiered in Cartagena Film Festival. It is a personal film and a political film with social issues. It is made up of archive material shot by my grandfather.

ricardo restrepo havana

Colombian filmmaker Ricardo Restrepo

Talking about that, the footage you’ve got is amazing.

Yes. And I still don’t understand how this medical doctor, which is what he was, could have such an amazing eye for framing. He never studied cinematography. So when you see the footage made between 1939 and 1952, it is just amazing how he frames everything and how he constructs those images narratively. Basically I just found this footage that was lost for 65 years. And some of it was mainly about one specific date that is the most important date for contemporary Columbian history,  April 9, 1948 when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is assassinated in Bogota. […]. And we haven’t seen one single day of peace in Columbia since this man was killed.

What was your relationship with your grandfather?

Unfortunately I didn’t get to know him, he died very young in 1956. But I read all his books and now I discovered his images.

How did you discover them?

Actually I was looking for them for 30 years. I knew he was an amateur filmmaker, actually I used his camera when I was young and a film student. I still use it. So I was looking for this footage for a long time in my parents’ house. Finally last year when my father had to close his medical practice, we had to put all things in storage. And going through all that stuff, we found these 24 cans of footage shot on 16mm. I decided to digitalise the first one, which was more like a family album. And then I found what I was looking for, which is the first images ever discovered of that event, in colour, and shot by someone who was part of that event. […] 

This is quite an amazing discovery, given that the national archive only had a 15- minute record of that historical event until now.

Exactly, the only footage that exists of that event is only 15 minutes, in black and white. And this footage has been used so many times already, we know by heart what’s on there.  So this is quite an unusual new footage, never seen before. And what we have here is the perspective of a medical doctor during those four days of riots in Bogota. And amazingly, because he’s a medical doctor, he doesn’t film corpses, not even injured people. On one hand he has to do his medical duty, on the other hand he’s making this film.

Why do you think he didn’t film dead people?

My guess is that he stayed very ethical, in the sense of the photojournalism of the time.

However, the footage is quite harrowing. And the voice-over commentary is also very powerful and very poetic.

Yes. The commentary is partly based on his diary and partly my own. He wrote a diary about those events and in the images you can smell death, you don’t need to see it. And yes the commentary is very poetic but because he was a medical doctor he could go into very precise details and it’s very disturbing. So I left that out of the film. But he was very shocked with what we could do to ourselves.

There is this very powerful and beautiful comment towards the end of the film that kind of sums up the entire film:“seeing ourselves in shame as we are and what we represent to ourselves”

Yes and that’s amazing because that was in 1948 and you see Columbia today and it’s the same image, in a way he foresaw the future. He also asks himself in his diary: “I wonder what will happen with this country”. And he was right, we lost track from there. And you can see today, there’s only one guerrilla group left and fighting is spreading all over. He was a visionary man, I think.

How difficult is it to make films in Columbia, considering all the political and social unrest?

Actually it is quite easy. Especially in documentary. We have to talk about what’s happening, what we have in front of us or behind us.

It’s not all about high production values like in the Western world, you actually have a reality to deal with!

That’s right. But that’s a problem also because Colombian people don’t want to see on the screen something that they already see all day long in the streets. So we have this problem with the audience that wants to see only Hollywood films to distract themselves. But we have to try harder to get the audience into the theatres. And the same goes for television. The film was actually shown on Colombian television on the same date, April, 9, 2014, which was the 65th anniversary of the event.

You said that you have a lot more footage than you used in this short. Are you planning to turn it into a feature-length documentary in the future?

Yes,  what is in the short is only 10% of all the footage. In the feature, I want to tell the story of this medical doctor rather than focus entirely on the events of 1948. I want to go deeper into his mind. He wasn’t only a medical doctor, he was a historian, a journalist, a writer, he wrote many books. And he was a very clever political thinker. I want to dig further into his mind because I think I will find not only my grandfather but also the roots of what Colombia is now.

That sounds like a great project.

Yes and I have two more projects that I’m working on now. One of them talks about another member of my family, also a medical doctor, who worked in a prison on an island in the South Pacific at the same time as these other events, from 1948 until 1957. During this time of political violence, the government sent guerrieros to this island where they were tortured. And he was a medical doctor for that island and he worked alongside the volunteers. Their aim was to bring some peace to these prisoners, but they also wanted the prison to shut down. So my story starts there and finishes today, with his son and her son (?) who are now political leaders but from very separate and opposite ways. They want to find peace in Colombia from different angles. And they can’t see each other. […] So I’m trying to put together this film which asks: “Can we talk about peace while these guys for instance don’t understand each other?” One was my parent and the other is my friend, he’s a senator now. How is this going to work?

Can you talk also about your previous documentaries, are they all historical documentaries?

I am lucky to have had parents and relatives who were medical doctors but also fans of the moving image. I inherited that and my films talk about the family’s past but it’s not only about discovering myself through them, it’s also discovering our country through their diaries and images. All my documentaries are most of all about political and social issues while being deeply about all kinds of things, birds and turtles…I hope to be moving along and keep working from my little point-of-view. Colombia is not at peace, it’s not only the cease-fire that we’re looking for, we’re looking for justice in a broad sense. And my films will talk about that.

Social justice has been a big theme in Latin American cinema from the very beginning of that cinema.

Yes it has. And nowadays the situation is worse, with all the multi-national companies and international banks coming for what’s left after the civil wars. There was some gold left! But now it’s all gone, so now they’re coming for the rest of it, the water, all supplies.

It’s a crazy world.

It is a crazy world and we are crazy to live in it!

Where else can we go?

Well, people are thinking of Mars and also the moon!

But if we go there, we’ll exploit and corrupt that environment too! Is this human nature?

Oh yes it is. Mankind is so beautiful but at the same time so raw. It’s hard to understand but if you manage to cope with it, once you understand that, I think it’s up to you which side or path you choose.

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