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miércoles, 16 de junio 2021
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La Chica del Circo, César Arbeláez's New Project

by Yénifer Aristizábal Grajales

Carlos César Arbeláez, director of Los colores de la montaña, recently won Universidad de Antioquia’s National Literature Award (Premio Nacional de Literatura) for the screenplay of La chica del circo. Universidad de Antioquia’s graduate addresses the complexity of Colombia’s armed conflict again; this time, from the standpoint of forced disappearance.

Carlos César Arbeláez, aged 53, has won important awards in the international circuit of festivals. He was the first Colombian to win San Sebastián Festival's Kutxabank-New Directors Award. Photo: personal archive

In recent months, Carlos César Arbeláez’s creative life has been on a roller coaster. A week after getting a new refusal in his search for funds for his new film La chica del circo, the film director won one of the most important cultural awards in the country for the very same project. The incentive came from Universidad de Antioqua, where he got an education to devote himself to documentary and fiction cinema.

Arbelaez’s proposal was acknowledged as a mature, simple and natural screenplay “that pierces the heart and soul”, according to the judges of Universidad de Antioquia’s 38th National Literature Award: directors Víctor Gaviria and Iria Gómez Concheiro, and Researcher Ana María Vallejo de la Ossa.

Alma Mater held a conversation with the director from Antioquia, a graduate of our university’s Faculty of Communication. We talked about the accolade, his take on the country’s current situation, which is shaken by violence —a recurrent motif in his filmography— the loneliness brought on by the pandemic and his constant skepticism.

What is the film proposal behind this new story, La chica del circo?
It’s a road movie. A circus girl and her son look for their husband and father, who disappeared during a magic act. It’s a journey through the Magdalena Medio region up to Puerto Berrío, where I was born and raised. It’s also a tribute to a family story that is a little sad—my grandfather’s death in 1952, during the period of violence between the parties. It’s a tribute to my grandfather and my childhood, which I spent in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia.

There are currently 80,000 Colombian families that are going through the scourge of forced disappearance, according to official numbers. How is that tragedy told in your story?
It’s the story of Alex, a circus magician. Eloísa and her son Kevin are looking for him. They don’t know how he disappeared and want to find the truth. In my first film, Los colores de la montaña, I spoke on behalf of six million displaced people, who gradually became mere numbers. People gradually forget about that tragedy. If they tell you that 80,000 or 120,000 people disappeared, that doesn’t touch you any more or less, but if you show one of those tragedies from the standpoint of a character’s humanity, you understand the scale of the tragedy. What cinema is after is the characters’ truth. People will be able to understand what disappearance causes through a secret or personal tragedy. I don’t think denunciation is an artist’s or filmmaker's ultimate function anyway. I think it’s telling a story, stirring up an emotion, looking for the humanity of characters. If a film can perform a social function on top of that, as in this case, it’s a bonus.

In Los Colores de la Montaña, the children had the leading roles, which brings up a certain dichotomy between innocence and reality. Does this screenplay draw on such characters again?
It’s really Eloísa’s point of view, but it alternates with the boy’s as well. Women and children have been the biggest victims of this social situation of violence. Here we find an alternation between the mother’s and the son’s point of view. I think that brings freshness to the screenplay, the story...It’s an endearing character. Something that’s very important to a filmmaker is to find poetry in the images, the story...If children are well directed and believable, that’s the gain. Working with children is difficult, but they bring a certain poetry to the story almost immediately.

You address the armed conflict, but hopelessness, loneliness, the characters’ struggle, and strength are also present...Those elements have been the norm in 2020. How do you view those mental and emotional “epidemics” in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic?
We realized, in Colombia and all around the world, that there is too much marginalization and poverty that we thought we had overcome. We realized we’re still surrounded by very precarious conditions. It’s good to deal with this marginalization, not in a propagandist way, but from a realistic and truthful perspective. We should also try to find poetry in what can make the story universal without manipulating or embellishing it.

The pessimism in your words is noticeable...
Artists are always skeptical. A look at reality is enough to realize that it’s very difficult to be optimistic. Colombian filmmakers have been criticized because we show what’s wrong with the country. We’re told we never make movies about the good or nice things Colombia has. I don’t think that’s an artist's job. I think it’s enough for an artist to take a trip around Colombia or go on a stroll around their city to be skeptical and see what’s happening to us. Skepticism is nice, I think, but it’s not something planned. It’s just reality.

What’s next for the screenplay La chica del circo?
It’s a complicated film to produce because the story begins in Medellín, stops by Puerto Nare and then takes the Magdalena River up to Puerto Berrío. It’s like a little traveling circus. I need to get a lot of money to make it. I think the budget is about 1,600 Colombian million, which is not much for a film, but it is in Colombia. The filmmaker’s career is very hard, as any artist's, but the filmmaker spends almost all their time looking for money for a film. They don’t spend much time on creation. Any independent filmmaker has a hard time, not only in Colombia, but since these are poor countries, there isn't much money to spend on culture, even though the Fund for Cinema Development (Fondo para el Desarrollo Cinematográfico) has done a very important job. Two years ago, they were releasing 42 feature films in Colombia, which means we were kind of living a golden age of Colombian cinema. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this pandemic.

Is there a tentative date to start producing the film?
No, there isn’t. I’m very happy with the fact that the screenplay is already very mature. Now, I have to devote all my energy to production, but, because of the current situation, I don’t know how easy it’s going to be, although it’s clear that awards help.

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