LA PLAYA DC C+
Colombia France Brazil (90 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Juan Andrés Arango Garcia
A dour and stylistically downbeat film without an ounce of sentimentality shot on the streets of Bogotá, Columbia, where La Playa is one of the poorest neighborhoods, inhabited by black or dark skinned Colombians, a nation with the third largest Afro-Colombian population in the western hemisphere after North America and Brazil, where most are concentrated in northwest coastal areas. Common to each is a disconnection from their past histories and culture, much of it forgotten or erased in the push for modernity, as many encounter a noticeable degree of racial discrimination and prejudice, a holdover from the Colonial era where African slaves were brought into Colombia by the Spaniards in the 16th century to replace the dwindling indigenous population, where their labor was an essential component of the gold mining industry and the sugar cane plantations. Afro-Colombians have been historically absent from high level government positions, and many of the original coastal settlements have also been targeted for displacement by armed guerrilla militias in Colombia’s continuing internal conflicts over control of the illegal cocaine markets, leading to an influx migrating into urban areas since the 1970’s. This film marks the debut of this 35-year old white Colombian director currently living in Montreal, Canada who attempts to capture the rhythms and evocative atmosphere of Bogotá’s concrete jungles. If restless, hand-held camera shots capturing the back of someone’s head as they continually walk through city streets is a particular source of aggravation, this would not be a film for you, as this cinematic style has been perfected by the Dardenne brothers in films like ROSETTA (1999) and THE SON (2002), and seems to be the shot of choice in this film, much of which is wordless with first time, non-professional actors who are relatively inexpressive.
The coming-of-age story concerns a single family with three brothers whose father was killed years ago in their hometown of Buenaventura on the Pacific Coast, perhaps Colombia’s deadliest city, plagued by a history of drug trafficking violence and the presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups, where it is now the center of Colombia’s cocaine trade. But in this film, it is the recurrent image of tropical flashbacks where they spent a peaceful and idyllic childhood, often sitting next to a flowing river surrounded by heavy vegetation, with their mother braiding their hair and weaving patterns onto their scalps, an old custom from slavery times, claiming they are maps to help the men find their way home. These flashbacks are a connection to their pasts, often accompanied by traditional chants, as part of the African Diaspora often centers on various hair styles. In an opening sequence, 13-year old Tomás (Luis Carlos Guevara) is seen wandering through the city, hiking straight up into the lush foliage of the mountains where he settles down and draws, often seen later in town doodling on flat building surfaces. At home with his mother, Tomás abruptly rejects the offer that her husband may have a job for him working security, claiming that’s a “kiss-ass” job, as his younger brother Jairo (Andrés Murillo), who’s been missing for months, involved with drug gangs, shows up on the doorstep. But no sooner does he arrive than his stepfather kicks him back out again, as he doesn’t need dope found in his house, not with a newborn baby and the possibility of having a future family of his own. When Tomás defends him, he’s kicked out as well, leaving the boys to fend for themselves on the street, where they are often seen getting hassled in random stops by the police, each time checking their ID’s against outstanding police records,
By the next day, however, Tomás finds his older brother, Chaco (James Solis), who has served time in prison and was recently deported by Canada. Chaco believes their only hope is heading back north, having no loyalty to his family or any real connection to his surroundings anymore, but he does offer Tomás a bed in his rented room. Wandering the streets, there is a girl working in the mall that catches his eye, giving her a quick kiss before hanging out as an apprentice barber, watching guys give ghetto style haircuts, using clippers and razor blades, discovering he may have the talent as well, especially creating original designs. But he and his brother are escorted out of the upscale mall by security guards, exactly why Chaco wants to leave town as quickly as possible. Jairo is addicted to crack cocaine, owing a huge debt to drug dealers after smoking what he was supposed to sell, so he spends all of his days in hiding, hoping they never find him. In this desolate environment, the director, through Tomás, weaves his way through a gritty urban landscape, seemingly falling through the hidden cracks. While there’s not a compelling drama or even much human interest to hold the audience’s attention, told with such an aloof and unaffected manner, nonetheless this part of the world is largely unseen in the world of cinema or by the rest of the world, and the understated, social realist style allows the audience’s eyes and ears to intrude into these lives for a few brief moments. Not entirely successful, where the sound design feels poorly designed overall, but the scene of the film may be watching Tomás in a blue-tinged Afro-Colombian nightclub where dancers bump and grind to their own hip hop music. But no lasting connections are made, as everything has a restless and fleeting quality to it, where one’s destiny often happens purely by accident, getting arrested, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or suddenly finding the right path, even if it’s only for a moment, where at least it feels like there’s a chance. In this bleak existence, that’s all you ever get.