Manos Sucias, which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is the story of two young men from Buenaventura, an impoverished town on Columbia’s Pacific coast, who pair up to take a fishing boat on a perilous drug run for a ruthless drug lord. I talked to director Josef Kubota Wladyka for The L Magazine about the film and the true stories it was based on.
Every time someone in your movie talks about moving to Bogota, someone else reminds them that there are no black people there. Do Afro-Colombians tend to be pretty invisible in most parts of Colombia? And if so, is that part of what made you want to tell this story?
Yes, definitely. I believe Afro-Latinos in South America in general haven’t been well represented in film, especially in Colombia.
If you travel to Buenaventura, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s a place that’s been sort of forgotten by the government. It’s the richest port city in Colombia—it has the most imports and exports—but the people who live there don’t participate in that economy. It’s under siege by a lot of things, especially narco-trafficking.
You held a five-week storytelling workshop during pre-production to teach basic filmmaking techniques to people in Buenaventura. Did that workshop inform the movie in any way, or was it more to teach some skills to the people who lived there?
That was a big part of it; we wanted to do an exchange because a lot of these communities were giving us permission to shoot there. We wanted to give something back. We also got a lot of our crew from the workshops, and actors as well for some of the small parts.
Were the main actors professionals or locals?
The two main actors come from the same theater school in Buenaventura. Cristian, the younger one, is still studying there. They are part of a group that travels around Colombia doing Afro-Colombian renditions of plays. They’ve never been in a film before, but they’re extremely talented, so the process was mostly just preparing them to be in front of the camera.
For me, it was a wonderful process working with the actors. They were so raw and fearless. They had the craft of acting but they also come from the barrios, and we all had such an honest dialogue about what goes on there. They were open to sharing very personal stuff about their lives.
Alan Blanco and I wrote the script together, but I wanted the actors to bring things from their own personal lives to add to the story, and there’s a lot of those elements included in the film. For example, we changed all the dialogue to be colloquial to how they speak, a very specific type of Spanish in Buenaventura.
There’s a scene where Jacobo, the older brother, is talking about his dead son. The story, the actor, Jarlin Martinez, is telling about a kid that got killed on the soccer field is actually a real story that happened in his barrio. He was one of the kids on the field, and his friend got killed.
How did you develop the script? Did you talk to a lot of people in Buenaventura?
I had gone on three intensive research trips on the Pacific Coast. I had lots of stuff in my journal, all kinds of crazy stuff that people told me. The plot is based on a real guy’s story. Of course it’s fictionalized for the film, but a lot of things are based on one guy’s journey. He was in a boat that was going toward Panama, and the cell phone, the GPS, the way they stop at one place and someone calls them and says “Go here” and then they say “Go hide the drugs here and wait,” that all came from a real guy’s story.
Is that also how you got details like the way people traveled on the train tracks, making their own transportation with a motorcycle with a homemade sidecar? That really gives you a sense of how, as you say, the government has abandoned these people. There aren’t even roads. So here are people doing these creative work-arounds.
Yes, they’re very innovative.
How did Spike Lee become your executive producer?
I studied at the NYU graduate film program. Spike is a professor of directing in the third year, and he’s also the artistic director of the program, so we developed a relationship when I was in his class. He’s an extremely generous person. He has weekly meetings with all his students and he’ll read their scripts and give them feedback and give them guidance.
The beginnings of this idea were starting to manifest when I was there. I showed him versions of the script and he always thought it was a captivating story. He also gave me a small grant to support work on a thesis film, so I used that to continue researching and for traveling to Colombia.
Once we finally shot it, we showed him a rough cut of the film. He liked it very much and agreed to come on board as an executive producer to help us get more eyes on the film.
Do you think your actors will do other films?
We had our premier in Colombia at the Cartagena Film Festival. The Colombian audience had a really strong reaction to the film, especially since Buenaventura was in all the news in Colombia at the time. There was a lot of protesting going on there because it was the most violent it’s been in a few years, so people were holding huge protests to try to get the government to come help stop the violence that’s been going on.
There were some filmmakers at the screening and Jarlin Martinez got cast in another film. He’s shooting right now, which makes me so, so so happy. He’s working with the director of Choco, which is another film that was shot on the Pacific coast.
Cristian James Advincula, who played Delio, is here in my living room. He’s about eight hours into America right now. He’s going to be here at the festival, which I’m really happy about. It’s going to be a great experience for him. We just had a wonderful day exploring New York. I took him to Times Square, took him all around.
Has he seen much of Brooklyn?
He just got here this morning, so we haven’t gotten into too much of Brooklyn yet.
Which neighborhood do you live in?
I’m right on the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, right near Kingsland. I’m on the Grand stop. Coincidentally, Alan, my cowriter, happens to live about three blocks down the street, so that made it easy to work together.
Is that how you met or is it just a nice coincidence?
We met in the film program—we were classmates. But it is kind of how we started to work together, because we’d be going home together and I’d be like, “Hey, can you come look at this cut from this short film I’m working on?” Then we started cutting stuff together, and it just blossomed from there.
How did you wind up in Brooklyn?
I’m originally from Falls Church, Virginia. When I was accepted into the graduate film program I moved up here. I’ve lived in this area for almost eight years now, always around the Lorimer and Grand stop.
I love the neighborhood. I’m very lucky—I have three of my closest friends living within the area, a few blocks from each other, so it’s great. We can just go out and grab a beer at a bar or we got to each other’s houses and watch basketball.
It’s changing very, very fast—everything’s getting really expensive—but I’ve always enjoyed living in this area.
How did you communicate with your actors and crew, if they don’t speak English? Do you speak fluent Spanish?
I don’t. I studied it in high school, and I can understand and speak it enough to get by. But I had one of my very best friends—he’s from Colombia but he lives here in NY—with me as my translator. He was like an extension of my body during the shoot: we were connected at the hip.
The crew that were the department heads were film people from different parts of Colombia, and we all spoke the language of film, basically, so actually it wasn’t that difficult.
It was a beautiful experience, actually, for everyone involved with the production. One of my best friends, who lives in Bushwick, was the first assistant camera—he was the focus puller. He and my translator had the best time of their lives. They had a blast. For me, not so much.
Too busy solving problems?
Yeah. Just stressed out, 24-7. But it would have been a fun film to be a crew member on, I think.