More like shutterbugs than documentarians, American photojournalist Scott Dalton and Colombian journalist Margarita Martinez’s “La Sierra” captures the seemingly hopeless and violent lives of Colombian youth caught up in urban civil war, without exploring the causes and the political players fomenting the war itself. Result is a loose personal piece of reportage that places people over ideas and larger issues, and reveals the pic’s severe limitations long before a surprisingly upbeat ending. Apolitical cast will help commercial and tube prospects, spurred by honorable mention prize at Slamdance and top docu kudos at Miami fest.
Dalton and Martinez employ their considerable strengths as reporters who have covered many battles in Colombia’s complex, ongoing three-way war among government forces, right-wing paramilitary units and left-wing guerrilla troops.
They do this in the dirt-poor barrio of La Sierra in the hillsides above the city of Medellin less by filming battles (pic is light on gunfight scenes) than in gaining access to a neighborhood paramilitary unit called “Bloque Metro,” led by 22-year-old Edison Florez.
Bloque is a glorified youth street gang, apparently funded and supported by rightists whose political involvement is kept murky to a puzzling degree by the filmmakers. An onscreen graphic informs that rightist and leftist forces have moved into Colombia’s urban zones and have allied with gangs such as Edison’s. At the start of lensing in January 2003, the Bloque kids (dressed in fatigues and hoisting sophisticated automatic rifles) are seen battling the left-wing guerilla army, the ELN.
Pic moves from Edison’s personal story — he started fighting at 15, has six children by several different mostly teen mothers, has a dad to whom he doesn’t speak — to Cielo Munoz, a 17-year-old girl whose previous b.f. was killed by cousins in the ELN and who is now in love with a new b.f., also a Bloque vet, now behind bars.
Third, and least coherent, is Jesus Martinez, a 19-year-old companero of Edison’s who’s so regularly stoned it’s a wonder he can shoot straight. Rambling through on-camera interviews, Jesus says that just before graduating from high school, he “went crazy.” He expresses the pic’s hopeless tone, in that he sees no end to the violence and expects to die young.
This nihilism is repeated so often it deadens “La Sierra,” while begging the unanswered questions of what actually caused this barrio to go so bad and how teen boys have such easy access to armaments. Further confusing the picture is how the Bloque is somehow aligned with rightists, while Edison talks to the camera in what sounds like relatively leftist terms about social welfare and helping the poor.
Paradoxically, even though the docu is up close and personal with these youth, it appears so removed from the war’s larger events that the camera misses crucial story changes, such as the Bloque defeat of the ELN, an alignment and then violent rupture with a neighboring paramilitary gang and events that lead to a final disarmament of all non-government militias. However, the sense of life going on peacefully after so much carnage is observed nicely, without heavyhanded irony.
Dalton’s lensing is quick and mobile (at times sending him directly into harm’s way), but often consists of standard sit-down interviews.
Pic could be trimmed by at least 10 minutes to pare repetition; indeed print to unspool at South by Southwest fest is set to be shorter than 95-minute version preemed at Slamdance.