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Colombia’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has selected “Mateo,” the debut pic of  NYU and La Femis-trained Colombian native Maria Gamboa, to represent the country in the foreign-language Oscar race.

Youth drama trumped 18 other contenders, led by finalists “Tierra en la Lengua” by Ruben Mendoza and “Los Hongos” by Oscar Ruiz Navia, for the honor.

A Dia-Fragma Fabrica co-production with France’s Cine-Sud, pic centers on the titular Mateo, an at-risk 16 year old played by non-pro Carlos Hernandez, who discovers a way out from a potential life of crime through theater. With the exception of Felipe Botero, who plays the unconventional priest Father David, the rest of the cast comprises of non-pros.

“Mateo” has won a raft of awards in the festival circuit and has been theatrically released in Colombia by indie distrib Cineplex. It will continue screening in non-traditional spaces in Colombia and run the festival circuit from Germany and Seville to Morocco and Istanbul.

“I got the idea for this film when I was working on TV series ‘Revelados’ and saw how theater helped kids from joining the armed conflict in Colombia,” says Gamboa, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adriana Arjona.