Director Laura Mora Discusses Debut Feature ‘Killing Jesus’

The director, who cut her teeth under top Colombian director Carlos Moreno, wants to address contemporary issues in Colombia, rather than dwell on Pablo Escobar or narco-trafficking

Colombia’s “Killing Jesus,” a participant in 2015’s Berlinale International Co-production Market, will world premiere Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival. The Colombia-Argentina co-production was co-written by Laura Mora, (“Escobar, El Patron del Mal”) and prominent Colombian screenwriter Alonso Torres (“Dog Eat Dog”).

Colombia’s 64-A Films and Argentina’s AZ Films co-produced the semi-autobiographical revenge-drama. Latido Films, one of Spain’s powerhouse sales agents, has acquired international sales rights. Cine Colombia will release in Colombia on March 8.

Loosely based on actual events in the director’s own life, the film turns on the assassination of a university professor as witnessed by his daughter Lita, who catches a quick glimpse of the drive-by assassin speeding away on the back of a motorbike. Frustrated with the lack of attention and progress made by the local police, Lita and her family have all but give up on ever finding out what happened until one night out at a club, the girl sees a familiar face across the dance floor. Believing it to be her father’s killer, Lita dismisses her friends and injects herself into the young man’s life, telling him her name is Paula. With revenge on her mind, she falls deeper into the dark and violent side of Medellin. As she learns more about Jesus, and the circumstances of his life, conflicts internal and external boil over and Paula is forced to decide how far she is willing to go to get revenge.

With “Killing Jesus,” Mora upholds a rich Colombian custom of using non-pro actors with the casting of Medellin natives Natatsha Jaramillo and Giovanny Rodríguez.

“Killing Jesus,” is not only Mora’s feature debut, but a dream made real, and an homage to her own father, a victim of Medellin’s violence. Mora talked about her story, her feature-debut and her city in an interview with Variety.

For this film you went with non-pro actors. Was it always your intention to do so?

For Jesus I always knew I wanted a non-traditional actor, but Paula’s story is so personal that I wanted to detach myself from that character, only keeping a few key characteristics. So, for her I originally wanted an actress, but their relationship with the language and the city is so important in this film, that eventually I knew I had to find a person rather than an actor.

I never gave them a script, I just told them what the situations were. I know how we speak and relate to each other. I liked the fact that so much of the dialogue came naturally from them.

You started the script on your own but ended up using a co-writer. Can you talk about the decision to involve someone else?

The idea for the script came to me in a really weird way. A year-and-a-half after my dad was killed, I moved to Australia, and was very frustrated because I wasn’t able to write. I had always been good at it, but when Dad was killed I stopped, and it was hard because I felt I owned him an homage with written words, but I just couldn’t do it. Eventually, I had this dream that I was at this lookout point and a guy sat next to me and started talking. He asked how old I was then suddenly said: “My name is Jesus, and I’m the one who killed your dad.” At that point I woke up and started writing the main idea of the film. After four years it was too painful, and I got stuck. I met Alonso Torres and we became really good friends. He came in and got really close to the project.

Your cinematographer did some pretty spectacular things in bringing Medellin to life. How did he get attached?

His name is James Brown, and I met him in film school where we started talking about this idea. We explored a visual style that we developed in this film. Our references were all social photographers like Gordon Parks, Bruce Davidson or Nan Golding. We wanted that dirty freestyle style to represent the visuals of the story. We shot in a freestyle kind of way, and he was always spot on. I think with him it’s an instinctual thing, and I’m really proud of his work and that I had him on board.

A film about Medellin that doesn’t mention Pablo once! How important is it that Colombian filmmakers talk about other issues in the country?

I can understand that people want to move past Escobar – we are a country that is very scared to look in the mirror. The truth is, we haven’t spoken enough about the brutalities going on in this country for so many years. I think we have an opportunity to confront society through stories. I think that we are in debt to the victims. I hope we continue to confront these realities, unafraid of touching these ideas. Some think that today we’ve moved beyond those terrible cartel years, and that we’ve left that behind. I think that the violence has mutated. It’s still a very divided, very violent city. For me Jesus was the personification of all that. Those contrasts of good and evil, life and death, honesty and hate. In the end, the film for me is about resisting that violence.

Now that you have worked in a few different media, where would you like to focus your efforts going forward?

I would love to become a voice that can relate to issues universally. Filmmaking is my passion so I am clear that I don’t want to go back and do a massive TV show like Escobar again, where we shot 60 episodes in only 10 months. It was great and it was a time and an amazing opportunity, but I am looking forward to see what the world has out there. I went to Berlinale with the “Killing Jesus” script two years ago for the Co-production market, but I have never been to a massive film festival with a feature film. I want to keep telling stories, and filmmaking in my way, that’s all I know.

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