Following a Generation 14Plus jury special mention at its Berlinale premiere and a string of successful festival screenings since, Colombian-born and Swiss-trained filmmaker Jorge Cadena’s “The Jarariju Sisters” participated as part of this year’s European Film Promotion Future Frames section at Karlovy Vary.
Occupying a space somewhere between fiction and documentary, the film tells the true-life story of its non-professional lead actresses Viviana Uriana Jarariju, Yandris Uriana Jarariju and their grandmother Rosa Jarariju. The sisters were key contributors from both sides of the camera, co-writing – along with Cadena and his sister Li Aparicio – and translating the screenplay from Spanish to their native Wayuunaiki.
In 1985, Colombia’s northern Guajira peninsula was ripped open and gutted for the copper inside its hills. In the decades since, mining operations have increased and decimated the land occupied by the Wayuu. As the community is fighting to conserve its rituals and traditions, following the death of their father the two sisters grow disconnected from the tribe and decide it’s time to leave.
Cadena talked with Variety while in Karlovy Vary about going back to his native Colombia to film, giving screen time to under-represented people and the responsibility of filmmakers to ask important questions in their work.
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Can you talk about the EFP Future Frames program? What did you take from it?
It was a great opportunity to speak about my project and the details of how, when and why I made this film. My film school in Switzerland gave me this opportunity to meet a new generation of filmmakers, learn what they are making today and what they want to make in the future. Maybe all filmmakers think this, but I feel we are at an important moment in the history of questioning the patriarchy of our world. We are asking bigger questions about if the world can continue to work the way it has been, and it’s good to know what these other filmmakers think. I like to know what they are trying.
Your film is a Swiss production but set in Colombia near your hometown of Barranquilla. What made you go back to make this film?
It’s actually my second film set in Colombia. I’ve been living abroad for more than 10 years now; I lived in Argentina before I came to Switzerland. When I went there for film school, I ended up shooting my bachelor’s graduation film in Barranquilla. Now my master’s film, “The Jarariju Sisters,” is in La Guajira. My next project, which my sister and I are writing, my first feature, is also set in Colombia.
Until very recently the Wayuu people were not well-represented in Colombian cinema. What made you want to tell a Wayuu story?
They are not present in the collective memory of Colombia or internationally. I grew up close to the community, so when I traveled with my family in the north of Colombia I saw the Wayuu many times. I saw how the land changed over the years. Pollution destroyed the river, the land got sick and there was litter everywhere. For me, this disconnect is the problem. This community pays for our idea of progress. The coal mine is a big business there. 42% of the coal mined there is exported to Europe and 35% goes to the U.S., so, we are more connected than we think. Our use of that coal affects the Wayuu people, so I tried to shine a light on that.
How do you approach representing the Wayuu people on screen? How does your film compare to others which focus on the tribe?
Ciro Guerra set his last film (Colombia’s 2018 Oscars submission “Birds of Passage”) in the Wayuu community as well, but his takes place before the coal mine was opened as the Wayuu people got caught up in burgeoning marijuana industry. In mine I talk about the coal mine which was opened in 1985. I think it’s so important people learn about this community. There are people dying there every day, but I didn’t want to focus on the misery. I didn’t film children dying or the pollution in the river… I tried to treat this community with dignity while showing the impact of the coal mine.
How did the screenwriting process work? Do you speak Wayuunaiki?
I know some words, a few expressions, but I don’t speak the language. It’s difficult to learn, you have to live there because they don’t write, it’s only passed down orally. When I had the idea for this film my sister and I went to scout where we would shoot, and there we met the people. I didn’t do a casting, I just walked through and got to know the people, and that’s how I met the sisters. We had a good feeling about them immediately. They had very strong personalities and they weren’t impressed by us. We came back later and talked with them about our idea for the project and they started telling us their story. We took that story we wrote a first draft in Spanish, then sent it to the girls and we worked on the script together for a year. It was a collective process. The two sisters, my sister and I all co-wrote this project.