The first and last things we see in Cocaine Prison are ants trooping back and forth with coca leaves. It’s the perfect image for a film that considers the micro and the macro of Bolivia’s drug trade, while dumping the viewer right inside the notorious San Sebastian prison, located almost smack-dab in the middle of the country, in the Andean city of Cochabamba.
“I wanted it to be the opening film, but it’s too tough,” says Christian Sida-Valenzuela, artistic director of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival. “I don’t want anyone to be scared of Latin-American film.”
He’s half joking. Cocaine Prison is indeed tough, but it also takes the most direct route conceivable to humanize the invisible victims of a vicious global racket. In this case, filmmaker Violeta Ayala surreptitiously handed out cameras to the inmates of San Sebastian, a disintegrating colonial mansion repurposed—if that’s the right word—into a dank, claustrophobic warren of corridors, coolers, and spider holes housing 700 men and only eight toilets, and where a throat-cutting might shorten your visit if you can’t afford to “buy” a cell.
The film rounds on two inmates. Teenaged Hernan agreed to transport two kilos of cocaine across the border to Argentina in order to buy a new drum kit, while the older Mario, whom he befriends, is a minor field worker with 33 months in San Sebastian under his belt, despite not being sentenced.
The situation seems dire for both men. On the outside, Hernan’s sister Deisy considers muling to raise the money needed to spring her brother. Perhaps even more dangerously, she’s also invited by a lawyer to participate in a sting operation designed to nab Hernan’s “boss”—although, as one judge openly muses, the “big fish” never seem to get caught.
There’s a glimmer of hope to all this that should be saved for viewers who catch Cocaine Prison when it screens at the Vancity Theatre as part of the 16th edition of VLAFF on August 30, and again after the festival on September 6. It gives nothing away, however, to state that Ayala has achieved something extraordinary in the realm of docu-fiction.
“I like films that are not perfect, because they can’t be perfect,” says Sida-Valenzuela, identifying Cocaine Prison, in a call to the Georgia Straight, as his personal favourite from this year’s schedule. “It’s shot inside a jail with nonactors! A lot of the camerawork is by the inmates. It’s very hard to compose a film with all these external elements to the filmmaker, but they managed it exceptionally well.”
Ayala’s feature arrives as part of VLAFF’s spotlight on Andean cinema. More precisely, Sida-Valenzuela and his programmers have focused on films coming out of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, with three of the six titles—Ukamau y Ké!, Wiñaypacha, and Cocaine Prison, along with opening-night film Retablo—emanating from the area’s Indigenous communities.
“I think in general in Latin America, more and more people are understanding why the First Nations are so important to their culture,” he says. “And we were lucky, because it’s not every year that you have three good films from Bolivia or Peru that are spoken in Aymara or Quechua.”
The Vancouver Latin American Film Festival runs from August 23 to September 2. More information is at the VLAFF website.