The day the movies came to an indigenous Colombian village

Arhuaco tribe members attend the first film screening in their remote mountain community

Video: Arhuacos watch a film for the first time (Spanish captions).Photo: reuters-live
Sally Palomino

A prison guard opens the gray metal door to free four detainees. In Nabusimake, an indigenous Arhuaco village of circular mud huts with straw roofs and stone floors near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia, prisoners are not made to suffer. Imprisonment is synonymous with reflection and change. It is not associated with punishment. The prisoner remains in custody for several days or months, until his body and mind are ready to return to the community of 8,000 people – there are a total of 47,000 in Colombia as a whole – who live in Nabusimake or, as locals call it, “the heart of the world.”

A quarter of the community does not understand Spanish and only speaks their tribal language

The four prisoners – who have been jailed for offenses that vary from stealing food to trying to seduce another’s wife – are crossing that gray door toward freedom not because their meditation time is over, but because they and the rest of the village are going to sit in front of a movie screen for the first time. For a community accustomed to living by daylight and moonlight, the arrival of a giant luminous screen is shattering their reality. They have been hearing about this event for months and finally here it was right before their eyes this Sunday: Colombia, magia salvaje (or, Colombia, wild magic), a film about the remotest parts of the country that is receiving its premiere here with the help of Ambulante, an NGO that organizes documentary screenings across Colombia.

During the projection of the film, the adults talk among themselves, while the novelty of seeing the moving images leaves the children dumbfounded.

A few hours before the screening, the Arhuacos were walking around their village carrying the symbols that identify them. The men here wear their hair long, the same as the women, topping it off with a tutusoma, a hat they weave themselves after taking a vow to live a life that contributes to maintaining harmony in nature. The white color of the cap represents the snow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which they consider sacred ground. The women walk around bearing a fabric that will eventually be used to make the backpacks in which their partners carry the coca leaves they chew all day long. Every fabric represents an emotional state and, though every villager carries one, none is the same.

The Colombia nobody knows

It took five years to shoot the 85 locations and 20 ecosystems that appear in Colombia, magia salvaje, a documentary film that explores the country's landscape from one end to the other. Its British director, Mike Slee, says that before accepting the proposal from Ecoplanet Foundation and Grupo Éxito to make the film, the only things he knew about Colombia were that it was a country full of jungles and marked by violence, but that he ended up discovering a "hidden treasure."

Shot on a $3-million budget, the film hopes to “raise awareness about what can be done to save what flora and fauna we still have,” Ecoplanet head Francisco Forero says. He points out that the diversity they found across the 126,864 kilometers they traveled, which included the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, where the film received its premiere in the Arhuaco village. The documentary is released in Colombian movie theaters on September 10.

“Finally we can see with our own eyes why this is the second most bio-diverse country in the world,” Forero says.

There are few cars on the road to Nabusimake, which is located 2,000 meters above sea level. The women step between the stones carrying their babies on their backs, while the men carry poporos, the containers they use to mix lime and coca leaves. “We chew it because it gives us energy,” one villager says without parting his lips. He says he does not like to be talked about. And he is not the only one. Most of the villagers are calm and quiet. Few of them want to talk; they prefer to observe.

The children approach the white screen slowly, fearfully, enchanted by its height, trying to figure out what the cables tripping them up all mean. They are not used to electrical appliances. There is no electricity here, which is why they know the roads by heart and moonlight is all they need to guide them around.

But tonight is different. They have forgotten about the potato, onion, corn and coffee they grow to sell to the rest of the country. They have dropped their fabrics and their poporos and settled down between the rocks in family groups. And knowing how changeable the weather is around here and that a heavy shower may fall at any time, they cover their legs with long blankets.

Although a quarter of the community does not understand Spanish and only speaks their tribal language, they seem to understand the story that accompanies the colorful images reflected in their eyes. The first film they see takes them on an exploration of their own country, chronicling its diversity, its rich fauna and flora. A visual journey using cameras mounted on drones that sometimes makes you feel like a condor – its wings stretching three meters from tip to tip – is flying over the audience or that the hummingbird that is able to visit 5,000 flowers a day is right in front of the children following it with their eyes.

The Arhuacos were able to connect with an unexplored Colombia through the screen

Nabusimake is witnessing something that was unimaginable a few years ago: images that fly over the Caño Cristales river, a natural wonder situated in the Macarena mountain range, in the east of the country, which for a long time was occupied by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Watching the slow, deliberate walk of the lazy bear as he tries to move from one tree to another, or a mother whale teaching her baby to swim, breathe and jump for the first time unleashes an emotional swell that climaxes in laughter.

Community leader Seidi, whose name means “mother of the earth” in the Arhuaco language,  is sitting in the audience with one of her sons. She says she has found watching the film a beautiful experience and that she would like to see other places around the world like this, on the screen. She is happy living in the village, in absolute peace, she adds, but she is also curious about how and where people who are not Arhuacos live.

The arrival of a giant luminous screen shatters the reality of a community used to living by daylight and moonlight

Whether they have been sitting on the rocks or holding up against the cold breeze that would announce the coming of the rain shower that would fall before the end of the film, the experience has allowed the Arhuacos to connect with an unexplored Colombia through the big screen. They ask questions among themselves in their tribal language, in low voices, in their usual peaceful way. Some elders venture to name the animals as they appear on screen. The children smile and a few let out a cackle. Nabusimake is still, but not paralyzed like it was in 2014 when its leaders gathered at an extraordinary meeting in that same square to talk about the fear they felt over the presence of armed rebel groups in the area.

After 90 minutes, the screen goes black. The audience claps. The moon is once again the only light to guide them. The children run barefoot behind the dogs, the four prisoners cross back through the gray door, and the prison closes once more.

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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