Silfredo’s white stallion was tied with a half hitch to a post. Nothing would have been odd about this, except we weren’t in open field or on a farm. Instead we stood in the tiny walled-in back patio of his modest home in impoverished Chiriguana, Colombia, about to interview him for an experimental documentary film. The animal simply didn’t fit there.
My colleagues from the Colombian Center for Responsible Business (CREER - a human rights organization partnering with CBI for this project) and I had just arrived at the Departamento Cesar in the far north of the country to tell a unique story of regional peacebuilding and collaborative visioning for development, a story already underway among extractive companies, impacted communities, and government. Building on prior engagement, our idea was to test how participatory filmmaking – involving stakeholders directly in the film’s design – could help the stakeholders acknowledge difficult experiences in a region that had been rife with conflict for dozens of years and craft a joint narrative for the problem-solving work ahead. Even more ambitious, we hoped the film could produce a breakthrough in collaboration, to move forward the hardest conversations impeding progress on an inclusive, regional development plan.
In addition to being one of the most intensively farmed and mined regions in Colombia, the Cesar experienced brutally violent clashes in the early 2000s between paramilitaries, leftist guerillas, and government forces, with citizens often caught in the middle. Following the 2016 Peace Accord, violence took on new criminal and military forms, enabled by the absence of the state. Over the past two years, the influx of millions of refugees from neighboring Venezuela has roused new stresses to the region.
Interviewing Silfredo, we later learned that his animals had been repeatedly stolen from his farm – first by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Colombian military during the war itself, and later by narco bands exploiting the void created by de-militarization and unfulfilled development promises.
To save his livelihood, he had resolved to turn his home into a veritable Noah’s Ark, including this full-grown horse, now running training circles on a lead in front of us on the dusty rear patio. A further look around revealed two goats, several rabbits, a brood of five baby ducks in a sky-blue plastic bowl off the side of the kitchen, and a tortoise with ruby-flecked legs peeking from its shell. Her head emerged slowly when Silfredo affectionately held her, like a favorite pet.
This is what happens when everything that is important to you is whittled away by misfortune: a fierce grip onto what remains.
A few days later, Evelio, a prominent social leader in the region, also agreed to meet us to explore essential ingredients for dialogue and healing of trauma in this fragile place. His bare home was discreetly hidden deep off the main dirt road, yellow flower petals falling gracefully on the surrounding drought-stricken land. Concentric barriers of loose barbed wire circled the house, holding several barking dogs within. Small, hungry, and lively, they warned of intruders at the smallest cracked twig. Evelio wanted to tell his story too, despite being shot with four bullets last year by assassins seeking to still his call for respect of human rights. As he spoke, he stoked embers in a cast-iron stove for afternoon coffee, his gaze leading down beyond the fire. It had become more important to tell the story of harms than protect his own life.
Later that week, Nini Florez welcomed us in too, but with no time to spare. She had recently taken over the family coffee farm, after the weight of war drove her father to depression, illness, and death. We loaded into the family pickup truck to better understand the beauty and tragedy of the surrounding Sierras and farmed hillsides, cool wind blowing as we wound up to higher elevation. Confite – the vehicle’s ironic name, meaning candy – was the only working vehicle in the village, a default taxi for all goods going up and down the mountainside. I later sat with Nini’s mother in the passenger seat, her stories spilling forth without emotion or affect. Her husband used to take government military personnel up the mountain, and later FARC guerillas down it – carrying warring enemies as human cargo, instead of coffee beans. Refusing riders meant taking sides. She gestured to clandestine graveyards through the front windshield, amid the lush green landscape.
When we took on this project, I knew nothing of movie making, and frankly still know precious little. We did sense, however, that moments like these needed to be shared. I never imagined we’d hear or see the intimate human stories we touched. The fact is that Cesar’s communities have lived through two intersecting tragedies – a 50-year civil war and the resource curse brought on by discovery of large coal deposits. The combined pressures put many communities into a triple bind of socio-economic exploitation, dependence, and abuse – exacted by guerilla groups, paramilitaries, the Colombian government, and the private sector itself.
In this context, it seemed to me that the written word we often depend on in our dispute resolution work to constructively frame and advance multi-actor engagement was insufficient for the needs at hand. The film therefore served as a vehicle for generating shared experience (well beyond a traditional assessment of stakeholder interests and concerns) among those most impacted. The aim was to reflect and acknowledge the darkness of the past through the eyes of those who have lived it – while looking forward, in an act of co-creation, and co-visioning about what was possible – if only the right pieces could be brought together.
Prior to shooting, I found Harvard Professor Donna Hicks’ writing on Dignity to be an insightful guide. She conveys the importance of connecting dispute resolution to our inherent value and worth as human beings. Among her core ideas, three threads resonated:
In filming, we also discovered that metaphor was an effective pathway for approaching the core issues at hand more gently. We found that all our stakeholders could relate to the cooking of Colombia’s traditional “Sanchocho” soup. When we asked them to tell us about what ingredients were needed for the real soup, and for a peaceful and positive future in Cesar, they immediately grabbed the figurative soup spoon, gave a stir, and added their own recipes – eventually transforming the conversation from gastronomy to dialogue with relative ease. The use of metaphor ultimately helped us bridge shared and differentiated memories, while opening a spigot of creativity to imagine what they would need to contribute and stir together for future dialogue and healing.
In truth, my CREER colleagues and I were also learning to ‘cook in real time’, as participants in our own artistic endeavor. Augusto Boal, writing on his own 1970s work in Brazilian Avant guard participatory theatre, reflected this idea well:
“[my art] did not come out ready and finished: it was created by process of exchange...to liberate the artist in each one of us, to liberate me to feel what all feel – without remorse: to speak without vanity, if possible; to give testimony truthfully.”
Filming helped us to experience this idea directly – allowing a tangible process of co-creation with film participants themselves to shape both art and substance. The result was, for me, a personal and shared sentiment of restoration, even amid all that remained to be done.
When we decided to debut our film near Nini’s hometown (Ja Jagua, Cesar), I called ahead, encouraging her to attend. She demurred, saying she was too shy to see herself on the screen. So, when she arrived unannounced in finest Sunday dress, arm in arm with her mother, I was stunned. What motivated her to risk disappointment and fear? She shared softly that her women’s coffee cooperative was now nearing 150 members – precarious progress, even as the hills burned from fire.
Nini and her mom radiated with soft smiles as they first saw themselves, larger than life on screen, cooking in their own backyard. Standing at a table of fresh vegetables and herbs, Nini’s mother was dressed in a sacred sky-blue shirt, her hair in a silver-gray ponytail, rough-hewn hands gripping a well-honed paring knife. The creole rooster, destined for the pot, waited patiently at her feet.
On screen, Nini’s mother recounted the essential recipe for a delicious Sanchocho. Without hesitation, she called out each ingredient – papas, yucca, cilantro, tomate, pollo, costillas, sal, pimienta...this list goes on – with the certainty of a loving abuela who had crafted sustenance for others all her life.
Watch the completed film below (or click here to watch on Youtube).