An interview with Federico Ahumada | LAS GARDENIAS | VMA21 BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | April Edition | By Silvia Nittoli
For director Federico Ahumada, making a film is like making magic. But the reasons that brought him to shoot the documentary Las Gardenias have to do with much more than just magic.
His new feature is set in a social housing complex in Barranquilla, Colombia (called Las Gardenias), and follows American drama-therapist Jessica Northam as she visits the place in order to do research with displaced women from Colombia.
Starting by having these women recalling their childhoods and how eventually their lives have unfolded, this documentary is not only a journey inside their everyday life in Las Gardenias but it’s also their therapeutic path that will allow them to finally get rid of their fears and their traumas (and literally throw them away as you would do with a trash bag, you’ll understand at the end of the movie).
To have some background and grasp as many parts of the documentary as possible, the displacement in Colombia is a direct consequence of the Colombian armed conflict that officially began in 1964 as a result of a deep-rooted social and political conflict. Millions of people have ever since been forced from their homes amid threats, murders, forced recruitment by armed gangs, and clashes between armed groups in lawless areas; among them, there is this group of women that now call Las Gardenias buildings home.
• Federico, first of all, congratulations on winning at the Vegas Movie Awards™. As a director, how did you manage to gain these women's trust in order for them to open up?
When I first arrived at Las Gardenias, the group of women was already formed, and there was trust among them, carried out by the work Jessica Northam previously had made. So I was new to the group and was the only man there, but fortunately, I share a similar cultural background with some of them; I come from Sincelejo (Sucre) and for example, Candelaria, one of the leaders, comes from Magangué (Bolívar), which is very close and share very similar cultural background (Sucre and Bolívar used to be the same, the “Savannah” Sub-region). So, talking about my childhood, and the closeness that I had with the countryside of Colombia, particularly in this region; like the foods we eat, the traditions we share, and the music we listen to, made them open up, and share stories about their childhood in front of the camera. The second time I went, I went with Sound Mixer Henry Burgos and introduced him to them, and in no time, we all felt like family during the sessions; same with First Assistant Director Carmen Bravo, who also went there, and eventually, we all got to know them better: Ruth, Mirna, Mimi, Belia, and we even had a “sancocho” at Marciana’s place.
• Why did you decide to shed a light on the lives of these women?
At that moment Colombia was going through the Peace Agreement process, and the country was divided between those who said “yes” to peace and those who said “no”. I felt these stories these women were sharing, really showed the complexity of the Colombian Armed Conflict and the country´s social problems, without going into the depths of politics, but aiming directly to the human aspects of it, showing what thousands of Colombians have endured during the past 50 years. I felt somehow then, related to their story too, since in my family we have our own displacement history, and it just felt like a story that needed to be told.
There was this force inside of me that kept pushing me on like I really needed the world to watch and listen to these women's stories, and to know what happens in Colombia.
• What is your favorite moment and why?
My favorite moment is when Ruth opens up, and shares her childhood stories. After that, a really beautiful moment happened, because the other women surrounded her, showing her support, and after a body movement exercise, they were all playing like little girls. It was so beautiful and I´m still moved by it every time I see it. I think it reflects what humans are capable of doing when we get together.
• How were you and your crew welcomed at Las Gardenias and which impressions did you have from this place?
We knew that we were going to a place considered dangerous in the city (there are many reports of murders, robbery, drug trafficking, and many other crimes in this place), but we had the relief that we were going as part of the drama-therapy program, and we were in direct contact with the women leaders in the community; being around them made us feel safe. We were always extra careful with our gear anyways, that was basically a DSLR Camera and very basic sound mix gear, and in time we felt more comfortable shooting, even when on an occasion it was impossible to do so because of a disturbance in the block. Later on, a driver introduced us to his uncle, who was a pastor in one of the blocks, and he just openly presented us in front of the people, letting everybody know what we were doing and that they should leave us to do our work in peace. In the end, and watching this community, that despite the problems they still endure, they have gone through a positive development process in the last years. I understand now more than ever, the importance of social leaders, and how they can help organize, make programs, and activities that would benefit their communities.
• What is the thing you are proudest of about this documentary?
First of all, I´m proud of actually finishing it. It was a long process, full of difficulties, and at many points, I felt like giving up; but there was this force inside of me, that kept pushing me on, and I think it was this internal need to tell this story like I really needed the World to watch and listen to these women's stories, and to know what happens in Colombia.
• What was the most challenging thing for you in shooting and editing this documentary?
The shooting wasn´t as challenging as editing. I mean, shooting was about being careful and being present, understanding what was going on in the women´s process and the actions that were happening between them, and flow with them. The shooting was about not intervening in the scenes, everything was filmed the way it was happening. Editing in the other part was a big challenge because it was about trying to find a whole sense in all this footage of drama-therapy sessions. Finding what was important, relevant for the film. That was the difficult part because I had to take a look inside myself with was emotionally challenging. Even though I had the help of editor Andrés Echeverría, who also went through his own short period of madness, trying to make the film, while getting deeply moved by the women´s stories; it was challenging for everyone who was involved in the film, I have to say that, and at the end, it all came back to writing down on the paper what this story was really about, and how I was going to tell it, part by part, then take that piece of paper into the editing, and keep pushing until the film was done.
• What is the message that you've learned throughout the shooting and that in your opinion is worth conveying to the audience, also on a political basis?
I made this film thinking and hoping for peace in Colombia, and right now we are very distant from that. This film shows the strength and resilience of Colombian people (especially women) in the face of war, violence, oppression, and adversity. I feel that’s precisely the type of message Colombia needs to hear right in order to heal its wounds, and also what we need to share with the World: women leaders in their families and their communities can make a big difference for the country, and we hope that the actual situation in Colombia is just another adversity that we will overcome.
• Did you get any particular inspiration from other movies/directors/docs to make this documentary?
While I was shooting and editing “Las Gardenias”, I got the chance to watch the documentary “The Silence of Others” from Spanish Directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, and it inspired me to keep going and telling this kind of stories that reflect the suffering and also resilience of people, in the faces of oppression. I also felt a lot of support by reading the book “Directing the Documentary” by Michael Rabiger.
I understand now more than ever, the importance of social leaders, and how they can help organize, make programs, and activities that would benefit their communities.
• As a director, what fascinates you about being behind the camera and telling a story?
Everything. I really enjoy the whole creative process of thinking in moving images to tell a compelling story, I enjoy team working, and listening to other people’s visions and perspectives, which I think enhances all the work, and make ideas that we had in our minds to be projected through a film. “Las Gardenias” was a very particular project in that aspect because we were really a small crew, and I had a particular vision, which I shared with them, but I didn’t even know at that moment where the film was going. But there was passion and we were committed, and the effort made the documentary come alive, from images that at the beginning I wasn’t even sure they would make it into a film. Making a film is like making magic.
• What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I´m developing my first fiction feature called “Savannah”, a thriller about an unscrupulous journalist that finds himself investigating his father´s mysterious death but ends up discovering a big corruption plot led by an aspiring governor who wants to take control of great amounts of land from an indigenous community, in the countryside of northern Colombia. A film that reflects many of Colombian actual conflicts related to political corruption, land robbery, and native communities’ displacement due to violence.
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