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Documentary in the Age of Media: The Legacy of Luis Ospina

Celebrating the Colombian filmmaker’s remarkable cinema.
MUBI's retrospective, "A Matter of Faith: Three Films by Luis Ospina," is showing November 4 – December 17, 2019.
The Vampires of Poverty
“My generation was young when George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead came out,” the Colombian filmmaker Luis Ospina told me last October, at DocLisboa, where he was given a retrospective. “That was a turning-point B-movie for me. It was about zombies and cannibalism, but you could give it a political reading, since it was filmed during the Vietnam War. It taught me that the horror genre, and the myth of Dracula, which is a metaphor of power, could be adapted to other latitudes and social and political contexts.”
Born in Cali and educated in film at UCLA, Ospina, who died this past September, transplanted the idea of vampirism to his native country. In the mockumentary short The Vampires of Poverty (1977), which he shot with his friend, Carlos Mayolo, the “vampires” were the filmmakers themselves. Mayolo and Luis Alfonso Londoño play sensationalist journalists, in the process of filming a television exposé on poverty and misery in Cali. The film followed on Ospina’s more straightforward documentary, in which he captured the side of his city that was too ugly to be shown off to tourists who flooded the city during the VI Pan-American Games (Listen, Look!,1972). But this denunciatory impulse—to lift a veil on reality—soon turned self-reflective. Ospina responded to the increasing omnipresence and sensationalism of news reporting in a vein similar to his international counterparts: from Eduardo Coutinho in Brazil to Marcel Łoziński and Želimir Žilnik in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, filmmakers were questioning how television was transforming the practice of documentary filmmaking. In the Latin American context, the sensationalism was particularly galling when directed at the poor. In The Vampires of Poverty, they are used as props, coached how to pose and what to say. In the staged scene with a “madman,” the fourth-wall that separates the watched and the watching is finally broken: The actor turns to the camera and accuses the directors, and, by extension, the audience, of cannibalizing the poor. Ospina and Mayolo formally introduced this idea in 1978, in Poverty-Porn Manifesto (Manifesto da Pornomiséria), which decried “poverty as spectacle.”
But vampires are also creatures of the night, and eternal, and I’d like to think that vampirism took on different meanings throughout Ospina’s career. For one, the filmmaker himself suffered from insomnia (which, at the time of DocLisboa, he told me he’d counteract by watching genre movies at wee hours of the night—he was deep into a two-hundred film-noir list he’d discovered on YouTube). There’s also the added poignancy in the fact that Ospina, as he confesses in the documentary, It All Started at the End (2015), was haunted by death from his early age—already as a child imagining that he’d meet a dark end. No doubt Ospina stressed death in the documentary, in light of his discovery that he had cancer. The documentary is partly about his illness—it starts with a few family videos, taken by his father, but then moves quickly to the recording of Ospina in a hospital bed, days before surgery. And yet, It All Started at the End is so much more than one man’s learning that his illness could be terminal. For in its heartfelt tragedy, and in the bravery of continuing to film himself, even when at his most vulnerable—on the way to the operating room, or later, post-surgery, his robe bloodied, and his stitched-up stomach exposed, along with his sex—there’s also a great dose of remembering, not merely of his own beginnings as a filmmaker, but of Cali’s entire artistic generation. It is then a multiple portrait, against the background of the Cold War and the dictatorship. And this portrait’s inflection, its very heart, is utopic. With archival footage, plus photographs, and interviews of key figures on the Cali art and film scene since the 1970s, Ospina takes us back to how his friends and collaborators fell in and out of love with communism, and discovered free love, drugs, and rock and roll, but also the melancholy that comes from wanting to stay forever rebellious and young—an impossibility that hardened some, while it embittered and devastated others. In this sense, the entire film is haunted by Ospina’s friend, Andrés Caicedo, a novelist, dramaturg and filmmaker, who committed suicide at age 25. It’s also haunted by other deaths, particularly that of his great friend and collaborator, Carlos Mayolo. And yet, no matter how weighty the topic, Ospina places an equal emphasis on filmmaking as a festive and communal practice. One central scene in the film, to which Ospina returns repeatedly, reunites his friends and collaborators at Ospina’s house, first in the kitchen, cooking, and then reminiscing and filming at dinner. Thus the central motif is cinema made by friends and lovers, with small means but plenty of companionship, ideas, and gumption.
A Paper Tiger
The motif of the media recurs in It All Started at the End—particularly in how Andrés Caicedo was treated sensationally by the press, his artistic achievements overshadowed by his suicidal tendencies. It’s quite possible then that the impulse for one of Ospina’s most daring films, A Paper Tiger (2008), lies at least partly in Caicedo’s story. In A Paper Tiger, another brilliant mockumentary, Ospina once again draws a portrait of his generation. Those who watch It All Started at the End first will recognize the familiar faces of Ospina’s friends. He interviews them, plus a number of prominent art and literary figures. This time, the lens is less familial and more pointedly sociopolitical. The film opens with archival footage from 1934, which shows the assassination of Alexander I, the prince of Yugoslavia, and then clips of Mao and Stalin. In quick bursts of archival footage, and at times with title cards, Ospina walks us through the Colombian history, from the 1930s to the ‘70s. Among emblematic events are the assassination of a popular leftist politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán,the rise of Colombia’s military regime, and then the student protests and reprisals.
But the film’s true brilliance lies elsewhere. A Paper Tiger is first and foremost a Zelig-like pastiche. Ospina brilliantly sells us on the idea that in the midst of this political turbulence, there’s one man who witnesses it all: Pedro Manrique Figueroa. Pedrito, as friends call him, is a Colombian Everyman—a jack-of-all-trades, he works as a tram ticket collector, but then quickly infiltrates himself into the Cali art circles. He’s a consummate artist, a prolific collagist, who is said to have modernized Colombian art, and a passionate communist and chess player. Figueroa’s prodigious gifts are attested to by his friends, as is his chameleon personality, and his talent for disappearing. Gone from Cali, he pops in, in Russia, France, China, Germany, and India. Upon his return to Colombia, he is spotted a few times but soon is gone for good. Did he fake his death, and is still among us, or, as one friend jokes, did he get mummified in the closets of the National Museum, which disdained to collect his work? Ospina creates a fabulously jaunty, kaleidoscopic work, stringing together photographs, sketches and journal entries, along with interviews and archival material. Together, they attest to the power of verisimilitude—Figueroa is so fully flashed out, and such an iconic figure, that we want to believe that he’s real. As an urban myth, he is much more than a collection of facts. In this sense, Ospina goes beyond the critique of news, to instead attribute it a collagist delight. Urban legends are fabricated, but also have an organic mythical dimension; in this case, they consolidate the dreams and fears of Ospina’s generation. And if you search around, you might even find traces of Figueroa in the world, such as a mention on the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) website, as if he’s in the collection. It’s Ospina’s final joke, that if life is a hoax, it might as well be a darn good one. The proof is in the telling.    

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