In regards to Central and South America, I’m an ignorant American. In regards to Colombia, my topical knowledge extends to that 30 for 30 on the World Cup team, Chiquita hiring drug cartels to guard their banana harvests from irate natives, and Sofia Vergara. The country feels like a forgotten news vestige left over from the days of Reagan. Once seared into the center of the drug-paranoid American consciousness of the Eighties, Colombia fell to the wayside of our national consciousness after news outlets glutted themselves on the region and moved onto Albania in the Nineties and Afghanistan in the 2000s. Even though the latest export from the country is a minstrel show of South American bigotries on Modern Family, poverty, racism, and strife never left along with the CNN cameras and sensationalist agenda.
In La Playa DC, director Juan Andrés Arango García spearheads a new brigade of directors eager to articulate the troubles of their countries and establish the next cinematic tradition of the region. The film centers on Tomas, a young Afro-Colombian navigating systemic poverty and disenfranchisement in the city of Bogotá. There’s a whiff of amateur on the cast, playing as a strength and a weakness: the lack of acting pretense at times imparts a sense of realism akin to The Wire, but also hinders plot movement and makes for more than one scene of everyone flimsily standing around in a shot, looking like they’re trying to think of a line. The most convincing and striking interactions in La Playa occur between Tomas and his brothers; the younger, drug-addled Jairo deep in debt to a gang and the older, cavalier Chaco. One of the few places the film manages to transcend the usual social commentary tropes is the constantly morphing game of Brother’s Keeper between the three of them.
What the film lacks in character development and cohesion in plot, García compensates for in cinematography. Tight framing of Tomas entrenched in his life working at the market are cut with pastoral flashes of quiet, fogged mountains with tindling fires in early morning light. The past recollections of days spent swimming in a river snaking through a jungle as Tomas and Jairo sit in a broken car speaking of their life they were chased from left an impression similar to the stark surrealism marking Kieslowski’s work. The director’s juxtaposition between the urban and rural feels like he wants you to see a people conflicted in their nation’s current state. It feels forced, but the shots are still well-executed.
But La Playa’s greatest success is not in its characters, story, or even shots: if this film will be remembered for anything, it will be for the haircuts. More specifically the haircut culture of Colombia and the insanely intricate murals, works, and portraits men get cut into their fades. I’ve never seen anything in the way of hair that a country could truly make a case of cultural heritage out of like the works in everyone’s fades. Through the film they act as social signifier, rite of passage, and ultimately, a place of respite.
La Playa DC is not polished, it’s not a masterwork, but Juan Andrés Arango García makes a compelling case for the world to look further than the occasional Colombian Paramilitary headline. In a place marred by and mired in violence left in the corner by news affiliates, La Playa DC is a tattoo of pebbles against a window, asking you to come look.