LOS ANGELES — Few things are more prickly and complicated than the relationships between sons and fathers. Just ask Michael Douglas, who spent many troubled years trying to carve out any kind of satisfying kinship with Kirk Douglas, his emotionally distant father. Many political observers believe that part of the impetus for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq came from a deep-seated desire to set himself apart from the kind of failures that marked his father’s, George H.W. Bush, one-term presidency.
But when it comes to difficult fathers, few men have endured the kind of emotional burden carried by Sebastian Marroquin, the son of the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose illicit empire was so vast that he was once estimated to be worth around $25 billion, his cartel controlling the majority of the global cocaine trade. Now living in Argentina where he has established a new identity (he fled Colombia after his father was gunned down by authorities in 1993), Marroquin is the subject of “Sins of My Father,” a fascinating documentary that premieres Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (The film will air this year on HBO.)
A host of Hollywood filmmakers has long been fascinated by the Escobar saga, with several projects, in particular “Killing Pablo,” having been close to a greenlight for years. (A fictional movie project about Escobar was the focus of a prominent subplot in the third season of “Entourage.”) But what Argentine filmmaker Nicolas Entel does with the Escobar legend is very different. Though we see the murder and mayhem of Escobar through archival footage, Entel focuses on the life of his son Marroquin and his attempts to come to grips with all of the hideous karmic wreckage inflicted by his malevolent father. It is really a story about a more universal subject — the difficulty of reconciliation in a world where the desire for revenge, especially in countries racked by ethnic and religious strife, is almost an everyday occurrence.
It was already something of an amazing feat for Entel, who divides his time between Buenos Aires and Brooklyn, where he has a company that produces commercials and music videos, to get Marroquin to agree to speak on camera. Even years after his father’s death, Marroquin, now an architect in Buenos Aires, has shied away from the media spotlight. In fact, he still uses the kind of security precautions worthy of a minor mob figure, never, for example, allowing taxis to pick him up at his house to ensure that as few people as possible know where he lives.
He had never been back to Colombia, which remains outraged over his father’s legacy of violence and bloodshed. As we see in the film, when a few brave 1980s-era politicians spoke out against Escobar — notably a crusading minister of justice named Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and a fiery presidential candidate named Luis Carlos Galan — they were brutally murdered by Escobar’s cronies to protect him from prosecution.
So Entel decided to broaden his story. He went to Colombia, where he not only interviewed the sons of the murdered politicians but somehow persuaded them to meet with Marroquin for the first time since his father’s death. “It was a crazy idea,” he admits. “It would almost be like having the idea to get Hitler’s son together with the sons of some of his father’s concentration camp victims.” The results of the meetings are startlingly poignant, but what fascinated me the most was how a largely unknown filmmaker managed to pull off such a dramatic, emotionally loaded rapprochement, especially considering that the three sons of Galan are now well-known political figures in Colombia themselves.
The easiest part was finding Marroquin, whose cover had been blown in 2001 when his accountant attempted to blackmail him and his mother, Escobar’s widow. The extortion attempt briefly made news, but Marroquin had remained silent, turning down dozens upon dozens of media offers to tell his story. However, Entel had a quirky connection — Marroquin’s wife had been a student of the filmmaker’s mother, a sociology professor in Buenos Aires.
“When we first met, I did something very Argentine — I sat down and had lots of long conversations with Sebastian over coffee,” Entel told me the other day. “He’d turned everyone else down, but maybe because of all the research I had done, maybe because we’re about the same age, he felt that I was someone who wanted to tell his story, not just exploit him as a way to tell his father’s story. It wasn’t simple. He even made me write an essay saying why I wanted to do this film.”
The early interviews weren’t entirely successful. Marroquin found it hard to open up about his feelings. He was adamantly opposed to returning to Colombia, but Entel persuaded him to travel to Ecuador, where Entel could film him literally looking across the border at his homeland. “I felt that if I could get him that close to his country, it might trigger some reaction inside him and open him up,” says Entel. “I have to admit that my secret hope all along was to get him to go back to Colombia.”
In 2006, after he’d completed a series of interviews with Marroquin, Entel went to Bogota, where he met with the sons of the political figures murdered by Escobar. The reactions of the sons were very different. Rodrigo Lara Jr. was, as Entel puts it, “immediately curious — he was fascinated by the whole idea of the movie.” The sons of Galan were far more skeptical. “They were much more cautious and prudent,” says Entel.
Entel went out on the campaign trail with the Galan brothers, following them from town to town, in part to assuage their doubts about his intentions. He was so wary of spooking them that he didn’t even ask for them to sign a formal release until after he’d finished shooting and was in the editing process, a highly unusual strategy for a documentarian. “I moved very slowly, using what we in Spanish would call turtle steps,” he says. “I knew it would take time for them to warm up to the idea.”
Finally, after Lara Jr. had met with Marroquin in Argentina, Entel persuaded Marroquin to return to Colombia for the first time in 15 years for a face-to-face meeting with the Galan brothers. The meeting was done in secret. As a precaution, Marroquin traveled in a bulletproof car with two bodyguards, although as Entel wryly puts it, “by Colombian standards, that really isn’t a lot of protection at all.”
It turns out that Colombia hasn’t entirely embraced forgiveness, at least not when it comes to anything involving Escobar. “Sins of My Father” opened last week in Colombia, where it earned good reviews. But the old political establishment had its issues.
“At first, everyone from the right to the left supported the gesture of reconciliation,” says Entel. “But as we got close to the premiere, the Colombian establishment started attacking the movie, perhaps because Colombia still isn’t ready to have a serious conversation about why Escobar’s cartel had so much influence over so many powerful people from so many different political parties in the country.”
Entel sighs. “I guess the film made some people a little too uncomfortable.” But for me, that’s another sign that the film has done its job. Like so many provocative documentaries, “Sins of My Father” isn’t just a tribute to the healing process but a cautionary tale about the horrific toll exacted by men in the thrall of greed and cruelty.