The first thing we see is a body lying prostrate down in a gully by the side of the road. Then we notice the unnatural angles of the limbs, flung out painfully akimbo; then we see the deep brown splotches soaked through the blue shirt; and we finally come to rest on a face, covered in flies, the mouth agape, the eyes closed shut.
The close-up is grotesque but hypnotic. The boy – and he can’t be more than 17 – casts a spell, compelling us to stare though all we want to do is turn away in horror. And then, a banshee wail from off camera suddenly breaks the spell—a young girl, a sister, or a cousin, screaming and crying and collapsing to her knees, imploring God “Why, why? He was so young!”, while her friends drag her away, and some other young men come to gawk at their friend, or brother, or comrade.
Such scenes are simply part of the daily struggle in La Sierra, a hilltop barrio above the city of Medellin in Columbia, all too commonplace and frequent. Exponents of nationwide civil unrest, armed youth gangs patrol the streets of the sectors ringing the city, engaging in turf wars with rival gangs, skirmishing with police and Columbian military. Spawned out of political strife between warring national factions, these groups loosely align themselves along party lines; the left-wing guerillas stick to the fringes, the jungle, making occasional sorties into the cities, while the right-wing paramilitaries try to consolidate their home bases, and expand to reclaim areas they perceive to be under threat.
Yet such allegiances are specious at best; genuine motives are murky, but seem more to have to do with a conflation of territoriality, machismo, and the rush of violence than any sort of political philosophy. Strip away the looming shadow of civil war, and you could easily see these gangs roaming the streets of Los Angeles, or Hong Kong, or New York, or any other crime plagued urban jungle on the planet.
Which is why it was a good strategy that the filmmakers’ chose to focus on the personal side of the story, concentrating on the lives of three individual youths growing up in this war-ravaged, run down little neighborhood. Edison, a charismatic charmer who goes by the nickname “The Doll”, has, at the age of 22, ascended to the rank of commander of Bloque Metro, the local cell controlling his neighborhood in La Sierra.
Articulate and candid, he admits to getting a rush from the power he wields: his life’s defining moment was the first time he shot a rifle. He basks in the attention of local girls (and has sired six children by six different mothers); and he is crafty and intelligent, a master strategist who knows just how to outfox his opponents in the most ruthless way possible. And yet he is righteous in his belief in the cause, in his dedication to preserving the traditions and peace of his home. And he also seems to see something beyond the fighting, to a time when he might escape, might educate himself, might come back as an engineer or a doctor and improve the town he so dearly loves.
Such contemplative thinking doesn’t seem to trouble Jesus. At 19, he’s already been in numerous fire fights, and had his hand blown off by a grenade. Reckless and living only for the moment, he sees only the present, surviving on cocaine and marijuana and a smattering of street sense. An anonymous foot solider in a conflict he can’t comprehend, he’s presented as a counterpoint to Edison, though his story is ultimately less compelling and tragic. By the film’s end he realizes that, if only for the sake of his son, he needs to quit this life.
Cielo, just 17, has a two-year-old son whose father has already been claimed by the fighting. Both her own father and her brother were killed by guerillas, as well. And now she is dating another gang member who is locked up in prison. Edison’s boasts of bagging girls with his guns and his collection of motorcycles may sound like so much hormone fueled bravado, but there’s an element of truth here: the girls of the barrio flock to these boys, and think nothing of bearing their children at ridiculously early ages (one of Edison’s pregnant girlfriends is 14).
It’s an interesting, and disturbing regression—the never ending wheel of violence has so reduced life expectancy here, that gang members are considered elderly if they make it to 30. And thus, this urge to preserve their lineage, to birth a son to avenge them, with ever younger girls – and we’re suddenly set back in time, and we are living in tribes and survival of the species is only guaranteed by profligacy of seed.
La Sierra never seems to address this issue head on; the filmmakers’ are rather hands off the whole way, never editorializing or seeming to slant the film in any direction. The film wisely sacrifices context and wider consequences for immediacy, in the hopes that particular life stories may engender the sort of outrage a more wide-ranging documentary might not. The politics behind the Colombian civil wars are negligible, almost laughably irrelevant; what matters are these lives, these kids, kids with guns, kids giving birth to kids, kids living in a ceaseless wheel of unending senseless violence. Is there hope, is there life beyond these turf wars and this poverty?
The film concludes on an incongruously upbeat note, with a ceasefire, a disarmament, and an amnesty for all the irregulars of both sides. And yet, couldn’t this just be the calm before the resumption of the storm? The graveyard Cielo visits halfway through the film, a vast sea of small crosses, seems stretch beyond the horizon, limitless, a testament to an eternity of violence. It seems to blot out the future, to blot out hope, to blot out life. The end of violence is only the beginning, again…
- La Sierra Preview