Film, Music, and Theatre–25 Days, 3 Festivals

The month of March was exhilarating, packed with arts festivals and celebrations of culture! The first weekend, I escaped Bogotá for a long weekend in Cartagena to attend the Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias. The following weekend I haggled and got a cheap 3-day pass to Festival Estéreo Picnic, a music festival that attracted artists including Tame Impala, Florence + The Machine, Mumford & Sons, and Snoop Dogg for its 2016 iteration. The weekend of Estéreo Picnic coincided with the inauguration of another massive cultural event, the two-week-long biannual Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá, considered to be one of the largest arts festivals in the world.

I’m not even sure how to start talking about these festivals, because I’m still freshly inspired and don a silly grin each time I even think about the last few weeks. But I guess going chronologically is a framework I might as well use, so here goes:

Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI)

I was very close to not going to Cartagena at the start of March. When I was first considering attending the festival, I was researching on the FICCI (appropriately, pronounced “fixie” as in the hipster fixed-gear bike) website, and I couldn’t even tell if the festival was open to the general public. I tried to learn about the programming to be sure I would be interested, but I left the preliminary website browsing feeling lukewarm about the festival (I blame most of this on the poor organization of the FICCI website). I still had a lingering curiosity about the festival, but I simply could not find the information to help me judge whether I would enjoy the festival, let alone be allowed to participate. But I am so pleased that I made the trip, explored the lovely city of Cartagena, and saw so many inspiring films alongside an equally engaged audience.

When browsing the program on the FICCI web, the one film that immediately stood out to me was Anna, since it was written and directed by Jacques Toulemonde (the co-screenwriter of El Abrazo de la Serpiente, which really should have won the Academy Award for foreign language film!). After seeing El Abrazo de la Serpiente in early February, I went to a public talk Toulemonde gave at the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Marquez, and I felt so inspired that I wrote up a post about it. Because of how enamored I am of El Abrazo de la Serpiente, I was ecstatic to see Anna. I actually planned my flights to Cartagena so that I could attend the first screening. It was held at an incredible venue, El Teatro Adolfo Mejía, a grand opera house located in the colonial center and the director, actors, and producers were in attendance.

As soon as I’d entered La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city center of Cartagena), a taxi dropped me off at my hostel where I deposited my things before running off to the FICCI headquarters. I used my alien ID card, a photocopy of my student visa, and my Harvard fellowship award letter to get a pass to the festival for just over $20 (despite the long line to register for the festival, the administrators spent 10 minutes looking over my papers and were pretty resistant to give me the student discount, I suppose since it comes with all the perks of being a full festival participant at half the price). After apologizing to those waiting behind me in line to buy passes, I grabbed my bag of festival goodies and ran to the venue for Anna. I joined the already-formed line, still over an hour before the screening time. My instincts were to use the time in line to read about festival programming and try to curate my itinerary for the remainder of the festival, but I’m glad I didn’t stick my nose into the programming booklets too quickly, because moments after I got in line, I noticed Jacques Toulemonde walk right in front of me.

IMG_7919-Juana Acosta
Juana Acosta, the lead actress in Jacque Toulemonde’s film Anna, on the red carpet in front of the Teatro Adolfo Mejía in downtown Cartagena at FICCI, March 3, 2016.

There was a bright red carpet in front of El Teatro Adolfo Mejía, and as festival attendees crowded around in anticipation and waited in line to enter the theater, the director, producers, and actors of the film arrived and were chatting and posing for photos only meters away from us.  At first I couldn’t believe how casual it was that the stars were right in front of us, but after a few days at the festival, I realized that this was part of what makes the festival so special–the culture of FICCI is that many people involved in the films featured (in and out of competition) attend the festival. It’s always nice to be able to ask questions to directors and actors after a film, but it’s also special to look around you in an audience and recognize directors and actors of other films, excited to see and support projects of others.

Moments before the first screening of Anna in El Teatro Adolfo Mejía in the historic downtown of Cartagena.

In an art world where elite events are careful to make distinctions of rank, and there are of course many art events not open to the public, FICCI has a marked spirit of inclusion. First off, the pricing schemes, especially for students, are reasonable. In fact, several of the people I met at FICCI attend other festivals regularly and commented that the cost of the FICCI pass and the fact that nearly all screenings and events are open to the general public (except for the inaugural and closing events, a gala, and perhaps other events that aren’t publicized) sets this festival apart from most festivals showing films of this caliber. But besides the affordable passes, I was constantly reminded of the unique environment of the festival bringing together film enthusiasts and accomplished filmmakers each time I saw a director I recognized waiting in line, just like me, or wandering around in the colonial center of Cartagena. Now, I never saw Susan Sarandon (the festival honored her with a tribute) or Gaspar Noé (one of the several directors FICCI honored with a retrospective) walking downtown or waiting in line, but I did see directors and actors of many films mingling with festival attendees.

The inspiring films programmed for the festival are an obvious but critical piece of what engages attendees and creates atmospheres were attendees jump at the opportunity to speak with filmmakers and chat amongst themselves about the films. While the festival is truly an international film festival, with films from all over the globe programmed, there is a logical emphasis on Ibero-American films. All the films I saw fell into this category, and several were Ibero-American or World Premieres.

After the screening, director Jacques Toulemonde was joined by lead actress Juana Acosta and the film’s producers for a short Q&A session with the audience.

Anna (2016, dir. Jacques Toulemonde) was a great movie to start off my time at the festival. I thoroughly enjoyed the film for its sensitive portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder, and the acting of Juana Acosta was superb. But I found the chat with the director, actors, and producer afterwards slightly disappointing for its lack of original ideas.

After a quick dinner (at La Cevicheria–highly recommended!), I then made my way back to El Teatro Adolfo Mejía for a screening of Te Prometo Anarquía (2016, dir. Julio Hernández), a Mexican film about two skateboarders–best friends and, occasionally, lovers–who sell blood to narcos for money, until their biggest blood trafficking deal goes awry. It is alternatively heartwarming and heartbreaking. From my time living in Mexico City, I knew this species of underbelly of the city existed, but I had never visualized these events happening.

The next day, I saw the quirky Brazilian film, Boi Neon (2015, dir. Gabriel Mascaro), which went on to win the feature fiction competition in the festival.  The story centers on a cowboy who trains bulls, traveling the Brazilian rodeo circuit with a small team. But despite his profession and tough appearance, this cowboy is far from the hyper masculine vaquero; he dreams of designing clothing, tracing garments over nude women in porn magazines and constructing a makeshift dress form out of found parts so he can drape a sexy outfit for the team’s driver to wear for an exotic dance performance she gives to the team. The film as a whole is characterized by a surprising tenderness, contrasting starkly with the rough lives of the characters.

In the afternoon, I ventured beyond the grand venue of the Teatro Afoldo Mejía for the first time, attempting to see a film by the famed Colombian director Luis Ospina. I made it to the massive commercial venue inside a shopping mall (Cine Colombia at Cariba Plaza) just in time for La Desazón Suprema: Retrato Incessant de Fernando Vallejo (2003, dir. Luis Ospina). But I didn’t last long. The documentary is a very slow-paced portrait of the Colombian writer, and I simply found the whole thing boring. With 30 minutes left in the movie, I started dozing off, so I left the screening, and I went to the box office at the theater to reserve tickets for other screenings I wanted to see (the screenings at the commercial movie theaters required ticket reservations in advance, unlike those in the massive theater houses downtown). Unfortunately, I learned that the 20 movies I was interested in were fully reserved for the rest of the festival, and the attendant at the ticket desk discouraged me from trying to get some of the last minute, in-person tickets. I had been hoping to see one of Gaspar Noé’s films, with Love at the top of my list, but I was discouraged to learn that all the tickets were reserved, so that night I took a break from the non-stop movie viewing.

The rooftops of the cabins at the hostel where I rented an umbrella, beach chair, and hammock for the day on Playa Blanca.

The next morning, I woke up early and took a shuttle to Playa Blanca, where I had my Caribbean beach experience. After talking a free walking tour the day before, during which the guide gave a thorough history lesson on the city and pointed out every site in relation to the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I was feeling inspired. Fittingly, during my beach day, I read Love in the Time of Cholera beachside, bought a mango biche with salt from a beach vendor, and rented an umbrella and beach chair for the day from a hostel down the beach. It was a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon, but when I returned to Cartagena that afternoon, I was determined to see a Gaspar Noé film.


Once back in Cartagena from the beach excursion, I decided to go as early as possible and stand in line at the Cine Colombia in Bocagrande to secure a last minute ticket to see the last 3D screening of Love  (2015, dir. Gaspar Noé) in the festival. After chatting with people in line for a couple of hours, my group at the head of the line just barely made the cut and got into the screening! Unfamiliar with Gaspar Noé’s work, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was certainly surprised. The whole concept of a 3D sex scene seemed like a bizarre mismatch at first, but the narrative treatment of love and heartbreak is moving, and the film as a whole is put together and edited provocatively, so I ultimately found the experience enthralling and still find myself thinking back to memorable scenes.

Sunday, my last day at the festival, I was particularly ambitious because there was still so much I wanted to see before my 9pm flight back to Bogotá. Tagging along with an amateur filmmaker from my hostel, I went first thing in the morning to a screening of Los Nadie (2015, dir. Juan Sebastián Mesa). The film had opened the festival at an invite-only event, and I’d read raving reviews of the screening. Despite my high expectations, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed by the film. In black and white takes, Los Nadie tells the story of a group of punk teenagers living in a poor neighborhood in Medellin. By day, some attend school that is interrupted by protests, others perform juggling tricks at traffic lights to make money, and others prepare publicity materials and rehearse for an impromptu punk concert. But they all share a dream of escaping their dangerous community in Medellin, running away from home to see the world. It is clear they have limited opportunities in Medellin, and the gangs pose a constant threat, leaving the viewer rooting for them all to get away as quickly as possible. At a time when Medellin is increasingly praised for being an innovative and green city, Mesa shows that Medellin has other, more menacing faces.

After Mesa’s short chat following the film, my hostel friend and I hustled back to downtown to el Teatro Adolfo Mejía to see the final screening of the Chilean film, Aquí No Ha Pasado Nada (2015, dir. Alejandro Fernández Almendras). I was not at all surprised to learn that it had won the prize of best film in the international film competition category. Based on a true story, an upper class young man in his early 20s named Vicente meets some girls at a beach and follows them to a party that night, but when drunk revelry goes wrong, Vicente gets blamed rather than the son of a senator who actually committed the crime. Of the many films on the subject of power and corrupt justice systems in Latin America, this one had me the most fired up about the blatant injustice. Following the screening, the lead actor answered questions from the audience, and there was a charming moment when Colombian actress Vicky Hernandez raised her hand and posed the question “No sabes quién soy yo?” She started with this to comment on the popular Colombian phrase, roughly translated to mean “Do you not know who I am?” that is invoked in situations by the wealthy and powerful when they are requesting preferential treatment. She was making the point that such instances of corruption need to end in Latin America, but her use of the phrase was given double-meaning because the Chilean actor was not familiar with the Colombian celebrity. The mainly Colombian audience erupted in applause and laughter when Vicky introduced herself as the actress who is on the FICCI 2016 poster (which was displayed behind the actor as he was answering questions).

Famous Colombian actress Vicky Hernandez making both serious and light-hearted comments following the screening of Aquí No Ha Pasado nada.

Finally, my hostel friend and I ran back to Cine Colombia at Bocagrande for my final film screening of the festival. Another black and white film, Días Extraños (2015, dir. Juan Sebastian Quebrada) is a portrait of a Colombian couple struggling to make ends meet, living in Argentina. It shows the deep connection of the two but also how effectively they could annoy each other when the circumstances made each crack. The pace of this film was slower and the scope of the subject matter more intimate, but perhaps my mind was already in Bogotá, because I didn’t enjoy this one so much. It was mainly because I was concerned about making my flight back to Bogotá, but I didn’t stay for the chat with the director after this movie.

One of the outdoor screening venues that showed out-of-competition films in the evenings–wish I had attended one of the screenings outdoors!


And then a few hours later, I was back in Bogotá. Looking back, the weekend was much more fun and engaging than I had anticipated. I do regret not attending one of the outdoor screenings (since they reportedly attract the greatest cross-section of movie viewers, and I love the idea of free, outdoor screenings). While I saw plenty that weekend, I would have loved to see the documentaries Paciente (2015, dir. Jorge Caballero), and Todo Comenzó por el Fin (2015, dir. Luis Ospina), and the fiction feature films Chevalier (2015, dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari) and La Academia de las Musas (2015, dir. José Luis Guerín). Paciente is about a single-mother navigating the inefficient Colombian healthcare system as she struggles to take care of her daughter following a cancer diagnosis. Todo Comenzó por el Fin is described as a “self-portrait” of the group of filmmakers from Cali active in the 1970s and 1980s, often referred to as the Caliwood filmmakers. Since these two are Colombian films, I’m hoping I can see them somewhere in Bogotá soon!

Estéreo Picnic

While I love music and concerts, music festivals have not been an activity I have been especially drawn to, partially because of how pricey they tend to be in the U.S. But after attending Corona Capital in Mexico City last fall, I was open minded about Festival Estéreo Picnic, the big music festival in Bogotá. Then when the lineup was announced, my interest was piqued–I had been hoping that Tame Impala would come to Bogotá so I could hear their new album live, and the rest of the lineup was equally impressive. The morning of day 1 of the festival, I found someone selling a 3-day wristband heavily discounted, and I jumped at the opportunity to see any and all groups that appealed to me.

Tame Impala at Estereo Picnic
Tame Impala performing “Let It Happen” during the first day of Festival Estéreo Picnic.

On the whole, the festival was incredible, and considerably better than Corona in DF (Estéreo Picnic attracted better acts but is also much better organized, people are orderly and amazingly did not push, even deep in the crowds for the big acts). Seeing Tame Impala was as exciting as–if not even better than–I had hoped. I was also impressed by the other groups I saw: Mumford & Sons, Francisca Valenzuela (caught the last two songs of her set), Christina Rosenvinge, Unknown_Yet, Alabama Shakes, Noel Gallagher and the High Flying Birds, Florence + The Machine, Sidestepper (caught the last song of their set), Alvvays, The Flaming Lips, Snoop Dogg, Kygo, and Jack U (Skrillex + Diplo). The biggies Mumford & Sons, Alabama Shakes, and Snoop (entering puffing from a joint and displaying a Colombian soccer jersey with “Snoop” on the back) satisfied my expectations. But if I had to pick favorites, I was most pleasantly surprised by the performances of Tame Impala (obviously), Florence + The Machine (she knows how to work the stage and is an incredibly engaging performer, not to mention her outfit was stunning), and Francisca Valenzuela (also surprisingly engaging live).

Estereo Picnic Escenario
Near the food area at Festival Estéreo Picnic–love the graphic design for the festival.

The only real negatives of the experience were the traffic situation (easily took 2-3 hours to get to the venue and an hour to leave) and the weather (the first two days of the festival was pretty unpleasant, with heavy rain for hours, and one of the stages had a large audience area that was uncovered). There were a few more groups I was hoping to see earlier in the days (Walk The Moon, Albert Hammond Jr, Little Jesus, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, and Of Monsters and Men). The big acts were of course on last each night, and the daytime acts were nearly all Latin American, some up-and-coming artists. And I would have loved to have arrived earlier and seen the full sets of Francisca Valenzuela and Sidestepper. But each day I underestimated the congestion on the roads, arriving hours after I had anticipated. I am just grateful I was able to see all the artists I did over the 3 days.

Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá (FITB)

From March 11-27, Bogotá hosted a wide array of theatre events and workshops. Since it’s founding in 1988 by the Colombian-Argentinian actress Fanny Mickey, the biannual festival has attracted around 2 million attendees in each festival edition. I was in Cartagena during the inaugural event in Parque Simón Bolivar, and after I read about the public event featuring La Fura dels Baus (a Catalan performance troupe), I realized I would enjoy other events of FITB. When I learned that there was another inaugural event, this one a parade in La Candelaria featuring performance groups from all over the world, I knew I had to go. As expected, the Desfile Inaugural para el Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá was incredibly lively, with easily hundreds of groups marching and performing down the main thoroughfares. Similarly to how I felt when I attended the Desfile de Alebrijes in Mexico City last fall, parades in Latin America are so energetic and artistic that it puts the commercial Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to shame.

A woman who started attending my dance class a few weeks before FITB had introduced herself as the girlfriend of a director of a play in the festival, and her endorsement of the festival also prompted me to look closer and pick some shows to attend. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my act together in time to see a performance of Arrabal, a broadway-style musical with a score by Gustavo Santoalalla and writing and choreography by Sergio Trujillo (a Colombian who has worked on projects awarded Tonys). The show is set in dictator-era Buenos Aires and is fueled by dynamic musical and choreographic play with the tango genre–I’m confident it will make it to Broadway soon, and hopefully I will have the chance to see if there, if not elsewhere first!

The first show I ended up attending was the short play directed by the boyfriend of my classmate, a work called La Maratón de Nueva York. Next, I looked for something with more dance, and I ended up seeing a performance called Paris de Nuit by Recirquel, a Hungary-based troupe that fuses modern circus tricks with cabaret and jazz dance and mood. The show was playful, titillating, and overall as engaging as a circus show full of tricks, yet this was more intimate and centered in storytelling and emotion than a traditional 3 ring clown circus.


Next up was Pacamambo, a play written by Wajdi Mouwad. I loved the play Los Incendios, also by Mouwad, when I saw it at Foro Shakespeare in Mexico City (summer of 2013). The summary of Pacamambo–a tale about a girl grieving the death of her grandmother and creating a fantasy world as she processes the loss–sounded intriguing, but this adaptation was disappointing because it was clearly directed at children and tended towards caricature rather than nuanced and tender storytelling.

After the letdown of Pacamambo, I decided I could afford to spend a little more on a ticket (the ticket for Pacamambo was $7 USD) to see a renowned troupe perform a classic work of theatre. With this in mind, I bought a ticket to see The Tiger Lillies present Hamlet. Since I’d read the play in high school and was familiar with the plot, I thought I had a vague idea of what to expect, but this adaptation was completely unexpected. There were interesting set elements, but overall the punk-ish style of the adaptation didn’t do much for me. A big part of this is that the music was not catchy, and frankly, I thought it sounded like they were singing off key 80% of the time…The set elements that advanced the storytelling were clever, and I enjoyed parts of the show, but overall it isn’t a show I would see again or recommend highly to others.

Finally, after several shows that just weren’t as inspiring as I had hoped, I bought a ticket for one of the shows that caught my eye from the very beginning: a dance performance by the LA-based company Diavolo Architecture in Motion. Each time I went to buy a ticket for a FITB show (I had to go in person since my debit and credit cards are international and the online platform had trouble with the cards), I would wait in line at a Primera Fila box office and watch trailers for the FITB shows, and the Diavolo trailer was especially striking. Although there were many circus groups at FITB and I initially thought Diavolo was a circus group, I quickly learned that they were rather a modern dance company that works with set pieces constructed by architects, engineers, and physicists. The show was incredibly moving, uniting storytelling with new movements generated from interactions with the fantastical set pieces that are a Diavolo staple.

When my classmate and I were talking about the company, she told me about a 2-day master class with the company her boyfriend had signed her up for. As soon as I left the Teatro Colsubsidio after seeing the Diavolo performance, I raced to the Javeriana University building to try to register for the workshop. Initially, I was told the workshop was full, but after I got past the first few attendants at the FITB workshop office and reached the people who actually managed registration, I begged a little, asked if it was at all possible to leave my name on a waitlist, and I was somehow able to convince them to give me a spot (even though the workshop was already over capacity). While I complain a lot about bureaucratic processes going wrong in Bogotá, this was an instance where reasonable people coupled with my polite but enthusiastic determination led to a happy result!

That night I scrambled to find kneepads (required for the workshop since the movements are rough on the body and involve plenty of sliding and falling directly on the knees). The next morning, bright and early I reported to the same theater where I had seen the group perform the afternoon before, and this time, I was among 30 or so dancers allowed to play on the set pieces. The night before the workshop I was feeling anxious that I wouldn’t be a good enough dancer for the workshop (the registration info did say the workshop was geared towards professional dancers and actors), and was worried that the kneepads I scrounged up (a pair of orthopedic knee bands) wouldn’t protect me sufficiently. Even when I was en route to the venue, I was considering turning around because I was afraid I would get hurt or be completely embarrassed if I tried to do the types of acrobatics I had seen the group do the day before. I am so so so glad I mustered the courage to go! I was totally prepared physically for the movements, the Diavolo dancers gave us all the information to move safely on the set pieces (of course!), and I surprised myself by not even being that scared to slide down the 25ft high ramps or do cartwheels across the metal “bridges.” In short, the experience was unforgettable and gave me a renewed sense of confidence in my abilities to learn new movements and conquer my fears (like fears of not being good enough or of getting hurt doing daring movements). It was a fantastic opportunity to participate and actually experience what it is like to dance in a piece that I had been completely swept away by the day before.



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