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Life to the Beat of Tragic Drums

Somos Calentura (We are the heat) by Colombian filmmaker Jorge Navas (La sangre y la lluvia), one of the four movies prenominated to represent Colombia at the Oscars in 2019, wants to be both: a realistic portray of young Afro-Colombians’ daily reality in the port city of Buenaventura and a gripping action musical. 

Financed thanks to the fund for Colombian cinema development, Somos Calentura is anything but a low-budget production. With six protagonists, eighteen secondary characters, sixty extras, forty-five dancers, twenty musicians and forty-five shooting locations the movie was conceived from the beginning to reach the widest audience possible and thus bring into the spotlight those who are generally made invisible in Latin American societies. Nevertheless, as director Navas laments in an interview in El Pais Colombia, its distribution in commercial movie theatres was rapidly cut down once it became evident that the story of four young Afro-descendants in Colombia’s Pacific region who try to escape the clutches of violence and crime by concentrating on urban dance, would not immediately reach US-blockbuster box office levels.

Concerned with technical professionalism and suspenseful action around a relatively simple story line, [the movie] also puts special emphasis on authentic representation.

In fact, if the movie is strongly concerned with technical professionalism and assuring suspenseful action around a relatively simple story line, it also puts special emphasis on authentic representation. All its actors are locals who were chosen based on their dance skills and whose personal life experiences are visibly very close to what the movie wants to tell. Besides, the omnipresent context of music (a fusion of urban and traditional sounds) and urban dance (hip-hop, salsa choke, breakdance, currulao etc.) helps to bring many cultural particularities of the region to the screen, without having to insist on them. There is for example people’s constant cheerfulness, beautifully captured in the radiant smile of an elderly marimba player (traditional xylophone) or Freddy’s (José Luis Paz) incredulous question to the main character Harvey (Duván Arizala) why he isn’t happy. 

Images of calmness are juxtaposed with agitated nights where people’s well-assembled bling-bling outfits celebrating all mayor US-brands and trends, afro hairstyles and sexualized dance moves prevent [...] any kind of cultural nostalgia.

At the same time, the movie also features many aspects of its shooting location of Buenaventura, home to Colombia’s biggest transhipping port and at the same time one of the poorest and most violent parts of the country. The spectator gets to see its typical wooden shacks built into the sea on vertical piles, market scenes under colourful parasols, the city’s grey skyline and the deep tropical jungle lurking at the horizon. These images of calmness are juxtaposed with agitated nights where people’s well-assembled bling-bling outfits celebrating all mayor US-brands and trends, afro hairstyles and sexualized dance moves prevents, on the one hand, any kind of cultural nostalgia and reveals, on the other hand, another important aspect of Afro-Colombian culture: Life takes place outside. This is where friendship is lived, love declarations are renewed, and battles are fought. It is also here were the region's entanglement with the drug trade becomes manifest. The movie’s protagonists are used to having to navigate through this world where everything is about doing viajes (courier services), being equipped with hombres de confianza (men of trust) and earning mucho billete (a lot of dough).

Sometimes the impression arises that the social drama only serves as a decoration for a choreographed dance piece.

The downside of the movie’s manifold allusions is that most of them remain on the surface, so that sometimes the impression arises that the social drama only serves as a decoration for a choreographed dance piece. This feeling is particularly present at the death of the dance troupe’s youngest member, known as el Baby (Manuel Riascos). During the subsequent scene at the hospital, where the boy’s devastated mother accuses Freddy, the original target of the murder, of carelessness, we hardly have the time to feel any compassion, as the incident is immediately followed by another dance battle.

On the positive side, it should be emphasized that the generally rather stereotypical masculinity in the movie is, at times, contrasted with unusual representations of male fear and weakness. The depiction of women is, however, disappointing, as they are mostly absent from the main plot and appear only in supporting roles as mothers, girlfriends and sex objects. Even though one could argue that the filmmakers wanted to pursue their goal to make a realistic portrayal of a society marked by clear gender roles and machismo, proposing different female characters might have been more innovative.

All in all, the impression prevails that even if the film team from Bogotá was concerned with making a film that the people portrayed can claim as their own, they sometimes tend to be carried away by their fascination with the dark sides of the livelihoods they explore. They also seem not to trust locals’ attention span enough, explaining the movie’s overload with suspenseful highlights. Even its obvious aim to make a statement against violence and point out alternatives to their young target audience lacks persuasiveness as Harvey’s firm opposition to violent revenge at the end of the movie is clearly based on the here and now (he has to be back at a drug transport in 24 hours) and hence reproduces the thought patterns of many Afro-Colombian youngsters, who prefer to live a short but materially fulfilled life, often driving them into the drug trade.

Somos Calentura remains an important movie of high visual quality that not only provides a stage for the impressive artistic expressions of Colombia's Afro-Colombian population, but also helps to make their constant struggle between material survival and moral integrity tangible. 

Caroline Cornier, Rédactrice Cinewax 



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