Do films actually matter? I spend a lot of time wringing my hands over this question, especially since I’ve committed so much of my life to making them. We all want to know that our work has meaning. A recent trip to Colombia to screen Saving Atlantis around South America’s northernmost country put this question to the test.
We filmed portions of Saving Atlantis, our documentary about the decline of the world’s coral reefs and the people fighting to save them, in Colombia in 2016. The scenes we shot there focused on a reef called Varadero, which is unusual in that it exists in cloudy water near Cartagena Bay, a place where few scientists expect to find a flourishing reef. But soon after the discovery of this reef, it was threatened by the dredging of a new shipping channel.
The goal of our return trip to Colombia was simple: show the film in five locations in seven days across the country, ranging from the massive capital city to tiny island villages, and to spread the word about one the fate of the world’s corals and of Varadero in particular.
Could our feature documentary…a passion project pulled together by a ragtag team over the course of four years working on the fringes of our day jobs and personal lives…make an impact in a country half a world away?
While I often have doubts, I do firmly believe that there is power in cinema’s communal spirit. There’s magic in the gathering of a hundred, a thousand or even a dozen human silhouettes reverent before the flickering altar of the silver screen or even the stretched bed sheet. No matter that the new gods of technology have worked to confound this formula with their ingenious pursuit of addictively portable convenience. The laptop, tablet and cell phone have become an unavoidable curse, these small and devious merchants of digital solitude. Even the ancient technology of the tee vee makes for a far lesser viewing experience than communal cinema. I believe that if Saving Atlantis is to make a difference, it will be because people saw it the way it should be seen: together and in public. And that’s why we brought the film to Colombia in the way that we did when it would have been far easier to send a link.
This entire trip was planned and executed through a combination of Skype, gaff tape and good intentions. A coalition of scientists, community leaders, filmmakers and environmental organizations conspired to bring our film to live audiences around the country. This team was brought together by Monica Medina, a dynamic coral researcher originally from Colombia but who now works at Penn State University. Medina has the ability to think big and inspire people to do more than they expected they could. And bringing this film to Colombia was no simple task.
Aside from the ever-present albatross of live cinema…will anyone show up…we had an additional challenge. Two of the towns we planned to screen in were hours away from the nearest theater. Electricity wasn’t even a given. Also, though we had subtitled the film entirely in Spanish, some of our audiences would not be used (and in some cases able) to read captions on screen. In order to clear that hurdle, a community of OSU Colombian students and staff came to our rescue, reading the transcript of the film so we could dub the entire thing in Spanish.
So we were somewhat prepared. My co-pilot on this wild scheme was the even-keeled Daniel Cespedes, sound technician and filmmaker who was mixing the Spanish version right until the day we left. We’d purchased a portable screen from Amazon, and it also arrived the day before our flight. For projection and sound equipment, Student Multimedia Services came to the rescue. They provided us with a short-throw projector and a portable sound system, both small enough to carry onto the plane. And all of it was free. It’s a service they provide to all students and faculty, and it saved us thousands of dollars in rental fees. I can’t recommend them enough. If you need to screen a film, hold an event, shoot some video, burn a BluRay or anything else AV-related, in South America or in the south quad, you should head to the Valley Library and talk to the SMS folks first.
Our first screening was in cool and rainy Bogotá. We’d fled an Oregon summer heat wave and stepped directly into Corvallis in February. The neighborhood where we stayed came complete with a sixteen-tap craft brewpub, showing that Northwest brew culture, for better or worse, truly is the lingua franca of our time.
Our screening was held in a courtyard of the local Goethe Institut, and the audience in their smart scarves and Columbia (with a ‘u’) jackets would have blended nicely with a faculty event on campus. It was a great screening and well attended. There was lively discussion afterward with thoughtful questions. And despite the evening chill, the audience hung around for at least an hour after the film. Still, it felt a little like we were preaching to the choir. These were educated, well traveled elites. While some of them learned for the first time the depth of the problem of coral decline and about their own fascinating and threatened reef of Varadero, I don’t think we won any true converts. Would this screening, successful as it seemed, really change anything?
Next we headed to the hot and lively city of Cali. We screened at the Pontifica Universidad Javariana where Mateo Lopez Victoria teaches. Mateo was one of the interview subjects of the film and his philosophical ponderings form a haunting core of the documentary.
We screened the film in the university’s main cafeteria, where there is a sound system, a giant screen and a resident peacock that squawked irritably on the fringes, rebuffed that someone else was getting the attention. We had to delay the start of the screening by an hour to allow the more important Brazil-Croatia World Cup match to wrap up. With Brazil’s loss we suffered some attrition in our audience, but still the screening was followed by an intense Q&A session along with some epic question-statements that seem to be a hallmark of screenings in Colombia. The audience slowly thinned, but a few students from Javariana and other universities hung around and shyly asked questions about filmmaking and environmental advocacy and suddenly I began to feel a sense of something building beneath the jet lag and culture shock. Here were young people who’d spent their Friday afternoon watching a science film and who, whether from politeness or sincerity, were claiming that the film inspired them. Maybe public cinema does mean something.
Later I lay on my back in the grass in the park on the hill of San Antonio church watching the clouds as Colombians from all walks of life emerged on the green to practice that national sport of hanging out. Old women were selling mazorca, or roasted street corn. Some kids slid down a cement drive behind the church on milk crates and young couples sat on a rock wall holding hands and watching the lights flick on in the skyscrapers of Cali below. A young woman with a baby selling obleas, which are thin waffles that taste almost like giant communion wafers with a sweet layer of chocolate or jam between them, placed the infant on the grass behind her as a pair of customers approached her cart. A group of middle-aged women sat down in the grass nearby and took out a bottle of wine. At the bottom of the hill a troupe of folk dancers practiced, spinning and twirling to recorded music. It was a stretch to think that our little film screening could have made a dent in that thriving mass of three million souls. But isn’t it a hopeful sign that I can still pick out the faces of at least three young Caleños who had approached me after the screening to say that the film had moved them?
The next screening was the one that had weighed the most on our minds. We flew to Cartagena and then made our way to the island of Tierra Bomba. The town of Bocachica is an impoverished community on the edge of the threatened Varadero reef. It’s ramshackle and chaotic, and its citizens stand to lose the most if the reef is destroyed. We had no firm plans of where to screen. We had no permits and didn’t know if there even would be electricity available.
Monica Medina and Valeria Pizzaro are scientists who’ve been working intensely on Varadero, and they helped ups make arrangements. We decided to use the town square since that was the place where we’d be most likely to be able to draw a crowd. We managed to rent chairs, and Daniel began to assemble our makeshift screen in a stiff breeze. We hired a fellow with a ladder fashioned out of scrap lumber who climbed the wobbly structure on a nearby electrical pole and wired us directly into a grid, giving us a small outlet box to plug into. It worked only when we weighed it down with a rock.
The chairs were set out, empty and waiting. The sun was setting. We hired a guy with a megaphone to drum up a crowd, which was slow to assemble.
The police chief arrived, concerned by our impromptu event. He was a square-jawed soldier of a fellow, grim and formal. He decided to stay to keep an eye on the crowd. At least he didn’t shut us down.
A group of town elders shuffled up to me, stern looks on their faces. I explained in my minimal Spanish that we were showing a film about coral reefs and they nodded gravely. They guardedly settled in to watch.
Squirmy children began to gather on the chairs.
An empanada vendor set up shop on the edge of the growing crowd. Hector and Karolin, who had appeared in our film, arrived with family. The breeze kicked up, our screen flapping dangerously. After a brief introduction by Valeria, Mateo and Monica, we started the show.
As chaotic as the square became, the seats remained filled. There was laughter and a few cheers when the audience recognized their own town and some of their neighbors in the film. It grew quiet when the documentary highlighted the plight of their local reef. By the end of the screening, even most of the squirmy kids stayed in place. The grim-faced police chief, I had noticed, spent more time watching the film than eyeing the crowd. The village elders cornered the scientists with questions, noting their own long experience with the local corals and the decline they’d witnessed.
Karolin approached me after the screening. She’s sixteen and has a beautiful four-month-old daughter. She has ambitions of going to nursing school and wanted my advice on scholarships. What could I say? How could we expect her to worry about the fate of a coral reef when she’s got dreams of her own that will require all of her energy and plenty of luck. My worries returned. Would anyone remember this film and its message? Would Saving Atlantis make a difference the next day people returned to their routines under the bite of the tropical sun in a place where merely surviving to the next meal is a challenge? Is worrying about saving a global ecosystem really just a luxury for people like me who’ve enjoyed any number of privileges? Was it wrong to ask these people to be the front line of defense for Varadero? I hoped not.
Next up was the island archipelago of San Bernardo where we would be screening in the town square of Santa Cruz del Islote, which is rumored to be the most densely inhabited island on earth. Population estimates range from five hundred to a thousand people who live in this tightly clustered collection of houses built edge to edge on the little patch of land in the middle of a vast lagoon studded with corals.
We traveled there by small launch, three hours from Cartagena. On the way I was pressed into service to help out with some underwater sample collections on Varadero. I’m a trained science diver and I’ve filmed around the world, but collecting samples is difficult work, much more challenging than shooting video. It’s easy to become flustered when you pair random tasks like filling gallon water jugs or chipping coral fragments and placing them in sterile bags with the requirement of staying alive under the water. I sucked down my oxygen twice as fast as Valeria Pizzaro, for whom working on Varadero is just another day at the office.
As I stole glances at circling schools of fish and looked at the vast, lumpy mounds of Varadero’s corals huddled under the cap of murky water and the churn passing boat traffic, I couldn’t help but think that I was saying goodbye to this reef. Two years earlier I had first filmed there. Now I was passing by again to screen the finished film, coming full circle. Would I ever have reason return? Or if I did, would the reef still exist? Or would it just become a huge underwater canyon carved out to make way for the massive Panamax freighters carrying Colombia’s mindboggling natural wealth to faraway shores just as the Spanish Galleons had done five hundred years before?
We arrived at Islote a little nervous. We had two main concerns: the availability of electricity and some unrest in neighboring islands. It seems that the area park service had stopped locals from cutting down mangrove trees they used to make charcoal, one of their only sources of cooking fuel, and the locals responded by burning down the park offices. Would outsiders be welcome in this climate?
But when we arrived at the docks on Islote, it was an idyllic scene. Children ages six to sixteen were flying gorgeous kites they’d fashioned out sticks and plastic bags and that flew, whether by skill, engineering or both…much better it seemed than the pricey contraptions you find at kite shops on the windy coast back home in Oregon. Daniel pulled out the camera to get shots and then a couple of the kids dipped into a concrete pen, pulling out a good-sized turtle with a tag on its flipper. At first we feared they might be offering us a meal, knowing that the threatened species is a delicacy here, and with good reason given the challenges of finding food on such a tiny, crowded island. But then they proceeded to scrub the algae off of its shell with handfuls of sand. They were merely spiffing it up for the camera, showing off their partnership with local environmentalists. They’re raising the animals, keeping them out of harms way until they’re large enough to survive on their own in a program that’s a partnership with a local eco-resort.
We were then greeted by El Tiburon, the local historian. I remembered him from our visit two years before. He is the guardian of island lore. And despite his menacing name (The Shark), the only danger is getting cornered by one of his tales without a polite way to excuse yourself. We sat and listened to some of his stories from the old days, and then he proceeded to draw a picture in the sand. It was a diagram of the ovens that they use to turn mangroves into charcoal, a painstaking process. I wondered if the non-sequitur was meant as an explanation of the recent unrest. When you hear of local people destroying the environment, it’s easy to get judgmental. But once you understand the underlying social and economic conditions, what’s black and white suddenly becomes gray. We thanked El Tiburon for the lecture and made for the town square, a few square meters of open concrete hemmed in by houses, the school and a church, with a little space dedicated for the patron, the Virgin del Carmen, and the blue cross which gives the island its name.
It was getting dark and there was still no sign of electricity. Locals were collecting water in five-gallon jugs, distributed from barrels that the navy brings weekly. Needless to say, there is no running water on the island. The electric utility isn’t much more developed. It is supplied by a generator that powers the schools by day, and then by night it’s switched to the households for a few hours of power. We set up the screen against a house, plugged the cord run through an open window and waited.
There were problems with the generator that night. When they switched it over from the school to the houses, it wouldn’t re-start. The battery was dead. Someone went to the pier to fetch a fresh battery from a fishing boat.
It was, by now, fully dark and a restless crowd had assembled in the tight space. We could feel the bodies moving around us in the dark. The sound of conversation and the shouts and laughter of the kids was a kind of music. This was real society, freed from the burden of electrical devices. It is so easy to idealize poverty. It’s easy to read joy and freedom into deprivation. But still, there is some kind of communal magic on that island. Kids run though the tight alleys, not worried about traffic. You’re free to claim a spot to sit on anyone’s porch. As visitors, we were greeted with smiles and curiosity, especially from the children. Valeria sat on the base of the cross and a two-year old boy, barely old enough to walk, crawled into her lap and promptly fell asleep. If there is a heaven, I hope it’s at least a little bit like this.
There was a chug and a cough from the direction of the generator shed and suddenly the lights popped on. A cheer rose up from the crowd. The show would go on. Our projector splashed light onto the screen while heat lightning flashed in the distance. This may not have been the very first film screened on the plaza on Islote, but if it was, I wouldn’t be surprised.
The film started and the audience grew silent. Children as young as four were glued to molded plastic chairs dragged out of nearby houses. Adults crowded the back, taking photos at the novelty of this ancient craft of cinema. Daniel did a rough count and stopped when he reached 125.
We lost half that number during the course of the film. But almost all of the children stayed until the end. And what lingers most in my mind is the cheer that rose from the crowd at the spark of electricity, that promise of technology and the novelty of moving pictures on a screen that still holds fascination one hundred years after early documentarian Dziga Vertov brought his films to the Russian countryside and first wowed peasants with the novel technology.
We returned to Cartagena the next day after some more sampling. Researchers can’t afford to rest between screenings, and neither could we. Daniel and I were pressed into service again as lab technicians, filtering water and labeling samples on the launch back to the city.
We screened that night at the Universidad de Cartagena in a classroom on the top floor of a colonial building in the historic marvel of the walled old city. The university has a central courtyard surrounded by three stories of classrooms, the kind of setting that makes you fall in love again with the idea of education.
The classroom was filled to the back with at least seventy guests. Hosted by environmental attorney Rafael Vargera, who appeared weakened and more frail since we interviewed him in 2016, plastic tubes winding down from his nose to an oxygen tank at his feet. But as he introduced the film, his voice regained its old booming authority of the former guerilla fighter and revolutionary orator he’d been in his youth.
After the screening, the audience remained, like usual, for the Q&A, sharing their question-statements, debating, arguing and philosophizing. These were some of the most engaged audiences I’ve ever experienced. Everyone stayed glued to their seats for the discussion. It was rumored that there were some former and current government officials in the crowd, people who could make a difference in the fate of Varadero. In the echoing, whitewashed walls of the old university building in the oldest part of Colonial New Spain, we discussed the fate of a reef that had survived, somehow, five hundred years of developed humanity. We were seventy people in a room. Outside, the massive ports of Cartagena were shipping Colombia’s wealth around the world. How could this ragtag group of students, scientists, filmmakers, faculty and a few officials, plus one aging guerilla fighter, stand against the full might of global commerce? What difference can one film make in all this vastness? Five nights of screening. Perhaps three or four hundred people saw the film. Maybe a handful were moved.
It was the end of the trip, but as we walked through the lantern-lit streets of the old town with a graduate student as our guide, I couldn’t keep the doubts at bay. We had made a film. We had burned how much carbon traveling around the world to make this film? We had burned how much more getting here to screen it? And maybe four hundred people in Colombia saw it live. Is that worth it?
There is an amazing moment when you share a film with an audience. We’ve screened the film dozens of times in audiences ranging from twenty to a thousand. And sometimes I wonder if it’s self-indulgent. Are we changing the world, or are we merely feeding our own egos? Poet and screenwriter Jim Harrison once wrote that we artist types are always, “yelling ‘look at me’ like a three-year-old who has just shit in the sandbox.” Is that what this trip was about? We went home. Karolin is still in Bocachica with her baby, dreaming of becoming a nurse. El Tibaron is still telling his stories on the dock of Islote where kids still fly kites made of plastic scraps and families still gather their water in jugs. In Bogotá and Corvallis intellectual types still debate the fate of the environment while sipping craft beers. On Varadero Monica Medina, Mateo Lopez Victoria and Valeria Pizzaro are still gathering samples beneath a cap of murky water while speedboats and tankers churn the water overhead. And does anything change? Does cinema in public matter? Or is it just a diversion? A few moments of flickering light in the darkness to distract us from a world we are ruining.
A few days after we returned from Colombia, Monica Medina send me a note about another documentary needed for a new research effort in Colombia. It was time to move on to the next film. But embedded in the postscript to that email may have been the answer that I’d been searching for. It read:
PS: I am not sure if you have seen on social media that the national marine science institute in Colombia has officially declared Varadero as an area of need for protection. Another governmental agency has produced a statement for need to make sure some sort of protection is required. Finally the fishing communities of Tierra Bomba and the islands has declared that they won’t agree to any infrastructure development unless the reef is protected!!
I don’t want to imply that this is the result of screening our film in Colombia. There is an army of people like Monica and Mateo and Valeria and Rafael who are working hard every day to change the fate of this rare reef. There is no way to know for certain if any of the people involved in the decisions to support the reef were in the audience at our screenings, or if they even heard of our film.
But maybe, just maybe they were.