Companionship and levity emerge from the exploitation of the drug trade.
Manos Sucias, co-written and directed by Josef Kubota Wladyka, is a tense and urgent drama. The ripped-from-the-headlines story has nineteen-year-old Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez) transporting a torpedo full of drugs to a rendezvous spot in the middle of the ocean off the Pacific coast of Colombia. Their journey—a coming of age road movie set on the water—has the pair encountering racism and setbacks as they also contemplate their future.
Wladyka, who deservedly won the Best New Narrative Director at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, has created a gritty but lyrical drama. Many of the elements in Manos Sucias are palpable—from the heat that beats down on the characters, right down to the rocking of the boat. Wladyka shrewdly makes the characters’ moments of boredom and anxiety interesting and authentic by emphasizing the space—from a cramped boat on the open water to the barrios and jungles the characters inhabit. The film memorably conveys a vibrant sense of time and place.
Wladyka also captures the rhythm of life in Buenaventura, Colombia, where Delio has dreams of being a rapper. The actors' expressions are considerably telling as they experience reversals of fortune, emotional crescendos, as well as moral and ethical dilemmas.
Manos Sucias is a probing character study, and Delios and Jacobo grapple with decisions that have tremendous repercussions in their lives. I spoke with Wladyka about how he came to make his astonishing film.
Gary M. Kramer What prompted you to make a film in Colombia about drug trafficking?
Josef Kubota Wladyka It came from traveling around that region, and backpacking there as a young man when I was twenty-six years old. I’m thirty-two, an old man now. I was with friends and we were going through Ecuador and Colombia trying to experience things and learn about the world. We went along the coast and traveled around with fishermen to get to these beaches. We went into this world and to places that were completely under siege. In talking to the locals, there were a million stories that could have made a really interesting film. This was the summer before I started the graduate film program at NYU. I was interested in exploring and investigating more of these regions. I would go back over the summers, and I met Kelly Morales, and she’s from Tumaco, a city on the Pacific coast of Colombia. I asked her to go with me to areas like Buenaventura and research more of what’s going on.
GMK Were those areas dangerous?
JKW Certainly! These are tough areas, but we always tried to make sure we were as safe as possible and always went around with local people. You would hear crazy stories of guys going in these narco-submarines that they built in the jungle, or going on go-fast boats, or tugging a narco-torpedo…
GMK What’s a go-fast boat?
JKW It’s a big boat with five or six huge motors on the back of it, and they pack it full of bales of cocaine and they race up the coast towards Panama or Mexico with the drugs (laughter). As I researched more, there was all kinds of stuff going on in these areas. That brought me specifically to Buenaventura, which is the biggest port in Colombia. A lot of the money comes through in imports and exports, but the people who live in that area are not part of that economy. It’s a place very much under siege. I thought, There’s a film to be made here.
GMK Were the actors non-professionals?
JKW The actors are actually theater students. They are very serious, talented theater students who come from the same school in Buenaventura, Universidad del Valle Sede Pacífico. They come from the same barrios where all of the events in the film take place, but they are all very passionate. There are a lot of talented artists in Buenaventura—rappers, musicians, etcetera.
GMK How did you work with the actors on the characters and their expressions? There’s a great scene of Delio and Jacobo singing in the boat, but I was tense, expecting something tragic to happen during that scene. How much of the film was improvised, or created by the actors working on their characters?
JKW The script was co-written by Alan Blanco, who also served as the film’s cinematographer. The plot was always kind of there with the script, but when we went to cast the film, I wanted them to bring as much of their personal lives to the characters and their situations. During the rehearsal process, we would explore the scenes through improvisation and if we discovered something good, we would lock it down and change it in the script. It was such an intensive shoot—twenty-eight days—in such an intense shooting place.
GMK You film the drama beautifully, as when you shoot the boat from the narco-torpedo’s point of view. How did you approach telling this story, balancing the lyricism with harsh reality?
JKW We very much wanted the character stuff to come out in the quiet moments, but we didn’t want that to go on too long. We wanted to ground the audience in the immediacy of going on one of these trips. The plot comes from a real guy who went on a go-fast boat journey with some kids. A lot of the time, they will be going somewhere and then get a call and be told to just sit there. There’s a lot of down time where they just wait in the ocean, or on a river, or bury all the bales of cocaine on the beach and hold tight until they are told where to go next. That’s how we got that rhythm of the action going forward with these little quiet down moments where it stopped.
GMK Why did you choose to structure the narrative so it flashes back and then picks up the thread? It almost spoils the tension because you see Delio after he gets the trafficking job and then before he gets it. Eventually, the narrative picks up and moves forward.
JKW I hear what you are saying. It’s something that came out through the editing process. We wanted to start the film in this way, where you are going on this journey and it’s mysterious, and you don’t know what’s happening. But you know there’s something going on between these two guys. We don’t say it’s a flashback, but you realize it’s the day before—we wanted to keep the immediacy of decisions being made and let the audience figure it out.
GMK There's a line in the film that stuck with me: "The mind speaks; the body can't resist." I thought that was really telling, because these characters want a better life and yet, they can get it through only illegal means, which can be irresistible. Do you feel hope is cut for youth like Delio in that they need to traffic drugs to earn money? Is that the only way out of the barrio?
JKW Well, that is one of the things we wanted to highlight. The reality is that in Buenaventura, the youth get involved in this stuff. They are very young, and it’s a vicious cycle of them getting caught up in it at a young age. Boom! It becomes their life. That’s a glimpse of what we wanted to show in the film.
GMK That’s a parallel you could apply to many places in the United States and around the world.
JKW Yeah, it’s a universal thing. Buenaventura is a specific place, and it’s a specific leg of an issue that is an international issue. We very much wanted to capture the loss of innocence of this bright-eyed kid.
GMK Could you do what Delio and Jacobo did?
JKW Maybe … . I don’t know. If I didn’t have any other choices, you know. In a way, it’s such a matter-of-fact thing that goes on there. One thing that I’m actually really proud of in the film is featuring the music and the actors and the talented people of Buenaventura. The culture of the city is affecting all of Colombia so much and our film shows that. It shows the beautiful music from the area and I hope that more filmmakers will come there and try to make films there. I think they will. Our film is one story, but there are thousands of stories to be told there.
GMK Would you go back and tell another one?
JKW It would have to be much later. This was really tough to make.
GMK What was difficult about it?
JKW Oh, everything—the physical nature of the shoot, shooting on boats, shooting in these areas, and getting everyone in the community on board to let us shoot there. We did these filmmaking workshops with the people in the communities during pre-production to give back to them in a way, so they can continue to tell their own stories as well. I am friends with like half of Buenaventura on Facebook, and some of the kids in our workshops are making these little web series and posting them which is awesome. They are really, really cool. I’m so happy about that.
GMK There are several conversations about soccer that address issues of race (and to some extent, class), but also concerns of speed versus vision. I’m curious which quality you possess, and what do you think Delio and Jacobo exhibit?
JKW I play basketball, so I’m very fast on the court. Physically, I can sprint fast, and there was an ongoing thing where Cristian [Delio] and I would have sprint races on the beach because he thought he was faster, but he never beat me, and I’m old and he’s young. He’s twenty-two now; he had his twenty-first birthday while we were shooting. I think I have a way of gaining trust and getting people to come on board and work with me and form intimate relationships, especially with these actors. From the very beginning, when we first sat down in the rehearsal process, I was like, "Anything you ever want to ask me about my personal life, I will share with you, because we are going to talk a lot about your personal lives to get these performances and for them to be real. We need to go there and it needs to be intense."
JKWIf you don’t mind me asking, what are some of the things you shared with them?
JKW That I didn’t have a relationship with my father. I was raised by my Japanese mother and my two brothers and my father wasn’t present in our lives. He passed away four years ago. It was an intense moment for me, my mom, and my brothers to go his funeral. I would talk to the actors all about that. They had extremely hard lives and there has been a lot of tragedy and death in both of their lives. The moment when Jacobo confesses something tragic in the film, the story he is actually telling is a real story that happened in barrio Independencia, where he grew up.
GMK You create tension throughout the film. The scene with the brujitas was terrific. Can you talk about that?
JKW It’s a very superstitious area. The people really believe in that stuff in the area. We actually had an improvised scene with Delio rolling through the mangroves saying he had a bad feeling.
GMK I had a bad feeling through the whole film! I like that you create an atmosphere of danger without showing too much of the dangerous activity.
JKW I think it’s such a complex region of Colombia to explain everything going on there, you would need a Ken Burns thirty-hour special on it. The reason we incorporated the paramilitary, or the guerillas, was because it was just real. These groups are present in this area, and they are fighting over the territory for control of barrios or a certain piece of land. That’s where all the violence comes from. In Buenaventura last month, there were protests going on asking for the government to come and help them because the violence there had reached an all-time high. It’s the reality of what goes on there. We’re shooting this film for such a small amount of money. We had three military uniforms that we had to use for lots of different people. We didn’t have fifty extras. I would have loved to do that, but we had to be very economical in how we utilized that stuff.
GMK Did you have any pushback from the government, or were they excited you came to Buenaventura and made a film there?
JKW I think it’s not particularly a part of Colombia that they want to broadcast, obviously. But Colombians in general are happy that Americans came to such a controversial place and made a film. We had our premiere at the Cartagena Film Festival and the Colombians’ way of watching the film is totally different. They understand and know what goes on there, and what it is like. It is nothing short of a miracle that we were able to make this film. Probably right now, we would not be able to make this film. It’s the reality. We had a small window. All these people came together to make this happen in a very specific place and time.
GMK What was the appeal of Colombia?
JKW It was when I met these theater kids and did these auditions with them, I thought they were awesome. If I get these kids and stick them in a movie, and actually shoot here, how could it not be an interesting, cool movie? I connected to them the most. They are fearless and great actors.
GMK There is always a considerable threat of death for the characters throughout the film. They encounter several characters wielding guns. Can you talk about the guns?
JKW For the scenes with guns—which include run-ins with the military, and the navy, and the paramilitary, guerrillas, etcetera—we had conversations with the actors that we were not trying to make a political statement about what was wrong or right, because we are in no way, shape, or form, the right people to say that. But what we did want to do was show that whoever has the guns has the power. That’s the reality of the place. Whether it’s corrupt police, or different gangs that control the barrios, if you have the guns, you have the power.
GMK There is a death scene in the film that is stunningly filmed and filled with emotion. How did you craft the way you shot this sequence?
JKW That was something that Alan Blanco—the co-writer and cinematographer—and I wrote very specifically in the script. We knew we wanted to put the audience there, through the sound design too. It was an element of the film where we wanted to use all the tools of filmmaking to ground the audience in that experience. At first it sounds like the point of view of the guy being drowned underwater, but as his life being taken away, there is the sound of breathing, then it gets really quiet…
GMK It was exceptional. I was holding my breath the whole time! Were the other action scenes difficult to shoot in any way? You had these great chase sequences on the brujitas.
JKW Yes, that was very hard to shoot. The brujitas are not…well…safety-tested. (laughter) They are rickety. When they are used for transportation between towns, one of the challenges is controlling the traffic. At certain times, so many of them would be on the track. You need to stop and hold it to shoot a sequence. Depending on how many people are coming on a brujita, if there are three coming towards us, we get off the track because they have more people. They go by, and then we get back on.
GMK How did Spike Lee come to be the executive producer of this film?
JKW Spike was my directing teacher in my third year at the NYU graduate film program. He had always known about the project. He gave me a grant for my thesis, which I used to continue researching and travelling through Colombia. He would write letters, and championed the film, but he was not officially on board until we showed him a cut. He really loved the movie.
GMK The film doesn’t show Afro-Colombians in such a great light. They are drug lords, and drug runners, living in a dangerous area where families are damaged.
JKW I feel the complete opposite of that! For me, it was always about the Afro-Colombians who have been historically forgotten and are trapped in this world. They are brothers that we all understand. I thought the film showed a glimpse of what they are trapped in. In Colombia, at the Cartagena Film Festival, all the people from Buenaventura said their favorite scene is when the guys sing the song together in the boat. It encapsulates the whole situation: We are happy people, but we are suffering. We are in this boat doing this thing. That’s what the song is all about, that’s what the lyrics are. It shows the realities of what goes on there. There are people doing this who are not tinted-window, Mercedes Benz-driving thugs. These are people who are exploited. I know that the film is kind of grim in that way, but that’s the point. This cycle is going to go on, and continue to go on.
To learn more about Brooklyn-based director Josef Kubota Wladyka, visit his website.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.