Anhell69, the winner of the Golden Dove prize in the international competition of the DOK Leipzig and a special jury mention at Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival, is a film about the queer community living in the Colombian city of Medellín. Its relevance goes way beyond its immediate topic. Simultaneously critiquing precarious life in contemporary Latin America and celebrating the love for life in the presence of death, the film offers a novel view of our changing times.
Anhell69, an angel in hell, is a name of an Instagram profile of one of the film’s protagonists. It is also a metaphor for the global situation in which the freedom of choice in terms of identity, such as nonbinary gender identities, reached its final limit in the form of class and social injustice. The belief of previous decades that acknowledging differences would put an end to inequalities didn’t age well.
The ghosts of colonial times
Documenting the precarious life of the young queer community of Colombia, director Theo Montoya provides a shockingly candid insight into contemporary Latin America, where the injustices of colonial heritage intertwine with the brutality of the global liberal capitalism of today, and jointly forming a devastating oppression based on the differences of identity and class.
Colombia is a country in Northwestern South America, bearing the name of Christopher Columbus, the «discoverer» of the New World, and its history as a colony of Spain is very alive today. It is known as the most Roman Catholic of the South American countries. Its economy is based on agriculture, while industries and services are concentrated in a few large metropolitan areas where more than one-third of Colombian inhabitants reside. The unequal distribution of wealth is coupled with the nation’s political instability. The illicit drug trade, mainly cocaine, remains a major vehicle of social promotion.
On the margins of fiction
In Medellín, the director’s hometown and the site of the documentary, all these features converge. It is one of Colombia’s largest cities but also one of the most dangerous and conservative places. It was infamous for being the headquarters of the Pablo Escobar drug cartel. Anhell69 unveiled another of its’ dark secrets: in Medellín, queer citizens do not live long enough to get old. They are the prey of the violence, prejudice, and repression that reign in the city. «In ten years, I see myself dead», says Camilo Nayar, a 21-year-old graphic design student, when interviewed in the film. A moment later, we learn, from the soft-voiced narrator, that Camilo Nayar died a week after the interview.
The film is structured as a document filmed at the margins of the production of a fiction film, a B-series sci-fi/horror set in a dystopian city. A fictitious metaphor of Medellín, ruled by violence, where there were so many dead that there was no room in the cemeteries, and ghosts had begun to coexist with the living. Among the young, the sexual attraction to ghosts developed, Spectrophilia, and this new sexual practice rapidly spread around. The two films are neatly interwoven. The documentary’s protagonists are introduced as being filmed at the casting for the fiction. Anhell69 is the name of the Instagram profile of one of them, but it also describes the fictional characters, the «angels living in the hell of desires». We learn that the government and the church, to annihilate young people with Spectrophiliac tendencies, started a social cleansing of the city led by Spectrophiliac Hunters. We see a man on the street, preaching and urging people to repent and take care of their kids because «the Devil is tempting our youth» and «homosexuality is the rotten apple of this day».
The funeral song
We also see the protagonists celebrating and dancing, with cheeky music and bright, colourful flashes illuminating the dark. The parties where Spectrophiliac humans mingle with the ghosts and places where the documentary film protagonists spend their life, all at once. The interviews with the queer citizens of Medellín are mostly dedicated to questions about their hopes and dreams. It is, I believe, at this point that this film gets truly innovative – not in using the hybridity of film genres to talk about the fluidity of gender but by showing that, basically, this doesn’t matter anymore. «I care more about having acne than being a homosexual», says Nayar. We see the celebrated Columbian director Victor Gaviria driving the funeral car roaming on the streets of Medellin throughout the film. This is reminiscent of another queer film, Cruising by William Friedkin, a crime thriller about a serial killer targeting gay men on the streets of New York from 1980. Cruising was, historically, one of the first films to openly portray gay protagonists and the dangers they face due to social prejudice. It was welcomed as an open call for more social tolerance towards gender and other diversities. Since then, an outstanding sensibility and tolerance towards diverse identities and ways of life developed in western societies, but fundamentally, the class differences remained, and in terms of social inequalities, little has changed. Today, the gap between the rich and the poor seems deeper than ever. And when the funeral car is cruising on the streets of Medellín in Anhell69, it is as if, along with the queer kids of the city, the key values of modernity would be taken to rest too, from the celebrated identity politics to the belief in the future itself. In his reply to the question of how he sees himself in five years, Nayar explains that it is difficult for him to come to terms with the ideal of the future «and what you are going to do when everything I have now is already great and priceless.» It is easy to share the director’s desire to understand Nayar’s way of seeing life. The attempt to grasp the contours of some strange new world that is taking form makes this documentary truly special and unique.
Anhell69 screens its Dutch Premiere in the IDFA 2022 Best of Fests programme