Colombia, France, 2017 120 min
Natalia Orozco has given us a valuable documentary about the process of negotiations that led to Colombia’s peace agreement. The Nobel prize-winning president Juan Manuel Santos is the story’s main protagonist, while his FARC counterparts are also allowed plenty of screen time. The film provides a unique insight into the dynamics of the peace talks, and serves as a good introduction to the battle lines of the civil war. The war’s violence and suffering constitute a recurring theme in the story. What the film fails to explain, however, is the popular opposition to the deal that was negotiated.
A Unique Insight
When the Guns Go Silent introduces its audience to the Santos government’s main negotiators and their counterparts in FARC’s leadership in the years 2010-2016. Through four of the five years the talks went on, Orozco recorded the unfolding of events. She’s had exclusive access to the most central players over time. In this way we get not only the president’s and the guerrilla leader’s perspective on how events played out, but also a closer look at the leading protagonists’ thoughts at different junctures of the peace process. The documentary provides a unique insight into the road towards an armistice.
The documentary’s interviews are of historical importance. With this film Orozco tries not only to specifically explain the war’s final phase, but also to portray the nature of the long-running civil war. Through the extensive use of archival materials we follow Colombia’s political history from the summer of 2010 until the end of 2016 and also the main lines in the 52-year long war (the former more thoroughly, the latter more anecdotally). With one hour and 53 minutes at hand, what one can present is inevitably limited.
«The documentary thus provides a unique insight into the road towards an armistice.»
The film’s main story starts with Juan Manuel Santos winning the presidential elections on 7 August 2010. The president is portrayed as the one who both initiates and maintains the progress of the peace process. Few critical questions are raised about his motives or about his past record as president Uribe’s minister of defence. A long line of Santos’ peace negotiators are given screen time in the documentary. Facilitators like Henry Acosta and negotiators like Humberto de la Calle, Sergio Jaramillo and Frank Pearl are interviewed on several occasions. President Santos’ older brother and advisor Enrique Santos Calderón also shares his perspectives on the peace process’ first phase. The one who emerges with the most credibility in the film is the government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle, who comes across as thoughtful, empathetic and controlled. The documentary captures the lawyer’s ability to identify with the situation of opponents. As becomes clear in several interviews, this leaves the director impressed.
«The documentary’s interviews are of historical importance.»
On the opposite side of the negotiating table we encounter the FARC guerrilla’s leadership, of whom commandant Pablo Catatumbo is the most heavily featured. Like Santos, Catatumbo is allowed to comment on the developments from the beginning until the end. We’re introduced to the commandant’s mother and also observe him talking politics in less formal surroundings. Another FARC leader, Timochenko, is also repeatedly interviewed in the documentary, but never as intimately. Otherwise, central figures in FARC’s team of negotiators like Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, Pastor Alape and Marcos León Calarcá are interviewed.
Opposition to the Peace Process
FARC proves unwilling to accept self-criticism as readily as the director wants. Fewer critical questions are posed to the government than to FARC. Nor is it examined how Santos, a man who campaigned so hard for war, ended up as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The documentary’s most glaring blind spot, however, is its treatment of the popular opposition to the peace process. Scant attention is paid to the winners of the referendum, who rejected the peace agreement a week before Santos was awarded the prize. No opponents of the agreement are interviewed, and when we see it being rejected on 2 October 2016 it consequently seems somewhat accidental. Moreover, while it’s true that the agreement was voted down by a narrow margin, the film fails to provide any good explanations as to why the people chose as they did. Nor does the documentary look closer at the roughly fifty changes that were made to the accord’s text after the referendum, changes which enabled the Colombian Congress to ratify the peace accord on 30 November and thus get the process back on track.
A crucial element in this picture is ex-president Álvaro Uribe’s attitude to the peace talks. That Uribe became a leading voice against the peace talks at an early stage emerges clearly in the documentary, but his reasons for doing so remain unexplored. Before the referendum, it was also Uribe who led the “No” campaign. Uribe was nevertheless an ally of Santos in the summer of 2010, the film’s starting point, and as far as FARC was concerned they were two sides of the same coin. At the time when the film ends, the close of 2016, Uribe has gone on to become the peace process’ most vehement opponent.
«Scant attention is paid to the winners of the referendum, who rejected the peace agreement a week before Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.»
The question is how the former president, whom Santos served as defence minister for four years, went from being Santos’ backer to the nemesis of the peace agreement. The treatment of this crucial topic comes across as one-sided. Only Santos’ opinion is heard, whereas neither Uribe nor any of his allies are interviewed. The documentary does show some brief news footage of Uribe’s statements against the peace process, but his rationale for opposing it is only superficially examined. Óscar Zuluaga, president Santos’ rival in the 2014 elections and an important opponent of both the peace talks and the ensuing agreement, is similarly never interviewed.