When Colombia‘s president Juan Manuel Santos signed a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC) in November 2016 it was heralded as an unprecedented move in the country’s long march to peace.
The deal, which ended 53 years of civil war, earned Santos a Nobel Prize and brought hope to millions of Colombians, where GDP hovers around $700 per capita annual – far behind its southern neighbour’s Brazil‘s $3,200.
But, as this eloquent and sensitive Finnish documentary shows, the peace deal did little to quell violence or inequality in the country of 48 million, where a small elite – mostly descended from Spanish settlers – controls the lion’s share of its resources.
The directors open with a lengthy and poignant sequence that introduces FARC guerrillas in their jungle base as they prepare to give up their arms. A long opening shot shows one of them cradling a «liberated» government semi-automatic rifle as he tells of his love for his weapon.
Camp is struck and bonfires made of all the equipment the mixed group of armed men and women will not be taking with them.
Sadness and anxiety are evident in the ranks – even if one of the senior men, self-educated, tries to quell their concerns. Privately, in a conversation with trusted colleagues, he later admits that demobilised FARC members are already being taken off buses by paramilitaries and shot.
There is a resignation about FARC’s standing down after more than half a century of conflict. The men and women recognise that the war cannot be won, and they know that peace is the only way forward. But, as they traverse vast distances by canoe along deep and wide forest rivers, they instinctively know that the ruling class will fight to ensure they are sold down the proverbial «river».
Having established the way the water is flowing, Colombia In My Arms has a dream-like quality, interrupted by occasional bursts of violence (seen in mobile phone footage recorded by coca-plant farmers attacked and killed by government forces) and the statements of right-wing politicians opposed to the peace accords.
FARC’s failure to switch from a guerrilla group to a political force capable of gaining democratic office has a depressing inevitability about it in an age fast becoming accustomed to the overwhelming power of billionaire-backed populism throughout the world. The swift resumption of assault on poor farmers who are forced to grow coca as a cash crop by heavily armed U.S. backed paramilitary forces, shows how paper-thin the commitment of Santos and his government to a real peace actually was.
healing the divisions will take much, much more than any political agreement.
In an ellipse that feels just a little forced, the filmmakers bookend the film with two characters from opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum – a FARC commander and an urbane member of Colombia’s landed gentry. All the former FARC man wants is an honest life for himself and his wife and children. Having swapped the verdant jungle for a small house in a poor district of an urban sprawl, the former revolutionary soldier speaks of his dream for a Colombia where respect and equality rule.
Far from the madding crowd, in a beautiful stone-built villa where white-uniformed liveried servants discretely pour wine and fetch ice for whiskey, the handsome squire talks God and «love thy neighbour» and expresses a remarkably similar philosophy. It may not have been forced – there is no reason to believe these are anything other than the genuine views of our characters. But perhaps the intention is to signal through that common vision just how far apart Colombia’s opposing social classes really are.
Work to be done
For a country where – by one measure – targeted violence against community leaders opposing destructive environmental projects has vastly increased since the 2016 peace accords. With a global record of 106 such murders in 2019 alone, healing the divisions will take much, much more than any political agreement.
It is with a nod to this that the film – which screened at Helsinki’s DocPoint 2020 in January – closes with an on-screen statement: «In memory of those who have lost their lives as a result of the armed conflict or while defending the peace in Colombia».