Marseille FID Film Festival presents an introspective look at Bogota in limbo.
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: August 18, 2017


Andrés Cháves Sánchez

Colombia 2017 55 min

Resembling an actual combat zone, the block of ten houses in Bogota’s Cartucho zone were once known as one of the most dangerous territories in the world. Knifings, rapes and shootings were common daily occurrences in this fatal place populated not only by Columbians but by poverty stricken people from all over. Even a two euro debt could warrant a death threat. Killing was not only a practical struggle of money for life, but was often celebrated in unrestrained massacres, victims struck with dozens of knife wounds, their bodies ripped open.

Cartucho wasn’t always like this. A regular slum where inhabitants once consumed pills and marijuana, it was completely transformed when crack, morphine, cocaine and other harder drugs began to be sold and consumed in crack houses that appeared on every corner. Marked by an increasing rise in crime, the slum became a merciless death zone. Local dealers accumulated more influence and power, as they moved to occupy the terrain. In this enclosed world, simply crossing a road between two rival drug sellers could be a question of life or  death. Undercover police officers who infiltrated the gangs in this territory often disappeared and were never heard from again. Their bodies were most probably buried under cement.

What makes Andrés Cháves Sánchez’s documentary Cartucho a decisive inclusion in the Marseilles FID Festival, a fest known for valuing complex, sublime and even sometimes contradictory forms far from the mainstream, is the fact that the filmmaker illustrates life in this state of limbo in all its multiple paradoxes and ambiguities. He also includes witness statements intercut with archival images of daily street life. Throughout the doc, Cháves incorporates short interviews, capturing skeptical, and at times, aggressive commentary from those standing around, who refused to participate or collaborate in these exchanges. Cháves continues to highlight other realties, for example Cartucho’s habitants as hard working people, who sift through almost 70% of the garbage of Bogota looking for food or other useful materials. One sombre interviewee points out the seriousness and dignity of their useful work for the town of Bogota.

What is quite surprising, in this context, are the dancing parties in the streets of Cartucho, expressing joy and fun. These images conclude Cháves’ wide panorama of a life lived in chaos. From the distance, they look like death dances in an abyss, performed by the stunned inhabitants, who have nothing to lose, expect or fear. “We are confronted with a paradox; that joy of life often unfolds in the most unexpected situations, where death is quite near. People who have always lived in a dysfunctional society and whose health has never been a priority, seem to find it much easier to celebrate life, enjoying the little moments of intensity. ”


An even more surprising aspect is the fact that young women from elite families show up on this death ground to have a good time. Plied with alcohol and drugs, they become easy victims for paying clients, drug addicts themselves, including lawyers, engineers and other high ranking participants, who lock themselves up with these women often for days on end.

Cartucho was  even utilized by medical students, who would show up in the early hours asking for cadavers, making special requests such as, “with good legs” or “not killed by knife wounds”…. The pragmatic acceptance of this level of crime even from scientists may appear astonishing at first. Again, it suggests that Cartucho was, without a doubt, accepted as a useful working tool integrated into the functioning reality of Bogota. .

Nearly 50,000 people lost their lives here, not counting those who disappeared or were buried. Uniformed officers rarely offered protection to Cartucho’s residents, but rather used them as targets for some of their wilder killing sprees, even taking advantage of the helpless homeless in the streets.

Today the terrain has completely changed. The old Cartucho buildings were destroyed and replaced by the Third Millennium Park, an area of sterile, minimalist  architecture lined with green plants. Some of the displaced inhabitants linger in the area, declaring that they still sense a cold and frightening silence on the ground. The zone is nearly empty. Cháves documents  the reconstructed area mostly at night. Many of the people today, who did not   witnesses the old Cartucho, seem oblivious to the fact that they may be walking over the largest cemetery in Bogota, where hundreds of anonymous skeletons are still buried deep in the ground.

In 2011, Andrés Cháves Sánchez filmed an experimental short documentary about an abandoned ghost town (La Hortúa). Here he focused on a crumbling, neglected hospital, which was once one of the most important hospitals in Colombia. Today, it is occupied only by squatters, protesting its closure. Cháves discreetly follows their daily life, between haunted memories and the actual silence and solitude of the inhabitants.


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