Movies Alias MariaThe 38th Mill Valley Film Festival has made a special effort to find and present Spanish language films this year, with ten offerings, including Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica and mother Spain. Alias Maria, by José Luis Rogeles Gracia of Colombia takes on one of the longest civil wars in the world, in his own country.  Some date the beginnings of Colombia’s near permanent state of violence to the assassination in 1948 of the leading Liberal party candidate for President, others to the formation of FARC in 1954, and still others to the rise of the enormous and competing narco cartels (the Medellín and the Cali) in the 1980 [here for details].  Whenever it began, it has grown and morphed, participants, locations, leaders and combatants have changed  — to this day.  Peace talks were said to be in the final stages (and here) one month ago, September 1915.

Within this war (220,000 people dead between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians and more than five million forced from their homes between 1985 – 2012) Rogeles Garcia focuses on a story of children in the war, joining several other recent films doing so. [Beasts of No Nation with Idris Elba also at the MVFF; Werener Herzog’s 1984 Ballad of the Little Soldier; Heart of Fire 2010, Uganda; War Child, Africa; Innocent Voices, El Salvador; Children of War, and many others at Cinema for Peace.

Maria [Karen Torres], an alias, and thus the title, is a thirteen year old girl of striking Indian features.  She is uniformed in jungle camo and carries an AK-47 of indeterminate vintage, as do all her comrades.  She has also been introduced to the world of adult sex, having as a “companion,” Mauricio [Carlos Clavijo] a young man and squad leader of the force she is in. In the first of many bad decisions, the leader of the group sends his infant son, in Maria’s arms, on a four day jungle march to presumed safety.  She is protected by Mauricio, her companion, Byron [Anderson Gomez], an Afro-Colombian of perhaps 18 and Yuldor [Erik Ruiz], aspiring to manhood at about twelve years old. Diana [Lola Lagos], the infant’s mother is in the leadership of the unit and cannot be spared.

The trek is absolutely arduous, for audience as well as actors, who lived during the filming in the same conditions as the guerrillas they are portraying.  Sweat beads Maria’s face in the oppressive near-equatorial heat. They march in rubber boots, down muddy trails, across rivers and up steep embankments. The baby cries. Forever it sometimes seems.  Maria has little or no knowledge of what to do.  Byron gives a hand from time to time, experienced as the oldest of four brothers in diapers and bottles.  They run, slip, crawl, hide, scan the dense green jungle for signs of the army or right-wing paramilitaries, known to be nearby. The baby cries. Maria, it turns out,  is carrying her own child as well, three to four months pregnant.  She is thirteen years old.

It is grueling to watch, not because of bloodshed or sadistic cruelty, of which there is much much more in any run-of-the-mill American thriller or war movie, but because of the almost non-stop physical exertion, often shown in close up  by marvelous Steadicam shots.  We cannot imagine, at times, how the cameraman followed, slipping through, around, under and over jungle vines on the same treacherous footing we see the protagonists dealing with .  And the baby keeps crying.

Every film maker has to find the right spot between the realistic portrayal of lives and events and the ability of an audience to observe and process and keep their attention focused.  If a story, or the acting is too flimsy or improbable, some will wander.  Too realistic or difficult, some will flee.  We want to watch people escape through muddy, dangerous fields, not do it ourselves. Alias Maria is about as intense a film as I have ever seen, in good part because there is no uplift of heroes and transcendent deeds, no difficulties overcome and triumph in the end.  It is one of the few true war stories I have ever seen.

I would be giving too much of it away to say just how it is real. Suffice to say that danger is everywhere and in everyone.  The Army and right-wing squads are savage; the Americans with them are no more admirable than their clients.  The guerrillas are savage. The unaffiliated civilians do what they must and hope that whoever is around their homes will go away. Maria and Yuldor get a bit of a pass.  They are still children, regardless of the big guns they carry and the intent to use them.  She pauses in a stranger’s house to gaze wistfully at the daughter’s collection of dolls. He tries his best to imitate the older men. Their youth and grit make us like them though they both show their own ability to threaten and endanger.

For me the reality was right, bearable.  The meta-story was unmistakable: This Is War. Unadorned. For others the full immersion into jungle and effort and error and above all the baby crying was too much. Their attention was on escape, not on absorbing a story.

Rogeles Gracia spoke afterward about the fierce ambient noise of the jungle as they were filming, so distracting they had to edit and layover a less intrusive sound track in some places.  He may well have thought about this with the baby as well.  A baby’s scream, in hunger or discomfort, short of a tiger’s scream may be the most harrowing sound we humans hear, hard wired to respond. In a dark theater there is no way to relieve the distress.

Shot on location, each day’s shoot involved an hour or more of trekking, carrying equipment, food and water. The scraggly villages appear exactly as they are; chicken, pigs, dogs, trash heaps, a bicycle or two; no sound-stage reconstructions here. Two faces in particular will stay with you: a couple in late old age, barely able to maintain themselves in a bare-walled house, with whom the baby is left, one more decision in a string of bad ones.

Maria is stunningly played by Karen Torres, only thirteen herself at the time of shooting.  Rogeles Gracia spent months interviewing children and others for the film, many of them ex-combatants.  In remarks afterwards he said that the original story, brought to him by collaborator Diego Vivanco gradually became real as they interviewed.  As the chosen actors were given leave to re-do their scripted lines in their own words it entered the neo-realism of earlier cinema: real people saying real things about real circumstances through which they were again living – with cameras running.

Some have complained that we get no backstory for any of them, no chit-chat as they grope their way through the jungle about their lives before, or the ordinary minutiae of conversion.  We do not learn about the war, the competing sides, ideas, ideologies. And I say, right. Though there are certainly those who join one side or another because of deep beliefs, vengeful anger, the thrill of danger, there are others who do not. They are there because War Is. This is their reality: heat, insects, fear.  The only reality is One More Step.  Alias Maria accurately shows us this.

If it survives the festival circuit, which it began in May at the Cannes Festival with the Certain Regard award for the director [interview here], to find a place in American theaters, I say go, but go forewarned.  Not because it’s too bloody, or even too cruel.  It’s simply very very real.

As a result of making the movie, the director and others have begun a campaign titled “Mas Ninos, Menos Alias,”which I will find more about and report on.  Meanwhile here is a link, in Spanish.

For more reviews:

Variety – respectful but negative

Roger Ebert dot com – some reservations but “powerful and raw.”

The Haifa film festival awarded it Best Film in June

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Film Site

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Background on Colombian Conflict, and here.

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More on children in war

Human Rights Watch

Cinema for Peace