Medellin was the most violent city in the world for much of the 80s and 90s. Accordingly, you might expect it to be a treasure trove of stories for a filmmaker like myself — a place inhabited by strange, cinematic creatures. That is what an outsider would expect from a Colombian film: a dive into our dark past, something like Narcos. This expectation isn’t entirely unfounded. Colombian artists, now as ever, feel the need to relate the harsh realities borne out of years of civil war, armed groups, drug trafficking, the endless cycles of violence that made Medellin uniquely unsafe. We have all experienced the cruelty of this city in some form or another. Nevertheless, in an effort to provide a more nuanced view of the place I was born, I try to portray characters that, in their everyday lives, exist beyond popular expectations.
Researching the inhabitants of Medellin, I have walked around some of the city’s liveliest Barrios. It is true that this can land you in difficult situations. I walked into neighborhoods only to find that they were off-limits, guarded by gangs, delineated by invisible borders. If you happen to have a girlfriend in such a district, you may have to meet her somewhere else, on neutral ground. Yet, beyond all this, there is beauty to be found in the small odysseys of everyday life.
Leidi, a real person and the main character of my film, is a young girl from Picacho, a poor neighborhood perched on one of the hills that surround the city. From Picacho’s heights you can see the lush skyline of a modern city in the distance. On paper, the people of Picacho are part of Medellin, but it feels like they don’t really belong to it. From the hills, the modern skyscrapers, speeding trains, and wide roads seem a like hopelessly distant mirage to be admired from a distance.
Displaced people who fled to Medellin from the countryside forty years ago, escaping years of violence between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups, settled down in barrios like Picacho, turning them into makeshift neighborhoods. To this day, the barrios are fighting to be recognized as part of the city. Some have succeeded: in the past fifteen years the local government, concerned about the unplanned growth, has developed strategies of inclusion and innovative social urbanism, building schools, libraries, and aerial tramways. Today, Medellin is not the city it was in the 1980s, but neighborhood recognition is only one step towards progress.
Despite its precarious situation, Picacho is a beautiful barrio, its hills are dotted with small orange brick houses. Leidi, lives here. Her name is a misspelled version of the English word, Lady. The name became popular in the ’80s as a result of Lady Diana’s popularity. Couples from poor, isolated neighborhoods named their daughters “Leidi” to lend them an aura of importance and elegance. A way to get close to a world that turns its back on them.
When I first met Leidi, she was sixteen and had a baby with Alexis, a young man from Picacho. She had left school to care of it. She was living with Alexis, their child, and her mother. Alexis would disappear for days, making Leidi restless. Eventually, she found out there was another girl in his life. He never left her, maintaining both relationships, and there wasn’t much Leidi could do: he was the father of her child and she loved him. In turn, the other girl knew Alexis was still with Leidi, yet always hoped—as he professed to her—that he would break up with Leidi eventually. That never happened.
In my eyes, Leidi’s story was acutely representative of Medellin. During the ‘80s and ’90s, Pablo Escobar turned young boys from the poorest barrios into an army of sicarios (hitmen) to protect him. Escobar eventually destabilized all of Colombia’s institutions, particularly its legal system. These boys were born to young mothers without an education or hope of future employment — girls like Leidi, who couldn’t teach them right from wrong. Growing up, these children became an integral part of the cycle of violence that swept through Colombia. Eventually, the boys themselves started having girlfriends, lovers, and babies, further fueling the cycle of poverty and violence.
I decided to turn Leidi’s story into a short film. I wrote a screenplay about a girl who has not seen her boyfriend, the father of her child, for days. With her baby in her arms, she embarks on a journey through Picacho to find him. The story is about a young woman’s search for her man, as well as her search for something that might fulfill her lonely life, for someone to help her carry the burden of being a young mother.
By the time I was ready to make the film, Leidi and her baby had grown up. I searched Picacho for another young woman who shared Leidi’s background and a similar penchant for acting. Eventually, I met Alejandra, whose story had a striking resemblance to Leidi’s. Her boyfriend, Jader, was the father of her child, and he also had another girlfriend.
When you walk the narrow streets of Picacho and see all the children peering from the balconies, you come to realize how many women are living by that same script. As we prepared the shoot, Alejandra and I became close friends. She would tell me about her anguish and her love for her man to the point that sometimes she and Leidi felt like the same person.
When we began filming, it was like a circus coming to town. Picacho’s residents were excited; Alejandra was the new star of the barrio Jader was with her every day, showing off his love for her. People whispered that she would become rich, a celebrity. Next to playing football, this is one of few legal ways a person from the mountains of Medellin can get out.
Medellin is called the city of eternal spring. Indeed, blue sunny skies accompanied us throughout the making of the film. On the second day, curious neighbors crowded around the set: Will it be a soap opera? When will it be on TV? Do you want to film in my house? Finally, their barrio would be on TV: their orange houses, the shop of Doña Rita, even the sculpture of the local hero, René Higuita, a goalkeeper who became internationally famous playing for the national team in the ‘90s.
We were filming the scene in which Leidi finds her boyfriend and asks him where he was the night before. Jader and a crowd of neighbors were watching the spectacle from a distance. Alejandra was sad and distracted. She had spotted Jader’s other girlfriend in the crowd, trying to get close to him. It was surreal to watch the story of the film unravel simultaneously on and off camera. Jader’s other girlfriend was about fifteen, even younger than Alejandra. I could see the same infinite love Alejandra felt for him in this girl’s eyes. Who is this man? I thought to myself.
We called our short film Leidi, the name of our character. In 2014, it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This was the first Colombian film to win a prize at such a prestigious festival. I was just glad that we managed to show another side of Medellin. The media coverage brought attention to Picacho. Alejandra was on TV and in magazines — the star of the neighborhood.
Once again, Jader was back with her.
As time passed, Jader had a second child with his lover, and Alejandra kept living with her child in the same house in Picacho. Her moment of fame eventually came to an end, and her life goes on as usual. Yet, somehow, the experience made her understand that she could represent something to society. She returned to school.
Images: courtesy of Simón Mesa Soto.