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Latin America

Colombia: Documentary films and memory work

What role can documentaries play in a post-war environment? How can they help people come to terms with their country's violent past? This was the focus of a one-week DW Akademie workshop held in Bogotá.

The Bogotá workshop participants (photo: DW Akademie/ Matthias Kopp).

The Bogotá workshop participants

"Have you ever been subject to political violence?" the 12 participants were asked. "How do you see the peace process currently underway in Colombia?" It was an emotional start to a one-week workshop that had participants looking at the impact of their country's decades-long civil war, and at ways to bring these experiences across using new imagery and creative narrative forms. Many viewers these days are becoming indifferent to reports on violence because news formats tend to be the same. The workshop run by the German documentary filmmaker Uli Stelzner, however, looked at finding new narrative forms that could touch viewers and prompt them to reflect and start coming to terms with the past.

Participants presented their projects and received feedback from the group (photo: DW Akademie/ Matthias Kopp).

Participants presented their projects and received feedback from the group

The participants were chosen from 300 applicants. While all 12 were involved in documenting Colombia's conflict using audiovisual techniques, they brought different perspectives with them as social workers, journalists and visual artists. But all had been affected by the violence, losing relatives, colleagues or neighbors. At the workshop they presented their current projects and received feedback and suggestions from the others.

"This is a traumatized country," says Matthias Kopp, DW Akademie Country Coordinator for Colombia. "People have been afraid to talk openly about the horrors they've lived through. But this is starting to change now that there are prospects for a peace accord." He says journalists will have a difficult task ahead of them, as well as a great responsibility. "They'll be recording stories told by people who've experienced the terrors," Kopp says, "and they'll need to pass on these stories in a way that can bring about change. Experienced filmmakers like Uli Stelzner can offer valuable support."

Parallels with Guatemala

Documentary films have great potential for post-conflict societies. But how can one portray the past? Uli Stelzner has lived in Germany and Guatemala for more than 20 years now and says that Guatemala is in some ways similar to Colombia. Although Guatemala's 1996 peace accord put an end to the country's 36-year civil war, coming to terms with the conflict and human rights violations there has been a slow process. Stelzner's film "La Isla" (2009) shows how victims of Guatemala's civil war discovered the terrible fate of missing family members after examining files that had been locked away in the police archives. This is a highly-charged issue in Colombia as well, where more than 90,000 people have "disappeared".

Considering new approaches and formats(photo: DW Akademie/ Matthias Kopp).

Considering new approaches and formats

The group analyzed Stelzners’ and other films, looking at aspects such as imagery, dramatization, the portrayal of history and creative use of archive material, staging, and working with traumatized protagonists. They discussed essay-style approaches, the directors' input, and the way that human rights violations were addressed.

Going beyond traditional formats

Participants also discussed why it is that political documentaries are rarely shown on Latin American TV, and said that in Colombia, the daily sensational reports on conflicts and violence left no room for in-depth analysis. The participants were, however, moved by the films shown at the workshop. "They touch you in a way that traditional television reports cannot do," said one participant.

Feedback from the group helped participants reflect on their own approaches and to explore possibilities offered by imagery. "It's been an unusual workshop," they agreed. "We've seen how many different ways there are to portray Colombia's complex reality on film." By the end of the week the participants had created a network, offering to support each other in research and various stages of production. They also discussed working on a co-production that would include 12 short films stemming from the ideas of the 12 participants and that could be attractive to television stations and non-governmental organizations.


The workshop "Creative Documentary Films in Post-War Societies" was conducted by Uli Stelzner, and followed the conference "Challenges for Journalism in a Post-War Era" organized by the Consejo de Redacción (CdR) network. DW Akademie has been working with CdR since 2013. DW Akademie's projects in Colombia focus on conflict-sensitive journalism and coming to terms with conflict. The projects are funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

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