Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Irene Vélez-Torres – “Bajo Fuego”

Irene Vélez-Torres is a professor at the University of Valle who specializes in socio-environmental conflicts and ethno-racial inequalities. While engaging in research, she frequently applies audio-visual technology as a means to present her findings and experiences to a broader audience rather than just an academic one. In 2015, she produced two mid-length documentaries as part of a broad and international research project about environmental conflicts in the Cauca province. Her latest production is called “Voces de Guerrilla” (“Guerrilla Voices”), which she produced together with Sjoerd van Grootheest.

“Bajo Fuego” (“Under Siege”) is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada. The film is co-directed by Sjoerd van Grootheest.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

IVT: “Bajo Fuego” is a crude, emotional documentary revealing the frustration of coca-growing farmers who trusted in the project of peace-making in Colombia. But after three years of governmental delay and lack of political will, these laborers must face the return of war to their territories.

The implementation of the Peace Agreement prioritized the substitution of coca crops, however, the state could not achieve a successful substitution of the illegal economies, nor contain the rearmament of new guerrillas and paramilitary groups.

Today, Colombia is again at war, and “Bajo Fuego” is a key piece to understand what went wrong in the process of achieving peace.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

IVT: As a university professor, I am committed to research with vulnerable and marginalized communities as well as territories degraded and exploited by capitalist ventures. The Peace Agreement in Colombia was a source of hope for many, academics and citizens alike.

I celebrated the Accord and supported peace-building processes within my academic research. I started a series of initiatives in guerrilla demobilization camps, and continued collaborating with farmers and Indigenous communities in the Cauca Department. I soon realized that the power dynamics between government officials, communities, and former guerrilla combatants was unbalanced and reproduced old, centralist dynamics of state-building.

I was particularly triggered by the way the officials running the coca substitution program were imposing a corporate rationale to the traditional farmers, and were always delayed in their commitments.

I decided to follow up with the process with Sjoerd van Grootheest, whom I co-directed the film with. My intuition was that it was only a matter of time for the substitution program to fail, and we decided to be there to record it.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

IVT: I want viewers to think about the inherent injustice that comes with the war on drugs and the unfairness of a government that does not commit to peace-making. It is also important to realize that current ways of understanding coca growers are largely based on criminalizing narratives of these poor laborers, while it is the lack of transformative policies and the ongoing delays that pave the way for war to return.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

IVT: Finding economic recourses to push it forward in every single stage was a massive challenge. Since our film maintains an anti-hegemonic narrative highly critical of the government, we faced all sorts of barriers when finding financial support.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

IVT: We knew that it was more important to make the film than to wait for the money; thus, we decided to finance it ourselves and try to find support later. The first two years were fully funded and produced by us, just two directors. We had to keep our expenses to a minimum. Luckily, in a region under conflict it was impossible to have a big filming crew anyway, so we did not need to invest excessively without the desired resources.

In the third year of production, we found some support from the university where I am based, and through prizes that we won at industry events at Colombian film festivals we established a double co-production scheme that allowed us to work on the sound mix and color correction.

“Bajo Fuego,” however, remained underfunded throughout its stages of production, postproduction, and distribution.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

IVT: This is a difficult question! Though I have created films as part of my research for one whole decade now, I consider myself more an academic than a filmmaker. However, I also consider myself an activist and, in that sense, I like to use both research and filmmaking to push for social change. I see film — and I use it — as a complementary tool to my research, one that can generate impact in the social and environmental contexts I work in, which are usually complex and sensitive. I am convinced that film can do a lot and is better equipped to reach broader audiences compared to an academic paper.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

IVT: Best advice: Trust yourself: you will get as far as you decide to get.

Worst advice: You should avoid taking your research and work too personal as you could compromise your emotional stability.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

IVT: Be as passionate as possible with your work! The best in life is to love what you do and feel rewarded with every step you make, no matter how small or big it is — and I have found that these steps are usually small. Also, trust your intuition! The first impression is usually the best one.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

IVT: In terms of film, I loved “When They See Us” directed by Ava DuVernay and how this film series manages to create empathy with children who — forced by circumstances of poverty and racism — get trapped in a tragedy of stereotyping and further discrimination. It made me angry, but it felt empowering to contribute by generating similar types of stories.

Outside of film, there are three women that I admire and whose struggles have been very inspiring to me: Rosa Luxemburg, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, and Francia Márquez.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

IVT: I am turning my attention into the effects of COVID-19 in the armed conflict, the life of vulnerable people, and its management in frontier territories. I have made this process of change a new perspective of my research.

At the same time, I have adjusted a lot in my everyday life: I have requested more support from my husband in the household; have used the help of my parents to look after my two children when needed; and have had to force myself to stop from time to time, reflect, and make sure that I can still enjoy my work and life.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

IVT: 1. Recognizing the problem and making it public is an important first step.

2. Creating profiles of underrepresented people on screen and behind the scenes who have a lot to say could help inspire others who want to enter the industry.

3. Making efforts for positive discrimination and focused financing and support is also needed.

4. Creating focalized windows to show films directed by or having underrepresented characters on screen can help change the overall media culture that reproduces stereotypes and the marginalization of people of color.

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