Josef Wladyka Gets His Hands Dirty Making Manos Sucias
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/17/14)
Jarlin Martinez and Cristain James Advincula in Manos Sucias.
Manos Sucias (“Dirty Hands”) fits my category of Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. It made a big impression at the recent TriBeCa Film Festival and its director-cowriter Josef Kubota Wladyka was selected Best New Narrative Director. While a graduate student at NYU, this dedicated young filmmaker went to danger spots on the southern Pacific coast of Colombia, including the port of Buenaventura, to make his debut feature about young people involved in the drug trade there. By going to real locations and employing guerilla-filming techniques, he was able to bring authenticity to his riveting, intense storyline about two poor estranged brothers who make a drug run on a rickety boat in the Pacific and get in way over their heads.
“Manos Sucias,” says Wladyka in his Director’s Statement, “is not another movie that glamorizes cocaine and the drug trade, rather it’s a film that unveils the realities of exploitation of children, impoverished fishermen, and families who are forced to be a part of this world…Making a film like Manos Sucias is only possible—from its very conception to its release—by working hand in hand with the local community in Buenaventura.” The result of his working with the neglected people of the area—some provided locations, some told inspiring stories, some worked on the crew, some acted in small parts–is a unique, amazingly ambitious, enlightening, and rewarding film.
I completely agree with the TFF’s jury’s comments: “We have chosen a filmmaker whose journey should truly be an example to all of us about the commitment to the process of researching and developing a film. Not only did this director spend several years immersed in a marginalized community in order to tell the story in the most truthful way possible, he impacted and contributed to that community. We felt this film was an eye and mind opener that transported us to a different place, stimulating our thinking, allowing us to meditate on the relationship between violence and circumstance.”
I think every aspiring filmmaker should use Wladyka as their model, instead of setting their eyes on Hollywood. I was pleased to do the following interview with him at the beginning of the festival, before he won his prestigious award.
Danny Peary: This project took a long time. Were you already at Tisch and NYU when you started it?
Joseph Wladyka: Manos Sucias is technically my thesis film, for my Masters in the graduate film program. But my initial interest started before I started the program. Before I came to Tisch I was waiting tables and making films in Washington DC, where I was living. I was just trying to learn the craft, and was not making political films but just a little comedy. I got into Tisch for the fall so I took the rest of the summer off to go backpacking through South America with a good friend who was living in Colombia. That’s when I first discovered and started exploring the coasts of Columbia and Ecuador.
DP: Were there revelations on this backpacking trip that started you thinking about making this movie or were you already thinking about your subject before you went on the trip?
JW: I only knew that I wanted to make a movie in another place. We started the trip in Ecuador before going to Colombia and down the Pacific Coast. My friend had traveled a lot in the cities and areas we went to and he suggested we go to a town in Ecuador that is very much like the Colombia town, Buenaventura, where I’d film Manos Sucias. It was a place completely forgotten by the government. That first trip was in 2007, when I was just backpacking. Around February 2010, I had the idea of going back and doing specific investigation for a film. I was in a concentrated program at NYU, so the only time I could go was summers for the next few years.
DP: Did your friend from Colombia take you where you needed to go?
JW: My backpacker friend was actually an American. He wouldn’t be part of my crew. The way I got access to more of the real, intimate stories was through a woman named Kelly Morales, whom I met when I was backpacking. She is an Associate Producer on the film. Kelly’s family is from Tumaco, the second largest port on the coast of Colombia. It’s on the Ecuadorian border, but it’s a place that has exactly the same issues and problems as Buenaventura. I asked her to take me to fishing villages around Tumaco, including one that required a two-hour boat ride south. She had family members who live in these areas, and I had my journal and was able to speak to them and other people who had stories similar to the one in my film. That’s when I started to think about the plot of my film..
DP: When you spoke to the locals, what did they say about the drug trade?
JW: It’s a beautiful place but there’s so much darkness because of what’s going on there. Like with Buenaventura, there are all these barrios controlled by different groups.
DP: Paramilitary groups or government groups?
JW: Some of them are paramilitary groups and some are guerilla groups. Buenaventura is on the Pacific coast and it’s located over the Andres Mountains, so it’s hidden away, but it’s the richest, biggest port in Colombia, and most imports and exports come and go through there. The port itself is very nice and there is a lot of modern technology, but the people that live there don’t get to be a part of that economy. It’s a place of dense jungle, swamps, and mangroves, and it’s pretty much the epicenter or the launching point for a lot of drug traffic, contraband, guns. All kinds of stuff goes on there.
DP: Did you have a camera?
JW: I did have a camera. When we did Kickstarter to help us fund the movie, we used a lot of the footage we shot on the Pacific Coast. I also got permission from the Colombian government to go to the Malaga Naval Base, where we saw cocaine they had confiscated and narcotorpedoes, which are used to carry the drugs at the back of boats. There are also these huge boats with four engines on back. The dealers load a bunch of bales of cocaine on them and gun it up the coast.
DP: They’re faster than the government boats?
JW: Yeah, and they can go into swamps and rivers to get away..
DP: Your film was the first time I heard about a narcotorpedo. Did you know that word?
JW: We had heard stories. Initially, the idea of the film was four guys who get inside one of those semi-submersibles that they built. But that would have made it much bigger and too expensive to make. Also the typography of the area is so beautiful, so we didn’t want to lose that by having them underwater. So we decided to make it a narcotorpedo with the drugs inside and have the two brothers outside on a boat.
DP: When you went to the naval base, were you trying to make sure you were protected when filming on the water?
JW: No, it was because I felt I had to really see the things first-hand. It was just research. It was the same with going into the fishing villages and talking to people–it was all for the research.
DP: When you finally decided you had done enough research to make a movie, what did you think of first–the characters, the story, or the subject?
JW: I think it was the subject and the world first. I thought that no one would ever see another film made in this place. It thought it could be important to explore, and at the same time be a very interesting, entertaining film. The story was based on a real guy’s journey from Buenaventura to Panama. He was a drug runner, just one of the guys who gets put on a boat. His story was crazy, but that’s where a lot of the plot comes from.
DP: Where did Spike Lee fit into your film as an executive producer?
JW: Spike teaches directing in your third year at the graduate film program at NYU. He gives a grant for thesis films. It’s not a lot of money, but I used it to continue to travel to Buenaventura and do research. I would show him the footage of my research, and different versions of the script. He was telling me, “You gotta finally shoot it.” He kept up with the process and was extremely generous with his help. In Colombia, he’s a huge icon and his writing letters for us opened so many doors and let us meet certain people and get a production team, and got people in Colombia interested in our film. But he wasn’t officially on board as executive producer until we showed him a cut towards the end, and then he said, “Whatever you guys need, I’ll put my name on it.”
DP: I read that you went into the community and held film workshops for five Saturdays and had people there participate in making your movie. When did you come up with that as a master plan?
JW: The filmmaking workshops? It was an idea that initially came from our producer, Elena Greenlee. This was in, I think, 2012, and was the first time that Americans from the production team came with me to Colombia–Elena and Alan Blanco, my co-writer and cinematographer. We met with community leaders in these areas and said we’d be shooting a narrative, not a documentary. We were always up front and really honest with everyone there about our intentions. Very quickly we realized that the people were thinking, “Okay, you’re going to come and shoot here and we’ll help you, but what are you doing to do for us?” We said we would hold filmmaking workshops once a week for people from the displaced communities we shot in. There was a big radio announcement to the people from Buenaventura, so a lot of people of the school and others showed up for out writing workshops. We’d break down their three-page scripts and figure out how to shoot them. Before we went into production, they all went out and shot little shorts on their iPhones. Once some of our Colombian crewmen arrived, closer to the production, we did workshops on art direction and wardrobe.
DP: Were the twenty-five people who came to these workshops of different statuses?
JW: Yeah, and of different ages. There were university students and older people from a theater group. It was really, really interesting. We used a lot of the local people in our crew.
DP: Were you doing acting auditions as well, for small parts?
JW: We found some of the cast at the workshops. I will say that so much of the script changed and evolved once I started casting because a lot of the kids you see in the film are from these displaced communities.
DP: One of the interesting things I read about the casting of Cristian James Advincula as Delio and Jarlin Martinez as Jacobo is that they recognized they were not matched as actors or friends. Did you recognize that too and sense they’d soon bond and their chemistry would grow?
JW: Yeah, yeah. They’re extremely different in real life. We had a very intense audition process, and we saw that there were three actors who could play the two brothers. So I had them all switch roles and feel out which two had the best chemistry and who had the tug and pull of a real brotherly relationship. So it was the three of them doing some crazy improvisations…Ultimately it became Cristian and Jarlin. The other one played the boy who steals the drugs. I had them in the living together in the same room and by the time we got close to shooting, in April 2013, they clicked.
DP: Because Delio and Jacobo are totally different, did you cast two actors who were not alike because you wanted friction and tension between these characters.
JW: Oh, definitely.
DP: What did you want their relationship to be? Did you want the older brother being protective, did you want the younger brother always cheery?
JW: Yeah, the broad strokes of it was always to take this bright-eyed naïve kid, Delio, and start him in one place and have end up in a completely different place. Jacobo turns to survival mode and shepherds his younger brother through this journey. For me, personally, their relationship came from my relationships with two older brothers. I know they can be loving but at the same be bullies. Siblinghood is kind of a universal theme.
DP: To me it seemed that you wanted to make the brothers likable and relatable to us at times, but then you undermine that by having them do or say something we object to. For instance, the younger boy is full of life and is always smiling and is a family man, but then he starts talking about what he’d do to a pretty woman sexually if he got to be with her. We’re appalled. And neither of them seems to care what will happen to the bed-ridden grandmother of the boy who steals the cocaine. You don’t make them 100% sympathetic.
JW: We didn’t want to create angels. We wanted them to be real people, with flaws, especially in regard to the boy’s grandma. There is just a whole cycle of violence that goes on in that area of Colombia and I wanted to show, particularly at the end, how people are sort of forced into it and there are casualties, not only the people who are killed but also their poor families who count on them for money. All this came from our just being there and learning the real stories going on. When we cast the brothers, we went through the script together and really, really talked about every single scene. We changed a lot of the dialogue to make it colloquial, like how they speak in Buenaventura, and we also talked about all these little specific moments–about what a character is doing and why he is doing it. Cristian came to realize that Delio’s choice by the end is to kill or die. And that’s the story we wanted to tell.
DP: You present a cycle of violence that nobody can get out of because of the poverty in the area. I wonder about villains. I’m sure the drug dealers who give them the drugs and pick up the drugs are the villains but I’m sure they have similar stories to the brothers.
JW: Exactly. When you meet people who are involved in trafficking drugs every week on a boat, they aren’t who you might expect. They’re all different. Because the culture there is very happy and bright. There’s a lot of incredible music and artists and stuff that resonates. It just happens to be in this place that’s completely under siege. Last month in Buenaventura was the most violent it had been in many, many years, so they had this huge protest with about 10,000 people asking the government to come and help, basically. It was all over the news when we were at the Cartagena Film Festival screening the movie. It was first thing the journalists started asking us about. Everyone from Buenaventura came to Cartagena and their favorite scene in the movie, the scene they loved, is when the brothers sing together on the boat. That’s also the favorite scene of both actors. They feel it represents that they’re happy, although they’re stuck on this boat and they’re suffering on this crazy trip.
DP: Was that song in the script?
JW: Yes, that specific song.
DP: The opening scene, I think, is really important. Delio gets the job of transporting drugs, so he can make money, and he gets worried when the young tough who hires him says he’ll have to kill the other boy applying for the job because he knows too much. Then the young tough says he’s only joking! I think you want that young tough to be thinking that if he were in a movie he’d actually pull the trigger. You wanted to show the influence of movies on these young criminals. Otherwise you could just have one guy there trying to get the job.
JW: There was a lot of stuff cut from the movie, and what didn’t make the final cut were more scenes with Delio and his friend. That scene we wrote in a way that we thought would be interesting dramatically. It was just part of the dramatic structure. We think the guy who hires Delio is this tough guy, but then he turns out to be kind of a fast-talking bumbly guy. It’s a relief.
DP: It goes with the final moment of your movie, when the brothers are told they’ll be more drug running jobs for them if they want. They’ve almost lost their lives, people have died around them, but it’s just one ordinary day in the life of drug runners.
JW: From my experience, it’s just so matter-of-fact about what’s going on. Someone died, they don’t care; you delivered the stuff, so you can do another run.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Talk about filmmaking on the water and the nifty stuff on the railroad. Those are brilliant little action pieces. In the press notes you say you want people to see what’s really going on by making an action kind of movie.
JW: Yeah, if the film isn’t entertaining then it’s not going to reach its maximum audience. Elena and I always felt that we had to use dramatic tools to entertain an audience and then leave them with something to think about. That’s the way the film will transcend out of Colombia, into the United States, into the world. Alan and I were the two-headed beast behind this thing. When we wrote the first draft of the script, we were thinking we were going to make it for nothing and without a lot of equipment and just do it. So we wrote the script mostly to have exterior, day-time shooting. We weren’t going to worry about lighting or anything like that. So for the entire shoot, the only lights we had were wireless and we shot on two Cannon C300s, which we got from grants. That was the perfect-sized camera and it is ideal in humid places. The Pacific Ocean is not easy to shoot on, so we tried to have the best game plan possible to pull off some of the set pieces on our very limited resources. We tried to think specifically about shooting in a boat and making the blocking interesting so that it didn’t look the same all the time. We were in the rig and Alan had the camera strapped to him. It was hard.
DP: There’s heart-racing stuff going on, and you really feel it’s a life-and-death struggle in that whole last sequence. There is a boat chase, characters and the cameraman running up a hill, scenes on the railway.
JW: Those things were tough to shoot. We didn’t pick an easy movie to shoot, on boats and on these small railroad cars. When we were on land, we were very, very happy. For example, the scene with the grandmother, we were in the house, and finally we could do some nice blocking.
DP: But that was a small space.
JW: Compared to what else we had, it was heaven. We could actually walk a little and do what we wanted to do. I’m really happy with how that that scene turned out. I can’t tell you how intense of a shoot most of it was. First of all, the conditions of the place made it difficult. It’s extremely hot, extremely humid, so it was hard physically. The majority of the crew was Colombian and crews work a little different there. So it was hard at first but after time has passed, it was a beautiful collaboration. Also we we’re shooting in neighborhoods where the police and military don’t go. So we had to figure out how we were going to get the community’s trust to allow us to come in and shoot in these areas.
DP: Did they have people watching you? Or were you just on your own?
JW: We made sure to be as safe as possible doing it, but in some places bringing the police with you makes it less safe. If an actor was from a neighborhood he’d know somebody and ask for permission to come shoot there for a day and we’d know it was going to be totally fine.
DP: Wouldn’t people from drug cartels say, “I don’t want to have a movie about what we’re doing because it will cause an uproar?”
JW: Like I said, it’s so matter-of-fact, just a part of what’s going on there. We were always extremely honest and upfront with people when we came in, saying, “Look, we’re gringos, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to tell this story and I’ll tell you why we’re going to tell this story. There have been films made in similar areas, but they’re more anthropological-type films, and we want to make a film that’s dealing with this issue a little bit.” Everyone really, really embraced it. They wanted us to make the film.
DP: Are you optimistic about Colombia? Or are there no options for people there to make money except by selling drugs?
JW: I think one thing we’re most proud of with the film is that it shows there are a lot of really talented people in Buenaventura, actors and musicians. Much of the music in the film is from there. It is a huge, huge, huge part of the film and the culture. These kids got some chops.
DP: What reaction do you want people at the TriBeCa Film Festival to have toward your film?
JW: I’m hoping people will see the movie and then go Google Buenaventura, Colombia, and read about it. Because people need to see what’s really going on there!