With two LED panels, one Canon C300 and a crew of no more than a dozen people including locals, co-writer/director Joseph Wladyka and co-writer/cinematographer Alan Blanco went to Buenaventura, Colombia - a heavily narco-trafficked country - to film Manos Sucias ("Dirty Hands").
"One of my favorite moments making this film was when me, Joe and the two leads went out to sea in a small boat to get some scenes," says Blanco after their premiere in New York City this week. "The motor didn't work very well and we could have been stranded at sea, but was worth it."
It seems that much was worth it on Manos Sucias, an authentic and heart-wrenching portrayal of drug trafficking on the pacific coast of Colombia. After the successful Kickstarter campaign raised $60,000 - enough to spurn production into high gear - Spike Lee came on board as executive producer. From an outsiders perspective, what was most worth it was the experience the filmmakers gave the locals in the months before production.
"There's no way we would have just been able to go into these towns and shoot and then leave," explains Wladyka. "The people that live there are smart and they understand that it's a matter of fact reality that [narco-trafficking is part of their lives]. We were always upfront with what the story was that we were trying to tell, and they seemed to love that some Japanese-Polish guy, a Filipino guy [Blanco] and Brazilian girl [producer Elena Greenlee] were all coming to help tell a story about their lives. At the same time, they wanted to know what we could do for them."
Greenlee had worked with actors from City of God (2002) while living in Rio de Janeiro and spearheaded the effort of the filmmaking workshop for Manos Sucias, where the team held a five-week storytelling workshop during pre-production for Buenaventura residents to build lasting, sustainable skills among the community. After the intensive course, where students learned basic camera techniques, how to structure storylines, and how to edit in-camera on their cell phones, many were hired on as production assistants during principal photography, and one even went on to become the film's production coordinator.
"They'd had no film experience prior to this," says Wladyka, "and they were just fantastic."
The motivation for telling the story of estranged brothers (played by first-time film actors Jarlin Javier Martinez and Cristian James Abvincula) who risk everything for a chance at a better life came from Wladyka's own travels in South America.
Just before attending the graduate film program at New York University, he was waiting tables and took off to do some travelling before hunkering back down for school.
"I was backpacking through Ecuador and Colombia and other countries in that area," says Wladyka. "I was a young guy traveling with a friend, just experiencing life."
The two friends began to stumble upon these really isolated beach towns as they went looking for hidden beaches. The townspeople would tell them stories about how their youth were trapped in the world of narco-trafficking and it began to hit a nerve with Wladyka.
"Something about it grabbed me," he recalls. "There was an interesting film to be made about this place. It was going to be hard, but I needed to do it."
Later on in the trip Wladyka met Kelly Morales, who has family originally from Tumaco, which is the second largest port city off the pacific coast of Colombia and also plagued with similar problems as Buenaventura.
"I was able to do more intimate research and find people specifically involved in this world [through Kelly]. We found that the traffickers often were these young kids that don't have anything else to do or other jobs to get, or sometimes fisherman who aren't doing well. Sometimes it was through extortion."
And although the subject matter could have easily been made as a documentary, Wladyka is a narrative filmmaker: "I very much enjoy the craft of making drama and suspense and controlling that experience for the audience. It was always a narrative film in my mind in that respect."
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