Shot in Valle del Cauca, Colombia, Manos sucias is a skillful character study and action thriller made by two New York University film graduates.
The film moves to the lively rhythm of Afro Colombian music —from classics such as ‘Cali pachanguero’ or ‘Buenaventura y Caney’ by Grupo Niche, to the traditional music of Grupo Gualajo and Grupo Socavón, and modern rap of bands ChocQuibTown, Junior Jein and Son of AK.
Two young boys transport cocaine up the Pacific Coast, where joy and hardship coexist — a lush land of mangroves full of beauty cohabited by drug traffickers, guerrillas, soldiers, paramilitary and fishermen.
The 84-minute film contains moments of calm and introspection that describe the protagonists, their relationships, and the environment where they live. The last half hour turns into an action movie, depicting a journey that transcends the particular drama of the protagonists to propose a universal discourse. It has a beautiful composition and lighting, evocative soundtrack, and thorough editing.
Josef Wladyka & Alan Blanco finished school in May, 2014. Manos sucias is their thesis film. They wrote it together, then Josef directed and Alan took care of the cinematography. After showing at film festivals in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, and Tribeca, New York, the two young filmmakers presented their opera prima at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, where we got a chance to chat with them.
Manos sucias screens at the Roxie Theater starting Aug. 7. Tickets: http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/%EF%BF%BCmanos-sucias/
How was your passion for film born?
[Alan Blanco] The love for storytelling. I am first generation to be born in the U.S. My parents left most of their family in the Philippines. I got to understand my heritage through the stories I heard from my family, oral stories and old photographs. When I was young my father would tell me stories of when he was growing up in the Philippines. English was not his first language, so he was also trying to communicate better with me because I do not speak Tagalog.
So I started telling stories with music videos. I was always with a camera when I was young. My dad had an old VHS recorder that my bands used to shoot our shows. I was a heavy metal star wannabe. A lot of my friends liked how I shot, so I was asked more and more to shoot. And then I went to New York University for graduate film, where I met Josef.
[Josef K. Wladyka] My influences come from my parents. They were cinephiles. My mother is Japanese, my father is from Poland, and my brothers and I are first generation Americans. My mother’s favorite films are directed by Andrzej Wajda and Kieslowski. They would take us to art house cinemas and we would try to sneak out and go watch ‘Terminator 2.’ I think that everything you make is sort of a reflection of your youth in some sort of way, whether you realize it or not. I was always obsessed with film but it never was really something that I thought I would do as a career, that I’d be a director…I grew up in northern Virginia, and there is not a lot of film industry there.
So I went to college to study business and I was doing what all my friends were doing but I realized that it was not right for me. Then I worked as a Production Assistant in a small independent film in Arizona. It was the first time I saw a film set. Seeing all the different people and departments on the set, and how they all worked out together… It was fascinating! I moved to Washington DC and I started making my own short film. Then I applied to the graduate film program at New York University.
How come did you happen to be shooting a film in Colombia?
[Josef] I was working in a Mediterranean restaurant with one of my best friends. He is a gringo, an artesano who travelled all over South America and lived there for long periods of time. So I went on a backpacking trip with him for several months. We started in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and made our way north to Colombia, travelling along the coast. It was a time of my life that I was very curious and interested in exploring other places — young, looking for experiences, and trying to understand the world outside of where I came from.
Locals would tell us stories of their towns: forgotten by their governments, with groups of people controlled by narcotraficantes, homemade submarines that fishermen build in the jungles, go-fast boats… A really complex world but also beautiful. Colombia has such beauty and darkness! In the back of my head I was like: ‘There is a film to be made.’
And after that trip you returned to school in New York and told Alan ‘Let’s do it!…
[Josef] It took like 4 years. I went back to Colombia during the summers with my friend Kelly Morales, who is local to the region. She’s Afro Colombian, her family is from Tumaco. Research brought me to BuenaVentura. I got permission from the Colombian government to go to where they had captured narco submarines and torpedos and stuff.
It’s all part of this inexplicable thing of what drags you to come back to a place. So many years went in, and I came back eventually and I said I need help, and Alan helped me write the script. Once we joined forces it became a real thing.
Alan, can you talk about your visual approach to Manos Sucias as a cinematographer?
[Alan] I always want to film in a way that serves the story, not just the pure image, but making sure that the image is telling a story in the most interesting way possible. It usually just boils down to how can I maximize the amount of time that someone can have to work on the performance and the actors, and be happy with the image quality. The way we were writing the script with Joe, we wrote pretty much visualizing it together, and we thought ‘well, if that’s the case maybe we should just go ahead and shoot it because it feels like we are already doing that anyway.’
Did you guys write the script with certain locations in mind?
[Alan] Writing, location scouting, casting, rehearsals… In a regular film they usually happen in a certain sequence, but for this film it all intertwined together, a sign about how fortunate we were to make the film, and how a lot of things had to come together at the right time. We knew that we were gonna write a movie that we would shoot with almost no budget, and with pretty much only available light. When we were writing the script we had a rule: no night exteriors. We asked ourselves: ‘how are we gonna tell a story that’s out there in the jungle, in the water, and try to make it fast, manageable, and relatively cheap?’ So we wrote it in a very specific way: it had to be flexible, nothing could be set in stone. Circumstances were difficult. It is a difficult place and we didn’t know how it’d work out. But a lot of things fell into place. We never walked into an specific thing, we just had the heart of what we wanted.
And how did the casting work?
[Alan] Casting, locations… It all came together in a really wonderful way. A lot of the people we cast were drama students from a local university along with some workshops that we did. We were able to meet a lot of local people who were very interested into filmmaking, and a lot of them became our advocates in the neighborhoods. They would talk to people, break down the barriers. They knew we were for real, that we weren’t just these creepy Americans coming to… We talked about what we were like, how we wanted to present the story responsibly… They were the judges of that.
From the casting videos we got we picked Christian, one of the two leads. Joe and I were inspired enough to rewrite the entire script for him. His energy… Honestly, I think we rewrote the script for his smile, and maybe also his wide eyes. And we didn’t even know whether we were gonna able to use him!
[Josef] Yeah, we embraced the circumstances. The plot of the film is so simple. These guys, getting this thing, and who go in this journey. The plot was inspired by this real guy who did a similar type of job. But when it came down to the character, the location, and the things that happen, we were always very open to making it as real as the truth, taking the ideas of the actual people — if they were willing to share them — and incorporating them into the film.
Was it difficult to win the confidence of the locals?
[Josef] It was challenging given the presence of the paramilitary, the drug traffickers… And also trying to stay away from exploiting the human misery but rather focus on the human aspect of their reality. We did not wanna come and make and exploitative film. And that’s why there is these happy moments in the film because Buenaventura is a happy place. The people and the culture is a very happy place, it just happens to be in a very difficult situation.
The fact that this weird Japanese-Polish guy actually kept coming and showing up every few months, made them start to think that this project was really going to happen. And then once Alan and Elena [Greenlee, the producer] came, we were trying to build the groundwork to do an actual production. That’s when they realized ‘this is real, this is gonna happen.’ ‘It is so strange for a gringo to come to these places, so the intention must be right,’ was their thinking.
The film wouldn’t exist if they did not allow us to shoot there. It had to have their blessing, no matter what. The displaced community, the invasión [poor neighborhood] in the scene that happens on the water, you can’t just go there and walk into the neighborhood and shoot it.
And a lot of that access came through the casting. When I met this kids, these actors, I was blown away. They were all from the barrios, from different parts of Buenaventura, but they are great actors, serious drama students who put on plays and travel all around Colombia. I was so impressed when I saw them improvise. So we got access to some of the neighborhoods where we shot because they lived there.
The film finds the right balance between the personal story of the first half of the film and the action movie of the second, with a beautiful transition scene when the two friends interact in the boat.
[Josef] All the people from Buenaventura favorite the scene when they sing Grupo Niche, when they sing ‘Buenaventura y Caney.’ It represents their singing and their happiness despite them doing this job. People in Buenaventura are promised a lot of things and then people don’t follow through.
The film looks and sounds wonderful. I saw in the credits that Skywalker was involved in the sound design. And what was the role of San Francisco Film Society’s?
[Alan] It was all through grants that we got. It was huge for us getting those grants. First, Márcia Nunes [producer] got into the Film Independent Producing Lab, which made us eligible for a Canon Grant to shoot on two Canon CP100 with their cinema lenses.
We also did a lot of post-production work. We worked at Post Factory in New York and they helped us out with the incredible colors, giving the film a very specific look, so it does not look too videoy — kind of giving it a little bit of film grain, a little flavor.
[Josef] Through San Francisco Film Society we got two grants that had to do with sound. During the production of the film we had Doug Winningham from Skywalker come down to Colombia. He went to all the locations where we were shooting and built a sound library of all the environmental sounds, the sound effects, ambiences… All the specific noises, likes those of the ‘brujitas’ — the motorcycles [attached to wooden platforms with benches on them, placed on the train tracks] that people use for transport. He created a library to play with when we were doing our mix at Skywalker. Thanks to that grant we were able to do that final polish and did our sound mix and sound design at George Lucas’ Skywalker, a place where filmmakers dream to have their film go.
Yes, the film’s soundtrack is stunning.
[Josef] The soundscape of the film is so accurate as to how it actually beautiful it sounds in Buenaventura that, no offense to you, Alan, sonically the movie is almost more important than the image. I don’t mean to…
[Alan] I may be the only Director of Photography who would agree, but when you’re there and you hear the insects…
[Josef] It is all the real stuff from the real place, custom, perfectly crisp sound that they got for us. Sound works in the subconscious of the audience so much more than the image!
[Alan] It surrounds the entire audience and brings them to where we were. When I listen to the film, I get immersed immediately into my memories. The sound of the ocean down there…
[Josef] We are sound dorks! Alan was the recordist and I was the boom operator in Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer.” And Alan did the sound design in a soccer commercial that I directed. We are sound nerds, yes!
[Alan] I also wanna give a shout to our location sound recordist, Edwin Angulo. He is a local Colombian, one the best location recordists. We were in a very difficult environment: humid, water, boats, engines…, everything. And he still got some of the best sounds.
You guys are probably busy promoting Manos sucias, but are you working on something new?
[Josef] As artists we always have something in mind. We can’t wait to get back into the writing collaboration that we enjoyed so much.
[Alan] We love the writing process. The shooting…, we love it, but it is a different beast. But then we need to figure out how we’re gonna make our living, and see whether we’re gonna make any money off this one. We believe in good drama.