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ADIFF 2012: Reflections On Juan Andrés Arango's Quietly Absorbing 'La Playa D.C.'

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act November 27, 2012 at 8:11PM

The 20th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), here in New York City, kicked off  its 2012 edition (also its 20th anniversary, a milestone year), last Friday, November 23rd, and continues through December 11th.
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la playa dc

The 20th annual African Diaspora International Film Festival (ADIFF), here in New York City, kicked off  its 2012 edition (also its 20th anniversary, a milestone year), last Friday, November 23rd, and continues through December 11th.

We'll continue to bring you reactions to screenings, and other events on the festival's schedule... like this one on Juan Andrés Arango's La Playa D.C.

I'd like to say just how useful it was for me to have Professor Tanya K. Hernandez (she authored a scholarly work titled Racial Subordination in Latin Americapresent for the screening discussion that happened afterward.

It was extremely useful because she's, for all intents and purposes, an expert on the location, its history, and themes that are at the center of the film, and listening to her wax on the film's content and meaning, using history and present-day realities to amplify the significance of, as well as clarify moments within it, was all very helpful in understanding and appreciating the film much more-so - a film that I intially reacted to from a distance, and thus coldly, but would later feel much closer to it, reaching the understanding that what transpires within the film isn't all that foreign.

It's a familiar tale just wrapped in different packaging, we could say, which speaks to the commonly-held belief that, once you strip away what lies at the surface of a film, and get to its core, you'll find themes that are universal.

Of course I knew that already; I preach that on this site regularly; However, at times, as a writer who thinks and writes critically about cinema, I have the habit of intellectualizing what I see, instead of just responding viscerally. 

Directed by Juan Andrés Arango, and titled La Playa D.C., the film centers on Tomas, an Afro-Colombian teenager struggling with the difficulties of growing up in a city (Bogota) of exclusion and racism against those who look like him; When his younger brother disappears, Tomas is forced to leave his home to look for him. With the help from his older brother Chaco, Tomas roams the city's streets, as his search becomes more of a journey in which he's forced to face his past, and to leave aside the influence of his brothers in order to find his own identity, all with the vibrancy and instability of a city in flux, as the film's backdrop.

Essentially, a young back man simply will not allow himself to become yet another statistic, in a society in which the odds are stacked against him. A familiar story that I'm sure we've seen in a few films that center on the lives of African American men - or at least, a idea that you've probably heard spoken by others, or have spoken yourself.

It's what I'd call a quiet, though engaging, melancholic, stylized piece of cinema from the first-time feature writer/director from Colombia, with its bare, yet hypnotic cinematography - wonderful use of Bogota's geography, evocatively shot in a mesh of blues, greens and grays.

Don't get me wrong, La Playa D.C. isn't all style with no substance. There's a solid story in there, though laconically told. A straightforward narrative that takes its time developing, and doesn't exactly scream its arrival. It's just not the aspect of the production that really sinks its hooks into you.

Arango fully embraces the age-old "show don't tell" mantra of classical filmmaking.

This is a Colombia that we rarely ever get to see on film - one comprised primarily of people of African descent; its gritty, mean streets, have an almost dreamlike quality to them; it's peaceful, despite the perceived harshness in the narrative that plays out on screen, as mostly working-class black men and women, with the weight of oppression on their backs, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolve to do what they deem necessary for their own fulfillment, and that of others of significance to them; armed and eventually dangerous.

A rueful parable about fear and freedom that shares thematic similarities to other African Diaspora films - for example, the well-documented lure of the big city, dreams deferred, and more.

Its young leads, representative of generations of hungry dreamers, alienated, seeking refuge in pockets, and imagine freedom far from the streets of their current individual predicaments.

This isn’t a conventional film by any means, and I think anyone going into it should be fully aware of that fact. It is the film's style that helps define it, and its strongest appeal; an acquired taste, I appreciate what I see are the filmmaker's attempts to disrupt the expected order of things. They may not even be conscious attempts - Arango doesn't come off as just some pretentious auteur.

Its low-key, documentary-style won't appeal to many, but I think it has an audience who'd appreciate the education the film provides, and who love to be challenged.

It should also help to secure director Arango as a talent to watch... and we will be watching, certainly.

The coming-of-age drama competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and was well-received by critics, calling it a bold directorial effort from Arango, the 35-year-old native-born Colombian, who trained and worked in Canada and the Netherlands before returning home to shoot his debut feature.

No word on where the film will screen next, but I can say that it still is without distribution; it'll likely continue to travel the film festival circuit over the next several months, and we'll be watching its progress from here on.

Luis Carlos Guevara stars as Tomas, Andrés Murillo plays younger brother Jairo, and Jairo James Solis plays older brother Chaco.

For those in New York, however, you should know that it'll screen a second time at the African Diaspora Film Festival next week MondayDecember 3, at 8PM, at the Teachers College.

Also, be sure to check out the rest of the festival's lineup as well, by clicking HERE, which includes highlights like Moussa Touré's acclaimed immigration/survival drama La Pirogue, which will be making its USA premiere; and alsoPhilippe Niang's 3-hour epic drama Toussaint L'Ouverture!

Here's a trailer for La Playa D.C.:


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