Irene Velez-Torres is a professor at University of Valley who specializes in social and environmental conflicts and racial and ethnic inequality. While participating in research, she often applies audiovisual technology as a means of presenting her findings and expertise to a wider audience rather than just an academic audience. In 2015, she produced two medium-length documentaries as part of a large-scale international research project on environmental conflicts in Cauca Province. Her latest production is called “Voces de Guerrilla” (“Sounds of Guerrilla”), which she produced jointly with Sjoerd van Grootheest.
“Bajo Fuego” (“Under Siege”) is shown at the Canadian Hot Docs International Documentary Festival 2021, which takes place from April 29 to May 9. The festival is digital this year due to COVID-19. Broadcasting is geographically restricted in Canada. The film is directed by Sjoerd van Grootheest.
W&H: Describe the movie in your own words.
IVT: “Bajo Fuego” is a rude and passionate documentary that reveals the frustration of coca farmers who trusted the peacemaking project in Colombia. But after three years of government delays and lack of political will, these workers must face a return to war on their lands.
Implementation of the peace agreement prioritized the replacement of coca crops, however, the state was unable to achieve a successful replacement of illegal economies, nor contain the rearmament of new guerrillas and paramilitary groups.
Today, Colombia is at war again, and “Pago Fuego” is an essential part of understanding what went wrong in the peace process.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
IVT: As a university professor, I am committed to researching vulnerable and marginalized communities as well as lands that have been 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 agreement and supported peacebuilding processes in my academic research. She began a series of initiatives in guerrilla demobilization camps, and continued to collaborate with farmers and indigenous communities in Cauca County. It soon realized that the power dynamics between government officials, societies, and former guerrilla fighters were imbalanced and reproduce the old central dynamics of state building.
I was particularly impressed by the way in which the officials who ran the coca-substitution program imposed company logic on traditional farmers, always falling behind in their obligations.
She decided to pursue the process with Sjoerd van Grootheest, with whom she co-directed the film. My hunch was that it was only a matter of time for the replacement program to fail, and we decided to be there to record it.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after seeing the movie?
IVT: I want viewers to reflect on the inherent injustice that accompanies the war on drugs and the injustice of a government that is not committed to making peace. It is also important to recognize that current methods of understanding coca farmers are largely based on the criminalization of the narratives of these poor workers, while it is the lack of transformative policies and constant delays that pave the way for a return to war.
W&H: What’s the biggest challenge in making a movie?
IVT: Finding economic resources to push it forward at every stage was a huge challenge. Since our film maintains an anti-domination narrative that is fiercely critical of the government, we encountered all kinds of barriers when finding financial support.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some ideas on how to make the movie.
IVT: We knew making a movie was more important than waiting for the money. Hence, we decided to fund it ourselves and try to get support later. The first two years were fully funded and produced by us, only two directors. We had to keep our costs to a minimum. Fortunately, in a contested area, it was impossible to have a large film crew anyway, so we didn’t need to invest excessively without the required resources.
In our third year of production, we found some support from the university at which I reside, and through the awards we won at industry events at the Colombian Film Festivals, we created a dual-production scheme that allowed us to work on sound mixing and color correction.
However, Pago Fuego remained underfunded during the production, post-production and distribution phases.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
IVT: That’s a tough question! Although I have made films as part of my research for a full 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 lobby for social change. I see film – and I use it – as a complement to my research, which can make an impact in the often complex and sensitive social and environmental contexts in which I work. I am convinced that the film can do a lot more and that it is better equipped to reach a wider audience compared to the academic paper.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
IVT: Best Advice: Believe in Yourself: You will get as far as you decide.
Worst advice: You should avoid taking your research and acting too personally because you may jeopardize your emotional stability.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
IVT: Get as passionate about your work as possible! The best thing in life is to love what you do and feel rewarded with every step you take, no matter how small or big – and I have found that these steps are usually small. Also, trust your intuition! Usually the first impression is the best.
W&H: Name your favorite movie directed by women and why.
IVT: Regarding the movie, I loved When They See Us directed by Ava DuVernay and how this series of films managed to create sympathy for children who were forced into the tragedy of poverty and racism into the tragedy of stereotypes and more discrimination. It pissed me off, but I felt empowered to contribute by generating similar types of stories.
Outside the movie, there are three women who I admire and whose struggles have been very inspiring to me: Rosa Luxemburg, Sylvia Rivera Cosecaneki, and Franca Marquez.
W&H: How do you adjust to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you maintain your creativity, and if so, how?
IVT: I turn my attention to the effects of COVID-19 in armed conflict, the lives of people at risk, and its management in border areas. This process of change has brought a new perspective to my research.
At the same time, I modified a lot in my daily life: I asked for more support from my husband at home; I have taken advantage of my parents’ help to take care of my children when needed; I had to force myself to stop from time to time, think, and make sure that I could still enjoy my work and life.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What measures do you think should be taken to make Hollywood and / or the world of documents more inclusive?
IVT: 1. Identifying and disseminating the problem is an important first step.
2. Creating profiles of underrepresented people on screen and behind the scenes who have a lot to say can help inspire others who wish to enter the industry.
3. Efforts are also needed for affirmative action, focused funding, and support.
4. Creating focus windows to display pre-directed films or having underrepresented characters on screen can help change the overall media culture that reproduces stereotypes and marginalizes people of color.