DukeEngage Medellín
La Violencia is Not the Whole Story

Work Work

This week, we started filming and interviewing in the Parques Bibliotecas, Comfama sedes, Universidad Nacional, and for a lucky few, in the communities. We've faced some challenges, learned a lot, and got some great footage.

"Today, I realized how fortunate I am to have seen and been in one of the most turbulent and dangerous neighborhoods in Medellin, much less have the opportunity to talk to, interview, and film mothers, children, the director of the youth social program, and an old woman still brimming with life who had lived in Medellin for other 30 years. All of these people had not only witnessed but lived with the violence of Medellin. They recounted the terrible memories of Operation Orion, seeing guns in the hands of children, the bolas flying, and for some, like the 68 year old woman, stories that they did not want to remember anymore.

What’s more remarkable is how this public youth space, less than 3 months old, changed the lives of dozens of children in the community. Many of the children lived less than 5 minutes away, as I discovered as one ran home quickly to his mother to get permission to be filmed while others, such as the two boys who could not have been older than five of six, little not only close to, below the soccer field. I watched in them hop the cement barrier which separated paved ground from the steep, mountainous incline. While I was absolutely bewildered at how these children confidently dropped at least 10 feet onto the dirt, the other children around me did not give a second thought. The two boys were just going home as they normally did. They slid down the side of the mountain until I could not see them anymore, obscured by bushy shrubs, until they must have reached the shabby metal rooftops of their homes and climbed down. Never have I ever met in my life children who had so much to fear and who feared so little.

For some children, the brand new soccer field was the first time they had ever seen an artificial playground, and when we arrived, speaking in English and in broken, heavily accented Spanish, and me, with my straight, black hair and dark, oriental eyes that gave me away in a second, it was probably the first time that they had ever seen anyone from the United States. But instead of treating us like foreigners, they swarmed to us and clamored to be on camera. While I feared that we might be intruding and give off the impression that we were haughty, imperialistic Americans, they, instead, welcomed us with open arms. They screamed out my name; I’ve never felt so much like a celebrity my entire life.

I will never forget those overeager children, always trying to get my attention, never judging us because our Spanish was not perfect. I laughed when Mateo spoke very slowly to me: “Yo…vivo…aca,” because he knew that I needed a little bit more time to process their rapid castelleno, which I had learned from Stalin, the friendly program director, had its own distinct El Salado accent.

I was amazed how we went from the lull of waiting for Claudia, the community liaison member at the Sala Mi Barrio in San Javier, for two hours, and then almost instantaneously threw ourselves in a van and whizzing up the mountain, where some of the houses were still in the process of construction. We were thrown into a whirlwind. There were so many people to talk to and so much footage to get in so little time. I struggled to keep track of everything I needed at any moment in time: a permission slip, a camera, an iPod recorder, a pen, a notebook. At the same time, we had to keep in mind how much time we had left, the lighting, how much battery life was left on the camera, how much space was left, where did I leave my stuff, where was the tripod, the sound quality, where did so and so go. It was so exhilarating that I did not realize my feet were aching, I was starving, dehydrated, and had to pee all the same time, until 3 hours later when we had to leave.

I don’t know how else to describe how I felt the entire time I was there but so grateful and so, so happy. If I had been in Medellin for a year and done nothing else but spend the time in this youth center, I would have been content and felt that I had some purpose to being here and that I had accomplished something. I was so moved by the stories I was listening to while I was filming I felt tears forming my eyes because all the newspapers that I had skimmed, the images I had seen, and the grueling Spanish books and articles that I had read were all real. They were true, they were alive, and they were right in front of me, pouring their hearts out to me, and actually thanking me, when it was I who was so indebted to them."

"At the very end of our time at El Salado, a young man who had been watching our bumbling efforts mentioned that he had been jailed for four months after ‘Operación Orion’. It was a stark reminder that these laughing, playing kids have lived and persevered through worse things than the average American could imagine. Listening to some of their horror stories highlighted the importance of our work here this summer, the importance of forging some sort of connection between the international audience and the everyday citizens of Medellín."

"When you work on a project like this, you never know what you’re going to get. You don’t know if your ideas will work, if you’ll get to every place you need to be, if things will work out or if you’ll return home that day dejected. Every day is different. Some days you come back with even just the smallest victory that inspires you to go back tomorrow. It could be the simplest thing. Just one good conversation, one good ten-second shot. Like today, for instance, we traveled for about an hour and a half just to make a ten minute phone call, but that phone call guaranteed us what will probably be our most interesting interview yet. It makes you think: hey, you might be able to pull this off.

Other days, you wonder if the long Metro ride was worth the footage you got. You walk out of your meeting wondering how much more awkward that could have been, or how much less you could have understood. You get one of your most important ideas turned down and have to start from scratch. Yesterday, for example, we had the most excruciatingly awkward hour-and-a-half meeting with the librarian at Itagui who we could not for the life of us understand, and who for some reason, would not repeat things in a way we could understand. We walked out just wanting to make it back to Carlos E, our kind of safe haven where everything is familiar and communication is rarely a problem. But all you can do is just regroup, maybe take an hour to descansar, and then you’ve got to get up again to figure out the game plan for tomorrow. And how you might do things better next time.

What we’re doing is really a training exercise in so many things. It’s learning how to get over what you might find uncomfortable: speaking on the phone in Spanish, getting stared at all over the city, even just messing up and having to start all over again. It’s also a test of motivation: can you find enough inspiration to keep at it even when things start falling apart?

I don’t know if we’ll be as successful as we hope to be. But I do know that I’m already doing things I never thought I’d get to do, or would be able to do. Not only filming a documentary to change the entire image of a city, but doing so in a foreign country, in a language that I’m not fluent in, with people I just met. I think that this, along with all that we’re doing, makes everything about this summer worth it, a thousand times over."

"On Wednesday and Thursday, Doris and I set out to complete our first two days of interviews, and I think it’s safe to say as prepared as we thought we were, we had no idea what we were getting into for the most part. Overall we managed to gather good footage, and learn from our mistakes – but memories from the past two days will probably forever be imprinted in my collective impression of Medellín. Wednesday at 9:30 AM we had an appointment with a COMFAMA director, so we left Carlos E. with an hour to spare. Two quick stops down the Metro, and we made it to Parque Biblioteca San Javier with 40 minutes to go before our interview. Although it did take us about 15 minutes to figure out how on earth to get to the bridge to cross the street to the Parque, we made it to the Sala Mi Barrio Room at 9:15 – hot and nervous, and sitting awkwardly in the midst of workers and people reading the daily newspapers. We then proceeded to wait another 35 minutes or more for the director to show up; apparently there was some hubbub with a taxi driver and walking to the Parque. She was friendly and really open, but when we introduced our project and our wish to interview her she suddenly became quite reluctant. I’m still not sure if it was because she was camera shy, or maybe COMFAMA instructs its employees not to do anything but authorized interviews. After we convinced her we had permission though, she was eager to start the interview. We found a quiet place to film, and gave her a microphone attached to an iPod recorder. She immediately put the iPod down her shirt, and then, to hide the rest of the mic cord, she sat on the iPod. Doris and I, too baffled and too hesitant to speak, just went ahead with the interview. Reviewing the footage and audio later in the afternoon we realized that we had no audio from the mic. Lesson #1: Don’t let the interviewee sit on the iPod.

That afternoon brought us to the Aranjuez COMFAMA site, where we had been told a presentation was taking place at 3 PM pertinent to one of our projects. Sure enough, Doris and I arrive about 20 minutes early, and wait till 2:50 in the library. We head over to the auditorium, where we are told that there is something going on at 3, so we would have to wait. Approximately 30 minutes later, the presentation actually begins. Lesson #2: It’s polite to arrive early, but be prepared to wait an hour or more than the 15 minutes you were expecting. We got a great interview after the presentation, but some unwelcome intruders in parts of the footage. The camera was set up in the children’s section of the library, where it was quiet and there were no clients initially. Small children would occasionally grab a book and go, not realizing they were on camera. However, several teenage boys noticed the interview, and thought it would be cool to look at books behind our interviewee and get in some good screen time. Laughing at their cleverness they proceeded to make a slow exit in front of camera, despite the open door at the other end where no interview was taking place. Lesson #3: Avoid teenage boys – probably good advice everywhere.

Thursday rolled around, and Doris and I felt like we knew what we were up against: the possibility of clients walking through footage at the library we were planning to film at, and maybe some technology issues. Turns out our biggest issue was language – all of a sudden the lines of communication between us and the librarian seemed to disappear, and we could understand almost nothing he said except when he spoke on camera. He also went for the mic down the shirt, but being prepared, we had equipped the iPod with a wireless receiver, so it remained safe in our hands and not under anyone’s pants. Two and a half hours later, with about 30 minutes of footage, we exited the library – severely doubting our Spanish skills and completely exhausted. Lesson #4: Ask as many questions as it takes to understand. Also, asking a person to speak slower could be the best decision of the day.

While I’d like to say that Doris and I are now hardened and experienced documentarians – I know that’s simply not the truth. No matter how much you learn from your mistakes, or how hard you try to practice beforehand, there’s nothing that will fully prepare you when you step out into the field."

"Over the last four days, our project has improved dramatically. We were able to make contact with all of the people we needed to, and almost everyone we spoke with was enthusiastic and interested in our work. I was impressed by the openness and excitement that I saw in the people we met with; they showed this kind of emotional response to us even though we had only just met them.

When we met with the two students from the Nacional who had received the grant from EPM, we were set up to have coffee with Carlos. This meeting turned into a two-hour conversation about almost everything! We talked about our project and EPM for about half an hour, but then the students wanted to talk about other things- music, movies, food, our favorite actors, our families, our school, etc. It was so interesting to me that they just met us, and yet they already wanted to share so much. Whenever they talked about something at their house, they invited us to come and see, eat, drink, or do whatever they were referring to with them- as soon as this weekend!

Openness of this is lacking in the United States. For example, I would never expect that kind of response from someone I had just met through a professor, but here relationships are so different. I would not usually invite someone into my home (even when I was in high school) unless I knew them very well; especially at Duke, only the people I spend a lot of time with come to my house (because it is very far away from school, so an invite implies a long trek). However, in contrast these students are thrilled to share something with people, even though they may not be a close friend or relative.

I saw similar behavior with the women I met in the sewing room in Itagüi. This especially touched me because we were different from these women in many ways, while we share lots of traits with the university students (age, interests, etc). I thought that these differences would necessitate a longer break-the-ice period, but after only two or three days in the class, I began to see connections forming between us and the women in the class. Some of the women brought us food (guayaba jelly, crackers, maduro with cheese), while another woman gave us some jewelry she made and refused to let us pay her for it! They also became more curious about us, and asked what we had seen in Medellín, how long we were staying, and what else we wanted to see in Colombia. They also began to say hello to us when we came into the class- and we could remember some of their names as well. I was so surprised by how quickly these connections were established, and I couldn’t help thinking how much longer it would have taken had the situation been reversed, and we had been working in a class in the United States.

I’m not sure what this indicates culturally, but I think the willingness to invite someone new into your home, make them food, or give them a bracelet off your own wrist is related to the closeness of families here. People are most accustomed to being around their own families, so they know what true closeness should look like. Or perhaps they can easily tell when someone is ill-at ease (as we must have looked our first day in the sewing room) and they want to do what they can to help us feel more at home by reaching out. For whatever reason, I would love to do some research and find out what makes people warmer and more open to new faces here. This is another Colombian custom that I hope to bring back with me to the United States- to my family, my friends, and my work."

Photo credit: Jota Samper


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Funded by generous grants from Duke University and donations from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DukeEngage has made it possible for us, a group of six Duke students, to embark on a 7-week civic engagement project, The Historical Memory/Community Literacy Project, in Medellin, Colombia. Our team also includes 57 students from Emerson College in Boston who created a multi-media catalog & a short film "108 things you might not know about medellín".

In collaboration with our directors, Dr. Tamera Marko of Emerson College and Jota Samper of MIT, we are producing 7 short documentaries about various communities in Medellin. We want you know to know that in Medellin, a city in the process of peace, la violencia is not the whole story.

Emerson College Medellin
DukeEngage Colombia 08
Parques Bibliotecas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Carlos E. Restrepo
Pajarito Vivienda


Tamera Marko, Ph.D.

Jota Samper