Violeta Ayala is an award-winning Indigenous filmmaker and writer from Bolivia. Her other credits include “The Flight,” “The Bolivian Case,” and “Stolen,” which has won numerous awards and aired on PBS. Ayala is currently working on a documentary about black rights in Australia and a screenplay about her grandfather, leader of the Bolivian Communist Party and friend to Che Guevara. She is a founding member of United Notions Film.
“Cocaine Prison” will premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Va: “Cocaine Prison” is a film about the ordinary people caught up in the drug war. We shot everything from ants to mountains and all things in between.
The film follows Daisy and Hernan, teenage siblings who dream of forming a band. They end up caught in the middle of a web beyond their imagination. Hernan is arrested while transporting cocaine from Bolivia to Argentina and is sent to San Sebastian Prison. While there, he meets Mario, a cocaine worker who has been in prison for years without a trial. While visiting the prison we gave cameras to Hernan, Mario, and other inmates and asked them to film. We made this film with their collaboration.
The film is very personal and character driven; it’s shot and put together like a fiction film. “Cocaine Prison” humanizes the drug workers while highlighting the unfairness of the drug war.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Va: I was tired of seeing the narrative of the gun-toting narco myth over and over on screen. I’m not saying Pablo Escobar or El Chapo don’t exist, but rather that those stories are the exception.
The majority of the people involved in making and transporting drugs are young and/or vulnerable. It’s a big global business and it works the same way that globalization does: Indigenous people, people of color, and the young and poor risk everything, while those at the top make the money.
These “drug workers” are not devilish or stupid; they are people whose lives depend on a business that those in power have determined to be illegal. Everyone is hurting in the North and the South. The drug workers are part of a long chain.
I wanted to tell this story from my eyes and my own experience. I’m an Indigenous filmmaker from Bolivia. I grew up with this war on drugs and it has affected my life. I watched through my window as the army tore apart families and detained and violently beat anyone they believed was working in the cocaine business.
During the 80s and 90s, poor farmers were the target of the DEA and Bolivian army. The war on drugs has failed. However, governments worldwide choose to continue punishing the most vulnerable rather than accept the failure and look for alternatives.
The war on drugs is not only racist, but is also colonialist. I believe we won’t have real democracies in Latin America until this drug war reaches an end.
It’s a very dangerous moment in our history. Bolivia is one of only four countries (all of which border the Amazon) that produces the coca leaf — the main ingredient to make cocaine. The tentacles of this drug war have stretched from the cities to the jungle. It affects our environment and the Indigenous groups in the middle of the Amazon, where they have lived for tens of thousands of years.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Va: I would like them to feel empathy. The drug war is a complex issue that affects us all.
There is an increased awareness of where our food comes from and how it is produced. When people consume illegal drugs, they have no idea where the substances come from and how they are produced. Because of the illegality of the drug trade, there is a disconnect about where drugs are coming from and the effect this industry has on the lives of others and the environment.
I want the audience to go further in questioning the global drug trade from a different point of view.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Va: The time it took to make the film. Every story is a journey on its own. We started filming seven years ago. We taught English and filmed inside San Sebastian Prison for almost four years. It was tough. I met Daisy and Hernan when they were 17 and 19, respectively. I watched them grow, and they are like family to me now.
Another big challenge was bringing the elements together. I wanted the film to shy away from a Western, stereotypical narrative that tries to explain everything to outsiders. My challenge was to bring a Western audience to our world.
The film isn’t based on interviews; it follows the real life stories of these people, up-close and personal. It tries to counter the Western narrative about the drug war through poetics and gentleness. The music is also part of that creative process. An Australian composer came to Bolivia and recorded Bolivian musicians, marrying a traditional film score with Andean instruments, melody, and sound.
Following my voice in a Western-dominated media was the biggest challenge.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Va: I have always funded my films through film foundations and broadcasters. “Cocaine Prison” has gained support from Sundance, MacArthur, Tribeca, Chicken and Egg, Cnc, Bertha BritDoc, Open Society Foundations, Screen Australia, Latin Public Broadcaster, and others.
It is draining to think of the time I spend writing grant applications. As you can imagine, most of the time it’s met with rejection.You have to have thick skin and really want to make the film.
I try and try and keep trying, always improving my applications and my materials so funders can understand what I’m trying to achieve.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Tiff?
Va: It’s the second time that I have a film at Tiff. My first documentary, “Stolen,” premiered at Tiff in 2009. “Stolen” had a very long and successful festival life that included close to 100 festivals and 16 awards.
I’m the first Bolivian filmmaker to have two films premiering in Toronto, and this year I’m also one of the two Australian directors at Tiff. “Sweet Country” director Warwick Thornton is Aboriginal, and I’m Quechua. This makes me incredibly proud.
There is an African proverb that says, “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Va: Best advice: Three-time Academy Award nominee Deborah Dickson (who is like the midwife of all of my films ) once told me that film is like a puzzle. You have to keep trying until you have every piece in its place so you can see the entire picture.
Worst advice: When I was at university in Australia, a classmate told me that I was wasting my time and that, because English wasn't my first language, I could never work in the industry.
I have endured a lot of racism and sexism through my career because I dare to be myself and don't usually compromise. It's hard to be an Indigenous filmmaker and a woman of color in a world dominated by white male filmmakers, funders, etc. I generally don't let racism and sexism bother me too much.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Va: I’m skeptical about giving advice because something that might have worked for me won’t necessarily work for another person.
Watch “Kung Fu Panda” and go wild on your own terms.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Va: Ava DuVernay’s “13th” for many reasons. It features a black woman telling us the story from her perspective. It’s a complex film told with so much dignity. It’s a film that everyone should watch to understand the deep roots of racism, slavery, domination, U.S. prisons, and the world.
I also love “Me and You and Everyone We Know” by Miranda July. Miranda takes us into her world, and I really love that. She doesn’t try to tell a big story or whitewash a narrative. Miranda really focuses on her experiences and is creatively wonderful.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Va: I believe change is on our hands and we have to keep fighting. Change doesn’t come from the top down, but rather the other way around.
Change won’t happen because few opportunities have arisen in the last few years — this is a naive way to see it. We live in a male-dominated world, and the film industry is no different. If we talk about what is fair, only women should make films for the next 100 years. Maybe then we could talk about opportunity.
As a woman filmmaker of color, I also believe that we need to be conscious about who is telling the story; we must not repeat the mistake of colonization that male filmmakers made. We can’t talk about feminism without talking about racism, opportunity, and privilege. Women filmmakers are people, not a statistic. It’s so unfair to try to measure our involvement after a few opportunities have been thrown at us without a real and deep change in the system.
We are creating and raising our voices. This is a process, and I’m sure we will change the system — we the women of the world.
Tiff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Violeta Ayala — “Cocaine Prison” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.