Documentary details plight of Colombians of African descent

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Uprooted shows single mother Noris in the shanties of her refugee camp in Colombia.
-Photo courtesy of Juan Mejia Botero

A film about the terrible plight of Afro-Colombians caught in the middle of the Colombian civil war recently was aired as part of the third season of PBS’ AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.
“Nobody really talks abut some of the greater consequences” of the civil war, said filmmaker Juan Mejia Botero, who spoke to the MSR by phone from his home country of Colombia. His film Uprooted examines the civil war’s effect on the day-to-day lives of Afro-Colombians, who make up 20-25 percent of the total population of the South American nation.
The documentary tells the story of Noris, a mother who lives with her family in a refugee shelter on the outskirts of Quibds, a growing city on Colombia’s Pacific Coast. They were forced to leave their home and relocate there after one of her sons joined the military. That decision put Noris in the middle of the civil war.
However, as Mejia Botero pointed out, Noris’ family also once owned valuable land, and communities of color are “an obstacle for [a particular] project… They need the people off the land in order to carry out their economic plans.”
In Uprooted, which is shown in Spanish with English subtitles, Noris says that her family was like many others whose livelihoods depended on agriculture, gold panning and fishing. Her family once lived on Colombian Pacific “timber land” that now has become a new frontier for development. Her land is now inhabited by military forces, and she and her family have been living in “temporary” conditions since 1996.
The film centers on Noris and one of her youngest sons, who wants to attend a soccer academy in Bogotá, the nation’s capital. She sells homemade cheese sticks to support her family. “It is a very human story of a mother and son,” Mejia Botero said.
As he told their story, Mejia Botero noted, “The difficulties the mother was having in helping her son…gave it a real nice tension throughout the film.”

The documentary also gives the viewers a more contextual look at the real effect of Colombia’s civil war. Some foreign governments, especially those currently at war, claim that displacement is just an unfortunate consequence.
“It is the way the [Colombian] government likes to portray it,” admited Botero. “It is a much more complex situation where there are very serious and powerful economic interests in the territory that is mainly inhabited by African-Colombian people.”
Mejia Botero’s film is among AfroPoP’s five-week series on diverse documentaries about people of the African Diaspora in Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the United States. It is produced by the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) and co-presented by American Public Television (APT).

Uprooted was aired on PBS’ World channel on February 2.

If it wasn’t for NBPC, Mejia Botero’s documentary probably would not have been shown on U.S. television, believes Botero, who was born in Bogotá and has worked with the Association de Afrocolombianos Desplazados (AFRODES), a grassroots organization dedicated to improving life for Afro-Colombians.
“There is very little space for stories about Africa, the African Diaspora or any people of color on public television,” he said. “Without organizations like [the NBPC], it would be very difficult to get these stories out.”
He is currently in Colombia working on a feature documentary, The Battle for Land, that deals more deeply with the forced displacement of Afro-Colombians. It is expected to be out later this year.
“We want to address much more deeply the political and economic conflict about displacement, and really take the mask off the official version on displacement,” says Mejia Botero. “Displacement all over the world really affects people of color, and it is not a coincidence.”

To see Uprooted and the other six films featured in the series, filmmakers’ interviews and other information on the documentaries, go to the NBPC official website:
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokes