“I’m Tired of this Appropriation of Stories by Filmmakers from the West:”: Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw on Cocaine Prison
Part of IFP’s 2013 Project Forum slate, Cocaine Prison is the latest completed work from indigenous Latina filmmaker Violeta Ayala, who’s long been an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs, which not only disproportionately affects low-income folks here in the States, but especially our impoverished neighbors south of the border, from Mexico on down. For this follow-up to 2015’s The Bolivian Case (another tale of South American coke smuggling and its consequences, but with a Norwegian teenagers twist), Ayala, along with filmmaker partner/husband Dan Fallshaw (a producer, cinematographer and editor on Cocaine Prison), have headed back to her birth country of Bolivia, and to the heart of the fallout: the dangerously overcrowded San Sebastian prison (where inmates who can’t afford to buy their own cells sleep outside).
The pair focus on a trio of “foot soldiers,” a teen drug mule named Hernan and his equally young sister Deisy fighting for his release, along with a low-level cocaine worker called Mario, incarcerated while the drug bosses above him remain untouchably free. Compellingly Kafkaesque, Cocaine Prison puts three remarkable faces on a too often abstract web of international injustice and systemic corruption. Filmmaker spoke with Ayala and Fallshaw prior to the film’s TIFF premiere. (The film continues to screen this week.)
Filmmaker: Can you discuss the origins of your film? I know that you and Dan taught English classes inside San Sebastian — which seems a bizarre feat considering the prison’s chaotic nature, with little staffing and lots of wives and children living alongside the inmates — and started giving cameras to some of your students. Had you been planning on making a documentary from the get-go?
Ayala: I wanted to tell the story of the effects of the War on Drugs from my own personal experience. Coming from Bolivia, one of the four countries where the coca leaf grows and cocaine is produced, for me the War on Drugs was real. During the more violent times, from the window of my grandmother’s house, I saw DEA agents and Bolivian soldiers beating and killing coca farmers and imprisoning everyone suspected of being involved in drug trafficking — yet cocaine was at its most expensive and the market just kept expanding. I grew up with no notion of the legality of cocaine — for me, it was a way to make money. I remember I wanted my father to become a narco so he wouldn’t have to go to Australia to make money.
I knew it would be difficult for anyone to tell this story unless they were already in prison. San Sebastian prison was a few blocks from my grandmother’s house, and we went there in 2008 and talked to some of the inmates who were outside, selling the wooden beds they make in the prison.
So yes, we wanted to make a film since the first time we went to San Sebastian prison. We taught English in order to have a reason to be there all the time. It was intense, and there were all sorts of inmates in the class, not only drug workers. There were rapists and murderers, too. I learned a lot about humanity there. I had to let go of my feelings and treat everyone the same. It was physically draining and exhausting to spend hours a day in the prison. It’s claustrophobic, noisy, violent and monotonous like any other prison.
It was Mario who asked us to give him a camera, so he could film his own story. Then Dan found these little cameras that recorded HD, so we initially gave a camera to both Mario and Hernan, and later to another two inmates. I think we lost five cameras throughout filming. Still, it wasn’t easy filming inside the prison. I believe that as soon as the inmates had their own cameras, the entire dynamic changed. They didn’t just film what we wanted, but what they wanted to share with us. They deleted photos and scenes they didn’t feel comfortable with. I believe this is very important — as Mario felt he had his destiny in his own hands in making the film. Hernan was younger, and it was harder for him to be locked up, so he didn’t use the camera as much as Mario. One of the other inmates, who filmed a lot, was very talented. What I didn’t know is that we’d be teaching English for almost four years. We also made another film during that period (The Bolivian Case), set in the San Sebastian women’s prison, across the road from the men’s prison.
Fallshaw: I was a teacher for 12 months in Australia when I was young and never imagined I’d find myself teaching English in a prison in Bolivia everyday for the better part of four years. The first time I went to Bolivia was with Violeta in 2008. We’d just finished a long shoot for Stolen. We went to the coca market in Cochabamba to film, and she talked to me about what it was like before the DEA arrived and the extreme violence started – that was in the ’80s, when cocaine was also sold in the market just like you see the big bags of coca leaves today.
On that trip when we were flying out of Bolivia I had the opportunity to sit next to one of the last DEA agents to leave Bolivia. He was on his way back to the U.S. after living in Bolivia for a number of years. The Morales government put an end to the cooperation with the DEA, and ordered them all out of Bolivia. The good times had come to an end, he told me. He couldn’t go around and shoot whoever he wanted anymore — it was like the Wild West in Chapare, he said. He was so gung ho, and actually reveled in telling his story. I doubt he would have cared if I’d filmed him. I kicked myself for not having my camera with me.
In 2010 when we made it back to Bolivia, we went to San Sebastian prison looking for the guy we’d met in 2008 only to discover he’d been killed in a fight over coca growing land in Chapare. So our original idea for the film had taken a serious turn, and we considered what to do. We decided to teach English in the prison.
Filmmaker: The teenage Deisy is quite a fascinating and fearless protagonist. At one point in the film you follow her on a cross-border drug run, which I assume was a reenactment. Which made me wonder when in the process of filming this dangerous decision was made. Were you close to her at this time — aware of the risks she was taking? I mean, how involved were you in these characters’ lives? Where and how do you decide to draw the line?
Ayala: I’m very close to Deisy. I met her outside the prison when she was only 16. At the time Deisy was a bit lost. Hernan was her oldest brother, and she spent lots of time with him in prison. Deisy was walking a tightrope, either to follow in Hernan’s footsteps or to finish high school. Of course I worried a lot about her. I remember when she went to ask for a passport to go to Argentina, and she was told she could simply travel with her ID card. When I questioned the decision she was making she told me, “Look, you’re a professional and speak several languages, and you can’t even afford to buy your own home. If you work for a long time in the cocaine business you can make lots of money.” This wasn’t dissimilar to what I was taught when I was her age!
Cocaine meant money and a way out of poverty. I believe we all have to find our own journey in order to grow, and Deisy did this by taking big risks. I’m proud of her today. It’s not an easy fit for an indigenous girl from a tiny community in the jungle to become an engineer. Nothing is objective — filmmaking is about relationships — and to make this film was about taking risks. We need an honest discussion about the most vulnerable people affected by the War on Drugs. It’s complex, and I feel the media has created this image of heartless drug traffickers from south of the border, that are violent and don’t care about their lives — and that’s not true. The motor of the global drug trade are people like Deisy, Hernan and Mario. I push the limits all the time. I question myself as much as I question the system. Cocaine Prison is part of my reality.
Fallshaw: In the beginning of our time at San Sebastian we got drawn into the lives of a lot of the inmates. We had about 25 students show up for the first classes. That number dwindled down to about 10, and that group became our production team in the prison over the years we were there. It was a tough place for all of us to be and we all supported each other.
Hernan had such a warm character when he first arrived and stood out from many of the others in San Sebastian. Mario didn’t miss a single class and endeared himself to everyone in the prison. The nature of his relationship with Hernan became an easy choice for the film. Deisy was very standoffish for a long time. There were times when I’d be filming her in a protest, or outside the prison during the riots, when she’d literally hide from the camera. But later she’d sit down and talk happily for an hour or more about how she felt about their situation.
There was a period of time during the shoot that Hernan locked himself away, and we hardly saw him for about six months. It was when he was at his lowest point — Deisy as well was at hers during that period — and of course we wanted to put them under our wing and guide them. But really, we’re filmmakers and not their parents. We’re not counselors, or psychologists, or even lawyers, and it wasn’t our right or responsibility to take on that guiding role.
Just being who we were gave them confidence to be open with us. We weren’t judging them or attempting to tell them what to do. I think that’s why we were able to see the story through until the end and witness them making their own decisions and fighting their own way out of the situation they’d gotten themselves into, in the way they knew how. They decided what was best for them each step of the way, and today they’re completely responsible for their own lives. Even in your question, it’s assumed these kids needed saving. We didn’t have to, and didn’t save anyone. Deisy made her own decisions, and today she’s finishing university and will become a qualified engineer.
Filmmaker: One of the most chilling scenes for me was when one of your characters discovers that his lawyer may actually be working against him — and for the drug boss that threw him under the bus, so to speak. The prisoners themselves seem both naïve and trustworthy, while the system that put them there is corrupt through and through. Since you’re from Bolivia, Violeta, I’m curious to hear whether, and how, you’re using the film to try to enact systemic change there.
Ayala: While Cocaine Prison tells a very personal story, it’s also a political film. Everyone in Bolivia knows this story but no one talks about it. It’s the elephant in the room. We talk about the injustice in the legal system, but we don’t discuss the roots of the injustice. The cocaine workers continue to pay the price of the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs, and are being used as the excuse to continue. It will be challenging to get Cocaine Prison into cinemas in Bolivia. I also want the film to tour communities in Chapare where the coca leaf grows, have community screenings in the neighborhoods of all Bolivian cities. And I want the film to be sold on the pirated DVDs on the streets, to reach the biggest possible audience.
I think my work has the capacity to ignite debate, the first step for change. In 2015 when The Bolivian Case opened in cinemas in Bolivia, the mainstream media for the first time ever questioned the legitimacy of the drug war. An article was published in my hometown newspaper Los Tiempos, quoting me saying that the War on Drugs has failed and is hypocritical, is a racial war targeted towards indigenous people. The next day a journalist, who wrote an opinion piece on the film, wrote the same. Soon after all the newspapers followed suit, even the most conservative. Articles were also published in magazines, including Vanity Fair.
Bolivia is a very conservative Catholic country. However, we have two things that make change possible — the majority of our population is less than 30 years of age, and we have the largest indigenous population in the Americas. But the system in Bolivia won’t change unless there is an end to the drug war. I honestly believe that there won’t be long-lasting democracies in Latin America because of this War on Drugs. Look at Venezuela, Brazil or Mexico. The drug trade can’t function without corruption, and when corruption is normal practice, what hope do we have? The money that comes into the system from the international drug trade feeds not only the corruption that permits the drug trade to function, but all the corruption.
The first step in western countries is to include the drug workers on the drug reform debate. Keeping them invisible won’t make them disappear. Cocaine Prison is a vital film for the U.S. public because the people are the only hope to end the drug war.
Filmmaker: On that note, ever since your internationally controversial doc Stolen back in 2009, exposing corruption ––often at the highest levels — has been an ongoing theme in your documentary work. So I wonder if you’ve developed any best practices for staying safe while following a story.
Ayala: I’m somewhat skeptical about giving advice, because something that worked for me won’t necessarily work for everyone. By nature I’m a very safe person. I love life — and now even more because I have a little daughter.
I won’t take unnecessary risks when following a complex story. I won’t go out alone, won’t get drunk — basic stuff like that. Last year while making The Fight, a film that follows the struggles of people with disabilities in Bolivia, we ended up in the middle of a very complicated story as the Bolivian government acted in a very violent way against the most vulnerable in any society. We received threats against our lives and our daughter’s. They accused us of being CIA spies, tried to arrest us. We made everything public, and I think that helped keep us safe. We also sent all the footage outside Bolivia all the time, and uploaded to iCloud, and kept copies everywhere. Even when it’s hard I remind myself that my job is to tell the story, that this is the best way I know to disrupt the status quo.
Fallshaw: It’s interesting, because at the outset of all of our films we never intended to get involved in anything controversial. Stolen was meant to be a very simple film about a family reunion. The Bolivian Case wasn’t even a film until one of the girls jumped bail and was smuggled out of Bolivia by Norwegian mercenaries. And The Fight began as a protest march by a group of people with disabilities, so how much trouble could we get into?
That said, we’re always drawn to stories with a strong political bent, and I guess that’s why things turn out the way they do. People involved in politics the world over get very paranoid about cameras and filmmakers. The Polisario in Stolen, the Bolivian government in The Fight, and the Norwegian government in The Bolivian Case — all made their own role in each of the films.
How do you remain safe? Social media is a great platform for telling a lot of people about things that happen to you while filming – and politicians are very aware of social media, from Australia to Bolivia. During filming our team never really goes out at night, unless it’s to film. And then we’d always go out in pairs, or threes if we really thought it was risky. And one of the three is there just to watch the backs of the other two. If it’s just Violeta and myself we never separate from each other. Once you find yourself in tricky situations there are always people who will help you; you just have to know whom to ask. And often when you get to that point, you’re too far into the filmmaking process to stop, and it’s more prudent to keep going with the story and use the film as a means of protection. You just have to make sure your material is in a safe place.
Filmmaker: Finally, as an indigenous Latina born in Bolivia, Violeta, what sort of access to your characters — emotional, physical — do you think you garnered that perhaps a white, first world “outsider” might not have?
Ayala: An outsider couldn’t make Cocaine Prison. It’s not just the access — it’s the cultural respect and understanding that I have. It’s a very personal film. I know how far I can go, I know the limits, and I speak the language. I look like the people that I’m filming. I don’t patronize or idealize them. We’re equal and that’s all there is to it.
The War on Drugs and the drug trade have almost always been framed by white eyes in both documentary and fiction. Look at Narcos — the DEA agents are the heroes, and we the people from south of the border are portrayed either as violent, soulless individuals or ignorant victims. I’m tired of this appropriation of stories by filmmakers from the West. I’m not saying they shouldn’t make films in other countries, but they should be honest about where they’re coming from. A film by a U.S. filmmaker in Mexico isn’t a Mexican film — just like a film about a black person made by a white filmmaker isn’t a black film. This misappropriation of stories just continues with the same colonialism we’ve become accustomed to and maintains the power structure of one group of people over the rest. We made Stolen about slavery in North Africa, and the first thing you hear in the film is that we are not from the Sahara and we went there to make a film — that it’s framed from our eyes.
The other day I watched the Vice short (Charlottesville: Race and Terror) by Elle Reeve, and I can tell you, I couldn’t have made that film. I’m not white. I wouldn’t have been accepted from the start. It’s a vital story, and I’m glad it was made. Also, 13th by Ava DuVernay is a great example, so complex yet carried out with so much dignity, defying stereotypes or easy answers. Even how people were photographed, it showed love and respect. I think it’s time to open our eyes and hearts about what diversity really is.