A Poetic Odyssey

in 74th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Ninos Feneck Mikelides

Tradition and Myth Transformed into a Poetic Odyssey. Festival films are more challenging and interesting when it is difficult to classify them into a genre. Ninos Feneck Mikelides looks at the true story of a Colombian cocaine baron who imported four hippopotamus in the 1970s, and the fate of one in particular. 

Folk tradition, myth, poetry and the fantastic merge in this small epic/essay, this modern odyssey of Pepe, as the Dominican director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias (known to the festival audience for his Locarno award-winning film Cocote) entitles this beautiful, endowed with poetry and lyricism, difficult to classify in genre, film, among the best films seen at this year’s 74th Berlinale.

A heavy, strange voice, as if from some kind of ecstasy, which is revealed to be that of Pepe, a hippopotamus who has escaped from his owner, Pablo Escobar (the well-known Colombian “baron” of cocaine) and is crossing the Magdalena River, where he will eventually meet his death, so comments the film. Pepe was one of four hippos that Escobar brought from Namibia in the 1970s and that were set free to roam after his death. By 2019, they had increased to a hundred, which was considered dangerous to flora and fauna as well as human life. However, the killing in 2009 of a hippopotamus (called “Pepe”) by a group of hunters authorized by the local authorities, provoked a reaction from animal protection groups, both in Colombia and abroad. This inspired De los Santos Arias to make his completely different film story, and with broader and more important themes. 

“Is that sound coming from my mouth?” Pepe asks in his heavy, inarticulate voice, “or, more specifically, what is a mouth?” The only thing he knows is that he is already dead. The first and last hippopotamus killed in America. Through images, sounds and music, through colors (often in black screen) but also various image formats, with special shots, videos, archival material, helicopter scenes (another kind of Apocalypse, Now), they parade stories of encounters, misunderstandings, conflicts, family relationships, celebrations and rituals, in a world that is full of life, sometimes seriously and sometimes playfully, with humor and authenticity, but also a dose of fairy tale, often with a philosophical mood, through the voice of a creature who speaks to us of life and death, who knows much but who has also suffered much, who now crosses the river Magdalena without any Ithaca as a final goal, but towards a prescribed death. On a journey of reflection, a sort of metaphor for colonialism, imperialism, racism, immigration, climate change, environmental destruction and all the big problems that voracious and cleverly mutating capitalism has burdened us with under the alias of neo-liberalism.

As the director notes: “The fantastic enables us to create impossible worlds, to turn the imagination to that bridge to the much-needed utopia – the one that creates worlds that don’t yet exist – and changes the fact that cultures are created by stories that we continue to say to each other…Pepe is the world that emerges from my own and the collective imagination…the first colonist who accidentally arrives, countless living beings (humans, animals, plants), who are exiled, who are transported to unknown countries”.

At a time when cinema seems to have been driven into a rut (to which American cinema has helped the most), it is especially gratifying to discover films like Pepe, a film made with skill, inspiration, confidence and daring, a special, beautiful, unique experience, at the same time a unique pleasure, that makes you think. 


Ninos Feneck Mikelides
Edited by Steven Yates