The Soccer-Loving People Who Live Atop Water

in 31st Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Mariangel Solomita

At the latest edition of the Guadalajara Film Festival, Emiliano Luca Mazza’s documentary Nueva Venecia (New Venice) caught the interest of juries and viewers who empathized with this portrait of a town of 3,000 inhabitants that has been living for 140 years between the sky and the water. Nueva Venecia cannot even be located on a map. It is a small dot within the huge Santa Marta Swamp in Colombia. In order to get there one must cross two rivers and traverse difficult terrain for an hour. Then the trees, birds and sounds change; and appearing on the horizon is a village of fishermen who love soccer and who live in some sort of heaven that smells like excrement—with suffocating heat, scarce electricity, and no running water. In a corner of the mainland there is a stadium with sandy soil that gets destroyed every year because of the rain.

Mazza’s life changed six years ago, and he says that water had a lot to do with it. At first he wanted to become a math teacher and worked selling time shares, knowledge he claims to be very useful now that he is a filmmaker—for instance, when he needs to find partners in Colombia and Mexico interested in an Uruguayan director filming the daily routine of an unknown community that was devastated by militiamen 15 years ago.

His first experience behind the camera was in Uruguay with El Curro Jimenez in the mid-1990s. He then helped to found the advertising company Paris Texas, where several short films were shot including Ataque de Pánico (Panic Attack), which showed Federico Alvarez the way to Hollywood.

It was around that time when a colleague told him about Nueva Venecia, and Mazza thought it would be transgressive to film there an advertising documentary focused on soccer. “I imagined a shooting like the ones I was used to doing: 30 technicians, helicopters, generators. I mean transforming the lives of these people and then selling that to a brand like Adidas,” he now recalls with a smile, because he doesn’t see the world that way anymore, and because—for starters—helicopter landings would have torn off the flimsy roofs of the dwellings in Nueva Venecia.

In 2010, when he left the office routine, he started working on two simultaneous documentaries: the short films collection Multitudes (Crowds), that he directed together with seven other directors, and Vida a bordo (Life on Board), a project he is editing about life in a cargo ship sailing from Montevideo, Uruguay to Asunción, Paraguay.

Three years ago he began filming Nueva Venecia, once again going into the water. Why? “I don’t have any kind of religious faith; but I feel that in the water I come into contact with something superior, that is where I make the most important decisions” he explains.

The secret to getting a sensible portrait of life in a paradise with a bloody past and miserable present was to become a villager himself. Mazza and his producer and life partner Martha Orozco settled into a house in Nueva Venecia to live with its inhabitants, and to learn about their routine (“that gets repeated day after day”). And also to learn about the importance of soccer as the only chance for a better life for the new generations, even though no one has yet been successful at soccer. They left with a film in mind, and obtained Colombian funds to return and make a short film which was essential to define the structure of the documentary.

With new partners (none Uruguayans), the duo returned together with a sound recordist and a photographer willing to live in extreme conditions and make a movie aboard a canoe. From outside the town, the only things they received were parcels with potable water.

The biggest risk they faced was to show the village’s beauty and poverty without falling into “poverty porn,” a challenge they masterfully managed to overcome, especially because they never reflect a sense of pity towards the film’s characters. There is neither condescension nor fascination for their challenging lifestyle. The cinematography and sound design focus on combining the beauty of the place with its putrefaction: the only beings that swim in those waters filled with excrement are the pigs. The villagers have no water to drink, apart from what they collect on a raft from the Magdalena River and distill until it is fairly drinkable. “It’s an idyllic place, it’s beautiful: that’s what we saw, and that’s what we wanted to show; but the hygienic conditions there (no sanitation), the weather (40°), and the sound polluted everything, so we had to learn to deal with all that using different techniques”, Orozco explains.

The narration has a risky tone of black humor by including, towards the middle of the film, a number of scenes in which young people get ready to play soccer while the adults build the field. In a smart way, the filmmakers create a parallelism between the latest car models soccer players tend to favor and the recently painted boats used by the Nueva Venecia players. In addition, the filmmakers show the Cristiano Rolando-like haircuts the men got for the occasion and the interesting name they chose for their team: Real Madrid.

After four stages of filming, the director created two cuts: one for television (which has been airing for a year in Colombia with great success) and a movie, which began its journey in Guadalajara. The first ones to see the film were the locals : “Since the field was flooded we put up a screen in the church’s courtyard. Almost everybody was there. It was the first time they were seeing a movie together, and the first time they saw themselves on the screen”.

The bond with the people of Nueva Venecia after the shooting and the exhibition will continue. The film crew promised to give them goods and services in return for the favor of showing their story so that it could become a documentary.

For that reason, a social campaign called “La revancha” (Revenge) has already managed to send to Nueva Venecia medical help, sunglasses, athletic shoes, sports clothing, and hygiene products. The campaign has also managed to get two formerly renowned soccer players, “Chicho” Serra and “Gato” Perez, to commit to visiting Nueva Venecia soon and to choose the best player in the village and take him to Medellin for training. What is left to do? Access to clean water. However, the production team in not giving up: “It’s the least we can do for people who have changed our lives”.  

Edited by Dennis West