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Sundance 2024: Francia Márquez Makes History in Colombian Doc "Igualada"

She's got the power: Francia Márquez defies politics as usual in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

She's got the power: Francia Márquez defies politics as usual in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Some words resist translation from one language to another, and "Igualada" might be one of them. The title of Juan Mejía Botero's fascinating documentary on Francia Márquez has no clear equivalent in English. In Spanish, it's a loaded insult thrown against a woman - or man - who defies the class system and behaves above their station in the ruling social order. It's used unequivocally by those in power against others who defy submission.

You can imagine Márquez has heard it all her life. She is an Afro-Colombian woman, the first black woman to get elected to the office of Vice President. "Igualada" follows the dramatic campaign that saw her go from presidential candidate to a left-leaning coalition sharing the ticket with Gustavo Petro. The movie goes beyond the traditional chronicle of a political campaign. Mejía Botero knows Márquez from way back, thanks to an earlier work about a rural movement against a powerful mining company with designs on the small town where she lived in the first decade of the Aughts. We see the young community warrior morph into a savvy politician right in front of our eyes.

By now, it's world news that the Petro-Marquez ticket won the 2022 elections, giving the beleaguered South American country its first left-leaning political administration. Far from spoiling the movie, the twist enriches and deepens "Igualada," making it a fascinating time capsule of a historical moment. We spoke with Mejía Botero in the aftermath of the international premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival - the king of indie movies' film festivals - about the battleground of Colombian politics, the perils of being a black female politician in a conservative country, and the complexities of making a documentary about a friend.

Popflick: You met Francia Márquez way back in 2009. Under which circumstances did it happen?

Juan Mejía Botero: I met her a bit before, in 2006. I was doing a series of docs on forced displacement in Colombia and working with two organizations, the Afro-Colombian Organization of Displaced People and Process for Black Communities. I met Francia through the latter. She was going to tour universities in the USA to speak about her community's situation and the threats of displacement by mining companies. We accompanied her as she talked about the matter, and I showed my movies on the subject. That's how we met and became good friends. Between 2009 and 2010, we worked on two short documentaries about the land and what seemed to be the impending displacement of her community. And that's how we fortified our friendship. In August 2020, she called me to tell me she wanted to compete for the presidency of Colombia.

Woman of the Land: Francia Márquez goes home in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Woman of the Land: Francia Márquez goes home in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Popflick: What did you feel when you got that call? For a documentalist, it must be like winning the lottery. Somebody throws in your lap a great story to tell!

Juan Mejía Botero: Of course! It was a very exciting news. In the beginning, I was a bit in disbelief. It's crazy, a true odyssey to aspire to be president. But she was very determined. I told her I felt it was very important to document her process. She was hesitant at first. She did not like that kind of showcase, but in time, she relented and agreed to do the movie. It was a privilege for me. Having all the material from years ago was lovely, but it was also a great responsibility to tell that story.

Popflick: You must have had a lot of archival material from 2009. That can be a blessing and a curse. Adding the new footage, I guess it was a lot to process. How did you manage?

Juan Mejía Botero: We had about 30 hours filmed between 2009 and 2011 and shot almost 200 hours during the recent campaign. It was challenging, but we had a great editor, Andrea Chignoli, from Chile. She did a great job diluting all this material into a powerful, intimate, and emotional story.

Popflick: I understand you worked remotely with a local crew covering the campaign in Colombia while you were abroad. How did you work this out?

Juan Mejía Botero: My producer, Juan Esteban Yepes, and I are based in New York. We traveled to Colombia as often as possible to shoot, but we knew we needed a full-time crew on the ground. We worked with Producer Sonia Serna, Cinematographer Gómez - DP goes by the last name only - and Associate Producer Eliana Carrillo. The three of them worked a lot. In the beginning, they made several trips with Francia. The campaign did not have much money, but it did have a lot of volunteers who were deeply committed. The lack of resources and experience sometimes showed. It was a complicated shoot, occasionally precarious. We often did not know where we were going on which day. That team on the ground was crucial to capture every campaign phase.

Popflick: I understand you have a very close friendship with Francia. For practical purposes, as a documentarian, could this turn into a problem? Is it desirable, or possible, to keep some critical distance from the subject?

Juan Mejia Botero: That's a very complex question. Some documentaries may seem neutral or impartial towards their subjects, but it's rather difficult. Ultimately, you are watching people through a filter determined by the director, the DP, and the producers. What you see in a movie is what we see and how we live it through our own prejudices. For me, these issues of neutrality or impartiality are somewhat false. From the start, we did commit to doing a complex movie with shades and not holding in anything. Francia gave us full access, with no measure of control from her nor her team. The sole condition was that the movie would not put anyone in danger. We did a single screening for her so that she could check we held our side of the bargain. She had some comments and criticism, but they let us do the movie we wanted to do.  

Campaign Blues: Francia Márquez defies the Colombian status-quo in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Campaign Blues: Francia Márquez defies the Colombian status-quo in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Popflick: In the polarized context of Colombian politics, is there a risk for "Igualada" to be seen as propaganda? How did Colombians receive the movie?

Juan Mejía Botero: They have not seen it yet! We had the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It was well-received. Many people approached us afterward to talk about it. People connected with it. Then again, I think every viewer must decide on their own if it's propaganda. For me, it is not. I don't make propaganda. For me, it's a snapshot of a very important historical moment, centering on an important Colombian leader, a symbol of collective struggle. This is not just about Francia. The fight began before her and her campaign. The movie is a portrait of her and the whole country. You see how beautiful it is to live in a country like this one, where even after suffering so much disillusion and frustration, people allow themselves to dream of different ways of engaging in politics. We dream of a fairer country, and that is a beautiful thing. But it also uncovers horrid things that still exist, like savage racism and extreme misogyny. There is a marked elitism in and out of political circles. We must face realities as a country if we want to change them. It's important to look at ourselves in this mirror honestly.

Popflick: Francia becomes a lightning rod that attracts all these endemic problems that are present not just in Colombia but in all of Latin America. I wonder if your movie can alleviate all these issues in a way that brings people to look at life through another prism. Can you reach people on the other side of the street in Colombia, those who do not identify with Francia's left-leaning political project?

Juan Mejía Botero: I think there are two kinds of people in that group you mention. Those who will like the movie will be able to appreciate it and perhaps will not change their idea about the government. But they will understand the complexity of the movie. They can see it as a snapshot of this historical moment and an explanation of many important issues for Colombia. There's potential there, so I look forward to showing it in Colombia. And I hope to bring it to the provinces so as many people as possible can see it. 

Then, there is another kind of person that I find on social media all the time. They even post on the movie's accounts. They don't criticize the government or Francia in her roles as Vice President and minister. They spew hate, racism, and misogyny. It's very hard to make them change. They don't want a dialogue or an understanding. If you spend weeks writing horrible things online, I don't think we can reach them. But we can reach the majority of Colombians who are not stuck in that space and will appreciate the movie.

Fending the crowds: Francia Márquez at a campaign rally in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Fending the crowds: Francia Márquez at a campaign rally in "Igualada" / Photo by Darwin Torres, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Popflick: Has the movie increased hate speech against Francia on social media?

Juan Mejía Botero: I must clarify that most online commentary from people who have not seen the movie is full of emotion and anticipation. They are eager to watch the film. And those who have seen it are mainly positive. But you always get some hateful comments. It's easier to do that online, taking cover in the anonymity of social media. That's how those people feel. They can say anything without causing any consequences.

Popflick: Your movie premiered on Sundance, and almost simultaneously, a documentary on President Gustavo Petro played at Slamdance. Why the sudden interest in Colombia?

Juan Mejía Botero: Unlike other countries in Latin America, Colombia has never had a truly progressive government; it has always been governed by the same political elite. Just for that reason, this is a historical moment. It never happened before! Understandably, there is so much curiosity about Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez. Anywhere you come from, this is a historical moment. 

Popflick: You started doing work that dealt with social problems in Colombia. Now, you are doing a feature that has to work for audiences worldwide who may not be conversant in the minutiae of Colombian life and politics. How do you balance the needs of both audiences?

Juan Mejía Botero: It's hard to achieve a balance. You must explain to foreign audiences things that will be obvious to Colombians. It's unavoidable that it may be redundant at times for local viewers. Still, I think "Igualada" works in an emotional way, which makes it universal. I felt it in the reception we got at the Sundance Festival. The public connects with a universal story of struggle and hope. These fights in Colombia against racism to achieve social and gender equality... are universal struggles, happening not just in Colombia and Latin America but worldwide. That's what makes the movie work in the global scene. 

Popflick: If one scans the news since Francia took office as Vice President, she has faced the system's bureaucracy and criticism over using public funds. It feels like a sequel of "Igualada" is happening before our eyes. Have you thought about it? Would you revisit Francia's story now that she is in power? 

Juan Mejía Botero: To make this movie was a very hard process, and you take on a strong sense of responsibility. It's very trying to record a historical moment in your country in a way that serves the moment. It was also very taxing for Francia. It's not easy to spend every waking moment of your life with a camera and a microphone in your face. It's exhausting and overwhelming. I think she has other priorities right now that keep her very, very busy. So, the answer is no. It's not a good moment. But it would be interesting!

Popflick: What are you working on right now? What's your next movie?

Juan Mejía Botero: We have some ideas on the table, but we are still recovering from making this movie. We want to do something in Colombia, perhaps using soccer to explore issues of class, race, and gender. Also, something dealing with the prison system.

Correction: a previous version stated incorrectly that Francia Márquez was the first woman to run for President of Colombia. Actually, she is the third one. Maria Eugenia Rojas ran in the 1974 elections. The recently deceased legislator Piedad Córdoba inscribed her candidacy in 2018 but rescinded before election day.

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