Award-Winning Bolivian Filmmaker Violeta Ayala Using Storytelling As A Weapon Of Truth

In an age of #resistance in the era of Trump and his cries of “fake news”, filmmakers, artists, storytellers and creatives have become a powerful vehicle for truth. However, these mediums have been a way of educating while simultaneously entertaining audiences since long before November 8, 2016. Documentaries especially have the potential to change legislature, shift culture, and challenge perspectives in a way politics cannot.

Bolivian filmmaker Violeta Ayala and her award-winning films are proof of this. Her documentaries ‘Cocaine Prison’ and ‘The Fight’ have exposed audiences to certain issues in a whole new way that might not have been possible through traditional news media outlets. Her production company United Notion Films as founded in 2005 with her filmmaking partner Dan Fallshaw with the intent to “challenge the status quo”. Watching any of their films, it’s easy to see how they are living up to this mantra.

‘Cocaine Prison’ was released in 2017 and offers a view into the lives of people in prison for transporting cocaine that governments and authorities probably wouldn’t readily offer up. While we watch shows like Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ and learn about the lives of Pablo Escobar and various Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, in Bolivia, the culture around the coca leaves is very different. In fact, it is a plant that has virtually no taboo surrounding it (it is as normal as growing coffee beans or drinking wine and is a very common plant that farmers harvest) and is legal to grow up to a certain amount.

However, transporting it is not, and people risk being thrown into prison by doing so. But in areas where poverty prevents the upward mobility of communities, cocaine transportation is a job that brings in money for even teenagers, who are the ultimate victims in a war in drugs that has been proven ineffective. It is a country where the coca crop by-product all but props up a “grey market” economy. Needing to pay lip service to the U.S. War on Drugs, the Bolivian government enforces drug laws, which allows it to charge powerless drug workers while often turning a blind eye to powerful “big fish.”

As a result, half of all prison inmates in Bolivia are in for minor drug offenses. In her film Violeta puts a human face on the vicious circle of life in and outside the notorious San Sebastian Prison. ‘Cocaine Prison’ follows Daisy a teenager who struggles to escape the lure to traffic cocaine, her brother Hernan arrested with two kilos of cocaine near the Argentinian border and his best friend Mario, a cocaine worker fighting for freedom. Not a stereotypical prison, San Sebastian is more of an overcrowded, government-run slum holding 700 people, most of them in legal limbo. Violeta and Dan managed to smuggle in cameras to various inmates. As a result, ‘Cocaine Prison’ is a rare case of a prison documentary partially shot by the inmates themselves.

“The universal truth of the War on Drugs is that it targets the most vulnerable everywhere: the drug workers at one end and the drug addicts on the other. They are the ones who are called criminals. But the world economy runs on drug money. And the key players, the big fish, live outside justice. The justice system is based on money, class and race,” said Violeta.

She spent four years making the film, which had a personal aspect to it because of her own Indigenous background.

“We, the indigenous people from the Andes, have lived with the coca leaf for millennia. It was a white man who in 1859, made cocaine and now is the powerful people in the West who profits the most while we risk our lives. Cocaine Prison is one of the stories told from our side,” she said. 

Violeta explained to us how she was sick of seeing the stereotyped portrayal of cocaine traffickers and also wanted to show the stories of those in prison from an Indigenous lens.

“There is a difference between white people filming other cultures as they don’t often view them as equal,” she said.

Showing these prisoners as humans, not just tropes or characters was deliberate, and while the reception from young people has been mostly positive, Violeta says it has confused critics who are most likely used to seeing the ‘Narcos’ version of the cocaine trafficking trade on screen, because it doesn’t fit their pre-determined narrative. ‘Cocaine Prison’ is showing a side to the drug trafficking industry that doesn’t get enough attention, and Violeta is the one making sure more people see this.

But it’s not just the drug issue Violeta has tackled. After making ‘Cocaine Prison’, she came across the issue of a group of disabled activists who were protesting the Bolivian government and President Evo Morales’ oppressive tactics to try and silence them. After becoming intrigued by their mission, Violeta picked up her camera once again and decided to document their work. This ended up becoming the acclaimed short film ‘The Fight’, which was distributed by The Guardian.

People with disabilities are among the most discriminated against in Bolivia. Fed up with being ignored, a group of them march across the Andes to the seat of the government in La Paz, asking to speak to President Evo Morales. They are met with riot police, barricades, tear gas and water cannons. Headed by determined leaders, including Rose Mery, Marcelo, Feliza and Miguel, the protesters camp on the streets a block away from the main plaza near the government palace. For the first time in Bolivia’s history, police erect 3m-high barricades, station tanks and hundreds of riot officers to stop the protesters in wheelchairs from entering the plaza.

Violent confrontations flare up between police and the protesters, with officers using pepper spray and water cannon. The government refuses to discuss their request for a pension of $70 a month and the protesters suspend themselves from the city’s bridges in their wheelchairs. After following the protesters on the march, Violeta and Dan gain intimate access to their camp, including up-close scenes of regular violent reactions from the police. The film-makers and other journalists are also threatened. For three months the activists with disabilities attempt to speak to the president but face criticism from the state’s official news outlets.

Violeta tells us that President Morales, once seen as heralding the dawn of new political leadership as the first Indigenous president, has slowly gained control over many aspects of politics as well as the media, and it has become almost impossible to get a true sense of the issues disabled people are facing from local media which has essentially become a state-run medium. Violeta used the power of social media to write about what she was seeing and filming, writing articles on The Huffington Post to spread more awareness about what the newsmedia refused to show, and of course using her filmmaking skills as a weapon against political oppression.

“Bolivia used to be a lot freer in terms of expression, but that is being taken away by the government,” said Violeta.

In fact, the government is so afraid of the truth getting out, she has even been accused of being paid by the CIA for her work. But Violeta comes from a family of activists – her grandfather was a political prisoner for his views – and now she is using film to take on the establishment. As for what the government doesn’t want you to know, it is all about rights and better support system for disabled people.

The disabled activists have been raising awareness about children being abandoned by their parents for their disability, and those living in poverty because of their physical condition. The activists Violeta followed are asking for better government benefits, yet political leaders have accused them of devising a strategy to “destabilize the government”, according to The Guardian.

Both Dan and Violeta told us that the reason President Morales and his government are afraid that giving these activists what they want and allowing them to have any power will embolden other activist groups to rise up and potentially push back against government control. If the disabled people are empowered to protest for what they want, able-bodied people could do even more, is the thinking.

Proving that filmmaking is a powerful and effective weapon against political oppression, since ‘The Fight’ was released, there have been some major changes for the activists in Bolivia. Due to some shocking protests including one where the activists, hanging from rope, suspended themselves over a bridge to catch the attention of onlookers, more people started hearing about their mission.

So President Morales introduced a bill in Congress allowing a small monthly monetary benefit to people with severe and very serious disabilities. It was only half the amount the activists were asking for, and activists weren’t overjoyed with the gesture.

One of the leaders of the group, Rose Mery Guarita, said the more important achievement was to raise awareness and respect.

“With the protests, we have managed to make the general population more sensitive. I hope the new generation see us as people, not strange creatures,” she said.

The protests have gained worldwide attention thanks to Violeta’s film, as well as the increased social media attention the activists have been getting. Violeta also traveled to Geneva and stood before the United Nations assembly denouncing Bolivia’s treatment of the disabled people. Yet she gives all the praise to the group of activists who have worked tirelessly for their community, inspiring other similar protests around the world, most notably the ADAPT protest on Capitol Hill here in the United States, against the Republican-led healthcare bill which sought to strip away coverage for millions of Americans, including some of the most vulnerable people.

“These protestors are smart, they are political, and they know exactly what they are doing,” said the filmmaker.

‘The Fight’ has helped change the narrative about the disabled population as well as the government in Bolivia in a drastic manner. That is the power of film. Violeta says the ability to create change and shape public discourse, especially as an Indigenous woman, is why storytelling is important to her.

“The media is the most powerful tool in terms of controlling people, by telling the same narratives. But we have to change that by creating our own narratives and sharing our own stories. We need more women of color and Indigenous people telling their own stories in their own ways,” she said.

‘The Fight’ is available to watch in full via The Guardian, and you can learn more about upcoming screenings for ‘Cocaine Prison’ on the film’s website. Watch the trailer below.


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