The Drug War Trilogy: A Conversation with Filmmaker Violeta Ayala

By Seth Ferranti 10/07/15

The Fix Q&A with filmmaker Violeta Ayala on the real impact of the War on Drugs.

The Drug War Trilogy: A Conversation with Filmmaker Violeta Ayala
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As the War on Drugs ratchets down in the USA, the aftereffects are still reverberating in other parts of the world, especially in the cocaine-producing countries of South America that have fed our countries insatiable thirst for the addictive drug. The impact of what has happened in this country due to the drug war has been well-documented in films like Blow, Traffic and Cocaine Cowboys, but the fall out from our neighbors south of the equator has yet to be fully explored. With Netflix’s release of the Pablo Escobar-themed Narcos, more drug war history is making its way to film. As we move away from a traumatic era, it's important to weigh the ramifications and costs that the drug war has inflicted by looking at the costs and casualties on all sides.

Filmmaker Violeta Ayala is doing just that. Born in Bolivia, she is best known for the controversial documentary Stolen, which exposed racial-based slavery in the Sahara desert. But currently she is working on the Drug War Trilogy, a series of films that address the impact of the United States' War on Drugs on the cocaine-producing regions of the world. The first part, The Bolivian Case, recently premiered at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in the Special Presentation Program to rave reviews and critical analysis. Part 2 of the series, Cocaine Prison, has also wrapped and is in post-production. The third part of the series, South Meets North is getting ready to go into production. 

Violeta has been a busy woman. She’s been working diligently with United Notions Film to bring her climatic visions to light. Her documentaries have been screened at 80 festivals worldwide, winning a total of 15 awards. She blogs regularly on the Huffington Post, writing about the current US drug war and she takes pride in bringing stories to the public in her documentaries, stories that would otherwise remain untold. She recently took time from her busy schedule to sit down with The Fix to discuss her epic Drug War Trilogy, her desire to make films that impact policymakers and her agenda to sway public opinion on sensitive issues that concern us all.

Explain what type of material United Notions Film is involved in?

Dan Fallshaw and I met in 2005 when he came to audition for a short play I was directing in Sydney. A week later, we were on a plane to the Sahara with two backpacks and a video camera. We went there to make a film about a family reunion, but we ended up making a film about slavery. After being detained in Algeria, having our tapes stolen in Morocco and dodging government spies, we managed to make our first feature film, Stolen. In 2010, I decided to go to Bolivia, my country of birth, to make a film about the War on Drugs. But I wanted to establish a unique perspective. More than 50% of Bolivia’s prison population is serving time for minor cocaine-related offenses. This is the direct consequence of a US-imposed drug law (Law 1008), which, for 45 years, has filled prisons with only the lowest rank of cocaine workers. This law and these incarcerations have not affected the international drug trade in any way. And this situation is seen beyond Bolivia—it’s a problem throughout Latin America and the US. 

What are the problems at the root of the drug trade?

What makes this an even more complex subject is that cocaine production and the harvesting of the coca leaf has brought hope to the indigenous people. It has clearly provided a way to escape a deeply ingrained, 500-year-old system of poverty. In Bolivia, one kilogram of cocaine is worth about $2,000, in Brazil or Argentina, its worth increases to $10,000. Then, in Europe and the US, it is worth up to $120,000 and as much as $300,000 in Australia. It’s a vicious cycle, where drug money supports the global economy, but the most vulnerable pay the highest price. With the urgency and complexity of the subject we decided to make a drug war trilogy. By telling the stories of the people whom the justice system considers criminals, I am challenging the status quo of the drug war.

What does cocaine mean to you?

The trilogy of “coca-cocaine-cash” has been embedded into at least two generations of Bolivians. My grandmother told me that our family escaped poverty because she “discovered a gold mine on her parents’ land.” It was a gold mine, but of another type. My grandmother sold large quantities of sulphuric acid, an essential ingredient to transform the coca leaf into cocaine—she even sold it to the National Bank of Bolivia back in the '80s. My grandfather came to Bolivia as a child in 1933 when his father escaped the genocide against the Jews that had begun in Serbia. An indigenous woman in rural Bolivia raised my grandfather and he later became one of the founders of Bolivia’s first indigenous political parties. Throughout his political life, the coca farmers in El Chapare supported him, which is how my family eventually escaped the cycle of poverty. I grew up like most Bolivians, with no notion of whether cocaine was good or bad. To me, it just made people rich. 

What does the drug war represent to you?

When I witnessed the Drug Enforcement Administration destroying people’s lives in my country, I thought it was because the US didn’t want us to become rich like them. I remember when I was a little girl and my father was going to Australia, he told me it was to give us a better life. So I asked him, “Why don’t you become a narco? So you don’t have to leave us.” The power dynamic between the US and Bolivia has always played on the minds of Bolivians. It affects our daily lives; I grew up in a country full of fear and violence, with paralyzing conflict between coca farmers and the DEA’s Anti-Narcotic Police. Kidnappings, disappearances and killings were commonplace. Bolivia cooperated with the US War on Drugs for 35 years without asking too many questions; we let the US take over. Bolivia was on the same path as the US—the rich were getting richer while the most vulnerable were going to prison in the thousands. And we, the indigenous people, were getting the raw end of the deal. 

How has the War on Drugs affected Bolivia?

Rather than providing solutions, the War on Drugs created problems. The universality of the War on Drugs is that, everywhere, it targets the most vulnerable: the drug addicts or drug mules. They’re seen as criminals, yet the worldwide economy runs on drug money. No one cares about finding the truth and/or catching the big fish—the justice system is all about money, race and class. How many minorities are put in jail every day for drug dealing? Yet there’s more drug consumption today than there ever was 40 years ago, back when this war began. Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador—the countries that produce cocaine—are suffering the consequences of this craziness. The situation in Mexico and the violence created by the drug war is intolerable. Now look at Asia... just a couple of months ago, eight drug mules were executed. Where did they all come from? Nigeria, Brazil and two Australians. And guess what? Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were Australians of color.

What is The Bolivian Case about?

The Bolivian Case explores the story of the most publicized drug bust in Norway’s history. It begins with three Norwegian teenagers, arrested at an airport in Cochabamba with 22kg of cocaine in their luggage. The film questions the media and the justice system of the richest country in the world, which, in this case, punished people according to their race, class and money rather than the cold hard evidence. The Bolivian Case is a millennial film about drugs and justice.

How about Cocaine Prison?

Cocaine Prison begins in Bolivia’s notorious San Sebastian prison, a virtual citadel inside a crumbling old colonial house. It follows the interlinked lives of Mario, a cocaine worker fighting for freedom, Hernan, a drug mule who dreams of being a drug-boss, and his younger sister, Daisy, who struggles to resist the lure to traffic cocaine. In a country where the cocaine trade isn’t ruled by violence, these three small fish dispel the myth of the gun-toting "narco." The film questions the legitimacy of the US War on Drugs, which has seen billions of dollars spent on repressive policies targeting "disposable" people. Cocaine Prison begins in Bolivia’s notorious San Sebastian jail, a virtual citadel inside a building.

What is your process for making films—research and filming wise?

I make films because I have a burning need to tell a story. I don’t believe a film made by any human being can be objective. From the moment we’re born, our environment determines the way we experience the world. I have learnt so much by making films in this way—my motto is, “Nothing is ever black or white, but grey is a funky color.” My films reveal the complexity of the situations I portray. They raise questions and challenge the status quo without turning into an essay or lecturing an audience. Every film, every experience is different and needs its own approach; I don’t have a formula. Time, patience and persistence are key.

Filmmaking takes your life. Once you begin a film, you’re always in the process. You go to sleep at 1am and wake up at 3am thinking, "Why did I miss that?" Then editing, another monster all together, is a trial-and-error process that feels like it lasts forever. Making a film is like putting a puzzle together without knowing what the picture looks like until you get to the end. It’s so exciting when you see all the years of hard work and doubts come together, forming something tangible. I feel it’s this uncertainty, throughout the entire process, that makes a film such a powerful work of art, capable to ignite change.

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