Film fund invigorates Colombian film sector

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When most people think of Latin American cinema, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina usually come to mind. Yet one shouldn't overlook Colombia, which has been enjoying a remarkable production boom in recent years.

From 1993 to 2003, Colombia released only 38 feature films. Well aware that the nation could produce much more than three or four pictures a year, in 2003 the government enacted a federal film law that would breathe new life into the struggling industry.

The law established tax breaks for film financiers and it brought about the creation of a public film fund. Both measures had an immediate impact -- since 2004, Colombia has released eight features a year and it currently has more than 50 projects in various stages of development.

Clara Maria Ochoa, one of Colombia's most prominent producers, has seen significant changes in the past three and a half years.

"Before, you had directors walking around with scripts under their arms, knocking on investors' doors, and pleading with them to provide financing," she says. "The situation has changed now that there are several production companies producing on a regular basis."

As production volume grows, Colombian moviegoers are showing more interest in homegrown films, even though Hollywood fare continues to dominate with an estimated 80% market share. Still, last year locally produced movies drew an impressive 2.9 million spectators, representing about 14% of total admissions. Even more impressive, in the past two years Colombian pictures have topped the boxoffice charts.

Last year's big hit, "Sonar no Cuesta Nada" (A Ton of Luck), sold 1.2 million tickets. Based on a real-life story about Colombian soldiers who found $46 million buried in an enemy camp, "A Ton of Luck" was Colombia's recent foreign-language Oscar submission.

"Rosario Tijeras," which centers on a hitwoman hired by a drug cartel, ranked No. 1 in boxoffice receipts in 2005.

In 2004, the smash hit "Maria Full of Grace" was all the buzz. The Colombia-U.S. co-production, distributed by Fine Line Features stateside, landed Catalina Sandino Moreno an Oscar nomination for lead actress.

Thanks in large part to the recent success stories, Colombia will have its strongest presence ever at the 60th edition of the Festival de Cannes. In the Directors' Fortnight sidebar, first-time director Spiros Stathoulopoulos will present "PVC-1." Based on the true story of a woman who is the victim of a bizarre act of terrorism and becomes a human time bomb, the 85-minute feature was shot in a single take.

Also representing Colombia in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar is Andres Baiz's short film "Hoguera."

Other Colombian pictures participating out of competition include Rodrigo Triana's aforementioned "Sonar no Cuesta Nada," Felipe Martinez's comedy-thriller "Bluff," Juan Felipe Orozco's horror movie "Al Final del Espectro" (At the End of the Spectra), and Ciro Guerra's black-and-white drama "La Sombra del Caminante" (The Wandering Shadows).

As the film industry has matured, many directors, producers and screenwriters have shifted their focus away from themes that have reinforced negative images of Colombia as a violent, crime-ridden nation.

Claudia Triana de Vargas, director of film fund administrator Proimagenes en Movimiento, says filmmakers are exploring new genres like never before.

Ochoa's Bogota-based CMO Producciones, which produced "Sonar no Cuesta Nada," is working on films across a wide range of genres, from dramas and adventures to musicals and stories of magical realism.

"Our company, in particular, is trying to produce films that depict the Colombian reality, but with less (emphasis on) violence," she says.

Colombia lags far behind South American market leaders in annual releases; Brazil and Argentina each put out about 70 pictures last year. But things are moving in the right direction, says David Melo, head of the Culture Ministry's film department.

"We are in a good moment right now with respect to past years," he points out. "Since the film law was passed, we have released 26 features."

In recent years, Colombian cinema has received additional support from broadcast television networks RCN and Caracol. The national broadcasters have done promotion and advertising for three features. Additionally, RCN Television aired six of Colombia's eight releases last year, according to the Culture Ministry.

As Colombia's film industry blossoms, the government is looking to lure more foreign shoots. Last year, director Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") filmed "Love in the Time of Cholera" in Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean coast. Triana de Vargas says the experience went so well that next year the government will present a newly created national film commission at the annual AFCI Locations Trade Show in Santa Monica.
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