No one’s hands are clean in Josef Kubota Wladyka’s Manos sucias (USA/Colombia, 2014). Not the hands of the somber Jacobo (Jarlín Martínez) or his fresh-faced younger brother Delio (Cristian Advíncula), both of whom get involved in drug smuggling as a means to elevate themselves out of the poverty that surrounds them in the violent coastal city of Buenaventura. Certainly not the hands of ruthless drug lords, nor those of the seemingly innocent Jorge (Manuel David Riascos), a boy willing to do anything to save his ailing grandmother. Not even our hands are clean, dear viewers, now that this film has given us a glimpse of how the illegal drug trade, fueled in large part by Western appetites, affects some of our planet’s most desperate citizens.
Wladyka, who grew up in Virginia and attended James Madison University, became interested in the Colombian coastal region during a backpacking trip in his mid-twenties; in future journeys to Colombia, he began to immerse himself in the culture and daily life of Buenaventura, where he witnessed firsthand the aftermath of narcotrafficking on local communities. During his formal training, he had the opportunity to study with Spike Lee, who would later become the film’s executive producer, while pursuing an MFA in filmmaking at New York University. Manos sucias, which won Wladyka the Best New Narrative Director Award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, is the product of years of research and collaboration with colleagues like cinematographer Alan Blanco, who not only shot the film but also co-wrote the screenplay. Despite a shoestring budget boosted by a Kickstarter campaign, Wladyka and his crew managed to hire local residents, to cast theater students from Universidad del Valle Sede Pacífico, and to compensate the community by offering digital filmmaking workshops in Barrio el Jardín, Buenaventura.
Wladyka’s portrayal broadens our understanding of drug traffickers by avoiding the usual, tired stereotypes: barbaric drug lords and gang members, machine-gun-clad henchmen, the lavish lifestyle that their savagery enables. Instead, Manos sucias examines those from the bottom echelons of the drug trade and brings to light the humanity that lies beneath each one’s decision to participate in such a dangerous enterprise. The minimalistic plot centers on estranged brothers Jacobo and Delio, who find themselves working together to transport 100 kilos of cocaine via a narco-torpedo to an undisclosed drop-off point en route to Panama. Jacobo has taken the job—the last one, he promises himself—in order to escape the personal tragedy that haunts him and to start over in Bogotá; Delio, on the other hand, seeks the contacts and the clout that the job could bring to his fledgling career as a rapper, but his naïve swagger barely disguises a genuine desire to provide a better life for his girlfriend and infant son.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its subtle depiction of racial politics. With one exception—Miguel’s (Hadder Blandon) vitriolic rant that erupts during a soccer debate gone wrong—racial tension remains below the surface, although its presence is clearly suggested by the impoverished conditions of many Afro-Colombians in Buenaventura, their lack of economic opportunities, the way they are treated by lighter-skinned compatriots, and their common belief that “there are no blacks in Bogotá.” Another is its masterful selection and use of music, from Cuban rappers Los Aldeanos’ “Mi hermosa Habana” to the Colombian Grupo Niche’s salsa number “Buenaventura y Caney” to Buenaventura native Junior Jein’s choque hit “Somos diferentes,” not to mention the haunting pieces of the folkloric currulao genre that were especially powerful during the scenes at sea.
Was it the director’s mother in the audience? Was it the brujitas?* Maybe it was the way the close-up of Miguel’s filthy hands contrasted with the subsequent shot of Delio’s clean-but-not-for-long hands. There is something about this film that has stayed with me long after the credits. It is one you don’t want to miss.
Andrea is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Shenandoah University. Winchester’s Film Club 3.0 has expanded her cinematic horizons and helped her break an addiction to sitcom reruns and Spanish-language films
*Although I prefer to interpret a local woman’s admonition to “watch out for the brujitas” as a friendly warning to avoid tiny witches in the next town, I recently learned that, along the Colombian coast, brujita refers to a motorbike attached to a platform-like sidecar that travels along abandoned railroad tracks.