¡Ay, Caramba! Colombiana and Controversy

By 22 September, 2011

Luc Besson has something of a winning formula for action films. Take an unconventionally beautiful leading lady, give her some emotional problems, plenty of guns and loads of baddies to shoot at. Colombiana is no different: Catalaya’s parents are murdered by gangsters, but she manages to escape and grows up to become a competent assassin, one set on avenging her parent’s deaths. The main difference with Colombiana is that this has become Besson’s most controversial yet.

Although these days middle England and middle America, with a little help from the Christian right, do still find the time to complain and protest at what they deem to be unflattering religious representation, their moral voices are not what they once were, especially where violence and sexuality are concerned. You can now buy 80s video nasties in a convenient box set and newspapers occasionally run series showcasing banned books. That’s not to mention the popularity of new films like Saw and Final Destination where repetitive gore is splashed out in 3D while delighted bespectacled audiences chomp down on their popcorn with no loss of appetite. This all goes some way to show the general desensitisation of the public to violence for entertainment’s sake.

Similarly, the detractors of Colombiana don’t seem to take offence at the way the film makes killing look so easy; nor that brutal revenge seems morally justifiable; nor that the protagonist engages in sex outside of wedlock. The problem with Colombiana appears to be almost a kind of defamation.

Naming a film about Colombian drug cartels, violence and revenge ‘Colombiana’, say some Colombians, is using and encouraging an unflattering and unfair stereotype of their country. Anti-defamation campaigns have sprung up around the film, such as Colombia: The Other Side of the Coin and Por Colombia, as well as a wealth of articles in the press and grassroots campaigns. One strand features amended movie posters which have changed the film’s tagline from “vengeance is beautiful” to “Colombia is beautiful”. They claim that it is Hollywood’s incessant stereotyping of their country as a nest of cocaine barons fraught with kidnappings which is ruining the ability of Colombia to reinvent itself as the tourist destination which it deserves to be.

This is not the only instance of a country trying to repair its image after suffering what it has taken to be a blow to its international image. Not only did Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan generate massive controversy in the Arab and Jewish worlds for the sentiments expressed by the character throughout the film, but it also incensed the Kazakh government who tried to repair their supposedly damaged world image with a multimillion dollar “Heart of Eurasia” campaign.

This seems to be a new type of taking offence in a new world where more and more otherwise overlooked countries are eager to throw off their old appearances in an effort to enter the lucrative tourist market.

While I do have some sympathy for anyone who might feel that they cannot shake the prejudice levelled against a cruel stereotype; it is important to note a few things about taking offence.

For a start, as usual in cases like this, some of the most vocal detractors have not even seen the film and relied on trailers to justify their outrage. A similar thing happened with Jerry Springer: The Opera. Extreme groups incensed by an unjustified feeling that they were being made fun of screamed at the top of their lungs that blasphemy was being committed, while moderate Christians who actually took the time to watch it understood and appreciated the message. On watching Colombiana you quickly realise that the film is not in Spanish, that most of the action occurs in America and is only set in Colombia at the beginning and end of the film. The beginning being set over 15 years ago, a time when the stereotypes of organised crime would have been slightly more applicable.

What should be even more clear than the assumptions – which are proved wrong by actually watching the film – and should be instantly apparent, is its style. Even as a young girl, Catalaya can perform superhuman acrobatics, dodge bullets and uses futuristic technology. The dialogue too, is hard to believe as true to the way people actually speak. It is clear that as an action film, Colombiana makes no claim that it is in any way a realistic portrayal of the world outside the silver screen.

It takes a certain amount of gullibility to be fooled by everything that one reads, but even more so to take in what an action film says about the world as true. The detractors may want to say here that because of the film’s lack of balance it will cause a subconscious association between Colombia and gang violence therefore reinforcing negative stereotypes; but this is to accuse the world’s population of that same gullibility! It is to accuse every watcher of Luc Besson’s films that they take everything on face value and buy into every cliché.

Now, I’m not saying that some people won’t do this to some extent, but to accuse the whole movie-going public as being this short-sighted seems to be jumping to conclusions. Yes, many people may never go to Colombia on holiday due to some kind of unfounded prejudice or irrational fear. But they may also be the same people who, after watching Toy Story, worry that their stuffed animals conspire behind their backs when they aren’t looking.

While both sides of the debate continue to engage on the issue it may be worth remembering that a little healthy controversy has never damaged ticket sales, nor has any furore ever been bad for the publicity of certain lobbying groups.

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