Nearly twenty years after fleeing for their life, an Afro-Colombian community embarks on a symbolic journey through the jungle to resurrect a place that only exists in their memory. Through stories, legends and anecdotes told along the way we will know the tragic story of their destination and the motivation of the odyssey. Led by María de los Santos, the only person who has returned to rebuild her life in her old home, a community that has been fragmented in different towns and cities meets again to resurrect La Bonga for one night through the celebration of their patron saint. The challenges they will encounter along the way will be a manifestation of the difficult situation faced by more than ten million displaced people living in Colombian territory.
Timothy Fryett and Luther Clement
As the sun rises, a crowd of people emerge along a rolling landscape. Their silhouettes against the morning sky reveal a procession carrying the statue of a saint. As they continue along their path, their figures disappear once more into the dense jungle.
The chant of tropical birds blends with the endless drone of cicadas, forming a hypnotic melody.The camera rests on a shot of tree roots so enormous they appear to be from another world. A small group of friends crosses the frame, admiring the roots and speculating the age of the tree––the majestic Bonga for which their town is named.
The camera glides slowly, yet decisively through the lush vegetation as it makes way toward a group of trees that tremble inexplicably. The shaking becomes more extreme as we get closer to the commotion. We hear a monstrous roar that gets louder; thick trunks that moan and give way. Trees collapse in front of us, slowly revealing a tractor that drags an enormous cargo behind it. Its engines roar furiously as the ropes screech trying to keep their massive payload in place: a stack of large, brightly decorated speakers––a beast lurching from side to side as it tears its way through the uneven terrain.
LA BONGA is structured around various journeys to a mysterious place lost in the jungle. We follow different groups of people as they make their voyage to a place we know nothing about. By focusing on small gestures and weaving together conversations that happen along the way, we will slowly discover the purpose of our journey and the tragic history of our destination. As we make the challenging journey through the wilderness, we will draw closer and closer to La Bonga and the night of a massive celebration.
The jungle is the antagonist of the story, a barrier that continues to grow as the years pass. Vines wrap their way around La Bonga and into the memories created there. All trace of life in the town is gone; nothing is left but wilderness. Methodically clearing the invasive vegetation, the Bongueros unearth their memories. They share their stories as they point to the locations of their former homes, painting a picture of La Bonga in our imagination. The baptisms, masses, softball games, and other activities enacted through the ensuing celebration draw a clearer image of La Bonga. We envision the village that once existed.
As the sun begins to set, the sound of a trumpet marks the beginning of the most important part of celebration: the procession that will take Santa Rosa around the entire town. A marching band plays and energizing fandango, accompanied by children banging pot lids and adults carrying torches and candles. Santa Rosa is dressed in her finest gown. She dances, swaying side to side on the shoulders of those who carry her. The Bongueros chant: ¡Que viva Santa Rosa de Lima! ¡Que viva La Bonga! ¡Que vivan los Bongueros! At twilight, Santa Rosa is placed in the middle of the ensuing party where she observes and protects the celebration from the dangers of the jungle that surrounds them. Men, women, and children approach her to caress her face and her silk garments. Many shed tears at her sight.
As night falls, flashlights, bonfires, and fireworks drape the jungle with light. Cumbias, vallenatos, and champetas echo through the undergrowth, compounding in psychedelic reverberation. As the party reaches its climactic moment, we venture off with party stragglers: young lovers seeking a secluded area, someone looking for the place where they grew up, the creek where they used to fish, the ruins of the old school, their parent’s grave.
Without easy access to their land, the displaced Bongueros live in a precarious cycle of poverty. Eighteen years later, all that remains of the former town is the school––the only cement structure that existed at the time of the displacement––and a makeshift home that one family rebuilt for their solitary dream of return. The house belongs to María de Los Santos, the only person who has attempted to live in La Bonga once again. Tired of the difficult situation in San Pablo, María convinced her husband to help her build a small hut on the grounds of their previous home. As the former wholesaler of the produce that the town once farmed, María longs for the return of the families that used to work the fertile lands. La Bonga is often referred to as an ideal place---a former time when the community lived self-sufficiently. Some have begun to see María’s return as an example of the possibility of restoring a once prosperous life.
Today, there exists little more than memories; many see La Bonga as a mythical land that has since vanished. A majority of Bongueros have not returned since fleeing and an entire generation has only gotten to know their birthplace through the stories of their elders. Working closely with the community of La Bonga, this participatory film will contribute to the realization of their return, if only for one night. Amidst the conflicts and difficulties that we will encounter along the way, the heart of the film lies within the collective cathartic experience of recreating a central moment of life in La Bonga as a revitalized community, once again united in their ancestral home. La Bonga will be reclaimed from the jungle and brought back to life for a night of remembrance.
Colombia is undergoing a critical moment in its history. As the longest-standing civil war in the western hemisphere comes to an end, half a century of violence gives way to an uneasy truce between the government and the revolutionary armed forces of Colombia. After multiple failed negotiations, a peace accord was ratified by Congress in 2016. However, the agreement only passed following a slim rejection during a public referendum and voting process that fractured public opinion in Colombia.
With more than seven and a half million internally-displaced citizens—more than any other war-torn country—Colombia faces a long road of reconciliation ahead. Like the people of La Bonga, millions of Colombians were forced to move to the margins of urban centers, leaving behind the land that was once their home and source of survival. Citizens living in rural Colombia were the primary victims during the armed conflict, with minority and impoverished peoples among the most affected. Afro-Colombians alone make up about 10% of the internally displaced citizens and remain especially vulnerable. Their future poses a significant challenge in a country whose history has been defined by a perpetual fight for ownership of land and territory.
Today, key provisions of the peace agreement and Colombian law call for reparations for victims of the conflict. Yet, the process has been slow and underfunded. People like María and Luis continue to seek the promised support. By working with the people of La Bonga and drawing attention to their stories through this project, we aim to contribute to the ongoing conversation on transitional justice in Afro-Colombian communities.
The people of La Bonga are descendants of slaves who escaped and fought for their freedom in the jungles that surround Cartagena. These communities were known as palenques, name given to the improvised wooden forts that were built for their protection against constant attacks from their enslavers. For more than 400 years Palenqueros have fought for their freedom and the preservation of their ancestral heritage.
I first met María while working on my film, PALENQUE, a documentary musical and an ode to San Basilio de Palenque, the first town in the Americas to officially declare independence from European domination.
During my time in Palenque I kept hearing stories about a woman who was living by herself in the remnants of her former town. After meeting her, I contacted Gabriella Garcia-Pardo (producer of LA BONGA), who was producing for National Geographic at the time and looking for stories that explored the peace agreement in Colombia. The idea to craft a feature film was inspired by the short we created. The short follows María on her journey back and forth from La Bonga in 2016 as she travels to take part in the voting process during the peace referendum of 2016. The film concludes with the most recent presidential elections and was published in 2018.
I have known María for close to four years now. I lived with her and her family during the shoots for National Geographic, and we have kept in frequent contact ever since. During the last year, I’ve traveled on multiple occasions to La Bonga to do research, location scouting, and relationship building. María’s family has introduced me to many members of the community who have generously shared their stories and their perspectives on the return. Our conversations brought up thoughts in me about my relationship with my own home and what it has meant to return after ten years of being away. Through this questioning I came to realize that the stories I am drawn to in Colombia stem from this longing.
The production team of LA BONGA is made of filmmakers who have a personal connection to Colombia that has been marked by distance. We share a common desire to discover our country and the many wonders hidden in its territory, a desire to preserve its millenia-old culture and an urge to contribute to the construction of its future. Our film is ultimately about the impossibility of returning to the same home we left behind and the things we do to keep the memory of it alive within us. Guided by themes of death, land, and community the film explores the nature of home through a lyrical and surreal journey into the jungle to bring La Bonga back to life.
Sebastián Pinzón Silva