Captive Radio, and an interview with director Lauren Rosenfeld

In the jungles of Colombia, hope for those kidnapped by the FARC does not come in the form of a military rescue mission, or a revolt among the captives. It comes in the form of a weekly radio broadcast, Las Voces del Secuestro. Families call in to the program or come directly to the studio to leave messages for their loved ones, all in the hopes that they will be heard. And that their loved ones will know they are not forgotten.

Captive Radio is a documentary that puts faces to the voices heard during the broadcast. The host, once a kidnapping victim himself, provides a warm, strong voice to those listening, somewhere out there. He introduces the calls and in-studio guests -- heartbroken parents, siblings, spouses, friends -- knowing how it feels to be on both sides of the proverbial fence. Among others, we meet the parents of Guillermo Solorzano, who was freed after three years, and the parents of Juan Camilo Mora, whose whereabouts remain unknown. Paired with beautiful, haunting music, this is a film that really depicts the struggles endured by the captives' families, as they keep hope alive for the day their loved ones are returned to them. Whenever that may be.

I had the pleasure of talking to Lauren Rosenfeld about the making of this brave and tender film.

CR: How did you find out about Las Voces del Secuestro and come to meet some of the families?

LR: I first heard it in the summer of 2010 on Latino USA, which is a program on NPR. I was visiting my parents and I was in the car with my mom listening to the radio when the program was on. A journalist from New York was on, who was half Colombian, and her father was kidnapped in Colombia in the 90's. He was held for ten months, and her stepmother used the program. So she did a personal piece about her and her father and her family, and how they used the program. We pulled into the driveway and sat there listening because the show was still on and I couldn't shut it off. From that moment the story stuck in my head and I couldn't get it out. It was one of those things that was always there, and that I thought about every once in a while. Then I went on to graduate school, and I did my masters at Berkeley at the Graduate School of Journalism in the documentary program. I hadn't done much of my own work before then, I was just working as a freelance associate producer on documentaries. So when it came time to do our thesis film, that story that had stuck with me for so long was there, and I thought it would make an incredibly powerful documentary. It would be interesting to use radio and those voices, and I thought about how to use them in a visual piece. I wanted to see these people, these families and what their lives are like. Then I started listening to the actual program. It streams online every Saturday night, from midnight to 6 a.m. It was also incredibly emotional for me to hear the actual voices of the families over and over again, and I heard some of the same families over and over again. I pitched it for my project, and I contacted the journalists there and they put me in touch with the families. I continued listening every week and getting familiar with those voices. I started calling them from here in California in advance of my trip out there because we only had 10 days to shoot. But I just couldn't get those voices out of my head.

CR: So what was it like when these people went from being voices in your head and on the radio, to voices on the phone, to eventually becoming people in the flesh in front of you?

LR: Doing my research for the film, listening to the program and getting to know the families, I felt like I knew them already before I met them, even though they didn't know me yet. Everyone was very open. The journalists at the station helped a lot but they were also doing a job. You want people to get to know you and you want to build trust and a relationship before sticking a camera in their face, especially on such a sensitive subject. I went to the studio three different nights from midnight to 6 a.m. The families want to tell this story. They want people to know the reality, and they want to share, as painful as it is sometimes to relive what happened. They want to let all that emotion out again and again. Especially the Moras, they participate in demonstrations, and there's protests and things in the city. The Moras speak about it at their church, and they were just really, really open. Getting their story out there is the best thing they could do for their son.

CR: Is there an element of danger or anything risky for these families to talk about their kidnapped children and other family members?

LR: That's an interesting question, I haven't found that. I think that may have been the case eight or ten years ago. But the FARC has been pushed into the jungles and out of the cities. Around the time the Juan Camilo Mora was kidnapped, around the late 90's, early 2000's, the FARC and other groups were actually in the cities. They would literally block off the streets going from the cities out toward the rural areas and the outskirts, and take people. That doesn't happen anymore. I don't feel like the families feel they're in any danger at all. It's something I actually never asked them, but I think there's a kind of comfort in numbers. The radio program has been around for 17 years, and there are literally hundreds and hundreds of families. They have a community, meet each other, or hear each other every week on the radio. I think that with having that community around there's a safety and a comfort.

CR: Why do the captives have access to radio?

LR: I've heard different things that all make sense. One of them is that it's a reward in a sense. If they "behave" they'll get food or a radio. There might be some books or something, but there's no daily paper or anything like that. Just these little transistor radios that bring them music, or they can hear the news and hear what's happening in the world. It's to keep them sane. I mean, Guillermo was tied by the neck to a tree for over three years, alone for much of that time. So all he had was the radio. The other thing is to keep them sane enough so they don't try to kill themselves. Guillermo spoke about that too, as have others, that the radio kept them sane and kept them going every day.

CR: What is happening now for families like the Moras, and others whose loved ones are still missing?

LR: I checked in with Rafael Mora this past week just to see how they're doing. Colombia's going through peace negotiations right now and I'm curious to know how they feel about it. The families wrote a letter to the president on the issue of the disappeared, and they want answers. Not knowing at all is really the worst. A lot of families have said, you know, we just want to know. If they've been buried somewhere, where are they buried, you know. In their heart of hearts, Rafael and Miriam [Juan's parents] believe he's alive, and that's what keeps them going. So a big part of these peace negotiations is that the families get some answers. The radio program gives the families an outlet as well, where they can manifest that pain and that waiting for some kind of news or something material. Writing their messages, speaking them, putting them out there. Really hoping and thinking that their loved ones can hear them. And to get proof that others have -- it's not like their messages are going out into the wind. So many people, like Guillermo, came back saying I heard them, I heard my family and others' families. We're hearing you.

CR: Given the topic I was surprised that this film is only 23 minutes long. Do you plan to continue developing this project?

LR: Under the constraints of the thesis we had ten days of shooting max and the film had to be under 26 minutes. If I had fewer limitations I would have definitely spent more time with the families, both off-camera and on, and gone deeper that way. I didn't go into the history of the conflict at all. At screenings I got a lot of questions about that, and for a lot of people it's the first time they're hearing about the FARC, and want to know why people are kidnapping, and why any of this is going on. But I had decided that that wasn't the film I was making; for me it was about the families and their stories, and the connections human beings make with each other in order to survive these terrible things. There are other stories that have come out of this that I'm interested in looking further into, especially with the peace process. One thing I was really fascinated by is that along with the peace process, many people in the guerrilla groups have defected over the years or are leaving for various reasons, and they now have to re-enter society and reconnect with their families. I wonder what that is like. This other side of the situation is fascinating, they're human beings too. They've been through so much.  I mean some of them have been in the jungle since they were 12 or 15 years old, and now 20 years later they're leaving and having to re-enter life. There's one woman who has spoken on the radio program to people who have been kidnapped, basically repenting and talking about her own experience, and how she's sorry for what's been done.

CR: Did your interest in film start with your interest in journalism or was it there before?

LR: It was there before. I was interested in film as far back as undergrad, film-making and especially foreign film. I interned at a studio in Hollywood and I found out pretty quickly that features weren't for me. I worked on my first documentary as a senior in college and I just fell in love with it. I worked in different capacities on a lot of different projects since then. What I really love about it is learning about the world, different people, different cultures. People I would have never learned about otherwise. I got more into the journalistic side of it, and I got into writing more and doing multimedia and exploring new forms of storytelling. With Captive Radio it was great because I only had a couple months to prepare, 10 days to shoot, and a few months to edit. So I really had to know my story, know what I wanted to do. I'm still sort of caught between both, the film-making and the journalism. But I'm very passionate about both of them.

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Learn more and listen to the program via Las Voces Del Secuestro's website, or on Latino USA on NPR. For more on the film, visit the Captive Radio website, and Lauren Rosenfeld's page.

The next screening of Captive Radio will be at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada.

My thanks again to Lauren!

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