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Screenshot from Bachata en Kingston

Black in Bogotá: Vicente García's video for 'Bachata en Kingston' Explores the Afro-Colombian Experience

We talk to the Grammy-winning Dominican musician about his video for 'Bachata en Kingston'

The video for "Bachata en Kingston," follows two Colombians from the Caribbean as they go about their lives in cold Bogotá. It's a story that many Caribbean people who have moved elsewhere can understand. The contrast between the characters' "tropicality" and the city hammers home the diversity of Latin America. Their blackness, so unusual in this city, is a pointed statement on the representation of Afro-Colombians in the country's media.

Vicente García is a Dominican musician who recently won three Latin Grammys –– for Best Tropical Song, Best New Artist, and Best Singer-Songwriter Album. But, even though his music is closely linked to the Caribbean, he has spent his past four years living in the big city.

García wanted to use the video for his Latin Grammy-winning single "Bachata en Kingston" (bachata being a popular Dominican rhythm which he has spent most of his career reinterpreting, and Kingston being the capital of Jamaica, another Caribbean country), from his album A la mar, as a vehicle to showcase the life of Caribbean people in the gritty, urban context of Bogotá.

"I felt like my music was always presented as a very Caribbean, beach-style thing, but since I moved to a large city like Bogotá, my reality changed," García tells OkayAfrica. "The video features a Caribbean couple. Through this couple's story, we wanted to tell the story of Latin American coastal people––even people from Colombia's Caribbean and Pacific coasts––moving away from their small towns to look for better opportunities, and living in this large, cold city."

The video, directed by Santiago Díaz-Vence, follows this couple through their lives in a working class neighborhood of Bogotá, and their jobs in a market square and a grocery shop. But the couple featured in the video are not only Caribbean, they are also black. As a foreign observer, García makes a sharp point about this fact: "We wanted people to know right away that the couple were not from Bogotá, that's why we chose black actors."

Many Colombians would definitely interpret the couple this way, based on the color of their skin. Black Colombians, or Afro-Colombians, as they are politely referred to here, make up a large part of the Colombian population. Though the latest census (done in 2005) puts them at 10.6 percent of the total population of the country, some recent projections estimate they now actually make up 22 percent of the country.

However, in Bogotá, the capital and by far largest city, the black population is well below that number, officially at 1.42 percent. There are historical reasons for this disparit––a very brief and incomplete summary is that black people were brought from Africa to the country's Caribbean coast, and many later escaped to the Pacific coast, two far away and hard to reach places from the central mountains of Bogotá.

Black people in Colombia are not associated with Bogotá and, since most of the country's media is concentrated in the capital city, Afro-Colombians tend to be underrepresented, and many in the city and the country see them as "foreign."

Screenshot from Bachata en Kingston

"But I want to help change that," says García, who is not black himself, but has seen the same patterns in his own country. "Even though in the Dominican Republic we have a very important black culture, the same thing happens in Dominican media. You always see Caucasian people in TV shows, in TV commercials. It's always European-looking people. But there is also beauty in other races, we should be more diverse in media."

After a successful career as a singer and composer for the Dominican band Calor Urbano, García decided to go solo in 2010. Looking for a place with a bigger music industry, he moved to Bogotá in 2013, three years after releasing his first album Melodrama, which was well received in Colombia. And, despite the similarities he sees in media representation between both countries, García also thinks there are some differences in how blackness is treated in the countries where he has lived.

"Stereotypes in Santo Domingo are more evident, in day-to-day life, even in people's musical tastes. Colombia seems to be more open to differences, to be more equal."

Even though both countries have a long way to go in terms of representation and treatment of their black population, acknowledging their existence and their stories in the way that the "Bachata en Kingston" is a step in the right direction. It might be a small step, but García promises that his album will produce more pieces featuring these characters, with the new music video for the song "Espuma y arrecife" (which features the legendary Afro-Colombian band Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto) following them soon.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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