Behind the Doc Lens

Season 1: Blog 1– Oscar Nominated “La Corona” Q&A w/ Co-Dir. Amanda Micheli by Lauren Brody


Trailer of “La Corona”
 

Summary
“La Corona” follows four contestants as they prepare and compete in the annual prison beauty pageant in Bógota, Colombia.  The four contestants are violent criminals: two armed robbers, an assassin and a participant in guerilla activities.  All fight for the same hope, to gain the respect of their cellblock and take home the crown.
 

Q1: What was the process to gain full access to the prisoners and the pageant?
A1: I co-directed the film with Isabel Vega.  Isabel’s family is from Colombia and her father still lives there.  She was able to make a lot of inroads with her local connections, but it was an uphill battle.  Even on the day that we arrived in Colombia, we weren’t sure that we had access to the prison; we had to really fight pretty much on a daily basis.  The prison system there has a publicist and she refers you to the prison warden, then the prison warden says, “Well, it’s ok with me, if it’s ok with the publicist”–and we kept going in circles.  There’s a lot of bureaucratic run around.

Then, it was a question of convincing the women themselves.  When we got there, they had already selected the six contestants and we had to convince them to participate in the film–and some of them were not that keen on that. Even once that was all settled, pretty much every morning we had to begin with the warden and show her a piece of paper that said exactly what we wanted to film that day, even though we didn’t know exactly what [our subjects would be] doing. So we just had to make things up.  It was really a cat and mouse game.
 

Q2: What are some unexpected challenges or surprises you encountered that made the film better than expected?
A2: It’s ironic—I imagined going into a Colombian prison, that it would be a dreary, dark place. As a filmmaker, that’s a creative challenge when you show up and things aren’t what you expected. In some ways it looked kind of like a school: the girls are wearing street clothes, and they’re wearing makeup and jewelry.  So as filmmakers, we were challenged to show that underneath this casual exterior, there was a lot of suffering and poverty.

The irony is that prisons in Colombia don’t have the institutional look we expected because they can’t afford to buy uniforms for their prisoners.  So even though it looks so relaxed, it’s actually a much tougher situation that it appears. Not only do they not have uniforms, they often don’t even get bedding, and the prisoners receive very little education or career training.  So there is a creative challenge in terms of how to represent that.  At the very opening of the film you see a close-up of handcuffs, of women walking handcuffed together, and a guard with a gun.  Those shots were really hard to get because they were very controlling about what we could film. Those visual reminders that you are in a prison were very important for us to pepper in there.

Then-Ángela’s death was such a tragedy and so unexpected. We were so happy for her to be released; yet, you saw in the film, they released her in the dark of night without a penny to her name. She walks off in the dark and gets on a bus.  We knew we had misgivings and concerns about her “freedom.” In some way, this is another irony of the film: these women are safer inside the prison than they are outside. We hoped people could perceive the bittersweet-ness of that ending when they watch the film.
 

Q3: The ending of the film stunned me and was very effective to demonstrate how dangerous the streets of Bógota are and the reality of these women.  Did you plan on ending it another way?
A3:  We planned on ending the film with Ángela walking off into the dark.  That was the original ending of the film, and we were done editing and had submitted it to the festivals and the Oscars.  And then we got a call about two months later from [Ángela’s] girlfriend, Camino, that she had been killed.  We tried to get police reports, but the hard thing is, former prisoners don’t get the same treatment as the average citizen over there. So no one exactly knows what happened. We heard she went back to the city and was prostituting herself and that she had been shot by a “John” in the back of the head. But we couldn’t put that in the film without official confirmation from the police, so we added the simple title about her death that you see in the film now.

We didn’t feel that it completely changes the film, because when she walks into the dark, you don’t know what’s going to become of her.  We really petitioned hard to the Oscar committee to be able to add that end title before the Oscar judging happened, but they wouldn’t let us, because you are not allowed to change anything about the film after you submit it. But we were able to change it for HBO and later film festivals.
 

Q4: Did you feel the organizers had the best interest of the inmates? Is it the correct value system to instill in these Colombian inmates as it fuels jealousy, competition, racism, cattiness and false hope?
A4:  It’s complicated. As a feminist, I certainly don’t have a high opinion of beauty pageants.  That said, I learned a lot about what beauty pageants mean in Latin culture.  Any time you go into another culture, you have to try to respect where other people’s heads are at. When the Colombian prison beauty pageants are on TV, we were told that the TV ratings are higher than World Cup soccer!. This is a national obsession.  That said, when you’re in prison and you want something to hope for, a means of escape, it’s not a real ambition for them, it’s a play ambition. But I could see that that the pageant actually did give them hope.

I, personally, would prefer that their hopes were more in the realms of education or career, something that they could apply outside of prison–but that reality is so far off.  I wouldn’t have taken that pageant away from them if you gave me a million dollars in that moment, because it was the one self-affirming thing they had in their lives.  But do I want more from them?  Absolutely. Unfortunately, the jealousy and racism all comes out during the competition, but I also think a lot of that is human nature and reflects a lot about what is distilled in their culture.  The racism that comes out with Ángela winning is very endemic of Colombian society . . . and the pageant reflects that.
 

Q5: How did it feel witnessing the interest from the public and to win the Academy Awards nomination? (Film was nominated for the 2008 Academy Award, Best Documentary Short Category)
A5: We just felt really proud and happy for everyone who worked on the film.  Everybody was working for a fraction of his or her rate. We did sell the film to HBO, but we sold it to them after doing it “on spec.”  It was really gratifying to be able to go to our crew–and the people who worked really hard with us and trusted us–and say to them, “We did it, and people are going to see this movie and it’s going to have a life!”  Especially for a short film: validating.
 

Q6: How did the prisoners react to the film?
A6: We did show the film to the women who participated in it, except for Ángela, who died before we could show it to her.  They all really enjoyed it.  The one funny thing was that Maira, the one who lost to Ángela, was mad all over again.  She got back into the competitiveness, felt she got robbed and the whole thing.
 

Q7: What advice can you give to aspiring filmmakers about the pitfalls of making documentaries?
A7:  Nothing has prepared me for filmmaking as much as getting my ass kicked on the field [playing rugby] because that’s often what it feels like.  It’s very physical and it’s also very emotional and you’re constantly being challenged.  Often times you want to go places people don’t want you to go.  And you have to win their trust.  It’s a constant challenge, and it’s not always financially rewarding. Be tough and have faith in yourself.  Be willing to get back up off the ground when you’re down.

As a filmmaker, it’s a big mistake to say, “I’m only going be a director and work on films that I love.”  You are in business for yourself and you have to make a living, so it’s a constant juggling act. You may have to take other jobs or you may have to work as a waitress to support your documentary habit.  There’s no shame in that.  There’s a constant juggling between paid jobs and jobs that we love and sometimes, when you’re lucky, the two line up and they happen at the same time!. There’s never a right way or a wrong way to do it–you just have to try to stay afloat and follow your passion.
 

For more information on director Amanda Micheli and her work, visit: www.runawayfilms.com

 

© 2013 Behind the Doc Lens. (Lauren Brody, Blogger & Isabel Garcia, Producer). To contact the blogger/producer email blogger@behindthedoclens.com.

 

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