Josef Kubota Wladyka’s thriller Manos Sucias (“Dirty Hands”) is a tight 84 minutes of action, with two estranged Afro-Colombian brothers trying to shepherd a torpedo casing packed full of cocaine from the jungles outside the Buenaventura slums up to Panama, where their bosses are waiting. But the film represents six years of research, travel, and work for Wladyka, a first-time Japanese/Polish director who studied film at NYU under Spike Lee. Manos Sucias (a Dissolve Essential Viewing pick) won the Best New Narrative Director award at the Tribeca Film Festival when it premièred there in 2014, but it’s taken a full year to get it to theaters, now with Lee signed on as executive producer. His participation and promotion is just the latest step for a project that involved years of background interviews and script workshopping, first with Wladyka’s co-writer and cinematographer Alan Blanco, then with the Colombian cast. Shot in and around Buenaventura, Colombia, after Wladyka ran a series of filmmaking workshops there to help develop useful skills for a supportive but practical community that wanted help developing marketable skills in a depressed economy, the film takes heavy advantage of the area’s thick jungles and gorgeously bleak setting. The Dissolve recently spoke with Wladyka about the backstory behind his debut.
The Dissolve: You spent years traveling and researching content for this film, but what initially kicked off the idea? Where did it start?
Josef Kubota Wladyka: The initial interest came from when I was backpacking about eight years ago, right before I started the graduate film program at NYU. My friend had been living in South America in Colombia and in Ecuador and Peru for a little while. He was American, but he spoke fluent Spanish, and he was an explorer—a real adventurous person. We were waiting tables at the same place, and he was getting ready to go on one of these backpacking trips. I was 24 or 25, and I really wanted to learn a different point of view of the world. So I went with him. That was the first time I went to Colombia. We were traveling along the Pacific Coast going to these places not a lot of people travel to, and I started to hear and see stories from the locals about these places that are under siege, towns controlled by many different groups. And there were rumors of narco-submarines built deep in the jungle, and people fighting to get jobs on them. [Drug smugglers] make people sleep in them for a week to prove they can go on this extremely dangerous job. There were these semi-submersibles that are just on the surface of the water, but from the sky, they look like whales.
As a filmmaker, I’m always extremely studious about other worlds. The initial moment was, “I don’t know what it is yet, but there’s definitely a film in this world.” I went through the graduate film program, but over the summers, I would go back. I was traveling with a local, Kelly Morales, who became an associate producer on the film. She has a lot of family in the region, in Kumaka, in Buenaventura, and that’s how I got even more access. I was just collecting stories in my journal, and trying to become more familiar with the place and the people, and get a feel for whether it was even possible to shoot a film in these places. Because there really is no infrastructure. Then I met a theater teacher at the university in Buenaventura, which opened the door to meeting all these theater students from Buenaventura. It just snowballed from there.
The Dissolve: There’s an increasing call for diversity in film, and for more stories from, for as you say, places where few people go. But at the same time, there’s often a backlash against people making films outside their culture. Were you concerned about being called out for cultural appropriation, or not understanding the world you were operating in like the locals would?
Wladyka: Huge concern. Always a huge, huge concern. The sensitivity toward the representation of the people was always—I was a gringo, my Spanish isn’t fantastic, I’m coming to this place and trying to make this movie. It’s dealing with an extremely sensitive subject, specifically in this area. There were a lot of times where I was going to, to be honest, just give up on the film. There were many pull-the-plug moments. I always felt a little bit insecure about being an outsider. But when I met some of the actors for the first time, something clicked. They said, “Please come and make this film and tell the story. No one cares about Buenaventura, no one gives a shit about what goes on here.” And then I saw how awesome they were, how raw these theater students were. And I really saw how the film would work if I get them in the film.
Buenaventura is very much a place where people are promised a lot of things, and they don’t follow through. And I had been showing my face over the course of several years, saying, “I’m going to make a film.” And I think a lot of people didn’t think I was going to do it. So there was that moment where I was talking to a couple of the kids, and I thought, “People are going to get mad, people are going to criticize, but fuck it, we’re just going to do this.”
The Dissolve: What did the Buenaventura actors bring to the story, as locals, as people familiar with the community?
Wladyka: They brought so much authenticity. First we translated the film into general Colombian Spanish. Then once I cast them, we changed it to the colloquial way they speak in Buenaventura. We went through and talked about every scene. We put it under the microscope, “Does this feel real, does this feel truthful?” We improvised a lot of scenes, and explored whether something more interesting could come out of them. If we discovered something, we would make the adjustment and lock it down in the script. I’ll give you an example. In the film, when Jacobo is talking about his son, when he’s crying in that moment, that’s a real story that happened to Jarlin [Javier Martinez, who plays Jacobo] in his neighborhood when he was growing up in Buenaventura. He was one of those kids on the soccer field, and his friend got shot and killed. They brought a lot of authenticity to it.
The Dissolve: You’ve said the film’s story is loosely based on the real experiences of someone transporting drugs on a go-fast boat with a narco-torpedo. Was it difficult to find those stories, or to get people talking about those experiences?
Wladyka: No. [Laughs.] Definitely not. It’s just a reality. It’s a matter-of-fact thing that just goes on there. The unemployment in Buenaventura is staggering, and people get involved in this cycle out of pure necessity and no other choices. It’s not a hush-hush thing, “Don’t talk about what you do.” It’s just a thing that goes on.
The Dissolve: You also put some of your own life story into the brothers’ relationship. What did that bring to the story?
Wladyka: That was an emotional core. It was what me and Alan [Blanco] decided upon, because of my own personal experience. I had two older brothers, and I’m the youngest. I had those moments growing up where I was peer-pressured into doing really dumb stuff. And I was always being experimented on by two older brothers. The heart of the film for us was incorporating that. The main characters are half-brothers. Often in Buenaventura, there are half-siblings who live in different barrios, within different borders—one place is controlled by one group, another place is controlled by another group. So they can’t visit each other’s neighborhoods. We thought, “If we’re going to stick these two people in a boat, they have to have opposing points of view about the work they’re doing. But they should be emotionally connected, so we care about them.” We decided to make them brothers, as something we could explore. That’s why I love those moments on the boat, with some downtime. What would they do? What would they joke around about? That’s where a lot of these scenes come from.
The Dissolve: One of the most spectacular elements of the film is the funereal chanting music. How did you come across that in the first place, and what did you want it to convey in the film?
Wladyka: That type of music is called currulao, and it’s this old Afro-Colombian folklore music that is very, very specific to the region. A friend from the region sent me probably 200 files in that vein. And when we were starting to put music in the cut, I put in these parts of songs where they were just chanting. Something very powerful started to happen. They’re singing about God, about the ocean, about the fisherman and the beach. What it started to do for us was put a female presence in a film that doesn’t have a lot of that. It’s women lamenting for the men who go on these dangerous journeys. So it became really, really important to us. It was difficult to get the rights, to find some of the artists who made that music, so I’m so, so happy and grateful that we were allowed to use it in the film. It adds another layer, and it’s very beautiful music.
The Dissolve: You got a lot of advice saying it was too dangerous to shoot in Colombia, and you location-scouted in Puerto Rico and other places. But in the end, you really wanted to shoot where the film was set. Why was that so important?
Wladyka: It wouldn’t have worked anywhere else, because they speak such a specific way in Buenaventura. It looks such a specific way, with its gray skies and dense jungle and murky Pacific Ocean. There’s just no way Puerto Rico would have worked. Even when I scouted other parts of Colombia, like on the Caribbean Coast, it just wasn’t the right feel. I felt like so much of the success of the film would hinge on the actual real place, photographing places where this goes on, places that have never been photographed before. Probably the biggest challenge of the film was getting the access to shoot in some of these places. There’s all this crazy stuff, all this narco-trafficking going on through these beautiful mangroves and these beautiful rivers, and a lot of it is so untouched. The locations are such an important part of the film.
The Dissolve: When you’re shooting the sea, or the jungle, you tend to come from a worm’s-eye perspective, from the bottom of a canoe, or the drug-torpedo’s point of view. You use a lot of low angles. What was your thinking around these shots?
Wladyka: Since we didn’t have a lot of toys at our disposal—no Steadicams or cranes or anything like that, it’s just Alan on a body-rig the whole time, we tried to be bold in our lens choice and in framing. For a lot of the physical scenes, we chose to go low-angle with a wide, wide lens so we could see more of the physicality, and what’s really going on. The most important scene in my opinion, with Delio at the end, we went with the low-angle lens, low below him, really pushing in. All the movement would be so much more exaggerated on a wider lens. It was a lot of out of practicality of what tools we had, as well as an aesthetic choice.
The Dissolve: What was it like trying to maintain those tools in a wet, humid environment, in darkness and around water all the time?
Wladyka: You know, we got a grant from Canon. We shot on Canon C300s, which were literally the perfect camera for this film. We wouldn’t be able to use probably any other camera, because it’s a really small camera, but you can put cinema lenses on it. But it still shoots on these little tiny CF cards, the same ones that would be in a DSLR camera like a 70 or 5D. And that was just huge, because we didn’t have some big external hard drive off the back of some big camera, because in those conditions with the salt, the sand, and the humidity, it would have been an absolute nightmare. With this camera, you just turn it on and you shoot. If someone said, “You can shoot on 35mm, whatever you want,” we probably would have still shot on that camera, because of the nature of how we were shooting. We were a small splinter crew. We had to be light, we had to be quick on our feet.
We didn’t wind up with any insurance claims or anything. Everything came back fine. The only problem was the Easyrig vest that Alan was wearing smelled really, really bad. It smelled, oooof, from the sweat. I made short films before, and had more things break on a shoot. For this film to be made, there was definitely someone high above looking out and watching out for us, because there were so many things that could have gone wrong. Don’t get me wrong, it was an extremely hard shoot. I’ve put the shoot out of my mind. I have post-traumatic stress from it. It was its own Heart Of Darkness/Apocalypse Now type of shoot.