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Cemetery's new clothes

Regissør: Andrés Cháves Sánchez

50 000 was killed in Bogota's former slum Cartucho – and countless just disappeared.


The ten houses in Bogotá's Cartucho area resemble a war zone. In the past, the place was one of the most violent in the world. Knitting, rape and shooting were daily occurrences in this deadly quarter populated not only by Colombians but by poor people from many different countries. Even a debt of a few euros could be enough for death threats. Killing was not only a tool in the fight for money, but often took the form of unrestrained massacres almost for fun, with victims having their bodies torn up with dozens of stabs.

This has not always been Cartucho's reality. From being an ordinary slum where residents used their pills and marijuana, the place was completely changed when crack, morphine, cocaine and other harder drugs came on sale and were consumed on every street corner.

With increasing crime, slum over time became a ruthless death zone. Local dealers gained more performance and power as they penetrated and, so to speak, occupied the area. In this closed world, crossing a street between two rival drug groups could be a matter of life or death. Police officers who worked Undercover and infiltrated the gangs, often disappearing without anyone hearing from them again. Their bodies were probably buried under concrete.

In limbo. In the experimental map documentary La Hortúa from 2011 filmmaker Andrés Cháves Sánchez focused on a hospital ruin in an abandoned ghost town – once one of the better hospitals in Colombia, but today inhabited by house occupants. Cháves followed these into their daily lives, characterized by troublesome memories and the loneliness of the day.

His new movie Cartridge was a special and scathing feature of the Marseille FID Festival – known for appreciating complex, sublime and often contradictory films. Cháves depicts the neighborhood's life-in-limbo with all its paradoxes and duality. He combines testimonials with archive footage of everyday street life, and has consistently posted interview sequences where people who do not want to cooperate with him make skeptical and partly aggressive comments.

But the filmmaker also shows other aspects of the district, such as the fact that the inhabitants are hard-working people who, among other things, plow through 70 percent of Bogota's rubbish daily in search of food and other useful things. One interviewee points to the seriousness and dignity of his work, which comes in handy for Colombia's capital.

Cartucho was even visited early in the morning by medical students who wanted to bring corpses home.

Dance and dope. Quite surprising in this context is the dancing in the streets, which expresses so much joy and fun. These happy images end Cháves' panoramic view of life in the chaotic district. From a distance, dance can seem like a death ritual on the edge of an abyss, performed by people who have nothing to lose, expect or fear. “We are facing a paradox; that the joy of life often unfolds in the most unexpected situations, when death is quite near. "People who have always lived in a dysfunctional society and have never given priority to health seem to find it much easier to celebrate life and enjoy the small, intense moments," he says.

Even more surprising is that young women from the city's upper class families show up on this death scene to have fun. Addicted to alcohol and drugs of various kinds, they easily fall victim to men high up on the social ladder who are themselves drug addicts, but who have enough money to pay for both drugs and women, and who lock themselves in with their chosen ones for days and nights of time.

Cartucho was even visited early in the morning by medical students who wanted to bring their bodies home, preferably with preferences such as "nice legs" or "not stabbed".

The pragmatic acceptance of the conditions shown by these highly educated Colombians may immediately seem astonishing – but again this testifies to the fact that the congested area was long considered useful and necessary for Bogotá to function as a city.

Go over corpses. Almost 50 people lost their lives here, and then the many who just disappeared are not included. Uniformed police seldom meant any protection for the residents, on the contrary: the people here were instead used as targets under the police's own, wild firefighters, who could even hit helpless outlaws.

Today, Cartucho is unrecognizable: the old buildings have been demolished and replaced with Third Millennium Park, an area of ​​sterile, minimalist architecture, surrounded by flowers and trees. Some of the forcibly displaced residents are still wandering around the area, declaring that they feel a cold and frightening silence there. The area is virtually empty. Many who travel here today do not seem to be aware that they are wandering around the perhaps largest cemetery in Bogotá, where hundreds of anonymous skeletons are still below the surface.


Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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