Colombia's Oscar hope: biopic of a drug lord

'El Rey" is probably the only film among the 50 in the running for this year's foreign-language Academy Award that had its reels searched for cocaine as they left Bogotá's El Dorado airport, en route to France, where the film was edited.

"There's always suspicion if anything leaves Colombia,'' says the film's director, Antonio Dorado. "They figure there's got to be something inside."

Luckily, none of the reels was damaged by prying hands. Still, the search had its built-in irony, considering that "El Rey" ("The King") is a fictionalized account of Jaime Caicedo, Colombia's largely unknown first cocaine drug lord, a violent but Robin Hood-type figure who rose to power during the 1970s in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city.

Dorado, a native of Cali, sees the film as Colombia's chance to tell its own version of the drug war's beginnings, decades before the country became the third-largest recipient of US military aid that it is today.

Having police manhandling his reels wasn't the only hurdle Dorado had to overcome, however. Colombia initially nominated "Maria Full of Grace," a high-profile favorite among US critics, as its entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But the choice ran up against a little-known Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences rule: Foreign-language films must be made largely by people from the country doing the nominating. "Maria" was written and directed by Joshua Marston, a US native. Colombia's answer was to choose "El Rey." The five candidates for the foreign-language Oscar will be announced Jan. 25.

The series of events only served to underscore Dorado's belief that Colombia needs to tell its own story.

"This movie was made in answer to all the movies that have been made in North America about 'the other' - about us,'' Dorado says.

"I think Colombia is sufficiently mature to begin talking about this whole thing with the drug trade, through real-life characters - characters that we all know, events that we have all lived,'' he adds.

Daniel Lesoeur, owner of Eurocine, the French company still looking to broker a deal that would bring the film to US theaters, chose to back the film because of Dorado's compelling characters.

"The main character doesn't even realize that he is betraying his own wife and his friends just to stay at the top. It's crazy,'' Mr. Lesoeur says.

The movie, which is being shown on the US festival circuit, has outsold "Maria" at Colombia's box office since its release.

Carlos Llano, distribution director for Cine Colombia, says "El Rey" has been "one of the top 10" movies of the year for Colombia in a field crowded with Hollywood productions. Nearly 400,000 have seen the movie, compared with about 150,000 for "Maria." Colombia's population is about 40 million.

"It's a credible, well-told story ... that creates a sense of identity for people. Everyday people are more likely to see this movie than one about rich people out of Hollywood,'' Mr. Llano says.

Interestingly, the movie mixes biographical fact with the urban legend that members of the Peace Corps opened the market for Colombia's cocaine three decades ago. In the film, a Peace Corps worker named Harry works with El Rey to move cocaine to New York and other US cities.

"This is important because it offers an alternative to the idea that Colombia has always been guilty of trafficking and the US has been the victim of the trade,'' says Dorado. "This shows that the US also had a role in the whole thing.''

Juan Carlos Vallejo, a former professor of international human rights law in Colombia, believes that Dorado's film not only captures the cultural touchstones of Cali's ambience in the 1970s but also avoids cops-and-robbers stereotypes that Hollywood movies - such as "Collateral Damage" with Arnold Schwarzenegger - have peddled.

" 'El Rey' shows how drug trafficking permeated the entire society - to the point where few of us can raise our hands and say, 'We had nothing to do with that,' " Mr. Vallejo says.

Vallejo knows about the social impact of Colombia's troubles: Threats he faced due to his human rights work led him to seek political asylum in the US. He now lives in Vermont and works with Amnesty International on Colombian issues.

The former academic observes that many figures were sucked into El Rey's vortex as his drug trade grew. But "Maluco," a policeman in the film, resists bribery for years even though his colleagues are on the take.

"Maluco shows that Colombia doesn't only have bad guys," Vallejo says. "It also has people who struggle to make a better country even while others are sinking it into international infamy by turning [it] into a 'narcodemocracy.' "

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