10th Annual Cine LatinoIn Focus: Juan Mejia Botero

By Jan Willms
Subject: Juan Mejia Botero, director of Death by a Thousand Cuts

Juan Mejia Botero went into film looking for a tool for his research and activism. It was later that he fell in love with filmmaking as an art form.

Born and raised in Colombia, Botero traveled to the United States for college. “I was always drawn to the social sciences, and I studied anthropology,” he said. He completed a BA in anthropology, an MA in Latin American studies and then contemplated a PhD in anthropology but stopped because he began to feel frustrated at the narrow reach of academia.

“I wanted to be able to get what I considered to be important stories out to greater audiences,” Botero explained. “I had already worked on a couple of documentaries while in college, and thus decided that film is what I wanted to do. I think my training in anthropology has been crucial in my development as a documentary filmmaker.” After finishing his studies at UT, Austin, he traveled and worked for a few years and then completed an MA in social documentary at UCSC, Santa Cruz.

He has directed both short and feature-length documentaries. His work has led him to co-direct Death by a Thousand Cuts, a film that recounts how the 2012 murder of a Dominican Republic park ranger led to a whirlwind of accusations, threats and fear between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The documentary examines the murder as well as the larger store of increasing tension between Haiti and the Dominican Republic over illicit charcoal exploitation and mass deforestation. The film will be presented at the 4th annual Cine Latino Festival at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis, as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society.

Botero said there is no other medium like a documentary that can capture and illustrate humanity’s ability for resilience, resistance, adaptability and change. “And there is no other medium that can reveal and denounce with the same urgency as a documentary,” he added. “There is something about the immediacy of it that makes it so powerful. My favorite documentaries depict real human transformation in front of your eyes or are able to open your eyes to aspects of our reality in ways that are so compelling and moving.” Botero said that reality can be at times horrific and at times beautiful.

Botero, who considers himself a filmmaker and an activist, said he makes documentary films because he believes in their potential to contribute to struggles for social justice. “In this regard I do not believe in notions of neutrality or objectivity,” he noted. “My documentaries are purely subjective, and I think a lot of their power lies in their subjectivity and in how they reflect my own views and values.”

In filmmaking, Botero said he thinks narrative trumps almost everything. “That’s why the editing process is so key,” he stated. “A great film is in the story-telling. That being said, a beautiful cinematography helps strengthen your story-telling potential tremendously.” Botero said that quality of cinematography was reached in Death by a Thousand Cuts by the amazing work of director of photography, Juan Carlos Castaneda.

Botero said that in the film, which was shot over a long period of time, often in difficult circumstances and terrain, there are always numerous logistical challenges. “But we always found ways to overcome these,” he claimed. “I think the real challenge was in finding a way to tell such a complex story in a way that was intimate and character-driven, but that was able to work through some intricate socio-political issues and some heavy universal concepts. Trying to tell a personal story, but successfully like I to the universal was the most difficult part of the project.”

Botero points to a clear difference between objectivity and complexity in a film. “I don’t ever pretend m films are objective, but I always strive for them to be complex,” he emphasized. “In this way I want to be able to present a complex story in all its shades of gray.”

He acknowledged that everything is filtered through his lens, but said he strives to let the audience connect the dots and draw its own conclusions. With his films, he said he wants to move the audience, to imbue viewers with a sense of urgency and action.

Currently, Botero is working with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in a 3 short-film series about the power behind memory and remembrance of lynchings and the impact of the rampant Confederate iconography still present today.

He said that EJI has initiated a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating a memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.

Regarding the current immigrant situation that is affecting so many parts of the world, and the struggles so many people are going through just to reach a safe place, Botero said he has done one feature documentary and a number of shorts on the plight of internal refugees in Colombia.

“Few people know this,” he said, “but Colombia’s forced displacement crisis is on par with that of Sudan and Syria. I think the tremendous refugee crisis around the world is a clear symptom of a global economic system that is not working. As we can see in Death by a Thousand Cuts, environmental crises are often linked to socio-economic conditions.”

“I think there are a number of filmmakers now engaged in films covering this topic,” said Botero, “but I would definitely consider making a film to help in the documentation of this phenomenon.”