The dance scenes in Somos Calentura: We Are The Heat are filled with sweat, anguish and fun. Every move counts, not only on the competitive dance floor, but also outside of it. The latest film by Colombian director Jorge Navas mostly avoids the constant torment that’s typically used by filmmakers to portray Latin culture. Instead, Navas presents a story injected with adrenaline, emotion and the motivation to thrive, as he’s tired of his home country being associated with what he calls “misery porn.”
Located in the city of Buenaventura in Colombia, Somos Calentura: We Are The Heat follows a group of friends who prepare for a dance competition that could change their lives. After portraying the city of Bogotá in the film Blood & Rain (La sangre y la lluvia), Navas was interested in exploring the relationship between the Afro culture and the salsa choke movement, a musical subgenre that mixes salsa, hip-hop and breakdancing with original sounds of the Pacific region.
As a child from Santiago de Cali, Navas was moved by seeing this constant contrast between the power and beauty of the black Colombian culture and the levels of violence and conflict that it had to endure, thanks to a corrupt society damaged by drug trafficking.
While speaking with Vague Visages, Navas explained that he hopes Somos Calentura: We Are The Heat will shine a light on other aspects of Colombia, and change how the country is depicted by foreign movie and TV industries in the future. Somos Calentura: We Are The Heat premiered in the U.S. at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and is currently available on VOD.
Prior to making We Are The Heat, what was your relationship with the city of Buenaventura?
I was born in Santiago de Cali. I grew up there until I was 22 years old. Cali is like two and a half hours away by car from Buenaventura. They are like sister cities in some way because Buenaventura is the main port of Colombia in the Pacific. All the commerce and economic activity of Cali passes through Buenaventura. It has a very large and powerful black population and has greatly influenced Colombian culture of Cali.
How did your collaboration with screenwriter Steven Grisales happen?
Steven is also from Cali. It’s a Colombian city where cinema has developed in a more coherent and organic way compared to other cities in the country. There is a very high percentage of Colombian filmmakers who are from there. With Steven, we share interests and a cultural respect for the African culture. He wanted to pay homage to that facet of his upbringing. I, for one, am not a professional DJ, but I like to play music, and I do very well when I do it. I was interested in that Afro culture and how they are producing this mix of sound, dance and culture. Steven saw my previous film [La sangre y la lluvia], and he was very interested in my portrait of the city of Bogotá. He wanted We Are The Heat to also be a portrait of the city, and he looked for me. That’s how we started working together.
We Are The Heat is a film full of life and rhythm, but also one with social awareness and a flair of criminal drama. How did you encapsulate all that in one story?
We did not know how to adapt it until the last minute. We did not know how we were going to film the dance scenes. There were many dancers and groups, and we had to build all that atmosphere of competition from scratch. It was complex to give that level of realism and to feel the energy one feels when one is dancing. We had a choreographer who helped a little, but the dances have a very high level of improvisation. We were just filming with one camera, very documentary-like. When they started dancing, we let the battles be real, and the audience also got excited. We tried very carefully to go naturally from the drama to this very beautiful and very powerful competition between skilled artists.
The dance scenes have a quick editing pace and a very uneasy camera. How complex was it for you to shoot these moments?
We knew that the dancers could repeat a battle for a maximum of three times. It is a high performance sport that is physically demanding, so it was also complex. Half of the shooting was nocturnal, which was also difficult for the crew. They were doing dance battles at five in the morning, something truly exhausting.
You had a shoot that lasted around 5 weeks. How did the film affect the town of Buenaventura?
What I am most interested in as a filmmaker is doing research and fieldwork. I try to understand the dominant aesthetic of the place. A city like Buenaventura is the entry and exit of all Colombian commerce, but also of all drugs and weapons. There are many conflicting interests there. There are police, military, narcos, guerrillas — and everyone is fighting to see who controls the area. It can be very dangerous to get into some places without the permission or the right people to show you around. However, the locals were very happy that we could talk about them through their art. A few years ago, The New York Times published a article saying that Buenaventura was hell on Earth, the most violent place in the world. We were filming there but changing the focus of violence towards art and music and how these guys have an alternatives to get out of the vicious circle.
Do you think there is an idealization of the Latin world surrounding drug trafficking and the “narco culture” from foreign audiences?
I wouldn’t say idealization but misery porn — an interest to see how to sell the pain of the other. This generates a lot of stigmatization and much prejudice. We can’t escape the drug trafficking because it is there. It’s real and it happens, but we focused on seeing how our four characters try to thrive. We are empowering them and treating them as a kind of local super heroes who are in an internal struggle to get ahead by their own means through music and dance. Europeans and North Americans always come to film the worst we are. But we are not only that.
The film shows Colombian music being very influenced by hip-hop and African rhythms. How important was it for you to portray that conjunction of cultures?
Salsa and hip hop were born in New York but were reunited in Buenaventura and merged again to give rise to salsa choke. It’s a mix of hip hop and salsa with elements of traditional Pacific music. The marimba is the most important instrument. They call it the piano of the jungle. This is a music and dance with African roots, salsa and hip hop and even some Michael Jackson in there. I compare it with breakdance. There is a very North American aesthetic in the film because it’s their highest point of reference, although they do not know that they are inventing something new. The majority of it is music invented in poor homes and with very rudimentary elements. It’s like punk.
Do you already have another project lined up?
I’m finishing a documentary about a Colombian writer from the 70s called Andrés Taiseda. He was a film critic, known for being a lover of horror and B movies. He committed suicide at 25 years of age with great anguish in him. He helped to invent a genre called Tropical Gothic — a subject that interests me very much. Next year, I’m going to shoot a film within this genre that mixes santeria, black magic. It has elements of English Gothic, focused on evil, ghosts and death, but puts them in the heat and the jungle.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.