Luis Ospina: the politics of vampires

Across five decades, the Colombian filmmaker has used the conventions of horror and noir to enquire, document and provoke. From our January 2019 issue.

Luis OspinaJuan Cristobal Cobo

Luis Ospina is among the most revered Latin American underground filmmakers – one of the inventors of a subgenre that came to be called ‘tropical gothic’, and a co-writer of the manifesto ‘What Is Misery Porn?’ that in 1978 called worldwide attention to the fact that the cinema of developing-countries is too often praised for miserabilism while its formal innovation is overlooked. His own formal playfulness and his penchant for underappreciated genres have been so pertinent in Latin America that it is a wonder he is only now getting introduced to a wider, Western audience. As is often the case with cult directors, Ospina has taken some time to receive broad career recognition. This is now changing, as in the past two years he has been fêted in his native Colombia, at the International Film Festival in Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) and in Cali and Medellín, and has also been shown in Brazil, in California at UCLA, and most recently at Doclisboa in Portugal – the last his first comprehensive retrospective in Europe.

Ospina was born in 1949, in Cali, Colombia, and came of age in the 1960s, as his country was consumed by the government’s war on leftist insurgent groups, after a prolonged period of ‘La Violencia’, the civil war that lasted from 1948-58. He studied film at UCLA, but Ospina’s cinephilia began even earlier, watching westerns with his brother as a child and bingeing on vampire films. When I met him at Doclisboa, Ospina recalled vividly seeing the Hammer Dracula (1958) and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). “My generation was young when Night of the Living Dead came out,” he told me. “We suddenly saw that you could have a political reading of a zombie cannibalistic film, with the Vietnam War and one of the characters being black.” During his studies in California, Ospina came across Blacula (1972), the western vampire film Curse of the Undead (1959) and other variants on the genre; he also discovered his enduring love for film noir, including Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), which he regards as one of the all-time noir and horror classics. “Paul Schrader was at UCLA at that time and programmed a big retrospective of noir. It’s been my favourite genre, because it’s very pessimistic.”

His discoveries, plus exposure to the experimental cinema of American filmmakers such as Bruce Conner (whose films Ospina programmed at Doclisboa), gave Ospina a rich, complex filmography to draw on. Compared with Argentina and Brazil, Colombia had had a relatively modest film industry. But in the late 60s and early 70s, Cali was full of counter-cultural social and political ferment. It became the home of the Cali Cine Club, and its independent production scene became robust enough to merit the label ‘Caliwood’. During vacations from UCLA, Ospina travelled to Cali, where he collaborated with his childhood friend, the filmmaker Carlos Mayolo. With the shyer Ospina in charge of sound and editing and the explosive Mayolo behind the camera, they quickly established a model for ingenious shoestring filmmaking. Their first documentary short, Oiga, Vea! (‘Listen, Look!’, 1971), was shot during the Pan-American Games, which that year were held in Cali. The two filmmakers arrived too late to be accredited to shoot inside the games venues and so they took to the streets instead – their uncensored take on the city’s poor, who were often Afro-Colombian, and who could not afford to watch the games, contradicted the bombastic official propaganda. It was their counter-truth, or counter-cinema.

Their second joint undertaking was much bolder: The Vampires of Poverty (1977), an aggressive black-and-white mockumentary, attacked the well-meaning leftist reportage, prevalent at the time, that in seeking to expose and denounce poverty and misery often ended up ignoring the inherent dignity of their subjects. “We noticed that some leftist filmmakers were not very honest,” Ospina told me. “They were creating films à la mode, made to fit the taste of European festivals, and to get prizes and grants. This made it even more evident to us that in some cases poverty could become merchandise.”

The Vampires of Poverty (1977)

The Vampires of Poverty is a strident protest film: thrusting their camera at the homeless and the indigent in a rapid succession of shots, the duo tread a fine line between cinéma éngagé and voyeurism. They go so far as to hire a family to act in the film and invent entire life testimonies which the filmmakers then shoot, miserabilist style. Even in the age of ‘post-truth’ the film’s images have the power to shock us. At one point, a bedraggled man storms into a scene screaming “Bloodsucking vampires”; but at the end he ironises his part in a conversation with the filmmakers, and we sense that the joke is on us. Have we been too eager to lap up the brutal ‘realities’ of the Third World, construing metaphors where there are none? Cinema is never innocent, Ospina and Mayolo are saying; there is no unvarnished truth.

The mockumentary gave Ospina and Mayolo a certain notoriety, but their uncompromising critical stance towards both the political right and the left meant they would remain outcasts. Staying true to his ideal of vampire films with a political edge, Ospina made next a contemporary gothic noir: in Pure Blood (1982), a sugar-cane tycoon suffers from a rare disease which requires him to have frequent transfusions of the blood of young boys. 

Ospina was inspired by contemporary twists on the vampire genre, such as George A. Romero’s Martin (1978) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Typically, Ospina’s fanciful fiction was also not far from fact. When Ospina was about eight, a series of murders had occurred in Cali: around 20 children were raped and killed – Ospina saw one of the dead bodies near his home. “There was real terror,” he says, “you couldn’t go out at night.” According to urban legend, some boys had holes close to their hearts, where the murderer had sucked their blood. Ospina added to this fantastical scenario the class aspect – the rich preying on destitute victims – plus overtones of homosexuality, another taboo. The sugar – a white powder – hinted at the cocaine business that had just started up in Cali. As in a classic noir, what mattered to Ospina was the nihilist aura that permeated the film: “There is no normal love. Nobody is good.” Ospina’s stylisation includes making the vampire a sickly, pale old man with fine hands and impossibly long nails, a choleric temper, and a love for classic cinema (he watches Citizen Kane in his hospital bed). The film is permeated by dark humour, and includes elements of gore and surrealism, but it is also a family drama, with a generational conflict between a conniving, cowardly impresario and his despotic, vampiric father.

Pure Blood (1982)

Pure Blood was a commercial flop, as was Ospina’s other fiction feature, Breath of Life (1999), written by Ospina with his brother, Sebastián: a detective (Fernando Solórzano) sets out to solve the murder of a young woman (Flora Martínez) who goes alternately by the names Golondrina and Pilar. It’s a true psychological noir, in some ways reminiscent of the early B-film master, Joseph H. Lewis, and particularly his split-personality thriller So Dark the Night (1946); moving between the investigation and flashbacks, the film introduces numerous possible suspects and setbacks. We slowly realise that Golondrina/Pilar was not only involved with an inarticulate boxer, a rich politician and the politician’s brother-in-law (a bullfighter), but also with the detective. Her multiple deceptions and lives have the breadth of such literary noirs as The Savage Detectives (1998), by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Ospina uses black-and-white film in the present, colour for flashback, accentuating the nostalgia.

Sebastián Ospina, Luis’s brother, funded the production of Breath of Life, and lost his apartment as a result. That was the last straw for Luis Ospina, who vowed never to work in fiction film again. Nearly a decade passed before he returned with another definitive picture – a documentary, Paper Tiger (Un tigre de papel, 2008). Once again, Ospina conceived the film as a provocation: the story of Colombian artist Pedro Manrique Figueroa, a supposed precursor of collage art, whose entire biography is in fact an elaborate hoax. Ospina’s ploy was simple yet brilliant: to use documentary methods – interviews, experts, sources – to perpetuate an entirely fake identity, an eerily prescient experiment given our current post-truth era. Ospina has his interviewees depict Figueroa as a Colombian Everyman, through whose story we learn of the country’s conflicts, starting with the resistance against the dictator General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, ousted in 1957. At the same time, Pedrito, as friends call him, is a nebulous figure, his biography contorted. Was he really a travelling beer salesman? Was he present at all important political events before disappearing? In whimsically fantastical fashion one speaker suggests that an unmarked mummy found in a museum might be Figueroa, who had wanted to donate his body as a work of art. Ospina was inspired partly by Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), and by his own conviction that in film, where images and anecdotes are aken out of context, truth is tenuous. Another influence was Chris Marker – Ospina had edited The Vampires of Poverty in Marker’s lab in Paris and had been greatly impressed by Marker’s Letter from Siberia (1958), in which a single image is placed in three wildly different contexts.

In parallel with polemical documentaries and gothic noir, Ospina has documented his native city and preserved memories of friends. Among his film portraits is one of writer Andrés Caicedo, who edited Cali’s movie magazine Ojo al cine. Caicedo committed suicide at the age of 25, shortly before the publication of his first novel, ¡Qué viva la música!, in 1979; his death deeply shook Ospina and friends. In his documentary feature Andrés Caicedo: A Few Good Friends (1986), Ospina has a young woman go around Cali asking “Do you know who Andrés Caicedo was?” She gets wildly varying answers – a beatnik, a guerrilla – in some ways resonating with Figueroa’s Zelig-like ubiquity. Ospina interviews Caicedo’s close circle and visits places where he lived in Cali; the documentary includes footage from Angelita and Miguel Ángel (1971), Caicedo’s only film, co-directed with Mayolo, in which they aimed to show the preoccupations of the young and the toughness of the city – in other words, to make contemporary, edgy fiction. Andrés Caicedo, like Ospina’s most recent documentary, It All Started at the End (2015), is a portrait of a generation of Colombians who, along with Ospina, Mayolo and Caicedo, fell in love with the hallucinatory potential of genres, and with cinema.

After 30 films, mostly documentaries, spanning formats including Super 8, 16mm and television, Ospina still cuts a youthful, rebellious figure. Despite having overcome a life-threatening illness, which he showed on camera in It All Started at the End, he eagerly travels and engages with young audiences. When I asked him how he fights his perennial insomnia, which he blames in part on years of crazy shooting and editing schedules, he joked, “I take pills”, adding that he binges at night on a YouTube noir channel, discovering new films. But he hasn’t given up working – his latest project, a video art installation, is due to be shown in Bogotá next year.