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Laura Blum


Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for filmfestivals.com. She also publishes on Thalo

 


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"Life Is Sacred": A Human Rights Watch Film Festival Premiere

When's the last time a film about a mayor got your pulse racing? For attendees of the recent Human Rights Watch Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the answer must be Life Is Sacred, Andreas Dalsgaard's portrait of Antanas Mockus. And before that, it was surely Dalsgaard's 2009 documentary Cities on Speed: Bogota Change. That too centered on heady, twinkle-eyed Mockus.

The two-time mayor of Bogota is perhaps best summed up by the caped persona he playfully assumed as part of his historic campaign to redress civic dysfunction: "Super Citizen." Or was it his dramatic gesture of mooning a disruptive student assembly at the university where he previously served as dean (to expose "the color of peace -- white.")? Either way, such antics give a sense of Mockus's unorthodox approach to curbing violence and corruption in Colombia. It's said that, on his watch, homicides plunged by 70 percent and reports of road deaths were halved.

Reprising footage from Bogota Change, Dalsgaard's new film samples Mockus's transformative strategies such as deploying an army of mimes to ridicule traffic offenders. As we see, this is no ordinary politician. The soft-spoken son of Lithuanian immigrants came to public service by way of philosophy, mathematics and innate creativity.

The film's title itself is taken from a mantra Mockus introduced as part of his societal clean-up initiative using visual and verbal symbols. Life is Sacred explores how these ideas -- and the young, bright-eyed supporters they rally -- power his attempt to run for president in 2010.

One such idealist is Katherine Miranda, a Green Party adept who essentially narrates the documentary. Decades of drug-fueled, politically abetted turbulence has left her and many of her compatriots desperate for peace. The urgency for Miranda is to reach it within her grandmother's lifetime.

It's easy to see that Mockus is a pied piper for anyone like Miranda who seeks a new Colombian ethos. Whether it's because -- or in spite -- of his professorial style is at times less obvious. The film squarely establishes that the man's radical vision, enlightened strategies and unflashy charisma loft him above the unctuous machinations of Colombia's typical politicos. But it begs the question of whether precisely the quirky thoughtfulness that so endeared Mockus to Bogota's good citizenry worked against him on the national stage.  

Dalsgaard shows us some of the key players who did just that: work against Mockus on the national stage. One of the big villains in this story is J.J. Rendon, whose media-savvy tactics and vote-buying tricks helped sway the electorate behind Mockus's opponent, Juan Manuel Santos Santos. There's nothing banal about the film's revelation that Mockus has dropped out of the fray. Dalsgaard himself must have learned a thing or two from his inspired subject about how and when to put over a message -- and the thinking behind it -- for maximal effect. It's only the most arresting twist in a narrative pumped with the unexpected and the uncommon.

Spanning some eight years, Life Is Sacred is unabashedly taken with Mockus. Even when showing him in his most vulnerable moments, the film's enthusiasm is infectious. Notable among these is Mockus's moving exchange with his mother, a fiercely independent artist who is his sharpest critic and consultant. A few more such intimate scenes would have been welcome for mining deeper insights into what makes Mockus tick. Similarly, the film could have used a mite more context about the zeitgeist in which he began formulating his redemptive platform. And that's to say nothing of its conspicuous omission of America's history of meddling in Colombia's troubled arena. Nonetheless, Dalsgaard succeeds in making Life's complex issues not only graspable but compulsively watchable, and its Super Citizen an all-too human hero to root for. 

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