Violeta Ayala’s latest documentary takes viewers inside one of Bolivia’s most notorious prisons, aiming to bring a new perspective to the war on drugs.
Cocaine Prison provides a first-hand account of the foot soldiers affected by the drug trade through a prisoner named Hernan and his little sister Daisy. The siblings’ story illuminates the country’s relationship with cocaine.
The doc is Ayala’s second documentary to premiere in Toronto in as many years. In 2015, she screened The Bolivian Case at Hot Docs — the raucous story of three Norwegian teenagers who vacation in Bolivia, then attempt to leave the country with 22kg of cocaine.
That film was the first in a trilogy that Ayala is working on, focusing on the war on drugs. Cocaine Prison is the second.
Although both films are set in Bolivia’s San Sebastian prisons, Cocaine Prison is quieter. Exasperated by narratives that sensationalized the war on drugs while overlooking their toll on the lives of Latin America’s disenfranchised, Ayala was interested in telling “a much more real story of how this works.”
She and collaborator Dan Fallshaw began searching for a story at San Sebastian, where Ayala had worked briefly as a teenager.
There, she met Daisy’s brother Hernan. Just shy of 19 and looking to earn money, Hernan had found work as a drug mule, but was quickly arrested.
Ayala and Fallshaw documented his time at San Sebastian over the next four years.
The Bertha Journalism Documentary fund, Sundance Documentary Fund, Tribeca Film Institute, Screen Australia and Latino Public Broadcasting are among the institutions that contributed funding to Cocaine Prison.
Ahead of the film’s TIFF premiere, realscreen caught up with Ayala to talk about the project:
Your last film, The Bolivian Case, also focused on the San Sebastian prison. How did you get access?
The Bolivian Case was filmed in the female prison, and Cocaine Prison was filmed in the male prison. In the female prison, we had very limited access; we filmed very little. In the male prison, we went almost every day for three years to teach English and to film the prisoners’ stories. It wasn’t that we had access all the time, or as much access as we wanted to have. Sometimes we were allowed in. Sometimes we were not allowed in with a camera.
Mario, one of the prisoners, was the one who proposed to me, “Why don’t you teach us to use the cameras?”
That was a brilliant idea… so we gave the prisoners four little cameras to capture footage. Every time they got caught with the cameras, the police took them away. So we needed to buy a lot.
You had been teaching English at San Sebastian. Was it easier to get filming access because you already had an established presence there?
From the outset, we told the prisoners we wanted to make a film. So we started filming at the same time we started to teach. But of course. It’s not just taking; it’s taking and giving. Our classes were real. It’s an overpopulated prison and there are too many people in such a little space, yet life is boring inside. People do the same things over and over. To be able to teach them another language, to allow them to watch movies, to discuss politics, to discuss the world – I think that was very, very positive for the prisoners.
There are instances in the film where the protagonists do things that are potentially dangerous. Did you ever feel like you should have – or could have – intervened, as a filmmaker?
You’re trying to show reality. So the moment that I intervene in reality, I will stop showing reality.
It’s very hard. I wish the system wasn’t the way it is. The war on drugs is something that is harming all of us around the world. It’s harming young people. And it’s harming vulnerable people because people in producing countries like Bolivia – these are the kids who are paying the price. Not the Pablo Escobars.
How does Cocaine Prison contribute to your trilogy on the war on drugs?
The Bolivian Case shows very clearly the racial aspects of the war on drugs. It shows how the wealthier, the richer, and the whiter you are, [the more easily] you can get away. Cocaine Prison is a story from the inside. It’s a story that demystifies the entire war on drugs. It’s not a story that’s based on statistics or numbers, but it’s a real story told from the inside and how it’s affecting people in Bolivia.
If you want to see violence don’t go and see Cocaine Prison. It’s exactly the opposite of the violence [narrative] that is damaging to Latinos and people of colour.