When it’s time to make a first feature, most filmmakers will stay close to home, literally and figuratively. After all, when you take into account budget, availability of cast and crew, and the trials and tribulations of a complicated shoot, it makes more sense to think small.
Josef Wladyka clearly went in the other direction, both for inspiration and location. His feature film directorial debut, “Manos Sucias” (“Dirty Hands”), which he also co-wrote with Alan Blanco, tackles some pretty heady subject matter—the Colombian drug trade, as seen from the viewpoint of two low level drug runners. The movie was shot on location in Colombia, utilizing both the slums of Buenaventura and the Pacific coast of the country to convey the moods and physical obstacles the main protagonists encounter.
This isn’t a typically glossy “Scarface” scenario, where the two raw, young and hungry outlaws work their way up the organization, complete with scantily clad women and gaudy cars. No, this is much closer to reality. It’s intimate, sweaty, and nerve wracking. This is a desperate job for desperate men who because of discrimination and economic suppression from the drug trade are forced to turn to this line of work. They live in a city where many fishermen, instead of using the ocean for what they’ve always known, turn to hauling drugs up and down the coast, towed behind their boats in narco-torpedoes.
The two low level drug runners in “Dirty Hands” are half-brothers Delio (Cristian James Abvincula) and Jacobo (Jarlin Javier Martinez). Delio is still idealistic in some ways. He laughs easily and talks about soccer and hip hop, even the joys of his city. Jacobo has more pain in his eyes; he has clearly seen things he wishes he hadn’t.
Many things had to happen for “Dirty Hands” to come together. The movie benefited from being billed as “Spike Lee presents” (both Wladyka and Blanco worked with Lee on “Red Hook Summer”), investment from Cine Colombia, backing from Canon (they provided cameras), a strong Kickstarter campaign, and two grants from the San Francisco Film Society, which, according to Wladyka, “really saved our ass.” Those two grants also led to some post-production sound work at Skywalker Ranch.
To which Wladyka said, “Every film nerd’s dream, right?”
To Colombia and Back
The inspiration for “Dirty Hands” came from first-hand experience. Wladyka began visiting Colombia about eight years ago, right before he entered the graduate film program at NYU. He had a friend who had traveled extensively through South America and Wladyka joined him on one of these excursions. In certain cities, the drug trade had invaded almost every area of life, including the fishing trade; it was becoming a way of life and a large part of the economy. In viewing this, Wladyka began to form the first ideas of making a movie out of all of this.
“As a filmmaker I’m a curious person and always curious in different worlds, and it had such an impact on me,” Wladyka said. “Going to these places and listening to some stories of these fishermen saying that if you go down this river, they build narco-submarines down here and we’re all trying to get jobs on it. And this group is controlling our town and there are invisible borders and I can’t get to this person’s neighborhood…All this, it was just this crazy world. And I thought, ‘I don’t know what it is, but there is definitely a film in this.’”
Not only did the subject matter appeal to Wladyka, but he also has a genuine affection for Colombia and its people. He wanted to tell the story in a non-sensationalistic way. He established relationships with all sorts of different citizens, and his dealings with villagers—as well as government officials—led him and his crew to gaining an incredible amount of access so he could make an authentic film.
“Another reason why I probably made the film is because I love Colombia so much,” he said. “I just have a love for the people. They’re a very, very special, specific people. You’ll only understand it if you go and travel there. Some of the cache of the film is where we got to shoot, places that have never been photographed before. In order to get access to go those places we had to develop very specific relationships with people and we always had to be extremely up front about what the film was about and why we wanted to make the film. And I would say that 80, 85 percent always kind of received us well.”
There are many themes running through “Dirty Hands.” If you peel back the layers of an underground economy like the drug trade, it’s the poorest or the most disenfranchised who have to take those ground level risks; they take the biggest hits and get paid the least. While Americans may have a hard time wrapping their minds around racism on another continent (we can barely wrap our minds around it here) it’s a fairly prevalent fact of life in South America.
“The people [in “Dirty Hands”], they’re from the coast, and even in Ecuador and Colombia on the Pacific Coast, the majority are Afro-descendants,” Wladyka said. “They would talk about the racial exclusion that would go on, all this stuff, and I was like, ‘Wow, I had never known that all of this existed.’ The idea of the film is that since the drug trade is this international issue this is just a small tiny glimpse into a part of it that not a lot of people know about. Here in the United States we obviously know a lot of what goes on in Mexico, and we know about Colombia, but it’s more like glorified stuff like Pablo Escobar and things like that. But we don’t know about the very beginning stages of how the drugs move a lot of the time.”
While Wladyka was aware of the aspects racism of Colombian society and what rungs of the drug trade ladder the Afro-descendants would be put on, both Abvincula and Martinez wanted it even more on the front burner.
“Once I cast the actors we were changing things in the script when we were starting to rehearse and do paperwork, and a lot of the time they wanted to push the racism even more,” Wladyka said. “There was actually more we shot but when we were editing it, we dialed all of that back. We didn’t want it to be too much of a thing. We just wanted to touch on it.”
Lessons Learned on the Pacific and Elsewhere
Much of “Dirty Hands” was shot while bobbing up and down on the Pacific Ocean. Wladyka and Blanco (who also served as cinematographer) used the Canon Cinema EOS C300 and Canon EOS 7D (with Canon Cinema Lenses and Canon EF Lenses) as well as a GoPro, which was utilized heavily for shots involving underwater perspective. Not only were the logistics tough, but just physically being on the choppy Pacific Ocean water made things a little…distasteful.
“That was very, very rough” Wladyka said. “Lots of throwing up, which always happens when you shoot on the water. Again it came through with preparation of working with Alan. What was nice was since he wrote the script with me, the way we almost pre-visualized the film by writing the script, every day after shooting we would do a sort of floor plan, and simplify, because we were kind of learning as we went. We realized that when we were first on the water, ‘That, okay, this is going to take four hours and we thought it was going to take one hour.’”
When asked about shooting on a boat, not only did Wladyka talk about the obstacles of filming on open water (anchoring boats, shots changing because of movement, etc.), there were difficulties in making some of the scenes involving the same two actors on the same boat visually appealing.
“All the scenes that were inside the boat, how to make it different so they’re not all the same every time,” he said. “So we really had to figure out for each scene, where are they sitting in the boat, how to make it different, make their movements different, just to keep it interesting. We were really worried that all of these scenes on the boat would be exactly the same.”
Being his first feature, “Dirty Hands” taught Wladyka a lot, not only on the filmmaking front, but also regarding the world of producing, pre-production, and even in how to land future jobs as a director.
“If I was going to do another independent film, I think I would know how to package the material and talk about the material in a better way now,” he said. “Sort of sell it a little bit better because I’m just starting to learn now that it’s actually 90% of everything, of trying to get work as a director is how you talk about film and the material and how you sell yourself as a filmmaker.”