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Andreas Dalsgaard: Life is Sacred – Interview

Andreas Dalsgaard: Life is Sacred – Interview

Suddenly in 2010, Colombian politics almost turned on its head. After starting the campaign for President as the dominant favourite, Juan Manuel Santos, the hand-picked successor to outgoing political heavyweight Àlvaro Uribe, suddenly found himself trailing in the polls to maverick politician Antanas Mockus. Previously Mayor of the capital city Bogotá, Mockus emerged leading the Green Wave that threatened to sweep away the old approach to politics.

His campaign ultimately fell short but his ideals and approach permeated national politics. Impressively, Santos turned his back on Uribe and opened peace talks to try and close out the internal violence ripping the country apart for decades. And then amazingly, Mockus came back again to actively support Santos, the man who defeated him not entirely fairly in 2010.

Danish documentary maker Andreas Dalsgaard had ringside seats through this period as he tracked Mockus and his team from the run-up to the 2010 election right through to the 2014 aftermath. In the UK to present his excellent film Life is Sacred at the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London, Culturefly spoke to Andreas to discuss his interest in Mockus, the events of 2010 and the future for the peace process.
Life-is-Sacred-Portrait-of-Director-Andreas-DalsgaardCulturefly: Antanas Mockus featured in one of your previous films, Cities on Speed. How did you find him and what made you want to return?

Andreas Dalsgaard: Cities on Speed kicked off with a focus on Bogotá so that’s where it started. The transformation of Bogotá gained worldwide recognition as a very good model of how you can transform a city in the developing world. That’s what got me to Bogotá. There I met Mockus amongst others. To see his approach to politics was something I found very interesting. Right after I made that film, it became something that informed a lot of people about what he had done as Mayor. And when he started the Green Wave, the campaign for president, the film actually started playing a part in helping to define their message and educate young people about what had happened in Bogotá.

So it was a natural leap for me, the chance to make a long film, a big film around Antanas Mockus and his philosophy. I don’t see it as a political film in the traditional sense as this is an inside perspective that follows his approach to politics and his experience of being in politics with this kind of approach.

CF: When you started this film did you have any idea how long the story would go on?

AD: You never know. That’s the thing about documentary. It’s so unpredictable. And in the case of Colombian politics it’s a very unpredictable cocktail. I was just curious in the beginning. I didn’t know if it was going to become a film. Then the campaign really started kicking off and became this wave of hope for change. At that point everyone thought he was going to be president. A month before the election they were already discussing ministerial roles. They were really, really certain. Not just them, pretty much everyone in the country. You had CNN and all kinds of media coming down to see this guy who had taken Colombia by storm. And then all of it imploded. And that’s where I thought this started to get really interesting for me.

As it imploded it started revealing all the cracks in Colombian politics which also reveals why he’s doing what he’s doing and what he’s up against. In order to understand his project you need to understand the adversary. So I thought this will be interesting but it’s something which will have me staying for a long time. Because he works within something that is so difficult to define – culture – you can’t measure the impact because it happens on many levels, it’s only something you can see over time. You can see it in the language, phrases which were developed by him – “not everything is allowed” – they become something which is part of mainstream Colombian politics, other politicians use it against each other. So the idea was to give it four years. What are the ripple effects of what was created here? And I think it’s even too early to define but in the film you see some.
Life-is-Sacred.-Main-Still.CF: You mentioned everyone genuinely thought they were going to win. It wasn’t just confined to his team and his core vote?

AD: I think it was genuine. First of all, Santos was originally considered to be the only one who could win that election. Nobody thought anybody could challenge him. But a couple of months before the election, Mockus had gone up and up and up in the polls. We’re talking a move from 7/8% to more than 50% in the polls. All other candidates were trailing more than half behind him. Santos was down to 25% and the rest were becoming insignificant. So at that moment everybody thought he was going to win.

CF: The implosion that happened – how much was a direct result of the dirty tricks campaign mentioned in the film and the allegations of electoral fraud, and how much was Santos gaining back ground legitimately?

AD: I think it was a mix of everything. You can definitely not talk about fraud in this election at a scale where it moved double digits. But it moved some. Everybody would agree there was fraud. The only question is to what extent and whether it was organised from the top level. That’s how it is in Colombian politics. It’s much messier than you would think. You cannot point to one specific factor and say this is what moved it. It’s the element of so many different parts that altogether moved it, which is what we tried to show. Part of that was to show that the Green Wave was very young and very inexperienced so maybe very fragile when up against well-structured very well-financed machinery.

Part of the reason Mockus does not complain about the fraud is that they could have proven fraud but only in single digits. It wasn’t the entire explanation. That would only make them look like losers and would have left Colombia stuck in a political vacuum for two to four years while that case was resolved. So Colombia would not benefit. Trust towards democracy and institutions would definitely suffer greatly and he was not ready to pay that price.
Life-is-Sacred.-Still-04CF: How much agonising did he go through to come to the decision not to dispute the result? I’m assuming it wasn’t one reached lightly. 

AD: No, it wasn’t. But it was a decision reached within a few hours. You see in the film the moment they ask me to switch off the camera. That was the moment in the hour after defeat that they discussed it. What happened for me at that point was that they shut down communication towards me. Until that moment everything had been open, but they did not want me to film their opinions about fraud. They didn’t want that to be public. One thing was their private opinion and another was what they said publicly. So it was a very precarious moment. Everything they felt inside themselves – that they had been cheated and manipulated by someone who did not play by the book – they couldn’t say that publicly.

CF: The ending feels like a vindication for him as people in the street come up to hug him and chant his name after the 2014 election. How’s he viewed in Colombia now? Is his refusal to challenge the 2010 result still an issue?

AD: I have the impression that across the board people have a lot of respect for Mockus as a person. Even people in Santos’ Government would express a great degree of respect for Mockus and his way of doing politics. What’s important with Mockus is that he’s not a left and right character; it’s not how he perceives politics. His political project is about improving legality in the country, it’s about improving the democratic institutions and that has to happen on many levels at the same time. It has to happen by changing the culture so acting illegally and being corrupt is rejected socially and ethically. That cultural change is maybe his biggest accomplishment in Colombian politics. And there is wide recognition in Colombia that the Green Wave did change a lot of things. It inspired Santos – he incorporated a lot of their proposals in his Government. In that particular moment we see in the film, Santos is kind of left alone as his usual supporters – Uribe and his machinery – wanted to stop the peace process. Santos went to the election based on the peace process. You’ll vote for me because I’ll promise peace. In the opposition some people decided not to support Santos despite the fact that their lack of support might lead to the peace process fracturing.
Life-is-Sacred.-Still-02CF: Was that the case even in the second round?

AD: Yep, some very prominent leftish politicians did not support Santos. Mockus was not the only one to offer support but he made a difference. You can definitely see that his entry into the 2014 campaign moved a lot of votes.

CF: How long did it take him to come to the decision to actively support Santos?

AD: I don’t think it was so difficult for Mockus. I don’t think he could have lived with the alternative which would have been inaction. He’s been a very vocal supporter of the peace process so for him in that moment not to be supporting it would have been unethical. But it of course meant going out to support the guy that basically cheated you four years before, and a guy who’s a proponent of many policies Mockus is very critical of.

CF: If he maintains respect today, did his reputation dip between 2010 – 2014? It seemed like he disappeared out of the public eye for a while.

AD: The thing we don’t show in the film is Mockus leaving the Green Party a year or two later. Another candidate we see in the film ran for mayor of Bogotá subsequently and he was endorsed by Uribe. Uribe basically said I want to support this candidate and he did not reject this, he welcomed it. Mockus and many others said we cannot do this with a guy who represents everything we tried to change two years before. It meant he renounced his presidency of the party and left it. Until that stage it was the most dominant opposition group but they lost a lot of supporters.
Life-is-Sacred.-Still-07On a personal level as well, it’s very hard to go from being loved in such an intense, extreme way, and to carry so many hopes on your shoulders, and in the next moment to be considered irrelevant. I don’t think it’s just the case for Mockus; it’s the case for celebrities in general. And politicians are celebrities. You want to be relevant and the moment you’re not it’s easy to feel like you’re a lot more forgotten than you really are. I think on a personal level it’s a tough game to be in.

CF: Where does Colombian politics go from here? How strong is the opposition to the peace process and is there a danger that if we get to the next election in 2018 with the deal still not completed, it will all collapse?

AD: I have no doubt that the peace process will be dead if it’s not resolved by the next election. I don’t think the Colombian people have that kind of patience and we already saw that a year ago. So there’s a ticking clock. I think they will make it though. I’m nervous that it will happen so late that they won’t be able to implement much, not that they won’t complete the deal. The post-conflict period is a very delicate situation requiring time. You need the political will to defend that process. Very easily you can go back and there will be elements who will not lay down their weapons. If you have a state that has a no tolerance approach, then very fast we could go back to conflict and war. But we’ll see.

Culturefly would like to thank Andreas for his time. Our review of Life is Sacred can be found here.

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