Politics as usual is a charge heard with disdain around the world. In Colombia, a country that according to opening text has the world’s longest running conflict, and has seen 220,000 killed and 5 million displaced since the 1950s, you’d be forgiven for assuming everyone has lapsed into apathy come election time. Life is Sacred demonstrates this doesn’t have to be the case, focusing on the green wave that rose up ahead of the 2010 Presidential election, and the maverick politician at the centre of it all.
The politician in question, Antanas Mockus, certainly makes for a lively focal point. The first half of Andreas Dalsgaard’s film quickly fills in his colourful past before joining the presidential campaign trail as Mockus and an ever growing band of enthusiastic followers threaten a major upset. Using Katherine Miranda, a young Green Party youth leader as the narrator, Dalsgaard gets right to the heart of the green wave that almost swept over the country. Riding high in the polls and feted wherever he ventures, Mockus, a disarming man who only thinly veils his deep thinking approach behind mild eccentricity, makes for a charismatic hero.
There’s an enjoyable zip to the film as Mockus and his bright, shiny team threaten to march towards a happy future. This is accentuated by forays into his past, especially his time as Mayor of Bogotá, the capital, in which he was known for oddball stunts including walking around dressed as a superhero and replacing the corrupt traffic police with mime artists. As mad as this all sounds, his reign saw an impressive decrease in crime and corruption.
But like many insurgent political outsiders, the wheels come off the wagon right at the end as the establishment candidate Juan Manuel Santos, behind in the polls after once seeming unassailable, resorts to a dirty tricks campaign and possibly even a little electoral fraud. Crushed in the second round of voting, Mockus limps away, refusing to protest the vote. His reasoning is sound – he doesn’t want to plunge the country into confusion and drive further divides between left and right. This doesn’t satisfy everyone. Footage of a dispirited, shell-shocked man struggling to find the words to justify his decision contrast with the crestfallen young supporters who expect him to fight on.
After the defeat, there’s a danger the film might be about to slip away. With Mockus retreating from the scene, Life is Sacred starts to fall into the trap of lionising someone without explaining why they deserve the praise. For all his charm, up to this point very little of his political views have been made clear and he appears to be on the losing side. And then something unexpected happens in Colombia. Santos, the handpicked successor to hard man Álvaro Uribe, breaks from his mentor and opens peace talks with rebel group FARC. Suddenly, the right is split and Mockus’ pro-life, pro-peace platform starts to re-emerge.
Dalsgaard, it seems, has been playing the long game, just like his subject. Moving into the 2014 election, it becomes a straight fight between Santos and Uribe’s new favourite who pledges to break off talks and get back to the crushing war that cost so many lives without resolving the situation. Stepping back into the campaign to support Santos – an incredibly magnanimous move given the contentious election four years before – Mockus returns to the public sphere galvanising old supporters including Miranda.
Here, Dalsgaard manages to demonstrate that far from suffering defeat in 2010, Mockus in fact succeeded in shifting the dial in Colombian politics towards peace. The man who ran against and beat him now uses many of the same phrases Mockus employed. It’s a justification of his beliefs and the approach he took that upset so many at the time. There’s a wonderful moment of vindication as he attends Santos’ victory party to be met by a crowd chanting his name as the President gives him a shout out from the podium.
Life is Sacred leaves us after the election with the peace talks progressing. Who knows exactly what the future holds for this embattled country. But Dalsgaard’s absorbing film shows that even against apparently insurmountable odds, change can happen. You just need to be a little bit more Mockus.
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