Interview: Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, dirs. THE TWO ESCOBARS

– I had the opportunity to interview directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist after a screening of their latest documentary THE TWO ESCOBARS at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. Here’s our conversation covering among other things the complexities of non-fiction storytelling, the negative stereotypes hounding modern-day Colombia, and how family, soccer, and filmmaking overlap.

GLENN HEATH JR.: Can you briefly describe your background/experiences with Colombia before making THE TWO ESCOBARS? How, if at all, did your vision of the country and its people change throughout the course of the production?

JEFF AND MICHAEL: After finishing FAVELA RISING in Brazil, (Jeff) connected with (Michael), who had been living in Mexico running a theatre company, and we decided to work together on a film project. A Colombian friend had told us about the recent massacre in the self-proclaimed “Peace Community” in the Urabá region of Colombia. Having an ongoing interest in inspirational stories of communities coming together and producing innovative and sustainable models of development, we were intrigued by the Peace Community and appalled to learn about the recent atrocities. Soon thereafter, we traveled to Colombia and met with a number of the key figures involved in the founding of the community and the outgoing struggle for justice in the region.

While developing THE SCRIBE OF URABÁ (the story of the Peace Community in Urabá), we were approached by ESPN Films, who had just launched the 30 for 30 Anniversary Series: 30 documentary films by 30 different filmmakers, each focusing on an event illustrating the interaction of sports and society in the last 30 years. We connected with a friend, Nick Sprague, a former soccer player and longtime fan of the Colombian National Team, and the original concept behind THE TWO ESCOBARS was formed.

Our father had lived and worked in Latin America for many years before we were born.  We both spent the summers during our schooling years doing social service programs in rural communities throughout Latin America, and then both worked in various countries in Latin America after finishing our college education.  Many of the stereotypes and prejudices against Latin culture, and Colombian culture in particular, had been shattered long before we began production on THE TWO ESCOBARS.  It is also fair to say that we had both fallen in love with the Colombian people during development of SCRIBE prior to starting THE TWO ESCOBARS.

However, THE TWO ESCOBARS was a story wrought with crime, corruption, and senseless violence, ending in the tragic death of one of the country’s heroes, Andrés Escobar.  In the beginning, we had little indication that this was a story of hope. And yet, when we spoke with Andrés’ family, former teammates, and indeed, all of those Colombians who had placed their hopes and dreams in the Colombian National Team, there was a strong sense that Andrés’ murder was not in vain. In many ways the sacrificial lamb that would allow Colombian society to clear the slate and start afresh, Andrés Escobar lifted the veil of the institution of Colombian soccer, revealing that it was not independent of the drug monies that pervaded so much of Colombian society at the time, but rather, it was permeated and infected by these monies through and through. Andrés’ longtime message, that soccer needed to divorce itself from the narco influence and rely instead on an honest foundation, rang true, and the country started the long and arduous campaign to weed drug monies out of its institutions—a campaign whose fruits are clearly visible in present day Colombia.

GHJ: One of the most interesting points brought up in the film is the idea that Andres might not have been killed if Pablo still had a stranglehold on the criminal underworld. Were you trying to convey this idea as a distinct possibility or was this more a grief-stricken rationalization by Andres’ family and friends?

J/M: Two interview subjects in the film propose this notion: Chicho Serna, a star midfielder on the Colombian National Team, and Jaime Gaviria, Pablo’s cousin.  Both are representing a point of view that was shared by many in their native city of Medellín.  Whether or not this statement is true is impossible to say, since one can only speculate on hypotheticals.

Similarly, within the realm of speculation, one might also argue that had Pablo never gotten involved in Colombian soccer at all, Andrés Escobar would perhaps still be alive and playing on a very different soccer pitch. A soccer pitch that might be less competitive at the international level since it would lack the ability to sign those big contracts that were paid in part by illicit monies, but a soccer pitch that would for this same reason better allow for the cultivation of values that Andrés held in such high esteem: collaboration, unity, reconciliation, forgiveness.

GHJ: The many in-depth interviews and archival sequences are always flanked by a breakneck musical accompaniment of some kind. What was the aesthetic and thematic goal behind this decision?

J/M: Like many elements in this film, the musical score was a study in contrasts… opposing forces, but opposing forces that shared a few common threads.  It was about capturing the full emotional capacity of pride, unity and celebration during the rise of Colombian soccer, coupled with the power and riskiness of the secret partnership between drug money and sport.  And conversely, there was the extreme desolation of loss and downfall in the latter movements, which is characterized by a noticeable lack of any beats, percussion or staccato editing.  This was a world of polar extremes and the style needed to follow and enhance the contrasts of the content.

We posed this question also to Ion Furjanic, who composed the original music for The Two Escobars. This is his response:

While working on THE TWO ESCOBARS, one through line kept popping up: the flashy extreme energy that Pablo and Colombian Football both exuded. From Pablo’s excessive earning and spending to Rene Higuita’s scorpion kick, this was a time exploding with both positive and negative energy and we wanted to express that in the music. I wanted to keep the sounds as much as I could within Colombian instrumentation while adding a more hip hop/ electro sense to everything. Early on in the process I started to play with a slowed down salsa beat as the backbone for a lot of the tracks and then added a double time element (like congas or cajón) on top to bring back the pace. Overall the score is a two-headed beast with the extroversion of the beat crazy action sequences contrasted with the introversion of the warm and thick drone sections.

GHJ: We only get to hear Pablo and Andres’ voice a few times in the film, and it’s almost jarring when we do. Was this a calculated decision on your parts? If so, why?

J/M: We shot 43 interviews – most of which were somewhere between 1-2 hours long – and pulled selects from over 50 archival sources. There were many elements of this story that we had to cut during the edit, including a number of archival bites from Pablo and Andrés.  There was no conscious decision to minimize the times that Andrés and Pablo appeared speaking on screen in order to increase the impact of the few times that they did, it was all a part of the larger process of homing in during the edit to the final story and the most emotive and provocative way to tell it.

GHJ: You guys said in the LAFF Q & A on Friday night that the film is more about destroying the total negative imagery and perception of Colombia as a place of only crime and bloodshed. In this sense, do you see this film as a continuation of the same goals the Colombian National Team was trying achieve?

J/M: Many of the people we interviewed in Colombia had never spoken about these sensitive and often painful subjects on camera.  Some had never filmed an interview before.  Part of the reason that many of the interview subjects were willing and interested in filming an interview with us was because they believed there were lessons to be learned from this story, and a chance to represent the largely successful struggle of Colombians to reclaim a sense of safety and order in recent years. As progress has been made in this struggle, not only has a national sense of pride and dignity progressed as well, but also the international image of Colombia has greatly improved.  Yet, in our estimation, the international perception of Colombia still trails behind the reality of how far the country has come.

As filmmakers, it was important to us that the narration of this story, both past and present, be told in the voices of the Colombian interview subjects themselves.  We’ve never used narration voice or text to tell the story – we didn’t live through those times in Colombia, it wasn’t our place to take a position.These goals of the interview subjects are not so different than the goals of Andrés Escobar’s Colombian National Team.  Certainly, many of Andrés’ loved ones hopes in telling his story are the same as what Andrés Escobar had hoped for his country.

GHJ: How does your working roles as co-directors overlap with your relationship as brothers?

J/M: Being brothers and having worked together now for a number of years lends itself to a foundation of trust in our work together.  When we start a new project, this familiarity and trust allows us to dive right into the creative work, get our hands dirty, and allow the process to get messy when needed, which is often where some of the best work happens.  A foundation of trust also improves our productivity by allowing us to be in two places at the same time; for example, one of us might be overseeing the sound edit while the other takes a production meeting. We also bring complimentary skill sets to the table. Jeff trained in film production and studied the role of media within social systems, while Michael trained in theatre and story structure.

GHJ: With the success of “The Two Escobars”, where do you guys head from here as filmmakers? Do you want to continue making documentaries or does another aspect of the Cinema beckon?

J/M: In addition to returning to the work we started on the Peace Community in Colombia, we are developing a documentary with Stan Lathan and Russell Simmons about poverty in the South of the United States.  We are also now shooting a documentary with Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell about the role of the black model  and discrimination in the fashion industry.  While interested in all elements of story-telling, documentary remains our mainstay, where we feel most at home.  Documentary is often the most conducive format for disseminating underexposed and important stories from areas frequently overlooked on the international stage and using media as a vehicle of change.

I would like to thank Jeff and Michael for their valuable insight and time.

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