Documentary Reviews

Listen to My Song (2018) – 3.5 stars

Director: Danny Mitchell

Running time: 48mins

Commonly known simply as FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a guerrilla movement involved in the continuing Colombian armed conflict starting in 1964. The organisation has employed a variety of military tactics over the course of its half-century of struggle, including guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Formed during the Cold War period as a Marxist–Leninist peasant force promoting a political line of agrarianism and anti-imperialism, 2016 seemed to be a turning point for FARC, when it signed a peace treaty with Colombia’s incumbent government. In June 2017, FARC ceased to be an armed group, disarming itself and handing over its weapons to the United Nations, before announcing its reformation as a legal political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, in accordance with the terms of the peace deal.

For an all too brief moment, it seemed that FARC’s members might be able to reintegrate with society, and find new ways to promote their ideals. It is in this momentary window of optimism that Danny Mitchell’s documentary Listen to My Song takes place – and on many levels it is a stunning snap-shot of the hopes and fears in that historical moment, while foreshadowing the grim future that was actually to follow.

The film follows the story of Esteban, a young revolutionary and gifted musician preparing for life after armed struggle. Having performed at a peace concert during negotiations between the Colombian state and FARC, Esteban is spotted by musical producer Pablo Araoz, who takes him under his wing.

During their first interactions, we see the duality of Esteban’s persona – something likely reflective of many of the now-grown child soldiers present at the FARC camp – he is on one level a hardened fighter, who has had to steel himself against unspeakable trauma as over the years his comrades have died beside him; on another, he has not had the chance to develop the adult social skills people living ‘normal’ lives take for granted. He giddily shows the producer around his quarters and possessions; listens silently with a recognisably wide-eyed reverence when his elder provides plans for the future; and as Esteban begins to believe he could live a life where he disseminates a message through art rather than violence, his face unmistakably lifts with a kind of child-like glee.

That is not to say that Esteban did not understand what he was doing by joining FARC, or remaining a member for some 15 years before peace showed him a new way of living. Having endured a difficult childhood, he clearly recognised the potential that joining FARC had in terms of rescuing him from poverty – while still having reservations about the means they deployed to reach their desired ends. With music and art providing him a new way of fighting for a better world, he understandably looks to grab the opportunity with both hands.

At the same time, peace allows him to re-engage with the family he has been estranged from for so long. Having presumed he was dead, they are understandably over-joyed, weeping with Esteban as they lock him into endless bear-hugs – seemingly desperate to prevent him from disappearing from their lives again.

Amid this joy, however, there is also an undeniable apprehension present within Esteban’s family – one which reflects a broader unease across Colombia more generally. Esteban’s uncle and cousin exemplify this, on one level professing to be over the moon at his return, but on another subjecting him to a Paxman-esque grilling on FARC’s alleged executions of police deputies, among a host of other crimes. There is a clear divorce between the way the family are able to see their prodigal son, and the way they perceive his organisation.

How could this sweet boy have been a member of a murderous terror organisation? How, in actuality, can they reconcile these two images? Sadly, as we know now, mainstream Colombia was ultimately unable to do this. Elections were held around the time Listen to My Song was completed, and with incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos ineligible after serving two terms, his replacement Iván Duque Márquez was able to win power on the back of promises to undermine the deal brokered by his predecessor – a deal he claimed was “too lenient” on the guerrillas.

A minority of FARC’s leaders announced a return to armed activity in August 2019, stating that the Colombian Government did not respect peace agreements. Soon after, the Colombian Government committed to a series of offensive strikes, killing FARC members it alleged were destined to lead rearmament activities. The state-violence in the post-deal period has claimed the lives of more than 180 “unarmed” people, according to FARC’s representatives.

Knowing what we know now then, large sections of Listen to My Song’s dialogue utterly captivating, and slightly chilling. We are seeing the two faces of a society approaching a cross-roads, asked to choose between seeing the good in the sons and daughters returning to the fold after decades of bitter warfare, and seeing the evil in them as promoted by the mass media and opportunist politicians looking to make capital from the anxieties fostered by a long period of conflict.

Unfortunately, the film will only resonate in this way with audiences who do know what we know, however. One of the weaker points of Danny Mitchell’s documentary is that while it does a great deal of work to build the people on-screen into relatable, three-dimensional human beings, it does not do the same to develop the political side of proceedings.

One of the things I often find myself scrutinising left-leaning documentaries for is assuming that presenting the issues and then barking them repeatedly at viewers is enough, while the individuals on screen eschew all the charm of a wind-breaker-clad paper-seller who most people pass by without making eye-contact. If it doesn’t work on the street, it won’t work in cinemas. In this case though, we have all the elements in place which can get us to engage with an issue, but not enough information of substance to allow for that engagement. There is certainly enough time in the film to find room for this context, too, with a number of drawn-out montages and interludes giving the strange 48-minute run-time a slightly padded out feel.

To an extent, this restrained method of delivering information could be a positive. It could prompt further research when viewers exit the theatre. In the case of a short film, this would be more likely. However, due to the previously mentioned run-time, this feature feels like it wastes more than a little time, and some viewers may subsequently resent the idea they should need to do further reading.

If that means that they don’t, it leaves a gaping hole in the picture which is likely to go unfilled, and is unlikely to change viewers’ minds when similar issues emerge in their day-to-day lives. When they consider how their police, governments and media frame climate protestors, students or striking workers as dangerous militants and terrorists, this film could have provided a valuable lens to view that situation through. Without those audiences taking on further research for themselves, however, it falls short of doing that as it is.

Danny Mitchell is an exceptional documentarian, whose body of work shows the potential of becoming a kind of cinematic Orwell. As is the case with his upcoming documentary Road to Rojava, or his previous work Reykjavik Rising, he continues to produce the kind of journalism that puts the mainstream to shame, often putting himself in volatile or dangerous situations in pursuit of capturing the social and political essence of a moment in time. Listen to My Song picks up on a number of subtle but crucial contradictions in a Colombia on the brink of a monumental change – but to reach the heights of being a documentary equivalent to Homage to Catalonia, it needs a greater level of contextualisation to reach a broader audience.

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