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Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics:

Framing Childhood Poverty in Contemporary

Latin American Cinema


Loyola University Chicago

Since the turn of the millennium, a significant number of Latin American films have
portrayed the experiences of impoverished children, seeking thereby to evoke in
global audiences an affective reaction to the poverty of the region. Taking Hermano
(Marcel Rasquin, 2010, Venezuela), Voces inocentes (Luis Mandoki, 2004, Mexico), and
Los colores de la montaña (Carlos Arbeláez, 2011, Colombia) as representative exam-
ples of the genre, this paper explores the filmmakers’ focus on the hyperlocal and
the lived experiences of their young protagonists, and their corresponding refusal
to engage with ideological readings of poverty, or to explore the broader sociopo-
litical or historical processes underpinning their subjects’ circumstances. The films’
circumscribed depictions of children in crisis solicit from their international audi-
ences an affective response. In so doing, they acquire a universalism that suggests
a critique of global capitalism and a reflection on the political and moral failings
of the nation state.
A partir del nuevo milenio, un número importante de filmes latinoamericanos ha
representado las vivencias de niños desposeídos con el fin de propiciar en audien-
cias globales una reacción afectiva respecto a la pobreza en la región. Este ensayo
propone una lectura de Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, 2010, Venezuela), Voces inocentes
(Luis Mandoki, 2004, México) y Los colores de la montaña (Carlos Arbeláez, 2011,
Colombia) como ejemplos de este género para explorar el foco de estos directores
en las experiencias hiperlocales de sus jóvenes protagonistas y su rechazo a abordar
estos temas desde perspectivas fuertemente ideológicas, o a incluir procesos socio-
políticos o históricos más amplios. Las estrechas representaciones de niños en crisis
aquí requieren de sus audiencias globales una respuesta afectiva. De este modo
alcanzan una universalidad que sugiere tanto una crítica del capitalismo global
como una reflexión sobre el fracaso político y moral del estado. 

Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, 2010, Venezuela), a film about two impoverished

teenagers, can be described as hyperlocal. It is not just a Venezuelan tale, but a

BHS 94.1 (2017)

78 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

specifically caraqueña one: its viewpoint is circumscribed almost entirely by the

space of La Ceniza, the violent Caracas slum where its protagonists live. There is
almost no mention of the world beyond the slums: the film’s young characters
seemingly lack any awareness of or interest in the broader currents – social,
political, historical – that gave rise to the specific place and moment they inhabit.
This insularity, however, does not render Hermano inaccessible to viewers from
other cultures or contexts; indeed, the film’s viewings in places far removed from
La Ceniza have revealed a universality to its story. After a screening in Mumbai,
for instance, some twenty local children crowded around the director, Marcel
Rasquin, to ask ‘Did you make this film about us? Is this film based on us?’ Recou-
nting the episode, Rasquin notes ‘I’d never been to India, but of course I had to
say, “Yes, of course, it’s about you!”’ (Rasquin 2014). This apparent contradiction
prompts a question: how can a film that forcefully rejects anything beyond the
hyperlocal nonetheless speak to, and be recognized by, viewers from radically
different cultures and contexts?
To begin to answer this question, we must first recognize that Hermano is one
among many recent Latin American films that have sought new strategies with
which to frame the experiences of impoverished children. Indeed, filmic depic-
tions of dispossessed children, though long a part of Latin American cinema,
have in the new millennium evolved into a robust and coherent category that
demands to be considered as a significant new genre within Latin American
cinema. In the past decade and a half, a new generation of Latin American
filmmakers has arisen whose work is guided by a growing critical awareness of
childhood as a global and globalized phenomenon, and who consider hyperlocal
stories a powerful tool for interrogating the political and socioeconomic reali-
ties resulting from neoliberalism and global capitalism. Unlike many of their
forebears, these filmmakers seldom deal directly with the social and histor-

  1 A detailed overview is beyond the scope of this essay, but recent films that might be consid-
ered part of the genre include La virgen de los sicarios (Barbet Schroeder; Colombia, 1999),
Huelepega: Ley de la calle (Elia Schneider; Venezuela, 1999), Cidade de Deus (Fernando Meirelles
and Kátia Lund; Brazil, 2002), Paloma de papel (Fabrizio Aguilar; Peru, 2003), Machuca (Andrés
Wood; Chile, 2004), María llena eres de gracia (Joshua Marston; Colombia and the United
States, 2004), Al otro lado (Gustavo Loza; Mexico, 2004), Maroa (Solveig Hoogesteijn; Vene-
zuela, 2006), Cochochi (Israel Cárdenas y Laura Guzmán; Mexico, 2007), El último verano de la
boyita (Julia Solomonoff; Argentina, 2009), La teta asustada (Claudia Llosa; Peru, 2009), Abel
(Diego Luna; Mexico, 2010), Piedra, papel o tijera (Hernán Jabes; Venezuela, 2012), Pelo malo
(Mariana Rondón; Venezuela, 2013), La jaula de oro (Diego Quemada-Díez; Mexico, 2013),
and Conducta (Ernesto Daranas Serrano; Cuba, 2014); among many others. Note, however,
that Carolina Rocha and Georgia Seminet have argued against considering childhood films
as a distinct genre (Rocha and Seminet 2012: 15–16). It should also be highlighted, too,
that cinematic portrayals of dispossessed children have been a constant in the region
since the 1940s. Examples include Nosotros los pobres (Ismael Rodríguez; México, 1947), Las
dos huerfanitas (Roberto Rodríguez; México, 1950), Los olvidados (Luis Buñuel; México, 1950),
Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (Héctor Babenco; Brazil, 1980), Rodrigo D: No futuro (Víctor Gaviria;
Colombia, 1990), Hello Hemingway (Fernando Pérez; Cuba, 1990), Pizza, birra, faso (Bruno
Stagnaro and Adrián Caetano; Argentina, 1997), and La vendedora de rosas (Víctor Gaviria;
Colombia, 1998).
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 79

ical reasons for the poverty they portray, and shy away from overt ideological
readings of their protagonists’ experiences. The goal, it seems, is simply to offer
an unflinching look at the lived experiences of the young and the dispossessed –
and to do so in a way that can readily be understood by, and marketed to, global
In what follows, I will examine this trend by reading Hermano alongside two
other films representative of the genre: Voces inocentes (Luis Mandoki, 2004,
Mexico–El Salvador), which focuses on the plight of Salvadoran children during
the country’s civil war; and Los colores de la montaña (Carlos Arbeláez, 2011,
Colombia), which tracks the hardships of a young boy caught up in Colombia’s
paramilitary conflict. Despite the films’ strikingly different visual languages,
each reflects on the experience of poverty through narrowly drawn narratives
that focus on the personal stories of their young protagonists – and, in so doing,
seek to establish affective and emotional responses in global audiences regarding
the locally specific circumstances of dispossessed Latin American children. The
films’ hyperlocalism can thus be read, paradoxically, as an attempt to sidestep
the intellectual, ideological or contextual baggage that might hinder audiences
elsewhere in the world from engaging fully with the films’ subject matter. In
stripping away broader contextual frameworks, the filmmakers avoid poten-
tial ideological rifts with their audience, and elicit more direct and affective
responses from their films’ viewers.
It is for a similar reason, one suspects, that these filmmakers have chosen to
turn their lenses specifically upon the experiences of children living in poverty.
The figure of the child is, as Eduardo Ledesma proposes, ‘especially poised to
represent issues of marginality on account of their special condition of alterity’
(Ledesma 2012: 152). The child, by definition excluded from the adult world,
makes a fitting focal point for films that turn away from broader questions
of cause and context in favour of depicting lived realities. But the child also
serves as a tool through which the filmmakers seek to universalize their narra-
tives by mobilizing their audiences’ empathy: placing presumably innocent
children into extreme situations is an effective gambit designed to appeal to the
viewers’ emotions, rather than to their ideological or political beliefs. Indeed,
as Laura Podalsky notes, the global success of Voces inocentes and other recent
Latin American films of the genre depends upon ‘their ability to call for(th)
what are understood as universal emotions’ (Podalsky 2011: 127). Similarly, as
Karen Lury writes with respect to war films, ‘[t]ears and emotions erupt when
the innocent – dumb animals, little children – are seen to suffer. Animals and
children are “perfect victims”, since they are blameless’ (Lury 2010: 105–106).
By focusing on blamelessly impoverished children – and, moreover, by
highlighting the moments of childish joy their subjects experience despite their
poverty – the directors of Hermano, Voces inocentes and Los colores de la montaña
tap into a universally comprehensible experience of childhood and imbue their

  2 See Luisela Alvaray’s discussion in ‘National, Regional, and Global’ (2008) of the transna-
tional nature of current financing for Latin American cinema.
80 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

films with an emotional charge that resonates with viewers far beyond the
film’s hyperlocal setting.
The blamelessness of the films’ child subjects is shown in part through their
ignorance of or disinterest in broader social and political processes, but also
through their powerlessness to effect change in their own lives. The children
depicted in these films lack awareness, but they also, crucially, lack agency: their
lives are shaped by forces beyond their control. This serves as a reminder that the
children, for all their ignorance, are nonetheless caught up in broader currents:
that despite the insularity of their lived experiences, impoverished children are
nonetheless, as Sharon Stephens asserts, ‘integral  parts of an emerging order
of global capitalism’ (1995: 11; emphasis in the original). As cogs in a much
larger socio-economic machine, the children cannot take action to end their
own suffering; their poverty is presented not as something to be escaped but,
rather, as something to be endured. In his study of contemporary Argentine
film, Jens Andermann suggests that such works must be read as commentaries
upon ‘a time when subjects have been stripped of control over their own lives’
(2012: xvii). Andermann further argues that the films’ portrayals of powerless-
ness speak to the ‘mode of historical experience proper to the age of global
capitalism’ (2012: xvii). This, in turn, suggests the symbolic weight with which
these filmmakers imbue their young subjects: in their lack of agency, and their
innocence, they come to represent all people, children and adults alike, caught
up in similar historical and social currents. These films propose that for the
children they portray, and by extension for all those on the economic periphery,
life goes by in a series of immediate, local and urgent struggles. Denied a broader
view of the forces causing their condition, those caught up in the hardships
generated and perpetuated by poverty cannot resolve their problems from
within their communities.
This offers a sharp contrast with Latin American cinema of previous decades,
in which poverty was often presented as a space for hope or redemption, or
as a phase preceding radical social change. Julia Tuñón writes, for instance,
that the Mexican cinema of the 1940s and 1950s ‘muestra la pobreza y la delin-
cuencia, pero le da glamour planteándola como una etapa de prueba en la que
los protagonistas habrán de mostrar su tesitura moral. La pobreza parece así
casi una virtud…’ (2003: 137; emphasis in original). In effect, Tuñón writes, the

  3 In this, the filmmakers can be read as embracing what Mette Hjort, in her essay ‘Themes
of Nation’, terms ‘perennial’ themes, concerned with issues that resonate ‘across histor-
ical and cultural boundaries’, and which are ‘universal or quasi-universal in their thrust’
(2000: 106). Such themes stand in contrast to locally specific ‘thematisations of nation’
which, Hjort notes, ‘have a tendency to promote opacity in international contexts, for
local, topical and nation-specific thematic elements are likely to be only partially compre-
hensive in other national contexts’ (2000: 116). While Hermano, Voces inocentes and Los
colores de la montaña are firmly grounded in their respective localities, they nonetheless
eschew any discussion of specifically local or national themes beyond those needed to
make their plots accessible, such as the terse contextualization found in the opening and
closing captions of Voces inocentes. In these films there is no explicit thematization of the
nation; rather, the nation and the local serve simply to frame the children’s poverty.
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 81

barrio es ‘el reino de lo auténtico en una disyuntiva que asimila la tradición y

la pobreza con lo bueno, y lo nuevo y próspero con lo malo. El barrio humaniza
porque es el espacio de la solidaridad, de manera que si la ciudad propicia la
perdición, el barrio ofrece un refugio’ (2003: 133). Decades later, the New Latin
American Cinema and the Brazilian Cinema nôvo, as Glauber Rocha writes in his
classic manifesto ‘The Aesthetics of Hunger’, sought ‘to make the public aware
of its own misery’ (1995: 71), and thus to foment a struggle for national libera-
tion. The genre here described, however, is grounded not in the ‘epic, spectac-
ular, and revolutionary’ tendency Paul Schroeder Rodríguez traces in the New
Latin American Cinema’s determination to marry ‘avant-garde politics with
avant-garde aesthetics’ (2012: 90), nor, indeed, in the ‘mythic struggles between
good and evil or history and destiny’ that Randal Johnson identifies in that
movement (2006: 122). Rather, impoverished childhood films hew closer to the
impetus Myrto Konstantarakos identifies in recent Argentinean filmmakers who
‘do not want to talk about politics, preferring the films themselves to stand as
their political actions […] by showing the misery of urban marginalization, for
example’ (2006: 136).
This idea of the film itself as political action in turn resonates with an
argument put forth in 2011 by Sophie McClennen, who, drawing on Rocha’s
ideas on the aesthetics of hunger, considers the very commercially successful
Brazilian film Cidade de Deus (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002) in similar
terms. For McClennen, filmmakers like Meirelles have pushed cinema into a new
phase, ‘one that combines cinematic pleasure with politics, that avoids didactic
moralizing and that understands that the mere act of making and distributing
a film about these issues in the contemporary context is itself a political act’
(2011: 105). McClennen explains that ‘the superficial features of the film are
only part of its larger aesthetic project – that, in fact, the commercially oriented
features of the film are used strategically to expose a large audience to a film
experience that combines pleasure with social critique through a very specific
mode of montage and shot construction’ (2011: 100–101). Like Cidade de Deus, the
three films here analysed employ a number of ‘commercially oriented’ features,
particularly at the level of plot and context, to make themselves accessible and
enjoyable while still setting out serious social and political critiques. Notably,
however, where Cidade de Deus engages its audience by showcasing the shocking
and brutal actions of its protagonists, the three films here studied present their
characters in more sympathetic terms, showing them as victims rather than
agents of violence. The political provocation embodied in these films is not the
raw, Darwinian society of violence portrayed in Cidade de Deus, but rather the
sheer injustice of the conditions in which these child protagonists live. Indeed,
in these films, childhood poverty is thus presented as an untenable, but also
unresolved, condition: a fact to be confronted and scrutinized, but not one
containing its own vindication or proposing its own solution.
These films, despite apparently turning away from any explicit discussion
of national or global political issues, come to offer a stark indictment of the
82 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

political systems that gave rise to the situations they depict. As Laura Senio Blair
notes of migration films, ‘the use of orphaned child and adolescent protago-
nists works to elicit the audience’s sympathy while criticizing the society or
nation, more specifically the sociopolitical institutions that have abandoned and
exposed the most vulnerable members of the population …’ (Senio Blair 2014:
121). The figure of the child, abandoned and in crisis, comes to serve as a synec-
doche of the failure of the national project – and, through its framing in ways
that invite universal readings, of the broader system of global capitalism. In
this sense, the plight of the young protagonists in films such as Hermano, Voces
inocentes, and Los colores de la montaña can be read as what Lury terms a ‘metonym
for wider suffering’ (2010: 107) – a metonym that here seeks to elicit an affec-
tive response to the marginality resulting from global capitalism. What finally
emerges from these works is a bleak vision of the experience of poverty – one
that invites audiences to consider the impact of global capitalism on countless
local communities around the world.

* * *
The lack of agency or of possibilities for escape inherent in poverty are accen-
tuated in Hermano by the film’s depiction of the slums of La Ceniza as a closed
ecosystem: a space not governed by the laws and customs of mainstream
Venezuelan society, but rather by its own, more brutal and individualistic code.
The film’s young protagonists, the soccer-obsessed brothers Julio and Daniel,
dream of playing for the prestigious Caracas Fútbol Club, but are repeatedly
drawn back into the violent reality of the slums. A group of knife-wielding
children rob Daniel and steal his football cleats; Max, one of Daniel’s teammates,
tries to protect his friend, only to accidentally kill the brothers’ mother. Daniel
blames himself, as well as Max, and is wracked with guilt; his brother Julio,
however, is older, more embedded in the life and culture of the slums, and wants
only revenge for his mother’s death. Julio’s anger does not spring from a desire
to take the law into his own hands, but rather from the realization that in La
Ceniza there is, and can be, no law other than that made by individuals through
their own violent actions. La Ceniza is a marginal space, lawless and seemingly
stateless, where each person must find or forcibly create their own justice. Julio
knows that if he does not act, no one will look for, let alone find or punish, his
mother’s killer.
In exploring Julio’s anguished pursuit of revenge, Hermano examines the
apparently impermeable boundaries separating the slums from broader society.
Daniel to some extent succeeds in insulating himself from the world he inhabits
through his fantasy of sporting greatness and his family’s financial support,
and is permitted to dwell instead in what Ignacio Sánchez Prado calls the ‘self-
enclosed world of childhood immune to the pressures of neoliberalism’ (Sánchez
Prado 2012: 121). Julio, however, is held back, drawn to a revenge killing that
would bind him permanently to La Ceniza. After fracturing Julio’s hand as a
punishment for insolence – an act itself ordained by the violent code of the slums
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 83

– the drug dealer Morocho advises Julio to change course while he still can. ‘El
dolor en la mano se te va a pasar. Pero el dolor en el alma no’, Morocho says. ‘¿Tú
crees que tú eres el único que ha perdido a alguien? A mi hermano lo mataron en
mi cara, huevón. Salte de la vida’. Morocho’s words reveal the fundamental truth
of life in the slums: that victims of violence become perpetrators of violence, and
in so doing perpetuate the cycle that has snared them. Julio, for now, still has a
chance to leave the life of poverty; to take revenge, however, would be to accept,
and to inescapably tie himself to, the violent logic of the slums.
In its treatment of Julio, Hermano suggests that for those caught in poverty,
lack of agency is not necessarily the same as lack of awareness. The slums of
Caracas are here presented, to borrow the term applied by Beatriz Jaguaribe to
the Brazilian favelas portrayed in Cidade de Deus, as ‘encapsulated worlds that
revolve around an almost Darwinian survival of the fittest’ (2007: 113). Paradoxi-
cally, however, the slum’s violent nature is well understood by its residents, even
though the spiralling consequences of any given act of violence are all but impos-
sible to control. A single robbery leads to the death of the brothers’ mother, to
Julio’s vendetta, and to a succession of face-offs, fights, and murders. But as
Morocho tries to explain, awareness of having been drawn into this bloody cycle
does not confer the ability to break free from it. Even Max, remorseful after
killing the brother’s mother, can only seek to atone for his accidental crime
through a further act of arbitrary violence: he takes a potshot at the street
children who robbed Daniel, sparking another chaotic exchange of bullets and
perpetuating the violence of the slums.
Julio, for his part, is well aware that poverty breeds violence. To provide for
his family, he has been forced to work on the peripheries of Morocho’s drug-
peddling organization; in consequence, he has been exposed to more violence,
and shouldered more risk, than his younger brother. He is aware, too, that he is
being drawn into a violent lifestyle that will be his eventual downfall. Morocho,
paternally, warns Julio that ‘la mayoría de estos carajos va a estar muerto en
dos años. Tú tienes el chance’, and again urges him: ‘salte de la vida’. But Julio,
despite his awareness of the risks, is compelled to continue in order to earn
a living: it is poverty, in other words, that binds him to the violent system he
moves within. Rasquin presents him, in an early scene, lending his mother
money to buy ingredients for the desserts she sells. The camera angle shows us
the son towering over the mother, in an inversion of traditional filial relations:
a sign of the responsibility Julio has shouldered, and also a reminder that in
accepting money from her son, the brothers’ mother affirms her own place in
the hierarchy of La Ceniza. Her attempts to eke out a living by selling cakes,
though apparently innocent, can only continue because she, too, is enmeshed in
the violent and morally compromised ecosystem of the slums.
Indeed, throughout Hermano carefully composed shots underscore the charac-
ters’ constrained and claustrophobic reality. The film begins with a tight shot
of a garbage heap, panning in close-up across an image of a punctured football
before settling, still in close-up, on an abandoned baby – Daniel, who is promptly
84 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

discovered and adopted by Julio and his mother. Rasquin builds much of the rest
of the film from a series of close-ups of Daniel and Julio, the camera weaving to
follow the brothers through the slums, seldom letting them slip from its gaze.
Throughout, Rasquin rarely shows us more than a glimpse of the sky: virtually
every shot is framed using the dilapidated buildings, tunnel-like passageways,
barred windows and winding staircases of La Ceniza. The rare exceptions come
when the brothers play football, on a dusty open-air pitch in blazing sunlight,
and in a few other scattered moments – most memorably when the brothers
look out over the slums and the city beyond, as though seeing them, and their
own precariousness, for the first time. This contrast between light and dark,
open sky and enclosed space, is perhaps most clear during the scene in which
the brothers play a heated one-on-one game of soccer, with Julio agreeing to play
before the CFC scouts – to take a chance on his own future – only if Daniel can
beat him. The pair play in the shell of an abandoned building, surrounded by
rubble and graffiti-covered walls. The game itself is presented in a succession
of frenetic close-ups, but in the background we constantly see the walls that
contain and frame the action, and through the broken windows and collapsed
ceiling the occasional glimpse of the sky and the blazing sunlight beyond.
This is the brutal reality of poverty for Daniel, Julio, and the other characters
Rasquin portrays: that despite their awareness of their own situation, they are
constrained, and denied the agency to change their lives. It is ultimately Daniel’s
actions, not Julio’s, that lead the pair to the try-out where Julio wins a place
on the team; and it is Daniel who, by killing Max, frees Julio of his obligations
and propels him away from the life of the slums. Even in his striving to win the
brothers a place with the CFC, though, Daniel is motivated not by the dream
of escape, but rather by the simpler, more childish fantasy of being part of his
favourite professional soccer team. When the brothers visit the stadium where
the CFC plays, they are dazzled: the place seems surreal, so at odds with their
lived experiences that it is almost incomprehensible. Escape, here, even when it
appears within the brothers’ grasp, remains a possibility so remote that it is not
even worth fantasizing about, let alone struggling towards.

* * *
If Hermano can be read as testing the boundaries of an impoverished community
through the eyes of young people, then the Mexican film Voces inocentes can be
read as a reflection on poverty’s effacement of the boundaries between child-
hood and adulthood. Set in the 1980s, during El Salvador’s civil war, Mandoki’s

  4 Consider, too, Daniel’s attempts to retrieve his stolen boots from a cable spanning the
street: the boots are framed, startlingly, against a bright sky, without any glimpse of the
surrounding slums. The effect is to accentuate the boots’ status as Daniel’s best, and
perhaps only, hope of escape from all-encompassing poverty. Likewise, the film’s devas-
tating final shot shows us Julio, now a professional footballer, wracked with emotion,
crossing himself and looking up at the sky. The scene underscores the film’s broader
symmetry – each brother having saved the other – while placing Julio’s escape in counter-
point with Daniel’s sacrifice of his own future.
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 85

film follows Chava, an impoverished eleven-year old, as he wrestles with the

knowledge that on his twelfth birthday he will be conscripted into the national
army and forced to fight against the rebels. Despite the constant shadow hanging
over Chava, the film focuses narrowly on his day-to-day experiences, and, like
Hermano, shies away from any exploration of broader socioeconomic realities or
broader historical processes. The conflict and Chava’s impending conscription,
like his family’s grinding poverty, are simply presented as facts of life, accepted
without real question by a child who has known no other reality. Indeed, the
only reference to the larger national and global order is extradiegetic, appearing
in the captions that frame the film’s beginning and end. These brief texts provide
basic facts regarding Salvadoran history: the first caption simply informs the
viewer that the conflict was between the army and peasants who organized into
a guerrilla army in the 1980s, and escalated into a twelve-year civil war. The
final captions, meanwhile, are displayed during Chava’s final voice-over in a
rhetorical strategy that explicitly connects the local with the global, listing the
number of casualties in the Salvadoran conflict and describing the use of child
soldiers in global conflicts. Mandoki and writer Oscar Torres – who, the final
caption reveals, wrote the screenplay based on his own childhood – thus seek
to frame Chava’s story as an instance of the experiences of children around the
It is telling that Mandoki relies on extradiegetic means to signpost these
commonalities. For Chava and his family, the sense of a bigger picture, of a
broader context, is irrelevant: only the daily reality of poverty, and the struggle
to survive, has any bearing on their lives. And if poverty renders considera-
tion of broader socioeconomic factors irrelevant for the impoverished, it also
corrodes traditional notions of childhood as a locus of promise and possibility.
When Chava’s father abandons the family and flees to the United States, Chava
is thrust into an urgent struggle to support his family, assuming an adult role
both by working and by caring for his younger siblings. Rather than dreaming
of the future, Chava is forced to live continuously in the present; the only future
he is allowed is the bleak certainty of his conscription. Here, as in Hermano,
those living in extreme poverty are portrayed as stripped of agency, locked in
a grinding daily struggle to survive – a succession of all-consuming present
moments that leaves them with no possibility of taking action or seeking to
build a better future for themselves.
If poverty thus thrusts children into adult roles, it also robs adults of agency
and self-determination. Chava’s mother is in much the same situation as her
son, struggling to carve out a menial existence for her family – but whereas
Chava is shown taking on adult roles, Mandoki portrays his mother as infanti-
lized by poverty, and deprived of the power to shape her life, to make decisions
on her children’s behalf, or to resolve her own or her children’s problems. When

  5 This view of the family as a powerless social entity is part of a larger trend in recent Latin
American cinema. Holmfridur Gardosdottir, for instance, discusses its representation in
recent Central American films that undermine ‘the myth of the family as the core source
86 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

Chava takes a job as a bus driver’s assistant, for instance, his mother protests
fruitlessly and finally has no choice but to acquiesce. Poverty here forces Chava’s
mother’s hand: she believes that allowing her son to work is immoral, a derelic-
tion of her duty as a parent, but she is forced to accept that she has no choice
and no real say in the matter. Indeed, a far greater powerlessness looms over
Chava’s mother: she knows that soon she will have to choose between allowing
her son’s conscription and sending him to fight with the rebels. This is the
illusion of choice, between two untenable options, but it also makes a subtler
political point: it is impossible for Chava’s mother to avoid participation in the
conflict, yet also impossible for her to consider her family’s situation from an
ideological perspective. Ideology is an impossible luxury, given the immediate
need to address more urgent priorities such as food, safety and survival.
Mandoki here challenges not only notions of childhood as a locus of hope
and possibility but also the tenability of notions of childhood innocence for
those living in extreme poverty. If Chava’s mother is rendered childlike in being
stripped of agency, an opposing force operates upon Chava himself, who works
to support his family and to keep his siblings safe from the gunfire that rattles
past the tumbledown shack they call home. Clearly, conventional notions of
childhood innocence no longer apply: the reality of life in poverty rapidly robs
Chava of any remaining notions of sheltered, childish naiveté. Indeed, one of the
most poignant interactions that Chava has with his siblings comes as he is trying
to keep them safely under a bed during an outbreak of gunfire near their home.
A bullet’s ricochet sends Chava’s mother’s lipstick rattling to his feet, which
Chava then uses to draw a clown face on himself in order to keep his younger
brother distracted. The juxtaposition of a childish game – entered into by Chava
with vivacious enthusiasm – with the rattle of gunfire is wrenching; and, of
course, behind the painted mask Chava is well aware of the brutal reality of the
family’s situation and of his own obligation to keep his siblings alive.
There is no space here, then, for a traditional, carefree notion of childhood.
Neither, though, does Mandoki allow the children he portrays to maintain moral
innocence, or excuse them of responsibility for their actions. Antonio, one of
Chava’s classmates, is so terrified when he is conscripted that he wets himself.

of well-being in contemporary, poor Central America’ (2014: 114). Similarly, contempo-

rary discourses surrounding globalization often frame women as being rendered essen-
tially childlike by social forces that strip them of both agency and independence. Writing
about women and migration, for instance, Lyla Mehta draws on Rita Manchanda’s work
(2004) to argue that ‘even when women and children are the focus of official policies and
interventions, they are often “naturalized” as passive or “infantilized”’, and ‘not endowed
with agency’ (Mehta 2011: 29). Meanwhile, Norman Lewis (1998) argues convincingly that
the discourse of human rights, particularly in what concerns children, is often invoked to
justify what amount to neocolonial interventions couched in a paternalism that emulates
adult–child dynamics that play out between the North and South in the arena of develop-
ment, aid, and policy. Following Erica Burman, Lewis asserts that not only are southern
children ‘presented as innocent victims, who elicit sympathy without being held respon-
sible for their suffering’ (Lewis 1998: 95), but that women are also frequently represented
as being in a state of childlike dependence.
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 87

But only a short time later Antonio returns in uniform, sees his classmates,
nearly naked and playing by the river, and interrupts their game by firing a shot
in the air. If Antonio’s smile suggests a childish prank, the crack of the bullet
serves as a vivid reminder of the adult reality into which he has been thrust.
Mandoki repeatedly positions Antonio facing his old friends, who form a line
in front of him: not a circle of equals, but a reminder that Antonio now exists
on the other side of a boundary the other children have yet to cross. Indeed,
when telling the children about his exploits, Antonio is shown sitting on a rock
above them, speaking down to his friends, in a shot that recalls the classroom
that he was plucked from: Antonio is now a soldier, surveying children he will
one day press into military service. He quarrels with his friends and they jostle
him, reverting to their old ways of interacting; he counters by pushing them
away with his gun, firing into the air, and finally pointing his weapon at them.
Throughout the scene the camera angles grow steeper and steeper, until we
finally see Antonio looming above his friends as they cower before him. He has
entered into an adult life they cannot understand, and he, in turn, can no longer
relate to them or join their childish games.
In these sequences Mandoki problematizes the question of morality and agency
both of children and of adults and, in so doing, interrogates the boundaries that
separate the two constructions. Can we still consider Antonio – conscripted by
force, but now apparently a willing participant in the war – an innocent? And
if Chava’s mother, likewise stripped of agency, is led by her circumstances to
act in ways that we would ordinarily condemn, should she still be considered
culpable or responsible for her decisions? Individuals living in extremis can
hardly be considered innocent, Mandoki suggests, but any degree to which we
apportion them blame for their actions must also be considered an indictment
of the poverty they endure, since it is that poverty that robs them simultane-
ously of the possibility for true, childlike moral innocence, and of the agency
and self-determination they would need in order to take full, adult responsibility
for their actions.
Chava, as we have seen, exists on the cusp of adulthood: when his next
birthday comes he will become an active participant in the conflict and complete
his passage to de facto adulthood. But in other aspects, Mandoki suggests, Chava
is already an adult: as the film begins, we see Chava’s father leave, and his
mother tells him that he must now become ‘el hombre de la casa’ – a phrase
to which the film repeatedly and pointedly returns. The nuclear family is thus
broken, but immediately reconstituted by Chava’s elevation into a paternal role.
Indeed, towards the end of the film, when Chava’s mother – inexplicably, and
without foreshadowing – finds a way to send Chava abroad, his younger brother
immediately announces that he will now be the ‘hombre de la casa’. The family
laughs, but the younger boy’s words are no joke: even though Chava has been
granted an unlikely escape, the family’s story will continue and repeat itself,
and another child will be forced into an adult role to fill the vacuum left by
Chava’s departure.
88 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

In framing Chava’s transition from childhood to adulthood in terms of

familial roles, Mandoki alludes to the broader context of that transition. Family,
as Nathalie Bouzaglo notes, serves both as the ‘biological foundation of the
nation’ (2012: 7) and as a metonym for the nation as a whole. Read in this way,
Mandoki can be viewed as presenting the absent father figure as a metaphor for
the absent or ineffective nation-state: both, he suggests, are guilty of turning
their backs on the vulnerable. There is a tragedy, a fundamental injustice, to
a young child being abandoned and forced to take on his father’s responsibili-
ties; a similar tragedy, Mandoki suggests, is at work when the nation abandons
children, or anyone else, to poverty, or allows them to be drawn into a military
conflict. In blurring the line between childhood and adulthood, Voces inocentes
asks us to consider all those caught up in such situations as innocents: without
denying the moral failings and compromises forced upon both children and
adults, it reserves its condemnation for the nation itself and, by extension, for
the global social and political forces that shape the nation and dictate the terms
of its failure.

* * *
Where Voces inocentes shows a child unquestioningly accepting elevation to an
adult role, Los colores de la montaña shows a child clinging to the vestiges of child-
hood in the face of harsh adult reality. The film is set in a small, impoverished
Colombian mountain community caught up in the country’s armed conflict.
When Manuel, the protagonist, turns nine years old his parents save up to give
him a soccer ball – a momentous occasion for Manuel and his friends, who
marvel at finally being able to play with a ball in good shape. In one of their
first games, however, the ball bounces into a mined field, putting an end to the
children’s fun: they are unable to rescue the ball without risking their lives, and
their parents forbid them to try. The film thus portrays the literal superposition
of the child’s world upon the adult’s: the parents’ refusal to allow the children
to enter the field is a symbolic means to keep them in the protected space of
childhood, just as the mined field is an encroachment of harsh adult reality into
a simple childish game.
Many similar moments are at work in Los colores de la montaña, which is told
very firmly through Manuel’s eyes and often literally from his perspective.
Both the story and Arbeláez’s composition are constructed in such a way that
what occurs in the town pivots around, and is filtered through, Manuel. The
film begins with a succession of establishing shots showing Manuel running
through the fields, the camera tracking to keep him at the centre of the screen.
A little later, a sequence of intimate, tightly framed, mostly handheld shots from
behind Manuel show us the boy’s perspective as he waves goodbye to a friend
after a soccer game, and then watches his new schoolteacher arrive and make
her way to school. Manuel follows the teacher, and so do we: his gaze is our gaze.
Finally, the shot opens out and we see that the schoolhouse wall from behind
which Manuel peers at the teacher is emblazoned with political graffiti: ‘El
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 89

pueblo con las armas’ and ‘Vencer o morir’. This unsettling moment is the first
sign of Colombia’s political conflict in what has hitherto been a relatively idyllic
portrayal of rural children playing, squabbling and going about their daily lives.
Manuel shows no interest in the graffiti – he just wants to see his new teacher
– but the huge letters painted on the school wall offer another uncomfortable
instance of the overlapping worlds of the film’s children and adults.
The children are, in fact, well aware of the conflict swirling around them, but
they seek to incorporate it into, or interpret it through, their existing schema.
Manuel’s friend Julián, for instance, confides that his brother is away fighting
with the rebels, then proceeds to show Manuel his prized collection of bullet
casings, the same way another child might show off a collection of baseball
cards. Manuel recognizes these remnants of the armed conflict as his friend’s
treasures, and admires them as such. Like the lost soccer ball and the school-
house, Arbeláez here presents us with a typical scene, even a cliché, of the
child’s world, while underscoring the ways in which the children’s imaginary
has been colonized by the armed conflict that surrounds them – and the ways
in which the children have sought to preserve their own childhoods in the face
of violent unrest.
In permitting its young protagonists to continue to exist as children, rather
than forcing them into adult roles, Los colores de la montaña is far less relentlessly
bleak than Hermano or Voces inocentes; indeed, it is notable that this is the only
film of the three in which no children are killed. In keeping with this approach,
Los colores de la montaña is also the only film in which the protagonists’ poverty
is pushed into the background, rather than foregrounded as an immediate and
strongly felt crisis. We know Manuel is poor, but – unlike in Hermano or Voces
inocentes – Manuel is not expected to find work or provide for his family. Instead,
his family’s troubles are seen relatively obliquely, filtered through his parents –
in the sacrifices they appear to have made to buy him his football, for instance,
or in their frequent arguments over how to cope with the violence affecting
their town. The adult viewer is well aware that the family is struggling, and
lacks the resources to act with full agency in response to the conflict swirling
around them, or to escape the paramilitary groups that issue threats against
Manuel’s father, but Manuel – despite overhearing his parents’ fights – is largely
shielded from these problems and permitted to preoccupy himself with more
childish concerns.
This is not to suggest that Manuel is ignorant of his family’s situation; rather,
Los colores de la montaña insists upon its protagonist’s ability to retain childlike
joy and even wonder even in the face of catastrophe. Arbeláez asserts that ‘no
importa cuán trágica es la realidad de los niños, siempre van a tener el juego
y la risa como parte fundamental de su vida’, and his film insists on such a
view (Arbeláez 2014). Manuel’s powerlessness at the loss of his football of course
mirrors his parents’ own desperation and loss of agency, and the lengths he and
his friends go to try to retrieve the ball reflect the far graver risks his parents
live with each day. But his continuing efforts also reflect a determination not
90 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

to allow his childhood to be entirely subsumed by stark adult realities. In one

of the film’s final scenes, Manuel finally succeeds in recovering his ball, an act
Bustamante and Gil describe as ‘una acción de resistencia a ese mundo que se le
impone’ (2011: 5); they assert that in this manner Manuel is able to ‘rescatar por
sí mismo su niñez de una zona minada de violencias y llevárselo en su destierro
como símbolo de la conservación de sus recuerdos, de su familia, de su niñez y
de ese tranquilo estilo de vida que acostumbraba llevar’ (2011: 5). Even in the
face of conflict, even in the middle of a minefield, Manuel is able to retain and
even sometimes revel in his status as a child.
This strategy, however, also serves to render Manuel’s circumstances all the
more poignant: his moments of joy and laughter remind the audience that he is,
indeed, no more than a child. It is clear, too, that retreating into childishness will
ultimately provide Manuel neither escape nor lasting refuge: though punctu-
ated by moments of laughter and happiness, the film is ultimately drained of
its ‘juego y risa’, and Manuel is increasingly confronted with a less forgiving
and more adult world. Arbeláez emphasizes Manuel’s progressive insertion into
this adult reality through changes in the film’s colour palette: after opening
with the vivid green of the mountains, the colours of the children’s clothing,
and even the yellow-tiled school building with its pink and blue walls, Arbeláez
begins to transition to increasingly drab and washed-out shots. In the last few
scenes, when Manuel, his mother and his sister pick up their belongings to leave
after Ernesto has been murdered, the palette is almost completely unsaturated,
with the family and even the mountains in the background appearing in muted
shades of black and grey.
Tellingly, in the film’s final moments, it is Manuel who leads his impassive
mother and brother to the truck that will carry them away from their home,
and who ensures they do not miss their ride. After they board the truck, Manuel
stares blankly at a crying child, roughly his own age, as she clutches a ragged
stuffed toy to her cheek. For a moment, Manuel looks almost adult; yet in the
film’s final shot, he looks away, and raises his reclaimed football to his own
cheek. This, for Arbeláez, is the reality of childhood in extremis: not that children
are untouched by poverty or by conflict, but rather that even as they are forced
to confront harsh realities, they can retain a sense of, and find some comfort in,
their own childhood. Manuel no longer fully inhabits the ‘self-enclosed world’ of
childhood discussed by Sánchez Prado, but neither has he entirely left it behind.
This, indeed, is the source of much of the affective power of Los colores de la
montaña: where Hermano and Voces inocentes show us children assuming adult
roles, Los colores de la montaña insists on a view of children who, though trapped in
unbearable and tragic conditions, continue to exist qua children. It thus invites
its adult viewers to confront, all the more painfully and vividly, the harsh reality
and injustice of its protagonists’ situation.

* * *
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 91

All three of the films discussed here show their impoverished protagonists
caught up in intolerable but apparently insurmountable crises, and suggest
that escape from such conditions is essentially impossible. For all the flashes of
happiness and joy afforded to their protagonists, these films are united by the
common vision they offer of children and adolescents trapped by poverty and
without possibilities to prosper or to forge a future on their own terms. Even
the few assertions of agency permitted to the protagonists – Manuel’s rescue
of his football, Chava’s attempts to provide for his family, Daniel’s retrieval of
his stolen boots – are limited to immediate problems, and do not address or
change the bigger challenges and broader circumstances the children continue
to endure. Even these flashes of apparent optimism, then, are indicative of the
children’s ongoing daily struggle, not of any more permanent or lasting solution
to their problems.
Despite this, however, all three films ultimately do allow at least some of
their central characters to escape: by joining a professional football team, by
migrating to America, or simply by fleeing their home town. Doing so serves a
number of functions, not least rendering films that would otherwise be almost
unbearably bleak more tolerable for their audiences. But if the films’ protago-
nists are allowed to escape, the directors also seek to remind the viewer that
what they have witnessed is a near-miraculous exception to the ordinary fate
of children in similar situations. In Los colores de la montaña, Manuel’s family is
able to flee, but not before his father, Ernesto, has been murdered by paramili-
tary soldiers. In Voces inocentes, meanwhile, Chava’s escape is presented as an
almost absurdly improbable deus ex machina resolution to his crisis – and one
that ultimately simply passes his troubles along to his younger brother, the new
‘hombre de la casa’. The same is true of Hermano: after Daniel murders Max to
free Julio from his self-destructive obsession with vengeance, the film cuts to a
shot of CFC players standing in a crowded stadium while the national anthem
plays. Panning down the line of players, the camera seems to pause anxiously
on each face, as though looking for Daniel, whose fate remains unresolved.
Finally it comes to rest on Julio, the last player in the line, who, in the film’s
emotionally charged final close-up, crosses himself and looks skyward, clearly
thinking of his absent brother. Rasquin here permits escape only to one of the
two brothers: Julio, who has all along been less invested in the opportunity
to join the CFC, is the one to make it, in a move that highlights the arbitrari-
ness and improbability of Julio’s salvation. Many more people, and many more
worthy people, Rasquin suggests, are condemned to live and die in La Ceniza,
without hope of escape.
It is telling, too, that all three films end in the moment of improbable, mirac-
ulous escape: there is no discussion of what comes afterwards. This is in keeping
with the narrow focus on their characters’ necessarily constrained realities, but
it also echoes the formal construction of a fairytale: the sudden escapes of the
protagonists knowingly emulate the form of happily-ever-after resolutions, even
92 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

if they do not provide the same emotional relief. This is an act of cinematic
sleight of hand that provides the viewer with a tolerably optimistic ending while
simultaneously signposting the inauthenticity and insufficiency of that ending:
compared to the realities endured by other characters represented in these films
– some murdered on-screen, others condemned to live in a continuing cycle
of poverty and violence – the endings we have witnessed are, indeed, a kind of
fairytale. Moreover, by tracing only the scantest outlines of the protagonists’
futures, the filmmakers ensure that any relief the audience feels at the charac-
ters’ escape is offset by an enduring sense of the uncertainty that still remains.
It bears recalling that the protagonists’ new status as refugees and immigrants
is no guarantee of a better life; it merely implies geographical displacement, into
a space of undefined contours and realities of which the viewer is denied even
the barest glimpse.
In this sense, these three films, and the broader genre of which they are part,
can be seen as proposing a fatalistic view of the plight of dispossessed children
that has more in common with the bleak vision of Mexican street children in
Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950) than with the approaches taken by many of his
regional successors. In their hyperlocality, and in their portrayals of children cut
off from broader society and let down by broken families, Los colores de la montaña,
Hermano and Voces inocentes offer much the same indictment of the nation-state
and of the ‘fuerzas progresivas de la sociedad’ that Buñuel mocks in the dry
opening voice-over of Los olvidados. The nation-state, after all, is entirely absent
in Los colores de las montaña and Hermano, and present only as a violent, militarized
force in Voces inocentes. In all three films the state has failed in its role as a protec-
tive entity: thus abandoned, the films’ impoverished characters can only retreat
into their own hyperlocal space of continuing misery and violence. Hyperlo-
cality here fosters universality: by focusing so narrowly on the protagonists’
experiences and circumstances, the films avoid engaging with the national or

  6 This is in keeping with Podalsky’s assertion that international filmmakers’ global success
depends upon ‘their skill in mimicking the formal conventions of hegemonic cinemas’
(Podalsky 2011: 127). The films here studied can thus be read as simultaneously deploying
and problematizing the Hollywood trope of the upbeat, feelgood ending.
  7 McClennen tracks a similar gesture in the cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, writing that
within the logic of what she calls the ‘postcolonial center–periphery model’ (103) it made
sense ‘for filmmakers to be extremely invested in the creation of a local aesthetic, one
that emerges from the space of the nation in order to offer a critical view of it’ (2011: 103).
However, as I have shown, the local aesthetic is deployed here through what Hjort calls
‘perennial themes’ (2000: 105), and with a view to making the hyperlocal readily accessible
for global audiences. McClennen acknowledges the need for current filmmakers to work
under such conditions, writing that ‘forced to engage with the logic of the global market
where financing and exhibition for films takes place less and less often within state protec-
tionist structures, filmmakers like Meirelles operate in a global marketplace that has rede-
fined the idea of making a national film’ (2011: 105). My view diverges from McClennen’s,
though, in that the provocations and cinematic strategies that make the violence offered
in Cidade de Deus pleasurable, as it were, are here replaced with a tone that is much more
grave and perhaps even moralistic: violence in Cidade de Deus is a highly stylized spectacle
to be consumed; here, similar acts of violence are unqualified tragedies.
bhs, 94 (2017) Global Markets, Hyperlocal Aesthetics 93

even regional specificities of their settings, and thus free themselves to function
effectively as critiques of global capitalism. At the beginning of the twenty-first
century, these films remind global audiences, many children still inhabit what
André Bazin, referring to Los olvidados, termed a ‘society of injustice and pain’
(Bazin 1967–1971: 210). Even escape, here, is a chimerical solution: a few lucky
individuals may solve their problems by fleeing, but the community as whole,
like the nation itself, will remain broken.
By focusing on child protagonists, the filmmakers are able to address the
enduring failure of the nation-state without framing their narratives in explic-
itly historical or ideological terms. Born into poverty, children can hardly be
expected to fully understand or question the reasons for their condition, or to
address and change their situation through political or other means. In this,
too, the filmmakers distance themselves from the overtly ideological cinema
prominent in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s: the films here studied do
not propose utopian solutions, but rather simply demand attention and seek to
reinsert marginalized populations into a global conversation. Podalsky suggests
that Voces inocentes falls into a category of ‘updated and transnationalized “social
problem films”’ that ‘call on audiences (sitting in theatres comfortably removed
from sites of struggle) to act as compassionate global citizens’ (Podalsky 2011:
128). The use of child protagonists makes it easier for adult viewers to suspend
their own ideological convictions and simply to empathize with the films’
characters, but it also constitutes an uncomfortable and perhaps unanswer-
able challenge for viewers in the developed world: is the act of compassionate
viewing, of affective and empathic response, enough to fulfil our obligations as
global citizens?
In asking this question, these films hew closely to the vision of Italian neore-
alist cinema, which similarly sought to give voice to the impoverished and the
marginalized, refused to insert their characters into straightforward, overtly
logical frameworks, and frequently made use of children as a rhetorical strat-
egy. Cesare Zavattini, in one of his neorealist manifestos, writes that ‘it is not
the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot,
I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them … in
my work I leave the solution to the audience’ (2014: 129). A similar imperative
operates in the three films examined in this article and, indeed, in most of the
films of the genre. If at first they risk seeming mired in their own hyperlo-
cality, speaking from and to their own national condition, through their affec-
tively charged portrayal of the lived realities of children in crisis they develop a
universal resonance. In so doing, they serve as a reminder that there is, after all,
not so much difference between the slums of Caracas and the slums of Mumbai:
in the era of global capitalism, these films suggest, vast sectors of the population
remain impoverished, trapped in a childhood of sorts, without much hope of
improving their situation, or any realistic possibility of escape.

  8 The two most striking examples are Vittorio De Sica’s Sciuscià (1946) and Ladri di biciclette
94 Ana Rodríguez Navas bhs, 94 (2017)

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Voces inocentes. 2004, dir. Luis Mandoki (20th Century Fox, Warner, Polychrome Pictures, The
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