Despite efforts to promote gender equality, women are still drastically underrepresented in the film industry, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Statistics from their research show that females only comprised a mere 12% of protagonists in top-grossing films of 2014. More often than we realise, the media play a powerful role in determining justice in society, by misrepresenting individuals based on gender, race and class. There is an increasing need for more women to not only produce, but also be represented in documentaries, as they give women the opportunity to tell their story and challenge us to have a different perspective on the world.
Directed by award-winning writer and filmmaker Violeta Ayala and produced by Dan Fallshaw from 2011-2015, the stranger than fiction story, The Bolivian Case, follows three Norwegian teenage girls who are arrested with 22kg of cocaine in their luggage in a foreign country. Despite the three girls committing the same crime, the media and public began to shape a misconstrued representation of each girl based on biased interpretations, triggering the biggest media storm in Norway.
Stina Brendemo and Christina Øygarden were portrayed as two naïve European girls, while Madelaine Rodriguez was stereotyped as the -Latin trafficker'. Three years down the track, Stina mysteriously escapes jail and becomes a celebrity, Christina is found innocent in a Norwegian court and Madelaine remains in gaol in Bolivia.
'Rather than asking the audience to question the guilt or innocence of women, The Bolivian Case aims to challenge and confront viewers on how gender, race and class affects how society assigns guilt. The outcome of the case was based on perception not on evidence; as a result of this failure, we believe the media and the justice system should be on trial", says Violeta.
Combining the most crucial elements of true-crime pulp fiction and reality TV, The Bolivian Case is a sensational criminal exposé that sheds light on the increasing adaptability of modern crime and punishment. Not only does the documentary question the power mainstream media plays in the predicament of each girl, but it also provides an insight into how justice is determined by race and class.
'Representation of women in film is slowly progressing. Ten years ago, there wasn't even a discussion about it. It's not happening fast enough, but we're gradually making things happen. It's not just about getting more women to make or star in films, but ultimately to have films that are about change which women can relate to and for audiences to think differently about women's role in society", says Violeta.
Violeta is an Australian award-winning filmmaker. She established United Notions Film with partner Dan Fallshaw to create thought-provoking films. The pair drew global acclaim for the controversial documentary Stolen that premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2009. The Sydney premiere was quite memorable as the Polisario brought the Fetim, a black Saharawi to discredit the film which resulted being on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, the next day. Despite the concerted efforts by two North African governments to stop the film, Stolen went to screen as one of the best 10 documentaries of the world at the Real To Reel program at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shown at 80 festivals, winning 15 awards and aired on PBS. According to the Human Rights Watch report, a year after the release of Stolen, in 2010, the Polisario criminalised slavery in the Tindouf refugee camps. Stolen is a prime example of how documentaries can create real social change.
The work of United Notions Film has been supported by Sundance, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca, Britdoc, Screen Australia and Screen NSW, amongst other prestigious funders. It is incredible that an Australian duo are able to fund films locally and internationally and gain the most competitive and prestigious funds.
Violeta has a communication degree from Charles Sturt University. She is an alumnus of Film Independent, the Berlinale, Good Pitch and a Sundance and Tribeca Film Fellow. She is creating a network of minority filmmakers to break stereotypes created in an Anglo dominated media. Violeta is one of 12 prominent bloggers for the Huffington Post on the US War on Drugs (other bloggers include Susan Sarandon, Arianna Huffington, Adrian Grenier, etc.), has written investigative stories for the Sydney Morning Herald and is a recipient of the Bertha Britdoc Journalism Award 2013. In addition to her successful professional career, Violeta has a great balance with family life too with the recent arrival of a newborn baby.
The Bolivian Case is the first part of United Notions Film's -Drug War Trilogy' and premiered at the Special Presentation Program at Hot Docs, one of the world's most prestigious documentary festivals. It will showcase at the Sydney Film Festival on the 7th June 2015 as part of the Australian Documentary Competition for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award. Violeta will be speaking at the -Can documentaries change the world?' panel on 12th June 2015 at 7pm, Sydney Town Hall.
For more information on The Bolivian Case, please visit www.unitednotionsfilm.com and www.theboliviancase.com. It currently has a Kickstarter campaign which ends on Thursday 11th June - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/boliviancase/the-bolivian-case-finishing-a-hot-docs-premiere
Question: What is The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: The Bolivian Case is the first film of a drug war trilogy we're making. It deals with two of the biggest businesses of our times, the media and drug trafficking. The story starts when three Norwegian teenaged girls are arrested at the airport in Cochabamba, Bolivia with 22 kg of cocaine in their luggage. While all three were charged with the same crime, media images began to shape very different strategies of defense. Cue outrageous plots, including behind-bars pregnancies, illegal escapes and professional kidnappings. Combining the juiciest elements of reality TV and true-crime pulp fiction, The Bolivian Case is a sensational criminal exposé that sheds light on the increasing malleability of modern crime and punishment.
Question: What inspired you to write The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: I first heard about the case while showing our last film in Norway. When the three Norwegian girls were caught with 22kg of cocaine, it intrigued me that in the Norwegian press, the girl with the Latin surname was singled out as the stereotypical drug trafficker. The only real evidence in the case was that each girl was caught with 7kg of cocaine in her luggage. However, as the story unfolded, the Norwegian media needed to create a victim and a villain in order to sensationalize the story. The film follows the eight teenagers who were charged with trying to smuggle drugs. I don't think it's a coincidence that the three involved in the case with a Latin background will spend more than 10 years in jail. Sadly the media victimisation of minorities happens all the time. If you look at how the Australian media reacted when the Bali 9 were caught… I remember the headlines saying Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran should pay with their lives. If the media hadn't victimised them, maybe their fate could have been different.
The universality of the War-on-Drugs is that it targets the most vulnerable everywhere: the drug addicts or drug mules, they're seen as criminals, yet the worldwide economy runs on drug money. No one cares about finding the truth and/or catching that big fish - the justice system is all about money, race and class.
Question: What do you enjoy most about working with Dan Fallshaw?
Violeta Ayala: I met Dan almost 10 years ago. We've built our company, United Notions Film together. We started with a camera and an idea; today we have an office in Australia and the US. All of our work is funded by the most prestigious and competitive film funds, both internationally and nationally, such a Sundance, Tribeca, MacArthur Foundation and Screen Australia amongst others.
To thrive as independent filmmakers you have to make it sustainable and we are doing just that. Today we've cameras and sound equipment and have recently put together a postproduction facility. We have a film we're promoting on the festival circuit, a film in postproduction and several films in development including a fiction film, all of them are attracting industry attention and funding.
Dan is one of the most creative filmmakers I know. I think what I enjoy the most is that we complement each other creatively; we couldn't be where we are on our own. We work very hard for what we believe in, to look back and see what we've built over the past 10 years is really amazing.
Question: How would you describe the film, The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: The story the film follows is very relevant, it's made for millennials and millennials don't go to the cinema, they watch everything in their iPhone or iPod, which is why the film is fast paced, driven by cool music and the narrative is divided in chapters. I think it's important to know who your audience is. It's a stranger-than-fiction story, that's both sexy and challenging at the same time.
Question: What do you hope audiences take from the film, The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: I want the media to be put on trial so that no one gets victimized in the media because of the color of their skin, last name or appearance. Justice should be about truth… But then what is the truth anyway?
Question: How do you believe documentaries such as The Bolivian Case can change the world?
Violeta Ayala: The day we premiered The Bolivian Case at Hot Docs in Toronto was the day Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran were executed in Indonesia. It felt so wrong. We've been making films that question the war on drugs since 2010 and to see this happening so close to home was soul destroying, it was even worse to read the online comments of Australians that showed no compassion whatsoever. We all know the war on drugs isn't working but it continues regardless. I don't know the answer… But I believe we need to ask questions. I want the media to be held accountable, why did Triple J publish a poll saying Australians agreed with the death penalty? What was the purpose of that? This was such a public case and the boys lost the battle in the public arena. Was this about justice? I don't think so…
I hope by watching the same story unfold in a different setting, in a different country, the Australian public will understand the damage this type of victimization by the media does, and hopefully no young men or woman will have to go through it again. It's the young and vulnerable who pay the highest price of this nonsensical war that's been going on for more than 45 years.
Question: Can you share your thoughts on how the media's representations of people can alter their treatment during a trial?
Violeta Ayala: I often say if you get caught doing something illegal, you should honestly think about hiring a media savvy lawyer and PR. The media all over the world is affecting justice, they feed stereotypes to sell papers or gain audiences. For example, if a boat of 100 people arrives on Australia's coast, the next thing we hear in the media is that immigrants are invading our country. Again the media can hang or save a person and that double edge sword is powerful and scary at the same time. We need to learn how to filter the news and not believe everything we hear, and begin to understand that the source of the news can tell us a lot about the message being broadcast.
Question: What did find most difficult when filming The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: We had to travel from Australia to Bolivia and Norway several times, it was a tiring process but worth it in the end. Putting the film together in the edit suite was a tough, we had three main characters and a number of secondary characters that you had to get to know to make sense of the magnitude of the story. There was so much media coverage about this case in Norway, I mean heaps, and we needed to filter all of it to get to the bones of the story. It was quite a complicated story to tell.
Question: What was the best part about filming The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: To be able to crack the film… Films are like puzzles, they're frustrating and challenging but when you find them, there's nothing that compares with the feeling of creating a work of art that can ignite change.
Question: Where can Australians see The Bolivian Case?
Violeta Ayala: The film is showing in Sydney on the 7th of June as part of the Sydney Film Festival, competing for the Documentary Prize and will be showing at festivals around the world over the coming year. We're currently negotiating with TV broadcasters at home and abroad. You will also be able to watch the film online on platforms such as Vimeo and iTunes among others. You can visit our website to check out the latest info on the film's release, it's really early days at this stage. We want communities to host screenings around Australia, show the film to your kids so they're aware of what can happen and don't get caught up in a similar situation… This can all be arranged from our website. The film will be available to universities and libraries around Australia.
Question: What's next, for you?
Violeta Ayala: As I mentioned The Bolivian Case is the first part in a drug war trilogy. The second, Cocaine Prison is in post-production, it follows the story of two siblings; Hernan is arrested with 2 kilos of cocaine on the border to Argentina, his sister Daisy is weighing her choices, of trafficking cocaine to get enough money to help get her brother out of jail or setting a trap for the boss. It's a vicious cycle! The third part, South Meets North is a trans-media project that takes place in a virtual prison. We're working on a film about bio-hackers and developing a narrative called Cocaine Queens about woman in the drug world. I'm also working on a personal film about childbirth, based on my own experience; I have a 1 year-old daughter whose birth was extremely traumatic for me.
This is an incredible moment for me professionally and personally, I really can't wait to see what the next ten years have in store for me. I want to keep telling stories that matter and enjoy this amazing time of motherhood.
We're currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish The Bolivian Case. We need to compose further music and re-mix the sound in a professional studio.
Interview by Brooke Hunter