Marrying the melodrama of Behind the Music to the down-and-dirty reportage of Frontline, Colombian documentarian Marc de Beaufort’s The Private Archives of Pablo Escobar hits just the right balance of pop and political. Though flat by cinematic standards, Beaufort’s TV aesthetics—sonorous Telemundo-style narrator, black-backgrounded talking heads, and gaudy titles—nevertheless befit the story of a man who lived publicly as a media figure, and recorded much of his private life on video. Composed of interviews with Escobar’s family and associates, along with copious audiovisual artifacts released from the family’s own collections, Private Archives relates the notorious drug lord’s rise from petty criminal to political player, ending with his death by shooting in 1993.
According to de Beaufort, the documentary was meant to crack the popular Colombian myth of Escobar as a benevolent man of the people by revealing his involvement with gang violence and brutal assassinations, and his life of lurid excess (his legendary palatial compound boasted an imperial zoo of exotic mammals and birds). But for most U.S. audiences, who would primarily know Escobar from his demonization on American television, the more revelatory sequences will be those that show how Escobar established himself as a champion of the poor by ameliorating slum conditions, illuminating soccer stadiums, and otherwise cultivating a self-confessed Robin Hood persona. Though never functioning as a pure apologist for Escobar, de Beaufort provides a necessary counterpoint to the American media’s portrayal of the war on drugs. One can only imagine what future documentary correctives will be necessary to explain today’s war on terror.