The public response to the televised squalor of Hurricane Katrina was an oblique reminder of why the Pentagon has been so careful about the types of pictures we’re allowed to see from Iraq: Documentary images of human suffering can still get to us. Embedded war journalism of a different stripe, Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez’s La Sierra takes us inside a Colombian neighborhood populated by teenage widows and their children. Shot over the course of a year beginning in January 2003, it follows three residents of the titular Medellín barrio: Edison, the 22-year-old local commander of the neighborhood-controlling Bloque Metro paramilitary; Cielo, a childlike 17-year-old mother who’s already lost a husband and brother to the fighting; and Jesús, a fresh-faced 19-year-old missing a hand from a grenade accident whose blasé, no-future fatalism is the defining attitude of his neighborhood.
A stark, relentlessly deglamorized vision of ghetto life, La Sierra is essential viewing for anyone who ponied up for the aestheticized amorality of the Brazilian City of God. Any ideological explanation for Colombia’s decades-long civil war is purposefully excluded; here, the right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas are just street gangs battling over turf. By the time Edison alludes to Bloque Metro’s ruthless reputation in the surrounding neighborhoods, it’s clear that we could easily be watching the same movie from the opposition’s perspective. Likewise, La Sierra grasps the utter gratuitousness of moralizing in an environment where death is everywhere. Already a father of six, Edison has three more kids on the way. “What can I do if it’s my fault?” he sighs about the constant trouble among his many girlfriends. Whether he’s discussing his women, explaining his efforts to protect the community, or reflecting on the irony of never having been accused of a murder that he’d actually committed, Edison’s manner stays the same—without affect and never evincing any need for self-justification.
More remarkable than the camera’s physical proximity to paramilitary soldiers taking sniper fire and running from police is the trust Dalton and Martinez instill in their subjects. The most painful moments reveal heartbreakingly modest hopes—Jesús dreams of sharing just seven or eight months with his soon-to-be-born baby. Eschewing both cool detachment and exploitative sentimentality, Dalton and Martinez find the ideal emotional distance from their subjects, depicting La Sierra as a sociological nightmare, while never letting us forget that real people actually live there.