Blog Post #121: My 'Strangers to Peace' Review!
In the early 2010s, I was recovering from an extremely difficult period in my life involving grave health and legal challenges. My future was uncertain and I struggled with what was usually a reliable motivation to carry out full-fledged short film productions. Luckily, I eventually gathered enough willpower to rise from my unfortunate slump and participate in some student film productions at University of Miami. That's where I first met UM film student and fellow filmmaker Noah DeBonis, whose instantly open-armed and magnanimous spirit meant the world to me. But I soon learned that such noble traits were equally matched by Noah's talent as a filmmaker. This was made resoundingly clear upon seeing his short films selected to be part of an exclusive UM student film showcase - three years in a row!
Several weeks ago, Noah surfaced on social media to announce the premiere of his latest film, Strangers to Peace, at this year's Miami Film Festival. I was aware he'd been working on a feature-length documentary since 2016 so I was thrilled to learn that the same project was finally ready to see the light of day. I ordered tickets as soon as they were available! There's no way I would miss a chance to see the latest work from someone I so greatly respect and admire.
Strangers to Peace is a feature documentary set in the Latin American country of Colombia. It was co-directed by Noah DeBonis and his wife, Laura Angel. The film explores events following a peace agreement between the right-wing Colombian government and FARC, the leftist guerrilla army based in the country's vast jungles. The decades-long war between them has claimed over 220,000 lives and displaced millions. As mentioned, however, in 2016 the Colombian president and FARC's leadership signed a controversial peace accord. Half of all Colombians support it.
Amid this historic backdrop, Strangers to Peace documents the lives of three ex-FARC soldiers as they attempt to rebuild their lives after leaving the army: Dayana, a market vendor now freer to express her identity as a trans woman; Ricardo, a young father still clinging to his communist ideology; and Alexandra, a young woman intent on reconnecting with her family in the Amazon.
To put it simply, the film is a marvel of deeply humanistic storytelling. It jolts and horrifies you with its presentation of the bloody, political strife while crucially generating compassionate regard for these former combatants, considered demon-like by many Colombians. We see that these ex-FARC militants are just as vulnerable, sensitive and personally beleaguered as any of us are. To wit, Dayana wants to be accepted as the woman she feels she truly is, Ricardo desires to raise his young daughter with proper values and Alexandra pines to reunite with a family she's never really known. In view of Colombia's page-turning peace talks, these three individuals want to put their pasts behind them and move forward with the same feelings of acceptance, love and hope that they see in the broader societal reconciliation effort.
I attended the screening of Strangers of Peace with my parents, who are both from Colombia. When the film was over, they both readily expressed their appreciation of the work and how important they felt it was in addressing the problematic perception many have of the conflict. In my household, my dad often talks about the rampant corruption of the established government in Colombia and the brutality of their military forces. He greatly appreciated this very non-mainstream approach to the subject matter. And as a former radical student activist myself, I was also rather appreciative of the uncommonly even-handed take on the matter.
Beyond the film's narrative and thematic offerings, it is also a beautifully shot film. The bustling atmosphere of Bogotá, Colombia's capital and its largest city, is well-captured; as are the country's evergreen and river-laced rural areas. Noah and Laura's camera always keep the subjects aptly in frame but it doesn't mind retracting from the intimate with wide, sprawling vistas made possible by remarkable aerial drone photography. Also, the film concludes with drone footage of one of the most astonishing geographical features I've ever seen in a documentary!
Although Strangers to Peace focuses squarely on the aftermath of Colombia's domestic armed conflict, it explores themes and ideas relevant to many other similarly afflicted countries. And it does so with a calm and measured documentary filmmaking hand. Congratulations to Noah DeBonis, Laura Angel and their intrepid crew for producing such an important and accomplished film!
"Understanding is a very muscular act." -Steven Spielberg
Strangers to Peace is streaming online for a limited-time only as part of the Miami Film Festival! Watch it here!