What is land? Why have we attributed it to a human possession?

When we talk about land, "tierra" in the Spanish language, a complex ambiguity emerges. This single word is used in Spanish to refer to what in English is meant to land, earth, soil, ground, etc. This same word is used to make reference to the piece of surface humans have attributed as their possession. Therefore, "tierra’s" concept finds itself as a complex term at the core of humans' real world and the imagined one too. The former represents a touchable scenario that makes the existence of the human body possible,  while the latter represents an untouchable scenario that marks people’s status and therefore triggers endless inequality and injustice.

Laura Mora's film The Kings of the World explores both of these dimensions of land —the real and the imagined one— in the Colombian context.

The Kings of the World’s poster cover. Image courtesy of Proimagenes Colombia.

Mora is an astonishing Colombian filmmaker, director and film producer who has received numerous awards from various film festivals in recent years. Her work has been oriented to explore the human condition by framing those contradictions and complexities that define us as individuals and social beings and places us into countless hues rather than polarities.

Mora’s most recent work, The Kings of the World, is a masterpiece that recently received the Golden Shell’s award at the San Sebastián and Biarritz 2022 festivals in the category of the best movie and also has been chosen to represent Colombia in the Oscar’s Global Awards 2023. This film portrays the harsh reality of many Colombians as a result of the definition we have constructed for the word "tierra" in its symbolic plane, which has led humans to declare a violent relationship not only with nature but also amongst themselves.

This artwork brings an invitation to discuss all of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, mainly Life on Land, Reduce Inequalities and Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions because many of the issues these goals are attempting to tackle are inextricably linked to land and some of them are rooted in the misconception of its symbolic meaning such as war and forced displacement.

The Golden Shell’s award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. Image courtesy of FilMedellín.

Mora has been marked by the violence that has always been behind Colombian history as her father was killed by a hired assassin in 2002. This event split her life in two and pushed her to go away from home where she moved to Australia to study film. It was there that she saw the seed of her first film, Matar a Jesús: a dream she saw as a revelation to confront her with the pain left by her father's departure. Matar a Jesus is an autobiographical artwork that represented a kind of vortex for Mora as it allowed her to confront all those things she was still carrying since her father’s killing and let her get rid of those that were doing nothing good to her life. This first movie represents an event of freedom in Mora’s life and allows her to explore other narratives in her following work according to Panorama.

The Kings of the World is Mora's second film. It tells the story of five homeless teens who embark on a hopeful journey after receiving a letter from the government informing Rá, the eldest of them, that the plot of land he inherited from his grandmother is on the list of land restitution. They go from Medellín to Bajo Cauca to recover this land that was once taken away by the war and to, at long last, find a place in the world.

From left to right: Rá, Sere, Nano, Winny, Culebro. Image courtesy of Proimagenes Colombia.

The cast was crucial for this movie. According to an interview with Colombia Visible, Mora wanted to have natural actors as she believed that "there are truths that are not built; there are marks on the skin and in the soul that can only be seen with the truths that already exist." She learned about Carlos Andrés Castañeda, Brahian Acevedo, Davinson Flórez, Cristian Campaña and Cristian David Duque in a scene from her last movie, Matar a Jesús where they were framed practicing gravity biking. Mora saw in each one of them an intimate bond with the character she was creating, as their "sensitivity and experiences were closely related to what the film wanted to convey."

“I was warned not to shoot there, that it was the most dangerous part of Colombia. Instead, we only came across people who were open, generous and kind,” said Mora in an interview with Variety.

The landscape of Bajo Cauca, Colombia (movie’s scene). Image courtesy of Proimagenes Colombia.

The shooting of the movie in the Bajo Cauca of Colombia represented a challenge and danger as in this territory still persists the presence of illegal groups, such as Los Caparros, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the dissidents of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The Bajo Cauca’s lands are fertile and rich in gold, therefore, it is a geographical position that has been key to drug trafficking and illegal mining. Despite this, there is a rich cultural diversity because this territory adjoins coastal and coffee regions and also has afro-descendant and indigenous communities, although they live in poverty, according to a research study by Rutas del Conflicto.

Naturally, The Kings of the World explores the land not only from its physical condition but also from its symbolic one—the one that declares land as human property—by immersing the viewer in a harsh journey that reaffirms nature's untamed condition and our smallness next to its magnificence, while exposing the crudity behind the idea of owning a piece of it, "the promised land" that many Colombians are still waiting for and could never get.

One stop during the journey (movie scene). Image courtesy of Proimagenes Colombia.

"Who would own all these lands?" says Rá and his buddies in one of the scenes while gazing freely at a huge pasture field. They seem happy and nostalgic because they know they are on their way to getting theirs. However, they still don't know that by arriving there, they will vanish forever. This irony motivates an effort to change and reorient land's symbolic conception toward one capable of establishing a territory that does not exclude anyone but embraces all humans and living-sentient beings in a horizontal and equal manner.

"For me, the Kings of the World are all the landless because they are the ones who survive despite everything [...] those who celebrate life despite the harshness of the world," said Mora in an interview with Canal Trece Colombia.

To watch the movie Kings of the World, please visit Netflix.

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