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Colombian Culture: Cinema

Colombians have been trying, in fits and starts, to establish a national film industry virtually since the dawn of the medium itself, but until very recently, their success has been at best limited. Not only have aspiring producers, writers and directors been faced with Hollywood’s domination of the market, Colombian filmmakers were also far behind Mexico and Argentina in creating a niche for themselves as a Latin film industry, even within Colombia.

Shortly after movies were introduced to Colombia at the turn of the 20th century, the entrepreneurial Di Domenico brothers produced a historical documentary, “The Drama of October the 15th,” regarding the Battle of Boyacá, and a more controversial one about the then-recent assassination of Rafael Uribe Uribe, a key political figure. For the most part, however, cinema was still a novelty for Colombians until the 1920s, and creative ambition did not go much further than the Lumière-like filming of everyday life.

The first full-length feature film, “María,” based on a novel by native author Jorge Isaacs, appeared in 1922. In 1924,“Under the Antioquia Sky” and “The Tragedy of Silence” opened to a generally enthusiastic response. These films were followed by “Claws of Gold” in 1926, a critical take on the U.S.’ intervention in Colombian politics which resulted in the loss of Panama.

However, these sporadic efforts could not compete with the flood of popular and expensively produced cinema coming from Hollywood and Germany which featured such stars as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. When sound arrived in 1928, Colombian filmmakers could not afford the costly equipment needed to make their own “talkies,” and were thus finished for many years. What was left of the local industry shifted entirely from production to importation.

With the production of Colombia’s first sound film in 1941, national cinema saw a new beginning. Shortly thereafter a Bogotá businessman Oswaldo Duperly started a production company which, for a few years, made a minor incursion into the Latin market dominated by Mexico and Argentina.

In 1954, in the manner of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí with “Un Chien Andalou,” novelist Gabriel García Márquez and painter Enrique Grau collaborated on a surrealist short film, “The Blue Lobster.” Their hopes of manifesting a renaissance in Colombian film art did not happen.

In the 1970s, social problems gave rise to an exploitative genre dubbed “pornomisery.” Influenced by the popularity of the lurid Mondo Cane “shockumentaries,” pornomisery captured some of the worst scenes of poverty and degradation in Colombia at the time, but without any accompanying insight or explanation.

Around the same time a new box office tax was instituted in order to subsidize the production of short films. Aspiring filmmakers responded eagerly. By the end of the 1970s, the state-sponsored production company, FOCINE, folded due to mismanagement and an economic crisis. During its existence, it was a notable boost to a new generation of ambitious auteurs, and actually resulted in some successes.

This past decade has seen Colombian cinema recover, in part because of new government measures to finance and promote filmmaking, and in part due to the international success of films such as “Our Lady of the Assassins” and “María Full of Grace,” which ironically were made by a Frenchman and an American respectively. However, native filmmakers like Sergio Cabrera, Rodrigo Triana and Victor Gaviria have succeeded both at home and abroad, winning prizes and box office earnings for works that have tackled Colombia’s many social problems. Ciro Guerra’s “Los Viajes del Viento” won a Cannes Film Festival award in 2009. In addition, Colombia’s film festivals in Bogotá and Cartagena are among the best regarded in Latin America, and the one is Mompós is quickly gaining fame.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: Colombian Culture: Music, Colombian Culture: Comedy, Colombian Culture: An Introduction, Colombian Culture: Dance, Colombian Culture: Art, Cumbia, Colombian Culture: Literature, Colombian Culture: Theater, Shakira and Colombian Culture: Museums.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
27 Sep 2011

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