Review: Juan Andres Arango’s “La Playa DC”

By Christopher Bourne

Chosen as Colombia’s submission for the Oscar Foreign Language Film nominations, “La Playa DC” marks an auspicious debut of 35-year old director Juan Andres Arango, who delivers a unique vision, by turns harrowing, heartrending, and humorous, of his native Colombia. He transforms the familiar coming-of-age story with wonderfully evocative cinematography by Nicolas Canniccioni which vividly renders Bogotá’s unique geography of harsh concrete jungles surrounded by lushly verdant greenery, as well as a pulsating hip-hop soundtrack that perfectly mirrors the restlessness of the film’s characters.

“La Playa DC” follows Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevara), a 13-year old Afro-Colombian whose life experience makes him seem much older, and his struggles to keep his head above the dangerous waters of poverty, drugs, and street life in the capital. His family was forced to flee the civil war on Columbia’s Pacific coast, eventually making their way to Bogotá. Tomas’ older brother Chaco (James Solis) has recently returned from being deported from “El Norte,” i.e. the US, and is saving money to return to his family’s hometown, and perhaps make a second attempt to escape the country. His younger brother Jairo (Andres Murillo) has succumbed to crack addiction and now owes a debt to drug dealers after smoking away the product he was meant to sell. With a mostly ineffectual mother and a hostile stepfather, Tomas is forced to take to the streets to survive. He hopes to make a living with his artistic skills in a very specific way: carving out elaborate haircut designs for the young Afro-Colombian teenagers who adopt this as a major part of their fashion and cultural identity. Arango is especially adept at giving us a visceral sense of how this community is looked upon as outsiders in their own country and subject to race-based hostility. This is pertinently illustrated in one scene in which Tomas and Chaco are chased out of an upscale mall by security guards solely based on their physical appearance. “La Playa DC” gives us a glimpse of a nation that is woefully underrepresented in world cinema, and it excels in immersing us in its environment with stylistic flair and humanistic sensitivity.

“La Playa DC” will screen at the Quad from Dec. 6-11 for its Oscar qualifying run, and as part of the 2013 African Diaspora Film Festival. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the film festival’s website:

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