Buried deep in the jungle of Colombia lies the riverside village of Pogue. In the Bojaya municipality, Pogue is home to muses who weave together songs as intricate and powerful as the Río Bojaya that cascades past the village. It is here that director Germán Arango chose to film Songs that Flood the River, his first feature film.
Arango has spent seven years in the Bojaya municipality shooting short films and Songs that Flood the River. The feature film will have its U.S. premiere at this year’s True/False Film Fest. It’s the culmination of Arango’s time spent with the people of Pogue, who he says have become like family.
True/False Film Programmer Amir George first saw the film behind closed doors at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and was immediately captivated by the story.
“When I watched it, I thought, this has to be at True/False,” George says. “Like I felt that immediately and I contacted the filmmakers right away.”
Bojaya lies within the Chocó Department, one of the poorer regions of Colombia. It is home to a large Afro-Colombian population, which has largely been ignored by the government. The people of Bojaya have a rich culture, and the songs, called “alabados,” are traditional melodies sung by Black communities following the death of a relative or friend. They are meant to help guide the soul of the deceased to the realm of the dead. But for the inhabitants of Pogue, the songs have begun to take on a different meaning.
In 2002, Bojaya experienced one of the most horrific massacres in Colombian history. Another village in the municipality, Bellavista, was at the center of a firefight between guerilla forces and paramilitaries. During the firefight a bomb went through the roof of a church and killed at least 79 inhabitants of the village, though some reports counted dozens more. “It was one of these events that really marred the community because lots of their family members and friends died in that massacre,” Arango says.
The result was a community left searching for a way to reckon with such a loss. Arango found that they had turned to the alabados as a way of processing their grief. He likened the process to rap music, where a melody is built from samples and then lyrics are laid down over it. In this case, the alabados served as the sample from which melodies were derived. Then lyrical stories about the massacre, the ongoing civil war and other sources of pain were vocalized over the traditional songs.
At the center of the film is Oneida, one of the Pogue's cultural leaders. Oneida lost one of her legs early on in life to a snake, which has left her stuck in the village ever since. “That’s important because the Afro-Colombian families in Chocó are people that are moving around a lot,” Arango says. “So, this mobility is important in their communities, and for her, this is her course, but also what makes her different and what brings out all the strength that she has in her.”
Oneida’s early tragedies in life have made her alabados a powerful experience and given her a unique connection to the river. She describes the river as a man that is sometimes tender and good to her, bringing gifts and good fortune. Other times he is jealous and will flood, taking everything away.
Arango says Oneida’s story serves as a microcosm of what the entire country is enduring. In 2016, the Colombian government and the guerilla group responsible for the Bojaya massacre, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, signed a peace agreement. The agreement marked a monumental point in Colombian history, and to many served as the start of a nationwide healing process. Since then, the government has failed to uphold its end of the agreement Arango says. Still, there is plenty of hope within the country.
Arango says as the country moves into a post-conflict time period, it will allow for the culture of Bojaya to thrive. “All this context is important because in that process the voices of the victims emerge,” Arango says. “What seems to be important in the narrative is that these people only exist because of what happened in the war. And what this film tries to show is that these people and these communities… there is this cultural richness around them in their relationship with the jungle and their culture and it’s before even the war.”
“It’s so melodic and it’s so poetic,” George says. “A lot of our program this year is really artistically driven, but this one stands out because it’s a new filmmaker, I think that’s something to be excited about immediately. Germán has really made an impressive debut.”
Viewers absorb the cultural richness of Columbia and reach a level of understanding of the people lost in the narrative of conflict. Arango's work asks the viewer to move past the misconceptions and easy judgements of a country that has frequently been presented as a war-torn nation run by drug lords and paramilitary forces. He asks viewers to be human.