There is a world that exists that is hard to fathom, which today, in our vastly connected digital age, where our social media feeds are inundated with photos from Syria and Venezuela, is itself hard to comprehend. In part, because we have all seen the imagery of war — shocking photos and footage are nearly commonplace and working to dull us into desensitization. And because we perceive war as a thing that ends, as a tragedy to be overcome, as something that is not simply a way of life. Similarly, there abounds images of abject poverty and hunger, starving children whose forms and bodies we know well enough to conjure without reference.
What’s harder is a reality that is nearly recognizable as our own, but still exceptionally foreign: bustling metropolises with buses and infrastructure and a middle class, but that are still alien to a cloistered American sensibility. For instance, the decrepit, overcrowded San Sebastian prison nestled in the heart of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where men and women and whole families waste away for years awaiting trial for doing what most of their neighbors do: work in the cocaine industry. “Cocaine Prison,” a new documentary from indigenous filmmaker Violeta Ayala (“Stolen”), wants to bring this prison and the harsh realities of its inmates into the spotlight. And, while not successful in crafting a compelling narrative or doing total justice to its subject, “Cocaine Prison” manages to become a valuable look at a reality too often ignored.
Ayala’s film follows Daisy, a young woman whose family grows coca inside the legal boundaries of the law in Cochabamba, and her brother Hernan. Daisy and Hernan, the oldest of the family, are sent to the city for high school, but Hernan, wanting to start a band and in need of money for a drum kit, takes a job transporting cocaine across the border to Argentina to earn $100. He is arrested and sent to San Sebastian to await trial, because while growing coca is legal, making, selling, transporting and using cocaine are not. Hernan’s arrest sets Daisy on a frantic journey to set him free.
The scene inside San Sebastian is hellish. The prison, packed to the gills with 700 inmates, is more like a slum than anything else. There are no uniforms, no cells, and no ostensible order. In fact, in order to have a place to sleep, inmates must buy a cell — Hernan pays over $2,000 for his. San Sebastian — which Ayala and her crew filmed by giving Hernan and his friend Mario cameras — is chaotic, so crowded that barbers give haircuts in stairwells and inmates sleep shoulder to shoulder. What’s most shocking, though, aside from the general destitution, is the children who roam about, playing among the ramshackle corridors and alleys that make up the prison.
While they languish in their boredom and fear, Hernan and Mario struggle to even condemn their “bosses” who got them into trouble. In the world they know — with its complex laws concerning the plant and drug — the bosses above them are the only people who are going to employ them when they finally are set free. It’s a loyalty that protects those at the top, and leaves the young men and women at the bottom to bear the brunt of the inefficient legal system.
But while Ayala’s film manages to impart these ideas, it does so by simply capturing what it captures. There is so little attempt to make sense of it all, and so little ostensible narrative, that the film never does manage to become compelling for any reason aside of the harrowing nature of life behind San Sebastian’s walls. Daisy, for all intents and purposes, is the film’s cypher. In her work to free Hernan, she sheds light on the prison and the circumstances that lead people there — in a desperate bid to secure help from Hernan’s boss, she too carries cocaine over the border to Argentina. But it’s a deluge of information and a challenge to comprehend much of it — an effort which the film disappointingly doesn’t aid.
Certainly, every documentary subject is worthy of a competent documentary, but subjects as important and overlooked as the squalor of San Sebastian, the general malignance of the cocaine industry, and the lives of those trapped in the middle, are paramount. And Ayala’s film never quite manages to become the compelling story needed to turn heads and make people notice. Which is unfortunate because even in its current state, its import is obvious. Meaning that, in a way, the biggest failing of “Cocaine Prison” is that it will not find the audience that its subjects deserve. [C]