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February is the month that the farándula – the colloquial expression for an obscenely well-groomed, celebrity crowd – comes to town for the Cartagena Film Festival.
It’s difficult to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a celebration of film than Cartagena de Indias, the Cannes of the Caribbean.
The charming colonial streets of the historic centre throw up delightful surprise meetings with film supernovas like Italian belladona, Isabella Rossellini and Mexican heartthrob, Gael Garcia as they skip footloose and fancy free from the majestic baroque theatre, Teatro Adolfo Mejia, to the red carpet of another premier at architect German Samper’s monolithic Convention Centre.
International superstars rub shoulders with more criollo, or local celebrities while producers, directors and film distributors schmooze the room hoping to go home with a little stardust and a tan courtesy of the real star of the show, Cartagena.
With 110 films from 24 different countries and a free bar open somewhere nearly every night, the Caribbean filmathon is a busy time for Blogger.
This year as the co-founder of This Is Cartagena, I even got an invite to the Colombian equivalent of the Emmys – the India Catalinas – the annual shindig for Colombia’s show business glitterati.
As soon as I set eyes on the red carpet and caught a sniff of the ephemeral whiff of celebrity I thought to myself, ‘Blogger’s here. Blogger’s away.”
When you talk about show business in Colombia you’re really talking about the soap industry, a multi-million dollar talent factory dedicated to the search for that perfect combination of crocodile tears, laughter, aspiration and a healthy dollop of melodrama. This potent mix helps the country tune in and drop out every day of the week.
Unlike some of the C-list stars that find themselves trapped in a grey, TV version of Dante’s inferno in Britain’s top soap addresses, Albert Square and Coronation Street, if you’re in the 8 o’clock soap slot in Colombia you are as A-list as it gets. A euphoric crowd of 3,000 screamed as each idol and his glamorous leading lady oozed along the red carpet.
Telenovelas as they are known here is serious business for both the main Colombian networks, RCN and Caracol. While the hammy, afternoon plot lines might not be everyone’s cup of tea you don’t mess with the masses. RCN’s Betty La Fea (Ugly Betty) lays claim to being to the world’s most widely exported soap opera with more than 100 versions rolled out in countries as far flung as India and Azerbaijan.
By the time Blogger arrived at the year’s gala event, held in the shadow of Cartagena’s 18th century clock tower in all its luminous splendour, reggaetoneros, Jay Balvin and J Alvarez had the glam crowd all hot and sweaty.
The prizes and the whisky flowed and before I knew it Blogger had been whisked into a VIP party atop the city’s 17th century walls surrounded by the stars. What a lovely bunch. It was a million miles from some of the drug-based storylines currently ruling the roost on the Colombian airwaves.
There was Colombia’s version of Brad Pitt – Manolo Cardona – a cocaine dealer by day (not in real life of course but in his role as Fresita in the blockbuster, Cartel de los Sapos, or The Cartel of the Snitches), escorting his septagenarian grandmother to get herself tucked into the RCN buffet. Even Andres Suarez, officially the best bad guy in the country, had a smile from ear to ear that sat at odds with his cut-throat on-screen persona.
Blogger was confused by the glaring disparity between the reality and perception of real- life Colombians and the gun-toting cowboy booted type that you see on the big screen. This isn’t a country populated entirely by drug dealers and their dolls and if any proof was needed the after party was most definitely a coke-free zone.
Coke’s a dirty word in Colombia, especially when RCN – the media arm of Carlos Ardila Lulle’s soft drinks empire – is throwing the party. ‘No we don’t serve Coca-Cola here we only serve Pepsi,’ we were told at the free bar.
Taking Coke off the menu might just be the first step to Colombia getting away from the mistaken stereotypes that unfortunately still follow its people around the world. Harnessing the country’s undisputed creative talents to tell other types of stories is the next. I’d trade a couple of these shiny India Catalinas for another hundred Ugly Betties any day.