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Into the Light

Santa Fean Kurt Shaw helps Latin America’s most overlooked children step out of the shadows

September 29, 2010, 1:00 am

Some stories, as Shaw and da Silva discovered, are simply too painful to tell.

In September, 2007, as the Bogotá sun began to drop, Shaw and da Silva sat on pillows facing 15 of the most taciturn, shut-down teenagers they had ever met. They were back at Taller de Vida, invited by the Duques to make another film—this time, with a group of ex-child soldiers working through a multi-year reintegration process. Since morning, Shaw and da Silva had been trying to chat with the kids, asking them to share just a few of their experiences that they might like to film. The kids were having none of it.

“Finally,” Shaw recalls, “at the end of that extremely frustrating day, a young man named Edwin says, ‘Do you have any idea how hard I had to work to get out of the war? I had to walk two weeks, with no food, nothing on the feet, carrying my gun. I’ve worked that hard to get out of the war, and every person I’ve met since then has tried to drag me back in.’”

It was one of the most enlightening moments of Shaw’s life. Stories, for him, had always been about liberation, but Edwin viewed his own story as a dead end, a foreclosure on his future. Since demobilizing, he’d been forced to produce his story for an endless array of army officials, judges, psychologists and social workers. He wasn’t about to tell it again.

So Shaw and da Silva changed tactics. The next morning, they began with a game of soccer. Later they played Mad Libs, and then days of theater games, until the young men and women began to remember that storytelling can be about play, about opening the imagination. Soon, Shaw and da Silva had the kids “playing” with their own experiences, molding them into a 67-minute fictional film called Life’s Roulette.

The film is chillingly realistic. It follows the lives of five teenagers who turn to the streets to escape poverty or abusive parents. Two of the characters—formerly best friends—get involved in a turf war and end up pulling guns on each other as the camera cuts away. But the other three fare better. They stumble across some Brazilian filmmakers (played convincingly by Shaw and da Silva) who lend the teens a camera and ask them to document their own neighborhood and return with the footage. The film ends with the three new filmmakers strolling around the neighborhood park, armed with a camera and a mission, and—it would seem—a promising future.

In Santa Fe, Oscar Pacheco Loya is filmed by Sheyenne Lovato for Entering Another World.
Credits: Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva

Though the making of Life’s Roulette was only a part of the teenagers’ complex recovery, Shaw points out that, three years later, all 15 members of the crew are still close, a sign that they have overcome one of the key challenges for child soldiers and relearned how to build relationships. And, according to the kids themselves, creating the film helped them understand that if they played with their pasts, they could envision more hopeful futures.

As Edwin explained to a Bogotá audience in 2009, “We wanted to show that even if [the characters in the film] have done terrible things in their past, people can change…I think that’s true of the film, and that’s true of our lives.”

Last year, Shaw and da Silva came back to Santa Fe, where they worked with a small group of Mexican immigrant children in the Hopewell area, in collaboration with the former Triangle District Resource Center. Together, they helped these newly arrived Santa Feans script and film Entering Another World, in which a boy slides down an Alice in Wonderland tunnel (a culvert, actually, in the arroyo just behind Second Street Brewery), and finds himself struggling to identify friend and foe in an unfamiliar—and often unfriendly—English-speaking fantasy world. Shaw hopes to have more Santa Fe projects in the future.

Meanwhile, at Taller de Vida, as at hundreds of organizations across Latin America, the work continues. Daniel and the other ex-child soldiers put away their sketches and, at the invitation of Stella Duque, who has joined this morning’s session in progress, they move to a room downstairs. Here, professionally matted photographs have been hung carefully on the walls. The exhibit, recently returned from an international conference in New York, is the result of a two-month workshop with Bogotá artist Pedro Gacharná and four of the ex-child soldiers, including Daniel, who steps into the room and stands before one of the photos he made.

A pair of spindly flower stalks are portrayed in black and white, backed by a blurry mountain range. The image echoes his sketch from upstairs, as one of the stalks blooms with white flowers, while the other is dry.
A friend wanders over to take a look. 

“It’s like I was describing upstairs,” Daniel tells him. “This is how I feel, how sometimes the fear is blooming, and then it’s gone for a while.”

He looks again at his photo. His eyes move from the dry stalk to the one blooming with fear, and then back to the dry stalk. And, for a long moment, that’s where they stay.  SFR

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