Editor’s Note: Due to length, sections of this interview have been cut down.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Jozef K. Richards started his own production company in 2002 at the ripe old age of 12. The King’s Tower founder has been making movies ever since — not that any of his experience as a filmmaker could have prepared him for an ultimate improvisational project, crafting sight unseen (and language unspoken) a film from scratch in the northwestern corner of South America. Un Jardin Adentro de la Violencia [A Garden Within The Violence] was the end result, a 20-minute politi-romance and the most thoroughly Spanish selection in this year’s “Wisconsin’s Own en Español” program.
It’s a particularly impressive feat given that Richards couldn’t exactly speak the language on set, no hint of which makes its way into the end result. Enriched by an overwhelming passion for political and personal change, Un Jardin is set in the heart of La Violencia, a decade-long period of turbulence between Colombian conservative nationalists and progressives following the assassination of populist figurehead Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.
In the most effusive set of “5 Questions” we’ve had yet, Richards talks about the passion of politics, learning to direct through a translator, and getting abandoned in Colombia.
1. Obviously, a number of “Wisconsin’s Own” films have Spanish as their primary language (or are bilingual) this year, but even your opening crawl is in Spanish – which is fantastic. What made you want to tell a story in another language to that degree of commitment?
It was a very strange series of events that led me to being there in Colombia, as my character says in the opening scene. It is slightly autobiographical of what was happening for me at the time. I had intended to film the first four episodes of season 2 to my web-series Friday Night Weekly there, but when my co-host bailed on me the night before our flight, I was suddenly left with three weeks in Colombia with only myself, my friend Alex [Trapp], his wife Ledis [Arango V.], and a lot of people I couldn’t talk to.
Being that I spent all my money to get out there with the intent of coming home having produced something worthwhile, I decided I would need to quickly adapt. I knew [Alex] and [Ledis] were not very experienced with the camera or audio and that asking them to make anything from the bottom up would be quite demanding, but I figured if I catered my script to their interests and made it as easy on them as I could, while shouldering as much as I could on my own, they’d be down. So I decided to make it in Spanish and about the area’s history, and that got them all excited about it and the people in the town, too. Although I have since learned Spanish and spent many more months in South America last year, I did not speak Spanish at the time, had to direct through Alex as my translator, and memorized all of my lines without knowing what they meant — besides how I had originally written them in English.
2. You’re telling a story during a period of great political turmoil and I think the black & white cinematography adds to that revolutionary dichotomy. What was your thinking behind that aesthetic choice?
We were very pressed for time and since we had no lighting equipment, we really had to work with the sun. The sun was fairly cooperative, but there were a handful of scenes that we just couldn’t shoot at the time of day we wanted to. The scene when the neighboring farmer interrogates Germán had to be filmed earlier than at dusk like I had envisioned, because he really was the neighboring farmer and had to tend to the farm at that time. That meant we had a lot of white skies in our footage. When it’s overcast in the day, you get nicer, more even light on your subjects from the sun, but the sky itself looks kind of crappy because it just gets blown-out or at best, completely grey in color. I thought this detracted from how great the photography otherwise looked. I found I could darken the scene more than I could with color to make it look more like the time of day I wanted. And with the entire image in black and white, the grey skies were no longer an issue. They might as well have been blue skies, there was no way to tell the difference.
The fact that it was also a period piece made it a no-brainer. It’s interesting where your eyes will go in an image when there’s no color to grab your attention first.
3. Some of your actors (Manuela’s father for example) have a naturalistic quality to their performances. Were you aiming for that level of a subdued performance?
This was the first film for everyone except for Alex, who has acted in other films of mine, and myself. None of the actors spoke English. I did however, write all of the parts specifically for the people who played them, and I did get to know them all beforehand. I paid attention to how they acted, figured they would all be a little shy, and wrote around that. Alex was a great help in communicating ideas, but overall I just paid attention. As long as I saw them deliver the performance I wanted, I could edit it all together and make it look like they did it all in one take. That’s the movie magic. Not everyone has to be a great actor if the director and editor are competent enough to turn them into one in the final product.
4. This has some of the most impressive wide shots I’ve seen out of an independent film selection this year. The tree tops in particular are gorgeous. Did your crew actually go to Colombia?
Everything was filmed in Colombia. We are in the actual areas we describe in the plot and Ledis and her father (who plays her father in the movie) both were huge assets in authenticating everything to fit the time period. When it became impossible to modify our locations to perfectly fit the time period, we had our visual effects artist Trent Schoonover erase things like telephone and electrical wires. Many wide shots turned out even more beautiful this way.
5. I think it’s easy to be cynical about politics these days and even though Un Jardin is from another time and place, we feel like we’re on the cusp of revolution, of change. Do you think passion and politics can coexist? Either for these characters or in actuality?
It’s interesting to consider and maybe I’ll get a little too heavy with this. We contrast Germán’s passion for his love with David’s passion for his politics. Ultimately, their passion does yield results. We can see that throughout history: people like David and their passion can really change things.
I went back [to this town] a few months later, and I plan to go again this year. Much of this conflict is in fact gone. David’s battle is won, but the next generation had theirs, and the current generation has their own, and the next will have theirs and so on. So, by that measure, the question becomes: With all that passion, what is a more worthwhile outlet? Politics, or love? Who is really accomplishing more in the end, is it David by fighting, or Germán, living by example? Or is it that both types of people are necessary, as well as the forces working against them?
“Change” is much like life itself, in that it is both incredibly meaningless and the most meaningful thing. And so David’s political fight for change is incredibly important, but only in the sense that it will lead to the next revolution. It achieves everything and nothing! We have a street going through the most segregated parts of town named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have the United States’ founding fathers on money which they fought so hard to get away from, and we have countless killings in history in the names of religious prophets who preached peace. This is the same point I make with [Jorge Eliécer] Gaitán in the movie. What did any of them really achieve? Both everything and nothing. But at least in their lifetimes they knew love.
- Un Jardin Adentro de la Violencia plays as part of the “Wisconsin’s Own en Español” shorts program Sun, Apr 12 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. At the time of publication, tickets were still available.