Docs: “Strangers to Peace” Showcases Difficulties of Deprogramming Violence
The heavy weight of history, its almost gravitational pull toward chaos, and the dark intersection of this with both personal trauma and self-betterment are all jointly explored to moving effect in Strangers to Peace. This interesting new documentary examines the attempts of three individuals to leave FARC, a Marxist guerrilla army which has waged a bloody campaign to overthrow the Colombian government for more than 50 years.
Co-directed, produced, and written by the Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife team of Laura Ángel Rengifo and Noah Debonis, the film tells the story of three former soldiers — a trans market vendor and would-be seamstress, a young father pursuing higher education and a career as an educator, and an indigenous young woman pondering reunion with her family in the Amazon — as they face danger in attempting to rebuild their lives in a homeland which now largely sees them as terrorists.
A thorny, tangled, violent mixture of commingled political, ethnic and basic land disputes, the decades-long Colombian conflict is difficult to boil down. In essence, it’s an asymmetric war that started in the mid-1960s and has ground on ever since, with far-right paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas jockeying for influence and small pockets of controlled territory alongside drug-trafficking syndicates and other organized crime enterprises.
Within this struggle, FARC consider themselves freedom fighters, and initially positioned as a force against government corruption, systemic economic inequalities, and other social problems. Increasingly, though, the group began to target civilians, and bankroll its operations through extortion, kidnapping, and other illegal means.
Thankfully, Strangers to Peace doesn’t try to make this fool’s mission of a messy historical lecture its aim. Instead, it chooses to focus much more relatably on people simply attempting to get their lives on track after FARC’s 2017 demobilization, which offered a formal path to forgiveness.
Through a heavily resourced governmental reintegration program, more than 51,000 formerly armed combatants have laid down their weapons and embraced peace. However, during this process, more than 2,300 have also been killed while attempting to re-assimilate into society, as they often find themselves torn between both hiding their past from new neighbors and hiding quite literally from former colleagues whose hardcore militancy hasn’t waned. It’s in this uneasy space of moral twilight that Strangers to Peace, newly released to VOD by Freestyle Digital Media, exists, and carves out its ample reservoir of sympathy.
For Alexandra, who hasn’t seen her family for eight years, FARC offered an escape from childhood poverty and an abusive mother. In Jose, a kindly ex-Army officer who lives in the northeastern city of Valledupar, she seems to have found both a boyfriend and some much-needed stability. Jose and his mother each support Alexandra’s choice to reconnect with her family, despite the fact she no longer speaks or understands her regional dialect.
Away from FARC, Dayana — who grew up on the outskirts of Bogotá in a makeshift hut, one of eight kids by different fathers — can finally live her truth. At a local LGBTQ center, she cautiously tries on her new identity and endeavors to make friends with a generally younger, like-minded community, even if one relationship summons forth complicated memories and an uncomfortable truth about some of her past actions.
Twenty-eight-year-old Ricardo, meanwhile, takes college classes and seems to have access to a positive mentor (a counselor with his own guerrilla past), even as he struggles to figure out how, when, or even if to tell his young daughter Mariana about his past.
Strangers to Peace is told through a very personal lens, with filmmaker Ángel Rengifo having experienced FARC violence firsthand while growing up in Colombia. This gives the movie authenticity and informs everything from its light touch with political flavoring (only in the background do we get bits and pieces of specified opposition to the peace plan when Iván Duque wins the presidency) to its technical package. The latter gives off a very lived-in vibe (Ángel Rengifo and Rajiv Smith-Mahabir share cinematographer credit), with some well-executed and integrated drone footage helping to give a fuller sense of Alexandra’s village life, for example.
For some, the movie’s lack of political mooring will be a turnoff. In glancing fashion, the documentary recalls Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen’s recent In Her Hands, which divided audiences at its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival by telling the story of Zarifa Ghafari, a young female mayor in Afghanistan, while also splitting screen time with a charismatic member of the oppressive Taliban.
Strangers to Peace doesn’t explicitly feature still current and active FARC members. But it does feature Ricardo being honest about sadness over having left the group, and not achieving its goals. While one interviewee reflects on the psychological toll of being forced to kill would-be escapees as a teenager, the movie doesn’t dig down into FARC’s actions, either on a macro or individual level. Neither does it render judgments. To say it is apolitical isn’t entirely true, but the film certainly does exist in a spectrum of grey.
It ruins nothing to note that closing codas for the film’s subjects all either hint at or indicate outright no small amount of darkness. The shadow of this confirmation of despair, however, doesn’t cast a pall over Strangers to Peace. Rather, it simply serves to highlight the enormous challenges of its depicted struggle.
There is the difficulty of turning former enemies into partners in a civilized society (something recognized when the camera lingers on a quote from Nelson Mandela on the wall of a reintegration center). Just as daunting, however, is the massive inner struggle within people who have lost precious formative years to violence and wandering. Who will stand and help these people, and what does success look like?
Strangers to Peace doesn’t provide easy answers. But its engaging rhythms and humanist point-of-view offer lessons for receptive viewers.