Interview With Jeff Zimbalist, Director of "The Two Escobars"

Colombia Culture
by Mitch Anderson Aug 27, 2010

All photos courtesy of Jeff Zimbalist

Mitch Anderson talks with Jeff Zimbalist, director of the new documentary, “The Two Escobars,” about soccer, drugs, violence, and a complicated relationship.

Mitch Anderson: I’m going to start with the legend of Pablo Escobar…. From the film you get the sense that he was a kind of evil saint, responsible for so much death and corruption, but at the same time seen as a… savior of the poor.  Who was Pablo Escobar?

Jeff Zimbalist: He was both of those things.  He was a devil and an angel.  My brother and I felt that because we didn’t live in Colombia during the era of the PEPEs and Pablo Escobar, it was not our place to make a judgment call….  

We wanted give equal voice to both polar points of view: Either you were a member of the population of Colombia who was given a home and education and health care and soccer fields by Pablo, and you see him as a Robin Hood (and he went to bat against the Colombian elite, the Rosca oligarchy, for the working class poor trying to change decades of oppression and injustice), or you lost family members to random acts of violence, say a car bomb, that Pablo was responsible for.  Pablo dropped a proverbial bomb on Colombia that divided the country into two opposite camps.

Long after the structure of the doc was in place, after we already had the narrative together, we still were focus grouping and getting feedback on the very polarized views of him.  We were still working to make sure that the balance was there journalistically in the film.  Personally, I think there was an internal battle that Pablo struggled with his whole life.  He didn’t want to be a killer, but he couldn’t stop himself; he had to protect his pride and he used violent means to do so, which ultimately destroyed everything he fought for in the name of the working class poor.

Anderson: So you have the “devil and the angel”… wrapped up in one man — Pablo Escobar.  But the other protagonist in the film… is the heroic soccer player, the humble dignified soul, the hope of Colombia and the casualty of Colombia — Andres Escobar.  Who was Andres Escobar, and what does he represent?

Zimbalist: Andrés was nicknamed “The Gentleman of the Field”, “El Caballero de la Cancha.”  He was the epitome of the moral, law-abiding, team captain role model who wanted to use sport as a vehicle to redefine the country’s tarnished image on behalf of all the innocent victims of Pablo’s war – he was the poster child of the Colombian government’s PR campaign to create a new national identity. 

But the irony was that in order for soccer to succeed and Andrés to transform Colombia’s image, he had to turn a blind eye to the fact that soccer needed narco money at that time and that Pablo Escobar, the very same person who was ruining the country’s image, was also the secret weapon behind Colombian soccer’s unprecedented rapid rise out of obscurity to become one of the best in the world. 

Andrés would’ve preferred for soccer to be pure, he would’ve preferred never to visit Pablo Escobar or do business with Pablo, but he played on Pablo’s team and when the Don, the Capo, the King of the Underworld invites you to dinner, you don’t have a choice… you show up.

Anderson: Tell me about violence.  Both “Favela Rising” [Zimbalist’s previous documentary] and “The Two Escobars” are linked… by a certain treatment of [violence].  I’m curious about your thoughts, your experiences.  What moves you to tell the story of violence? 

“I’m motivated to make films that tell positive stories that challenge common perceptions about areas of the world, typically developing areas of the world, that are almost always portrayed by mainstream media as falling apart — almost always portrayed negatively.”

Zimbalist: I’m motivated to make films that tell positive stories that challenge common perceptions about areas of the world, typically developing areas of the world, that are almost always portrayed by mainstream media as falling apart — almost always portrayed negatively.

In some cases, like “Favela Rising”, that means telling a very prescriptive story in a place that is seen as a lost cause, a hotbed of violence and corruption in the favelas of Rio.  And that says, ‘This is the answer, and this is an inside out model of cultural and economic development that is applicable around the world’.  

In other cases, like “The Two Escobars”, this mission manifests in making sure that we’re telling a story about three dimensional characters, embracing the full complexity of a context, a historical moment, where most common portrayals are cliches about the romantic rise to power and monstrous downfall of a scarface type druglord.  

As independent filmmakers I think we have a responsibility to challenge common perceptions and preconceptions, to go deeper and more intimate with our investigation and representations. 

In terms of danger and working in an area that is very violent, there was a stark difference between the favelas of Brazil and our experience living in Colombia. In the favelas, you know literally what you’re trying to avoid: bullets. And the kids in the face masks who are shooting those bullets, the danger they represent is solely in the physical — that they have guns.  They are not old enough, mature enough, smart enough to come up with some plot that you need to worry about. They are not monitoring who you are.  You can just take refuge when they start shooting, and you will be okay.  So even though there was clear and present physical danger the entire time I was there, I was never too scared by it.  

In Colombia it was the exact opposite. I never once saw a gun during the entire production of this film, but I was afraid much of the time.  The fear was in my imagination.  You heard rumors of sabotaging, kidnapping and plots that would happen to journalists all over the place.  And we were dealing with very sensitive issues – going into maximum security prisons, past wounds and trauma, cartel wars.  And so while there was no clear and present violence, my imagination made me feel like I was in more danger in Colombia than in the favelas of Brazil.
And I think that’s kind of true in the fear genre and horror genres.   Take the difference between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King.  Stephen King is full of explicit gore, which is not that scary in the end.  But Edgar Allen Poe, at the end of the story, there is a man locked in a closet with a torch, and your imagination creates the image of the man burning, and it haunts you for the rest of your life.  

Anderson: The film is of course also about soccer.  Throughout, I was struck by a new insight into the nature of the sport.  For Colombians, soccer was a kind of refuge from violence, a sanctuary from reality in a way.  But in the end, it couldn’t escape the cruelty of it all.  The sport became both the slave and the master of the drug lords, it seemed. Was soccer a real refuge from violence? A broken dream?  What do you think?

Zimbalist: Soccer is an extension of society and society is an extension of sport. If you look at sport in a specific time and place in history, you will see everything taking place in society reflected through the sport.  

In this case there’s a line in the film where Coach Maturana says, “Narcotrafficking is an octopus; it touches everything.  Is soccer an island? NO!” There were people on the team like Andres Escobar, who felt that soccer shouldn’t be supported by drug money, and who felt that a victory was hollow if it was won with the support of dirty money and strong arm tactics.  

There was also a great need at the time for something to believe in, for somewhere to put their hopes.   But there was no time to recreate the soccer institution on a legitimate foundation, legal money.  So the shortcut was to use the support of narcotrafficking to lift the sport up and in doing so, lift the country up, and ironically, transform the country’s image to something more positive.

As we know from all the devil narratives, what seems too good to be true, often is.  You can’t escape the means that you use to get to an end.  In this case, ultimately the soccer institution and all that it said about a peace-loving hard-working Colombia ready to impress upon the world a new image of the country – this whole enterprise was built on a faulty foundation, illicit narco money, and was destined to collapse.

There were so many gamblers, drug traffickers and violent factions that were demanding that blood be spilt for the loss of the World Cup that someone had to sacrifice himself, to ultimately be the sacrificial lamb.  Shed that blood.  And Andres Escobar bore that burden.  He stepped up to the dark element to defend his people, all innocent Colombians who were victimized by violence and he did that so that the sport in the country could move forward, could begin to heal, and it has.

Colombia has come a long way in lowering violence and corruption rates since the 80s and early 90s and it was important to us not just to extend the negative stereotype of the country being a hotbed of violence and lawless barbarians, but rather to express through the film, and especially its ending, the respect and love my brother and I have gained living and working with Colombians… the country still has a ways to go, but it’s also come a very long way.

Anderson: On that note, I want to talk a bit about the World Cup. That climactic moment where the United States plays Colombia on US soil in 1994 was filled with this incredible paradox, a kind of disconnect.  For the US, it was a kind of privileged game it seemed, and for the Colombians it meant life or death. What are your thoughts? 

Zimbalist: I’m going to take that somewhere a little different.  Someone said to me today that there are three moments where for humanity time stops.  One:  when a nuclear weapon is dropped from a plane.  Two: when the president of a European or US country is murdered.  Three:  during the game.  And they meant The World Cup.

And it’s true.  The stories are abundant.  Time stops.  And there is no equivalent in any sport that is geared towards a US audience.  

“I hope that by making soccer accessible and translating that passion in a way that a US audience can identify with, we will start to understand this language of soccer which is used all over the world.”

Sport in the US more often takes the role of diversion or entertainment, where in most places around the world it becomes a unifying vehicle or a divisive vehicle for an entire people.  I hope that by making soccer accessible and translating that passion in a way that a US audience can identify with, we will start to understand this language of soccer which is used all over the world.  And then to begin to share knowledge about it, so we can better understand and connect with our cultural and class counterparts around the world.  I think it’s a real tool for us to reach out to people beyond borders.  

I mean, literally, the US team was a ragtag team fresh out of college who had no pressure going into the ’94 cup.  In playing with no pressure, they were able to be a bit more focused and disciplined.  [T]he Colombian team was an impressionable young team as well, but they had the burden of carrying their country out of decades of civil war, of bloody narco-war.  They had death threats before the game and they had family members killed.  

Ultimately, any game is a mental game, any game is a psychological game.  So when one team is that carefree and the other is carrying those kinds of burdens and mental demons, I think regardless of the talent involved, the game becomes lopsided and the outcome predictable. 

Anderson: The film doesn’t go too deeply or explicitly into any geopolitical analysis, especially regarding the US’s role in the nightmarish violence which gripped Colombia in the 80’s and 90’s. Nor does it seem to make any judgments about the terrible war occurring between the cartels and the Colombian government.  Why is that?  

Zimbalist: I think it’s tempting to include and create conclusions about these massive historical events and external societal moments, but a good narrative needs to draw the audience in and really challenge perceptions and prejudices.  

Even though… this is a story where sport, politics and crime are all intertwined, the film is not an analysis of responsibility for decades of violence. Whereas the motives and interest groups involved in this national story are very complex, we needed to know what our story was and stick to it with discipline and clarity. It’s from this clarity that real narrative tension is born, and space is opened up for the viewer to engage with the experience, the emotions more personally, more profoundly.

We wanted our audience to take a ride on a narrative where they could engage on a personal level, and start to understand the internal journeys of these characters.  We wanted to get beyond the numerous external political differences and into their universal emotional reactions, which is where I think change is born.  

You know, I don’t want to alienate viewers by playing to or against their preconceived opinions, and so by rooting them in the decisions of the moment, rather than the politics of the time, we can access a much wider audience, a more diverse audience, and have them all join in a common experience.  That’s at the heart of it.  If you want to investigate political responsibility, books can do that.  Wikipedia can do that.  

Anderson: “The Two Escobars” was initially meant to be part of a television series for ESPN, but you somehow turned it into a feature length piece.  How did you go about convincing ESPN to give you the space for that?  And how did you straddle the tensions between television and cinema?  

Zimbalist: It is such an elaborate process.

First, it wasn’t me that convinced ESPN, but rather the content that convinced them.  Here was a story that hadn’t ever been told in this way.  

We went down to Colombia and looked into the events of the fatal night where Andres Escobar was murdered.  And ultimately we decided that it wasn’t about the intellectual author of the crime or who pulled the trigger.  But rather it was the entire society that was responsible for Andres’s murder. His sacrifice.  

In order to understand his murder, you had to understand this very secretive phenomenon known on the streets as narco futbol or narco soccer. And in order to understand narco futbol, you had to understand the context of narco society and narco culture, and that meant understanding Pablo Escobar. And while ESPN is a sports network, they were eager to tell stories about the impacts of sports on society, and also, in their words, “redefine the sports documentary.”  

And as we started getting access to amazing characters, far more access than we ever expected, and also to archives that we never knew existed, archives that had never been shown in any other format, through the private archives of the families of Andres and Pablo, but also from the police department in Medellin and also through networks and broadcasters that had closed their doors many years ago, we realized that we could tell the story of sports and society, the story of Pablo and Andres, in the same film.

And so we took a gamble.  

Instead of making a 50 minute film per the assignment, we made a 100 minute film.  And we brought the rough cut to ESPN, biting our nails and holding our breath, hoping they would get behind this foreign language 100 minute feature length film and they did.

They loved it. And now they are supporting the theatrical release of the film.  And they supported us in film festivals.  We got accepted to Cannes, Tribeca and the Los Angeles Film Festival.  So in the end, I think it was the content and the concept that was the most persuasive element here.  

Anderson: On the point of archival footage, man, it’s just spectacular. The murder scenes, the cocaine round-ups, the aerial shots of old villages and fincas, the hysteria of soccer stadiums, the incredible goals, the footwork of the Colombians on the soccer pitch.  How did you get access to all of the archives? And talk to me a bit too about FIFA’s archival footage if you can.  

Zimbalist: Well, with archives like I said, you start with a journey that then branches out, just like any adventure in life.  You start with a point of contact or a resource, and you take what that person says, the direction that that person leads you, and you follow it.  Soon, you are deep within the trees of a forest.  A million different people you know, a million different places you can go. And with archives it’s the same thing.  

There’s all of these broadcasters who, during La Violencia through the times of Pablo Escobar and the PEPES – the whole historical era — they were shooting video the entire time.  Many of those tapes were unlabeled in these closed vaults that hadn’t been unlocked in many years.  And through persistence, we were given access.  

We would go into these vaults, and they would tell us:  this side of the room is sport and this side is politics.  And we would spend the time, personally and with helpers, going through tape after tape, and looking for the gems. I think it is that time investment that independent film and independent production can afford that is what allows us to explore issues with more depth and to investigate angles with perhaps more accuracy than your average daily everyday turn-around news show.  

So all of that was the journey of getting the archives in Colombia.  Getting FIFA footage was more of a corporate red tape process.  Ultimately, it was very expensive and prohibitive. But FIFA loves the film; they’ve gotten behind it. Luckily with ESPN behind us, as well, we were able to afford the footage we needed to include the own goal and the fateful game at the climax of the film. 

Anderson: Lastly, maybe a strange question, but the film gripped me in this anxious way, almost like cocaine.  My palms were sweaty.  My heart beat fast.  I was excited and depressed throughout.  As the filmmaker, just wondering if you have any insight — any thoughts on the symbolism of that?  

Zimbalist: [Laughter]  That’s awesome.  I haven’t heard that before.  No man, that’s your poetry.  I love it.

I think our style of directing is to very advertently and intentionally guide the viewer’s emotional experience through various stages of the narrative, where for 10 minutes at a time you think you love Pablo Escobar. And then the next 10 minutes you absolutely despise Pablo. That rollercoaster of contradictory emotions is ultimately the best representation you can give of life. Compressing many years of history into 100 minutes of sitting in the movie theater.

You know the wider the range of experiences and emotions a viewer goes through, the more authentic it makes their identification with what it would have been like to live through that time.  

I think that it’s a good sign that you had all of those things happening, and that it was able to trigger physiological reactions, but I never thought of it in terms of the parallel to a cocaine experience.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  

Community Connection:

Want to see “The Two Escobars”? If you’re in San Francisco, the film is showing at the Sundance Kabuki Theater, August 27-September 2, 2010. Buy tickets here.

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