Written by Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten
Directed by Oscar Ruiz Navia
In Colombia’s urban jungle Santiago de Cali, whose barrios buzz with optimism for an upcoming election and a desire to express unity with the rest of the world, two friends from very different backgrounds are trying to get the message out the only way that they know how: through street art. Like a love letter to his hometown, Oscar Ruiz Navia’s second feature, Los Hongos, provides a snapshot of present-day Colombia, exploring issues of religion, love, art and class through the unclouded eyes of the young protagonists.
Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez) lives in a one-room apartment with his devout Christian single mother, losing his short-lived construction job for stealing paint. Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura Tascón), an art student, divides his time between his former singing sensation father and ailing grandmother. The boys bond over a mutual passion for graffiti and compulsion to create something more meaningful than tagging random parts of the city. Inspired by a Youtube video from the Arab Spring, showing Muslim women broadcasting their refusal to stay silent, Ras and Calvin decide to join up with other artists for an ambitious project set to take over a vast wall near a busy thoroughfare. The authorities, however, are less than understanding when it comes to street art.
Is the art subversive or merely self-indulgent? Ras chooses to sketch by day and paint the town by night rather than work or assist his mother. Calvin, in contrast, suffers less consequences by indulging in this hobby. Even though he skips class a lot, he will probably still earn a degree, while Ras does not have that luxury. We could hate on Clavin in the way that we do people who don’t check their privilege, but instead we see him and Ras growing up together, sharing crushes on girls, going to parties, and navigating shifting relationships with parents. Theirs is more a brotherhood than a friendship.
Los Hongos raises a lot of questions but does so without cynicism or an agenda – well, almost. Navia seems to poke fun at the underground art scene. At a concert, the band’s lead singer speak-sings into a megaphone into a microphone over a truly cacophonous mixture of synth and bass. Ras looks on in disbelief while Calvin and his girlfriend rock out beside him. And, during the painting of the great mural, the hippie announcer of an alternative radio station coverig the event proudly announces that what the artists are doing goes beyond Cali and Colombia and into the galaxy itself.
The translation could be better; going by the subtitles the dialogue is flat, which seems at odds with the film’s powerful imagery. Regardless, Los Hongos succeeds in conveying a vivid movement in Colombia’s youth culture without dipping into poverty porn territory.