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The Red Tree (El árbol rojo)

This Colombian road trip is both an exploration of nation and character, a modest yet touching drama — live from Tallinn Film Festival!


The richer you are, the easier travel becomes, the number of available options quickly multiplying. But for the poor, looking up long-lost relatives can become something of an epic task. Eliécer (Carlos Vergara) learns this the hard way when he is tasked with his accompanying his half-sister Esperanza (Shaday Velasquez) half way across the country; spanning the tranquil Colombian seaside to the hustle-and-bustle of Bogotá.

We first meet the middle-aged Eliécer playing the traditional gaita instrument, a type of flute made from bird feathers and a hollowed cactus stem. He is tied to his small, remote, seaside community, with little need for interruptions in his life. Yet, when his far younger sister Esperanza turns up, asking for help to find her mother after her father has died, he is tasked with making the arduous journey towards Bogotá, made all the more complicated because they don’t have enough money for the bus ticket. The odd-couple becomes an even more mismatched gang-of-three when joined by the proud and slightly combative Toño (Jhoyner Salgado) who has dreams of becoming a boxer. The resultant trip both explores the concept of makeshift families and the way the nation is progressing along the way.

Road trip films can be quite liberating for filmmakers, as once the essential journey is in place, the genre itself can double-up as an exploration of the country or countries its set in. In fact, if a road trip film didn’t provide any local colour, it wouldn’t be much of a road trip at all. Colombian society and traditions are expertly explored here, covering everything from the local music to the ongoing civil war. This is a country rich in both hospitality and danger, where every stranger you meet could be a charlatan or a samaritan with a heart of gold. Even worse, you could meet either side of the conflict itself, both sides seemingly carrying the threat of violence. For Eliécer and Toño however, this is the only world that they know, with almost everything accepted as just a fact of life. There are no grand statements here, only everyday people, acutely observed.

The best scenes take place away from the road however, with Eliécer and Esparanza almost working together to create a composite picture of a father neither of them knew very well, as well as forming the type of connection that only siblings can have. Adapting his own screenplay alongside Ivan Sierra S, Joan Gómez Endara doesn’t use any flashy techniques to get his story across, neither does he look to diagnose the issues at the heart of his movie. While this downplayed approach often means the story lacks urgency, it is finally made up for by its affecting, if a little straightforward, ending. The final product is a touching, quiet film that provides both national detail and solid character study in equal measure.

The Red Tree plays in the First Feature Competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12th – 28th November.

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