It is rather often that you hear of the Nordic countries as being ‘progressive’ and rather ‘accepting’, there has always been an underlying case of racism. Such contemporary films like Underdog, Lilja-4-ever and Play have tackled the notions of racism found in modern Scandinavia, and there have even been a small selection of documentaries coming out in the last few years.
The Bolivian Case is a new documentary that seeks to add to the discussion, but from a uniquely different perspective. Rather than focus on the regular racism topics we have grown accustomed to hearing, The Bolivian Case instead focuses on arguably one of the biggest media circuses to occur in Norway in recent times – the arrest of three Norwegian teenagers over drug smuggling charges in Bolivia. Rather than a typical ‘whodunnit’, the documentary tackles issues of alleged racism in the media and the media’s influence on the justice system.
The documentary discusses the story of three Norwegian teenagers that were arrested with 22kg of cocaine in their luggage. The event triggered a media storm from all over the globe, and from the start Stine Brendemo and Christina Oygarden were portrayed as naive Europeans while Madelaine Rodriguez, also Norwegian but with a Uruguayan father, is branded the ‘Latin Trafficker’.
A year after their arrest Christina, the only one of the three girls who could afford bail, is issued an emergency passport under a different name by the Norwegian government. She then used this passport to illegally escape prosecution in Bolivia, and upon her return to Norway she goes to trial with four other teenagers implicated in the smuggling attempt. Meanwhile, Stina and Madelaine are sentenced to thirteen years served at San Sebastian Jail in Bolivia.
Stina gets pregnant in prison, which only fuels the Norwegian media more-so. ALFA, a popular mens magazine, pays Stina for the exclusive rights to her story. After the birth of the baby, they finance an escape that includes paying $60,000 bail, sending mercenaries to Bolivia, chartering private planes, boats and illegal border crossings. Meanwhile, Madelaine also gives birth, but can’t afford the hospital costs. Handcuffed by her feet to a hospital bed, she says ‘It doesn’t matter that my name is Rodriguez, I deserve my freedom as much as they do.”
Christina has been acquitted by the court, and while Stina has become a celebrity in Norway, Madelaine remains behind bars in Bolivia, serving her entire sentence.
The key themes are simple enough: the underlying racism in Norway combined with the power of the media to sway the justice system. As director Violeta Ayala states, it stands out that in the Norwegian press it was the girl with the Latin surname who was singled out as the stereotypical drug trafficker. One comment that stands out to us is that when she landed in Norway, Ayala was told by a customs officer that “it’s terrible how the poor innocent girl (Christina) was tricked into trafficking drugs by Madelaine.”
The rawness of the documentary is striking – the footage appears unedited and shot on a handheld camera. While on one hand I wish they’d refined the documentary slightly more (a Kickstarter is underway to collect funding necessary to complete the film) I found it to be a perfect fit to the way the documentary is presented. The best parts of the documentary are the ways in which the story is edited together to address the underlying message. So in that sense, you forget about what is and isn’t a good shot and are so intrigued by the narrator and the interviewees that you are kept entertained – so much so that you can’t believe the story is over when the 80 minutes are up.
The film is directed, written and produced by Violeta Ayala, an indigenous award-winning filmmaker born in Bolivia. She is most known for her controversial documentary Stolen, which exposed racial based slavery in the Sahara desert. She only discovered the story while working on a documentary about Bolivia prisons, and I’m very happy she turned this into a documentary. As an avid Norwegian news reader, I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of it and for those unfamiliar with the story or looking for another side, I cannot recommend this documentary enough.
The Bolivian Case is currently playing at the Sydney Film Festival in Australia. Click here for tickets
The Bolivian Case sold out at Hot Docs, and has already screened in New Zealand. The documentary is heading to Ambulante Colombia and Festival Internacional in Lima. European and USA dates are coming soon.