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Biopic of celebrated Columbian singer and songwriter Joe Arroyo uses fiction in order to get close to the captivating truth behind the man - from the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


It has often occurred to me that we’re guilty of romanticising the creative process – enchanted by what is created, that we don’t appreciate the arduous effort that goes into the act. The process is intimately involved with agony, self-doubt, and many creatives are weighed down by imposter syndrome, or so I’ve been led to believe in conversation with filmmakers.

Columbian director José Luis Rugeles and his co-writers Chucky García, Martín Mauregui, craft a captivating biopic about the celebrated Columbian singer and songwriter, Joe Arroyo, played by Jhon Narváez. Known for mixing various styles of Latin American, Caribbean and African music, in the 1970s, he was at the forefront of the “salsa explosion.”

Borrowing the title of their film from one of Arroyo’s most famous songs, Rebelión, the filmmakers enter the realm of fiction to explore the life of this prolific artist. An opening disclaimer reads: “The events, characters and facts shown in this film are fictitious or based on facts of public knowledge. The names of those involved, the stories, details and results of the cases are the work of fiction.”

Here we have one of those films that presents a conundrum for the film critic. Art needs to be discussed to thrive and films are made for a response. However, there’s the occasional film we should discover for ourselves. Here’s an example of one we should approach with the mind as a blank canvas – like you’d enter and be caught up in a dream.

It’s no coincidence that I wound up making the comparison to a dream, when Rebelión’s artistry is so pleasing to the senses. There are moments when the cinematography and the story splice through time and space, effortlessly creating a non-linear exploration of the artist. As if the past and present are parallel, not linear, the film functions on a dream logic, as if this story of a life unfolding is from the point-of-view of a dreamer.

This is not a glamorous portrayal of an artist – instead, Arroyo’s world has the feel of a hellish creative space. We witness a gauntlet of emotions: arrogance and selfishness, love and affection, passion and enthusiasm. We also witness what Freud termed the “death drive”, which makes me wonder whether, as much as creativity and sexuality are linked, is creativity prone to flirting with self-destruction?

Amidst the fever of creation, the film is littered with scenes of agony, anxiety and despair, and in an early scene, it’s mentioned that Arroyo’s pain was the inspiration for some of his music. Rugeles and his collaborators offer us a portrait of the joy and sorrow of creative expression, the extreme highs and lows. Beneath the bravado, there are moments when he or she succumbs to humility, whether consciously or not, which often presents as self-pity or a disposition of being indifferent.

What captivates about Rebelión, is, compared to other biopics, it has an insular energy. We find ourselves isolated within certain spaces and time periods. Instead of following them around, seeing how events in their personal and professional lives became their life story, we spend time with the characters. We’re expected to not just look and listen, but see and hear. The film is a series of impressions, instead of an informative deep dive. Yet through this aesthetic and narrative approach, combined with the fictionalisation, it feels that we get close to the truth of who the man behind the artist was.

Rebelión has just premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Paul Risker - 27-11-2022

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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