"I have always been surrounded by poverty and it was poverty that stole what was most precious to me."

Maria is fighting back. After 10 years of poverty, prostitution, drugs and crime, she is turning her life around through theatre, expressing her past experiences and helping others to leave prostitution.

She juggles a tough life. As a street vendor she struggles to support her daughter as a single parent and cope with having HIV. But on the stage she shines with the joys of being part of a theatre troupe, many of them former prostitutes, who are trying to make a difference through their art.

The film follows Maria starring as the 'First Lady' in a modern adaptation of Lysistrata , the Greek story of how women withheld sex to persuade their husbands to negotiate peace.

From early rehearsals to opening night we see her and her troupe cope with the highs and lows behind the scenes. Against this backdrop, Maria and her teenage daughter grapple with the impact of Maria's HIV status, her past and the challenges facing women in Colombia today.

Through this film we will see some of the challenges being faced by Colombian women through Maria's remarkable story.

In Colombia, prostitution, though legal, also represents the leading edge of human trafficking, which is widespread and often exacerbated by political violence and drug trafficking.

The capital city, Bogota, is a major centre from which women and girls are trafficked across Latin America to the Caribbean, western Europe, Asia, and North America.

Young women and juveniles are often forced into the trade by gangs or as a consequence of earlier encounters with domestic violence. The most recent statistics indicate that there are as many as 35,000 child prostitutes in Colombia.


By Miguel Contreras 

The most difficult part of the process of making this documentary was building a trusting relationship with those involved in the story, thus allowing us access to shoot with a video camera. It took a long time to achieve, not just because we needed the story for our own ends but also because in order to make an effective film we had to establish a degree of trust and access with our main character, Maria. Working with us meant exposing her life to our cameras and by extension our audience. To understand that we were not there to exploit her story that trust was very important for us in order to make an effective and successful film.


Manuel Contreras is a filmmaker from Bogota, Colombia. He has dedicated his career to exploring social and cultural issues through documentary filmmaking; developing projects across South America.

He has worked both as an independent director and as a commissioned director for different networks. The topics he has focused on in his work include workers' rights, migration issues, the rights of women and how former guerillas in Colombia are navigating life after laying down their guns. He has travelled across Latin America to make his films and continues with his work today in Europe.


Russ Finkelstein is a filmmaker and journalist originally from the US state of California. After graduating from university, he set out for a new adventure in Latin America.

Early on he started his entrepreneurship by opening a backpackers' hostel in Valparaiso, Chile. A few years later, he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he migrated into commercial film and television production, working on new projects just as the economic situation there began its turnaround.

For the past several years he has focused his energy on independent films and producing documentaries. Russ' primary area of interest in all of the productions he has worked on in Latin America has been stories of social and cultural relevance.

In Colombia, although prostitution is legal and recognised by the state in terms of social security and citizen's rights, it is still, as in most places, a shady business comprised of different layers and categories that make up the sex workers' market. With this documentary, we delved into what could be considered the lowest layer - street prostitution. We soon recognised that we were dealing with women who saw prostitution early on in their lives as a temporary solution but as the years and their youth passed became, without notice for so many, their only possible job with no clear way out.

But we did encounter one woman who had escaped 'the life', Maria Eugenia. Despite leaving life working the street behind, she and her theatre colleagues represent the marks left by being treated as the lowest ranked people in Colombian society; alongside thieves, drug addicts and violent felons. These were their daily companions in their world of street prostitution.

Video cameras have always treated these women as exotically repulsive objects valued only as bad examples or society's failures. Being the object of cameras is despised inside the world of street prostitution. Since most of the theatre company seen in our film comes from that world their suspicion of the camera was still fully in place. We had to take the time to get to know the company and to let them get to know us. We only began the actual shooting of the film after that trust had been gained.

Outside of the theatre, on the streets where there are currently working prostitutes, we were faced with the common distrustful reactions to video cameras. One of the goals we set ourselves was by half way through our shooting schedule to make contact with a few working prostitutes in order to shoot at least a glance of Maria Eugenia's previous life. We decided that if we were going to do so, we were not going to give them the same treatment as other filmmakers do, meaning we were not going to hide our cameras and we were not going to shoot without their permission.

Days went by during which we were unable to shoot what we wanted in the way we wanted while we drew closer to deadline and turned to editing the material we already had in hand. But we continued our search for a viable and morally-correct solution to present their side of the story in our film. But as they say, patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet , and we were eventually able to achieve candid scenes with working prostitutes, reflecting Maria's past life. The film is now ready to air. We shot it in a way we think was best, and we are proud of it.

For that we have to thank the New Life Foundation for helping us to develop the necessary closeness needed to be trustful witnesses to these stories. We hope that this mutual appreciation and respect is evident in the film, as we as the crew have since become good friends with Maria Eugenia.


Viewfinder : Why did you want to tell this particular story?

Manuel Contreras: When I found out about this woman I thought, wow, what a strong person. And that was reason enough to do something on her. She was very inspiring. I thought it would be interesting to do the film about someone who had gone through a lot but who had a lot of spirit - in the way she expresses herself, in the way she communicates with everyone. She's totally alive. It's almost as if she's eating the world alive.

The person who has the camera has the power to tell the story for the other person, to frame them. Is it a dilemma for you?

It's not a dilemma for me because I'm always aware of it. If at any point I feel as if I am manipulating things, I stop doing it. And in this case, it was really important to have a relationship with this woman and although she always trusted me, I was always careful to tell her exactly what we were doing and I would consult her constantly about the decisions we were taking, whether she agreed with them or not.

Your film broaches themes of role-playing, theatre, changing identities. Talk to me about the title of your documentary Acting Lessons .

One of the first things I spoke about to the protagonist of the documentary was how do you link the idea of acting and prostitution. Is there anything that links it? Because there, is of course, an element of role play. She was surprised and said she had never thought about it in those terms - and that yes, she was acting when she was working as prostitute. Acting for her in the past was something she hated. Acting now by contrast was something which gave her the chance to move above everything she has done in her life. And that's the point we started off with in the documentary: what is acting and what is not.

How does this play between reality and fiction inform your own ideas about the documentary format?

A documentary filmmaker is a little bit like a theatre director of some sort or the other. I don't think you can be 100 percent loyal to reality. It doesn't exist. We are not showing reality as it really is, we are taking a part of reality and we are working with that. There will always be a surplus of information that will be included. What is important is how you cut and frame that story and create a narrative that is interesting and that ultimately reaches people on an emotional level.


This episode of Viewfinder can be seen from Monday, January 14, at the following times GMT: Monday: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630.

Click here for more on Viewfinder .

Source: Al Jazeera