In tough Colombia city, life and art merge

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Marlon Rengifo is dead. But Leider Abraham has been reborn. In Petecuy, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Cali, one of Colombia’s most dangerous cities, life and art are intertwined.

Both Rengifo and Abraham were members of one of Cali’s most notorious gangs.

Rengifo was shot and killed by a rival gang member while trying to make a gritty and realistic movie about Petecuy.

Abraham, his replacement, has found a new career as an actor, which is now putting food on the table for his five children.

Petecuy is in northern Cali — some 500 kilometers (300 miles) southwest of Bogota — stuck between a landfill and an odorous canal.

There are not enough doctors here, and only 42 percent of its population has completed secondary school. Many of its mothers are raising their children single-handedly, but their small houses are impeccably kept.

And there is hell here, especially where gang violence is concerned. On either side of an imaginary border delineated by a Petecuy street, they fight in just one way: by killing each other.

In one Petecuy sector, 28 people were killed in 2010, a homicide rate that translates into an astounding 280 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Oscar Hincapie, 34, a Colombian film director, notes that "art pulsates everywhere" in the hardscrabble neighborhood.

"Their stories tell themselves," Hincapie told AFP, recalling a gang of thieves whose loot was in turn stolen by another gang of thieves as they parceled out their plunder by the riverbank.

The director, who came to know Petecuy while working on a pro bono project here, decided to use locals with rudimentary training from theater or dance studios instead of professional actors.

Since 2010, some 50 people have been working on Hincapie’s film.

The multi-layered movie, called "Petecuy," tells their stories, and the story of a director who tries to make a movie under very difficult circumstances in the midst of a dangerous neighborhood.

"In a poor neighborhood like this, art is everywhere," said Hincapie. "Young people here learn to lie, to sketch out plans for a robbery. Who’s a bigger liar than an actor. And what’s more creative than planning a heist?" he asked.

"Here," Hincapie said, "you learn to dance before you learn to walk."

"What is interesting is what the cinema does to people when it shakes up their lives."

Hincapie’s movie has sparked such interest among the people of Petecuy that during periods of filming, violence in the area drops dramatically.

"For six or seven months, we didn’t have a single homicide," said Father Edilson Huerfano, who works here trying to avert gang warfare.

"We had 12, 13, 14 robberies a day and now there are two or three per month," he said, standing not far from a dozen young girls dressed in green and gold tutus dancing enthusiastically before the cameras.

Rengifo had been one of the key players in this upward spiral.

At 29-years-old, he had agreed to a truce with a rival gang and to guarantee security on the set.

Almost immediately, this new community "leader" was picked up for the leading role in Hincapie’s film.

"He was a good boy," quietly recalls his mother, Rosalba, pointing to a framed photo of Rengifo sitting underneath the television.

But an ex-rival newly released from prison shot and killed Rengifo last New Year’s Eve.

Hincapie had to find a new actor, and not just one. In all, five people were killed in various settling of scores during the filming.

Abraham, a thin young man with dark skin and an aquiline profile who replaced Rengifo, never had much hope to begin with.

A former thief, at 30-years-old he already had five children, and lived with a permanent sense that his life could end at any minute.

Now, his "adrenaline rush" comes from his acting, and his life has been transformed.

"Let me put it to you this way: you can’t go wrong three times," he said proudly.

Abraham has since picked up roles in three "telenovelas." "I’m able to support my kids with the money I’m earning, more than from anything else I’ve done."

Abraham has missed 10 days of filming, however, because the director’s coffers are empty. Money promised from the county and the city has never come, and Hincapie had to sell his car and scooter to finance the film.

Hincapie’s project — at least for now — has succeeded in shifting Petecuy’s seemingly intractable violence from the street to film.

But filming is now just dragging on, and Hincapie fears that the dream of his actors, and Petecuy’s inhabitants, could still flounder in the face of indifference.

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