Having already reviewed Cocalero for this blog, I thought it might be interesting to compare it to Coca Lives (also previously reviewed her by Anna, along with her review of Cocalero) another documentary set in the same province of Bolivia. Unlike Cocalero, Coca Lives has flown relatively under the radar on film blogs and sites. Not a single review could be found, even from Rotten Tomatoes. This is interesting, because I think that Coca Lives is a much better film than Cocalero. It features some of the same cast of characters: Evo Morales and his staff, the residents of Cupachabra and El Chapare, and the Coca Grower’s Labor Unions. But Cocalero’s shortcomings were fulfilled in Coca Lives. The latter has a much wider scope in terms of the people who are given voice. We hear from Morales, et al, but also from other Bolivian government agents who support the criminalization of coca growing, military personel, a Bolivian anthropologist who relates the history of coca and its importance, a M.D. who talks about the health benefits of coca and why it shouldn’t be considered cocaine, and a consultant to the United States government who says some (not so shockingly) ignorant things about the issue. It is in this scope that Coca Lives succeeds, as it gives a wider context and history to the current issues at hand. Even though its cinematic artistry is nothing to be excited about, and several devices were actually distracting to the narrative of the documentary (i.e. some interviews/scenes shot in black and white and given an effect reminiscent of mid-century B&W films, for what seem unclear purposes), I believe it is because of its ambition and scope to which Coca Lives endeavors that makes it the best of these two films about the Bolivian coca growers of El Chapare.
In the Bolivian film Coca Lives we encounter a very different point of view than that of the United States on the production of drugs. We are presented with the source of the drug cocaine, which is the coca leaf. Throughout this documentary we find the stories of many people who are among hundreds of thousands who have suffered the demonization of this culturally integral plant.
Way before the Spanish or any other ‘developed’ culture arrived on the continent, the peoples living in south america had been using coca leaves for a plethora of purposes. For centuries they were consumed to fight hunger, fatigue, and to increase the senses in the practices of hunting. It is used to keep arthritis and many other ailments at bay. In other words, in a culture where medicine is traditional and primitive, the use of every available resource is absolutely necessary.
This issue is not unique to the indigenous of Bolivia. It is a consistently growing problem in the Andean community. The plant was never used to achieve a high, but when gringos and Europeans came in and figured out how to do it, they were willing to pay extraordinary prices for the leaves therefore creating a new opportunity for farmers. The plant is easy to raise in climates that otherwise would not produce sell-able crops. As these markets grew and became corrupt with violence, an association was made between the negativity and the plant.
Now the government is sending military personnel into areas where coca is being raised and trying to stop not only the production but the traditional use of this plant that is so fundamental to the lifestyle that these marginalized indigenous communities maintain. Without a stable system, hundreds are displaced from their homes or watch their dwellings be destroyed. People are shot needlessly. Thousands of innocent men detained with little hope of being returned to the lives that were stolen from them.