Better The Devil You Know? – The Two Escobars

TwoEscobars (1)

I first came across this documentary while reading Wright Thompson’s excellent essays written over the course of the World Cup earlier this year. Instead of basing himself in Brazil, however, he traversed up and down the South American continent, taking in the sights and sounds of nations involved in the actual event itself. He uncovers much about how football impacts the societies there, and if anything, it’s the fact that his write ups are not about football that makes the particularly unique amongst many other writers.

One particular country he visited was Colombia. In it, he cited a documentary entitled ‘The Two Escobars’, which looked at both Pablo and Andres. Pablo is the supreme drug overlord, the one guy closely associated with associating Colombia as cocaine heaven. Andres, on the other hand, is not a blood relation of his, but remain an associate regardless; he plays for Nacional, the first Colombian team to win the Copa Libertadores (the South American Champions League, if you will), which was owned lock, stock and plenty of smoking barrels by Pablo Escobar.

The main man himself at a game.
The main man himself at a game.

This documentary plays out much like Wright Thompson’s articles itself. Yes, there is a strong focus on both men, for obvious reasons, but it is simply more than just about these guys. If anything, this film is a 100 minute essay on the declining systems of governance at the time, and how that created the vacuum through which people could turn to their forms of fun and pleasure. I’d go one step further, and equate both the hardcore drugs and football to be almost one and the same, in terms of its addiction as well as ability to shape discourses and identities within the nation.

In many reviews I have read, others have noted how it covers stones turned in previous documentary efforts, visual or otherwise. For my part, my relatively late entrance into football only flowered around the mid 1990s, so I was somewhat unaware (beyond what was in front of me) about how political football can be in South America. More to the point, what happened to Andres Escobar, who was murdered because he scored an own goal that knocked them out of the 1994 World Cup (a tournament that had entered as dark horses to win), was above and beyond my interest and understanding at the time.

Discovering more about this later, it made for intriguing reading, and I did what superficial digging I could do at that time. The point I’m trying to make here is that while I myself maintain more than just a passing interest in football and politics, there are plenty of ideas and suggestions here that did not cross my mind at the time.

The moment when Andres's own goal against the United States cost them the match.
The moment when Andres’s own goal against the United States cost them the match.

For that, you must understand the amazing access the filmmakers had in reaching a lot of the most important figures in both Pablo’s and Andres’s lives. They interviewed family members, friends, prosecutors, even former presidents in attaining a descriptive and definitive account of what went on at the time, specifically in the late 1980s and early parts of the subsequent decade when the careers of both men would overlap. One gang member, Popeye, was a trusted lieutenant of Pablo’s. At the time of the documentary, he was incarcerated, and yet it did not stop the filmmakers from reaching out to him, and interviewing him…while in prison…with security guards all around them. Truly, an astounding amount of effort has been made in the making of this documentary. Jeff and Michael Zimbalist have exceeded what I had expected.

This includes Andres’s formers teammates. Here’s what watching the documentary was like. They would show some archive footage of the Colombian team of the time, filled with the flair and firepower of Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon and more. Valderrama would play a slide through ball, and I thought, “It would be great if we can hear more from the big man with the big hair.” Lo and behold, within the next few seconds, that unmistakable mane of the lion king would fill the screen, and he would wax lyrical not only about the football, but also about the Escobars.

Later on, I see how the filmmakers have focused on Pablo Escobar’s drug efforts, and while I was disturbed by the images (more on this later), I also thought how the balance has been tipped thus far in Pablo’s favour. “What about Andres at this point?” I wondered. Then, boom…we shift the focus back to Andres, and how he and his girlfriend at the time (who they also managed to interview) are planning to move to Europe sooner or later, where he would have become AC Milan’s first Colombian player; that honour would eventually fall to Mario Yepes in 2012. What I mean to say is that while it is not necessarily a prerequisite for a documentary to fall in line with my expectations (and more) to be considered as ‘good’, it is incredibly pleasant to see how questions I raise would immediately be answered.

Scorpion Kick goalkeeper, Higuita, was jailed before the World Cup! You can't make this up.
Scorpion Kick goalkeeper, Higuita, was jailed before the World Cup! You can’t make this up.

Going beyond the interviews, the amount of archive footage presented was absolutely astounding. Some years ago, Asif Kapadia made ‘Senna’, and in removing talking heads altogether, he opted for the quality of the editing to let the story shine through: “Despite the fact that they have been culled from a number of different sources, and are not quite uniform in quality, they’ve managed to create a montage that keeps the spirit of the original alive.” I feel that the amount of research done would have allowed for them to take an identical approach and still retain much of the same spirit. Simply put, I was astounded at how Pablo Escobar was one of the most wanted men in the country, and yet there was so much footage of him available under the sun. It suggests how malleable the enforcement of the law was in Colombia at the time when its most famous criminal was not so difficult to track down, if they really, really want to. Kudos again, I say, for the editors Jeff Zimbalist and Greg O’Toole.

Of course, a part of the problem is how Pablo Escobar, an outlaw though he may be, constantly helped out in ways the government never could/did/wanted to. The hardcore poor, whose houses were burned down, were propped up by way of new houses. He built schools and hospitals. All of them were with drug money, of course, but goodness what a way to launder it. His legacy remains even till today. He built football pitches for people to play on. Even until today, they remain. Simply put: no Pablo Escobar, no James Rodriguez.

No order, either. The filmmakers make a compelling case that after Escobar died in 1993, order in society, which was maintained by his iron fist through fear and persecution, fell to the ground. Crime became more violent than ever before, and it was argued that this was the context in which Andres was actually murdered. Whether you agree with it or not, far beyond the conventional idea that Pablo was the evil guy, if anything it was society, and its breakdown in systems, that truly killed Andres Escobar.

No Pablo, no Andres. No Escobars.

Fikri is liking Falcao at Manchester United all the same.

Feature image credit: The Daily Echo

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