The best Colombian TV shows, films & documentaries (that aren’t Narcos)
When travelling to a new country, one of the best ways to improve your understanding of the history and culture there is to absorb local entertainment and media. This helps you see the cultural nuances, know what things are heralded as great or terrible in a society, and learn what progress has been made in recent years. Colombia’s history is particularly difficult, especially in the last 50-60 years, and this has led to a complex society that in many ways feels very different to that of my own. Besides travelling and living within the country, watching Colombian TV shows, films & documentaries has really helped me get to grips with how and why Colombian culture has developed in the direction it has. And besides, Colombian telenovelas are a whole other level of fantastic.
So here, I’ve compiled a list of the best Colombian TV shows, films and documentaries for you to grow your own understanding of this breath-taking South American destination. The majority of these are available on regular streaming sites such as Netflix, though it does depend on your region.
After this list of the best Colombian TV shows, films and documentaries, you may also enjoy reading:
Of all Colombian TV shows, this is probably the one that has best gathered a fanbase, having found itself popular in the USA as well as Latin America. Starting with the humble beginnings of potential reggaeton stars from the comunas in Medellín, this Colombian TV show is aimed at a Millennial or Gen Z audience, but people who grew up without the internet shouldn’t write this telenovela off as too young for them. Picture this: a girl whose parents were killed over protection money by a comuna cartel works to use her musical talents to make a better life. She starts collaborating with two guys her age, but when one of the guys, Charly steals her lyrics, she ends up being caught with cocaine he planted on her and going to prison. 17 years later, Charly is now a reggaeton star, but she’s out of prison, ready to get revenge. Juicy.
Ever wondered how the contrast between rich and poor manifests itself in Colombia? Have a watch of Chepe Fortuna, a Colombian TV show that details the love story of a poor fisherman and his upperclass girlfriend (who’s played by former Miss Colombia Tatiana Vargas). As a true Colombian telenovela, it’s tacky, it’s dramatic, and it’s effing magnificent. It’s successful in demonstrating the differences dictated by social class in this deeply contrasted country.
Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso
This has to go down as one of my fave Colombian TV shows’ names. It translates to: ‘There’s no paradise without tits’. Well, if that doesn’t catch your attention… Though pretty full-on, as Colombian TV shows often are, this telenovela does do a lot to explain the fixation with women having a voluptuous figure in Colombia, whether natural or faked. Among the less affluent communities, there does still tend to be a very specific view of what constitutes female beauty, and that having it is a ticket to escaping a life of poverty. The main character of this Colombia TV show, Catalina, strives to achieve exactly that. While light-hearted and ever-so-slightly contrived, it might help outsiders see how the stereotype that all Colombianas are built like Jessica Rabbit came about, as well as the dangerous impact that stereotype has on young people.
Following the trend of the best so-bad-they’re-good Colombian telenovelas, ‘Always a Witch’ tells us the tale of Carmen, a slave girl in Cartagena due to be burned at the stake for loving a white man back in 1646. She gets offered a wizardy lifeline, and is transported to a time where witches are not believed to be real so she can live in peace. And this means – you guessed it – high school, fashion trends and young romances in modern-day Colombia. But there’s still a bad wizard to be wary of, so Carmen has to refrain from using her magic so that he doesn’t detect her in this era. Forget the fact that this telenovela is aimed at teenaged girls and it might actually start to grow on you.
Striving for the American Dream, in this Colombian TV show, young couple Reina and Marlon make the arduous passage from Medellín to NYC in search of opportunity and a new life. Choosing Mexico as their place from which to illegally enter into the US, the couple’s tale covers the harsh realities of the journey undertaken by thousands of illegal Latin migrants every year. Reina and Marlon soon realise the dangers that they have found themselves in, and end up getting separated in a foreign land.
Best Colombian Films
Los Viajes del Viento
Or ‘The Wind Journeys’. This Colombian film was shot in no fewer than 80 locations across Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It follow the journey of a musician to return his accordion back to his mentor, who gifted it to him as a youngster. He believes it is now cursed after the death of his wife. The musician travels with his eager apprentice in his shadow, hoping to learn more from him about his career and how to play in the vallenato Colombian folk style. What’s interesting is that the film is scripted not only in Spanish, but also with scenes of Palenquero, Wayuunaiki, and Ikun as the characters make their way deeper into Colomba’s northern indigenous heartlands. It’s mega-cinematic, so expect the Wind Journeys to blow you away.
Monos (or ‘Monkeys’) is a gritty fever-dream of a Colombian film. It depicts a band of teenaged rebel soldiers in the Colombian jungle who have been tasked with guarding an American captive together. However, the group is attacked, and before long their strong bonds and ability to work as a unit are broken as the situation descends into chaos. It’s a really dramatic, cinematographically stunning production.
El Vuelco del Cangrejo
Or ‘Crab Trap’ explores the not-often-depicted Pacific coast of Colombia, in a town called La Barra. A man named Daniel arrives in the Afro-Caribbean community in La Barra trying to flee the country, but finds it difficult to buy a boat because local fishermen have had to go further and further out to sea to counter a shortage of fish in the area, so he ends up staying longer than expected. It’s not the most enthralling plot, nor the most Oscar-worthy production, but knowing that a lot of the local character were in fact just played by normal people from the area who genuinely live the life depicted in this Colombian film, it makes it a lot more interesting.
Best Colombian Documentaries
This Colombian documentary is poignant; it’s educational; it’s horrifying. You really have to be in a good headspace to watch this one, as it doesn’t hold back on any of the details of Colombia’s struggles. The purpose of this Colombian documentary is to show the horrors and progress over decades of civil war (you know the narco cartels were only the tip of the iceberg, right?) through the lens of photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado. As a photographer myself, I was astounded by the images Colorado produced, and my heart bled for all the anguished faces, mutilated bodies and uncovered graves they depicted. During this Colombian documentary Colorado discusses the story of each photo in-depth, but then also tries to track down and have a conversation with the living subjects of the images 20-30 years after they were taken.
Plan Colombia: Cashing in on the Drug War Failure
Want to learn about the Colombian cartel struggles without watching something that makes Escobar look like a goddamn hero? This Colombian documentary might just be the one for you! Looking at the socio-economic, militaristic and political reasons Colombia has risen to the top to be the biggest exporter of cocaine in the world, the film gives a solid explanation of why this drug trade has thrived. And in a semi-exposé similar to Netflix’s Dirty Money series, the Plan Colombia documentary explores the US government’s ability to make money out of the very drug conflict they’ve been fighting to stem.
Curious about what’s lurking deep in Colombia’s jungles, mountain ranges and deserts? Wild Colombia uncovers all the natural beauty on offer here. I’m slightly cheating here because it’s not technically a Colombian-made documentary, but it does really well to show all the amazing wildlife that can be found in various regions of the country. It’s presented by Nigel Marven, who apparently is not scared of wrestling with anacondas.
La Ciudad Perdida
If Los Viajes del Viento sparks up an interest to learn more about the indigenous tribes that live along the north coast of Colombia, consider watching this Colombian documentary about La Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) and the Tayrona people who live a relatively unchanged life in the lands that surround it. This Colombian indigenous group was the only one to have been able to survive the wrath of the Spanish conquistadores with their lands and culture intact. Rah. The film explores their way of life and their view on the changes happening around the world – the elders of this group have been particularly vocal against climate change in recent years.
Well, I reckon this list of the best Colombian TV shows, documentaries and films should keep you very busy while the world still grapples with lockdown!
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