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Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias on ‘Pepe,’ Pablo Escobar

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In “Pepe,” Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias tells the story of a very special hippopotamus. Or rather, he allows the hippopotamus to tell the story himself.

Pablo Escobar brought three hippos to Colombia back in 1981. He was ‘the pioneer’ among drug lords investing in exotic pets. When he had to abandon his mansion [Naples Estate] and flee, there were so many of them. Lions, elephants,” recounts the Dominican director. 

But it was the hippos that managed to adapt to their new environment, taking advantage of South American rivers. 

“It’s the first wild herd outside of Africa. Initially, there was this alpha male Pablito and Pepe fought him and he lost. He was the first male who left the herd. To the people who saw him, he seemed like a monster!” 

Soon, a hunt was well on its way. 

“When I finished [previous film] ‘Cocote,’ I was so tired. I went to Colombia, with a backpack, and visited a friend of mine, painter Camilo Restrepo. He had this figurine of a hippo looking at little toy soldiers. They were pointing their guns at him. Camilo told me this story, very badly, and I fell in love with it,” he admits.   

“Every country has its own traumas and neuroses. In Colombia, it’s the drug trade. To some people, Pepe was Pablo Escobar. But I am not Colombian and I don’t care about Pablo Escobar, so to me, this was about something else.” 

“Pepe” is produced by Monte & Culebra (Dominican Republic) and co-produced by 4 A 4 Productions (France), Pandora Film (Germany) and Joe’s Vision (Namibia).

In the film – vying for Berlinale’s Golden Bear – Pepe admits wistfully: “My story could only be told when it became their story.” But De Los Santos Arias saw it as a chance to talk about post-colonialism, all the while trying to answer a pressing question: What does the hippo say?

“It was a long process. Do you remember ‘ThunderCats’? Think Mumm-Ra,” he laughs, recalling the animated villain. 

“When a friend heard Pepe’s voice, he said: ‘Nelson, what the hell is that?’ To me, this sound was like music. It was coming from some strange instrument [now, Pepe is voiced by Jhon Narváez]. I didn’t want it to feel too ‘professional,’ because it leads to homogenization. I come from experimental film and the whole point is to make something you haven’t seen before.” 

Pepe

Pepe the philosophizing hippo might sound odd, but what he says is deeply political, stresses De Los Santos Arias. 

“This hippo, this herd, is another example of historical migration. We live in a world designed by western culture. By Europeans, by colonization. In that sense, there is no such thing as ‘us.’ There is always ‘they,’ there is always ‘the other.’” 

Pepe’s appearance sparks fear in local people, but also fascination. Or bonafide obsession, with some trying to capture it like Ahab in “Moby Dick.” 

“I would be obsessed with it too.” 

“At script labs, whenever I wanted to focus on the supporting characters for a while, they would tell me: ‘Oh, I miss Pepe.’ No. The whole idea behind colonialism was this division into ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ people. I see film as a conversation, coming from orality rather than written language,” he notes. 

“That being said, a hippo is a very, very strange animal. It looks like a cow and then like a crocodile when submerged in water. Imagine – it’s your river, your father and grandfather used to fish there in peace and all of a sudden, a hippo appears. And you don’t even know what it is!” 

He also created his animated counterpart, experiencing his own adventures on the TV screen. 

“We cannot talk about imagination without talking about Americanization – also through television – and there is this cartoon from Hanna-Barbera called ‘The Peter Potamus Show.’ I wanted to use it, but it wasn’t allowed, so we did it ourselves,” says the director, admitting he wanted to leave hardcore realism behind for a change.

“Latin American films are so solemn, but let me tell you something – our society is more fun than the U.S.. And yet we don’t dare to entertain viewers. Why are our films so boring?! Fuck that.” 

“It’s so important to work with fables and the imaginary, and yet fantasy is the most colonized genre there is! Many assume that for a poor country, it’s impossible to tell this kind of story. But imagination isn’t owned by Disney.” 

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