How did you learn about the pageant?
I'm from Colombia originally. My family still lives there. I had been researching the idea of beauty pageants, how it's an obsession in Latin America. I read somewhere that Colombia's National Beauty Pageant receives more viewers than World Cup Soccer. So it's a huge phenomenon down there. And while I was down there, I came across an article about one in the prison. It seemed fascinating to me. I'd worked with Amanda before, and I really liked her work, and so I pitched it to her. And we just decided to fly down to Colombia and take a chance.
We did as much research as we could, but when we got there, it was completely different than what we expected. It was more like a school than a prison. Women don't have uniforms. They have a beauty salon, a gym. It's a much more humane prison system.
It was completely different than what we expected. It was more like a school than a prison. Women don't have uniforms. They have a beauty salon, a gym.
But it's misleading, because we then found out that the reason they're not in uniforms is because the prison system is so broke. Colombia has a very complicated political situation, and the country has been torn apart by armed an civil conflict for over forty years. And there's a lot of poverty. There's narco-trafficking. There's a lot of money coming in and out of the country. But the average person is really struggling. And in the midst of this armed conflict, the men are getting killed, they're going to jail, and the women get involved in criminal activity to survive. And that was the thing that was hard to take, because a lot of these girls have kids. And they're getting involved in criminal activities just trying to survive.
And because it is a third world country, most of these girls come from nothing. And for an uneducated young girl from a small village, what they have to look forward to are these pageants that maybe will take them from their village to a city, and to a better life. They might become television hostesses or models. So for them, a pageant is kind of an escape. It's this one moment where they can be free, even if it's just for a day.
A lot of these girls have kids. And they're getting involved in criminal activities just trying to survive.
What surprised you most in making the film?
The women themselves - the types of crimes they committed, and how young they were. We have one girl in the film who's a guerilla, and one who's a hitwoman. And they're in their twenties. The life they've gone through! And then you look at the types of sentences these women got. The one who'd killed many people was sentenced to eight years. And then the guerilla who hadn't done a thing but was a member of the FARC was in for thirteen years. So when you look at it, the sentences they got didn't always match their crimes.
There's no trial by jury. You just go and face a judge, and he decides how long you're going to be in for. And while you're waiting for that trial by judge, you're sitting in jail the whole time. But the ironies are so crazy too, because part of the thing that was hardest to stomach was the fact that for a lot of them, life is better inside the prison, than it was outside. So on the one hand, it's messed up that they don't get a trial by jury, and they have to sit in jail, but certainly with many of the women that we talked to, they were safer on the inside than on the outside.
It's often more humane in prison. And I have to say, they are trying to change that, in Colombia. They're working so that women will only be there at most a month, and then go to trial. But it's a slow process.
Why was this story important for you to tell?
For an uneducated young girl from a small village, what they have to look forward to are these pageants that maybe will take them from their village to a city, and to a better life.
For me, I wanted to connect with the culture. I left Colombia when I was seven, and it was a chance for me to find a story I felt passionate about. I was interested in the political conflict that was going on, and how it was affecting the civilians. But I didn't know what kind of story we were going to get. I knew we had a beginning, middle and an end, but I had no idea what kind of women we were going to find. I think we got incredibly lucky. What I like people to take away from the film is the passion that these women have for life. It's a search for freedom in the most unlikely place ever, a prison.
I'm really drawn to women's stories. All the films I've worked on have investigated how women identify themselves through gender and their bodies, and, in this case, how these women identify themselves through beauty was really fascinating. They're in really tough circumstances, coming from a really complicated social situation. I didn't want to go in with preconceived ideas about what that would mean. Beauty pageants are something we think of as a superficial, even dehumanizing thing. In American culture, I think everyone jokes about beauty queens and that whole culture. But to these girls, this was something incredibly meaningful. So that was surprising. For me, when we're pitching films to HBO or anyone else, we're not pitching so much an idea or a thesis. You're pitching a gamble. You're hoping that you find people whose stories are a microcosm for the macrocosm. And you just never really know what you're going to get. It's not like we had a proposal that laid out exactly what we thought beauty pageants meant in Colombian culture and how audiences might connect with that. We both really had open minds about what the story might be. And you don't really know 'til you get there.