The Value of Cultural Exchange in Filmmaking – SANTI, the Short Film

This blog was written by Harry Richards, Writer/Director of British-Colombian short film, SANTI – we’ve done a full interview with Harry as our latest Patreon minisode – check it out!

Cultural collaboration in filmmaking is a beautiful way to depict shared experiences on screen and draw attention to under-represented communities. Working closely with filmmakers from multiple countries through development, pre-production, production, post-production, and a film’s release provides diversity of opinion when making key decisions.

1AD Claire Wolf, Lead Actor Jon Gutierrez & Writer/Director Harry Richards 

I’m Harry Richards, Writer/Director of SANTI, a 10-minute proof of concept short drama about a young Colombian man living in the UK — and my third short film. The 10-minute scene is a precursor of the 90-minute feature film I’ve written, which we hope to shoot between the UK and Colombia between late 2023 and early 2024. Today, I’d like to talk (write? You know what I mean) about culture in film, and how we ensured that both the British and Colombian cultures were authentically represented on screen when making a short that’s all about cultures and how they complement, blend, and clash. Let me take you through the process.

Channelling the Right Voices during Development

I began developing the idea for SANTI upon my return from a year working in Latin America, six months of which were in Colombia. Feelings of isolation and cultural displacement as I struggled to adjust to the local customs and humour led me to write a rough screenplay draft about a young Brit living in Colombia, but in the process I realised that there was a more pressing, far less told narrative to consider — the reverse. A young Colombian man’s experience living in the UK, and how British culture treats immigrants. Understanding both the British and Colombian cultures was integral, and choosing to structure the story around a protagonist from a very different background to my own came with great responsibility. 

Once UK-based producer Stanley Stott-Hall came on board in August 2020, we made a commitment to find two Colombian Executive Producers to help us mold Santi based on their own experiences living in the UK. We found them in Marvin Vivas and David Sierra Márquez; anecdotes from the pair about the cultural differences they encountered provided the backbone for the story. Both EPs were indispensable throughout the short film’s development; they checked my screenplay drafts to ensure that the Colombian Spanish language was correct and that Santi’s character descriptions and actions authentically reflected their own experience. There’s a moment in the film where protagonist, Santi, stumbles across two young male Brits mindlessly consuming cocaine at the dinner party he’s attending with his girlfriend, Violet. Both Marvin and David had mentioned the significance of cocaine for Colombians and the violence its production had historically caused in the country. Many understandably loathe that the initial assumption about their country relates to cocaine. I had discussed this several times with Colombian colleagues while living there, so it was essential to include in our film. We began sharing the screenplay with members of London’s Colombian community. Stanley put together a feedback form where Colombian men could inform us whether they felt the script was an accurate representation of their experience, and if they had any suggestions to help us improve it. Once we were confident in our script, we began the casting process.

 Creative Casting for an Authentic Lead Actor

Now, while we could find British actors to play the supporting roles, casting Santi himself was a challenge. Where do you find a Colombian actor living in London who understands both English and Spanish, and still has family in Colombia? We had a very specific brief, and we were never willing to compromise. It was essential to find someone who understood our character and could bring their own experience to the role. That’s why EP Marvin and I cycled to London’s Colombian community hubs in Brixton and Elephant and Castle. We spoke to hairdressers, shopkeepers, and bar owners, and explained who we were looking for. Many insisted they had a son or nephew that would be perfect for the role, or who had played Romeo in their school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. We met some terrible actors that day — however, some friendly Colombians suggested we share our casting call on the Colombianos en Londres Facebook groups. A few days later, the outstanding showreel of the British-Colombian actor Jon Gutierrez landed in our inbox. We knew we had found our Santi. 

Jon was fantastic throughout the Zoom rehearsal process during pre-production. He highlighted any line of dialogue or action that didn’t feel natural to his character, and we would refine the script to more accurately match his own experience. Jon has lived in the UK since birth but also spent time living with family back in Cali, Colombia. He’s felt a similar cultural displacement to my own experience living in Colombia. 

Diverse Involvement in Production

After crowdfunding our £10,000 budget and a three-month delay due to Covid, we began production in June 2021. Our talented British-Colombian First Assistant Director Claire Wolf meticulously put together our two-day rehearsal and shooting schedule. For the duration of the shoot, Jon remained in character to make his performance authentic. With Jon’s consent, I asked our cast and crew to keep him separate from the other actors at all times (even during rehearsals and lunch breaks) to help heighten his, and therefore Santi’s, feeling of isolation from the other actors — the dinner party guests in the film. Claire would also flip from speaking English with our supporting cast to speaking Spanish to Jon on set to help him to remain in character. 

Jon Gutierrez, during the shooting of SANTI’s final scene.

When living in Colombia, hearing my family’s voices over the phone had provided comfort during lonely moments; and WhatsApp voice messages are used prolifically by Colombian families — so it became an important part of our narrative. To allow Jon to even more convincingly channel Santi’s emotions, he only listened to the voice message which Santi receives from his mother at the end of the film for the first time when shooting the scene. Making it was a cultural story in and of itself; I first wrote the dialogue in English, then with the aid of our Colombian team members, we translated it into Spanish. I then passed the text to our Colombian Talent Manager, José Mauricio Granados Claro, who is from Ocaña, Santi’s hometown in northeast Colombia. José’s loving family hosted me for New Year in 2018, and they partly inspired the characters in the message. José found three local voice actors to play the parts of Santi’s mother, younger brother, and sister in the voice message. José would send me voice recordings via Whatsapp, and I would send back notes, then our Sound Designer, Raf Swiderski, adeptly compiled the recordings. With his own unique understanding of the Colombian family dynamic from his family and personal lives, Raf created a chaotic and realistic Colombian family voice message. It’s a short moment, but it sums up the fact that we wanted to make a film that was as unique to the Colombian experience as it possibly could be.

A Release That Represents The Story

So, we made the short film. But how did we then reach the right audience? We initially launched the short in London through two packed-out screenings for friends, family and financial backers. These events were critical to demonstrating to film festivals and the press that there was already an appetite for our story. While these events were predominantly made up of English speakers, we never wanted to simplify our film’s Colombian nuances to make it more palatable. Dubbing was never an option. Like many international films reaching UK audiences through the recent London Film Festival — including Mexico’s Spanish-language Bardo and Belgium’s French-language Closewe used subtitles to translate the fast Colombian Spanish voiceover of Santi’s family into readable British English on screen, ensuring that our UK audience could hear the tone of Santi’s family’s voices. 

Further screenings were mostly targeted at Brits, but I knew that SANTI had to connect with the UK’s Latin American audiences too. That’s why we set up a countrywide tour of universities. Accompanied by other members of the SANTI cast and crew, I’m currently touring the UK holding student screenings and live Q&A sessions across 21 universities. By connecting with our 18-24 year-old target audience, we intend to demonstrate clear market potential to prospective feature film financiers. Most importantly, we hope to show aspiring filmmakers the power of a British-Colombian collaboration. We’ve organised free student screenings and Q&A sessions in partnership with Latin American and Hispanic societies and departments, as well as film societies and departments. This has enabled us to reach an incredibly diverse viewership, including Latin American and Spanish-speaking students living in the UK. Many audience members are young filmmakers, whom we hope to inspire to develop their own projects. Most importantly, the tour so far has achieved one of our project’s most critical aims: to provide a safe space for cultural discussion. 

Writer / Director Harry Richards at a SANTI screening at Everyman Cinema, Chelsea. 

Continuing the Cultural Journey

I’m very aware of the work still required to reach global audiences with our short and ultimately, the feature film. Only through partnerships with international distributors, production companies, and streamers, can we create a cultural discussion on a global scale. But that doesn’t deter Team Santi. 

In the short term, I will be moving back to Colombia for six months from December this year, to attend the Bogotá Short Film Festival and begin meeting Colombian production companies. Both Colombian EPs and I will also visit friends living in Santi’s hometown, Ocaña, to deepen our understanding of its local community for the feature screenplay. With the help of Colombian PR colleagues in Medellín and Bogotá, we will also be releasing the short film to a Colombia-based audience. Collaboration and a deep understanding of the subject matter are essential when portraying any foreign culture on screen. My awareness of British culture is innate, but the Colombian cast and crew have enhanced my knowledge of their culture. This is a huge privilege. It has allowed us to accurately depict a young Colombian man’s story of living in the UK. I hope that, in return, our project has provided experience and inspiration for any emerging filmmakers in Colombia, Latin America, and the world. 

SANTI is currently screening at 21 UK universities. For updates on Team SANTI’s progress as they develop the short into a 90-minute feature, follow @santithefilm on Instagram. 

Team SANTI – Shooting Crew – June 2021. 

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