The Bolivian Case is a wonderful example of subverting audience expectations from the documentary genre. The narrative unfolds almost like a suspense-thriller and is a clear indication that new age documentary film-makers are more than willing to experiment with form, structure and stylistics of narrative – a far-cry from common misconceptions about documentaries being filled with talking heads and just being glamourous information dumps.
Three women – Stina, Christina and Madelaine are caught in Bolivia, possessing a large amount of cocaine. In the subsequent media trial and character assassination that follows, Stina and Christina are portrayed as the “innocent Europeans” whereas Madelaine gets labelled a “drug trafficker”. However, the reality isn’t as black and white as it seems. Cutting back-and-forth between perspectives of the three girls in the aftermath of the trial – where Christina is found innocent – the documentary asks important questions about the impact of media trials on public perception. Furthermore, the narrative allows for a level of agency for the audience that is not usually associated with documentaries – it asks its audience to make individual decisions about which of the three girls has the most compelling narrative. The interesting combination of a ‘pseudo-thriller’ narrative and active audience engagement, assisted greatly by Dan Fallshaw’s impressive cinematography, makes The Bolivian Case a uniquely fascinating product.
There is a substantive critique of media trials embedded in the narrative. Media trials are essentially fascinating – a ready to consume commodity – that are a decent substitute for entertainment. Audiences sitting at home can play detective as a case unfolds without ever going through the arduous process of sifting through piles of paperwork and matters of fact.
However, the insinuation of this critique is even more insidious than a Salem witch-hunt. Director Violeta Ayala wants to go beyond that. Yes, media trials are bad because they pronounce judgment upon individuals without knowing all the facts. Everyone knows that. However, Ayala’s point is that who gets targeted in these trials and what manner isn’t decided by some absurd twist of fate. It isn’t just chance that brands the two European girls as “innocent victims” and the part-Hispanic Madelaine as the “evil drug trafficker”.
The deconstruction of racial politics and the role it plays in maintaining the status quo is perhaps one of the most vocal facets of this documentary. The European girls being portrayed as ‘victims’ and the girl with Hispanic ancestry being readily demonised highlight the implicit social hierarchy of the status quo. It’s convenient to market the European girls as innocent. That sort of ‘pre-packaged’ characterisation just plays upon deep-seated, negative and harmful stereotypes surrounding people of different origins. The strength of the political commentary elevates The Bolivian Case from a relatively engaging documentary to a more nuanced but necessary political statement. The implicit undertones in this documentary will definitely lead audiences toward much needed self-introspection regarding the soft power of racial politics that has become institutionalised.
Writers Ayala and Deborah Dickson though, are clever enough to let the heavy political commentary simmer underneath the surface. The driving force of the narrative remains a kind of quest for the audience – an active attempt to discover the truth behind this intriguing scenario. The audience is given the agency to actively choose and participate in whose testimony they put faith in and what facts they choose to selectively emphasise or ignore. In this way, watching this documentary becomes a pleasantly surprising experience – a sort of ‘choose your own adventure’ story – where the narrative helps you to navigate the many twists and turns of the plot.
Overall, The Bolivian Case is a cleverly constructed piece of cinema that’s ultimately very effective. It actively lures its audience in with a promise of a ‘suspense-thriller’ narrative but doesn’t limit itself to popcorn entertainment. The implicit commentary on institutionalised soft power and racial politics is handled deftly. It raises some very interesting questions regarding how negative social and cultural attitudes are re-enforced in public perception through institutions such as the media.