Film Reveals Bogota's Urban Transformation

Photo by Andreas Møl Dalsgaard via the Danish Film Institute.

I recently watched “Bogotá Change,” a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival under a film series titled “Cities on Speed.” The video below is a trailer for the four films, covering urban challenges in Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo and Bogota.


The “Cities on Speed” trailer includes a short excerpt from “Bogotá Change,” showing what many consider to be the catalyzing moment in Bogota’s transformation. Mayor Antanas Mockus cycles to the National University of Columbia, where he was once the director, to face crowds of protesting students. Within an assembly hall, he moons the unruly student body (yes, he pulls his slacks down) in an act he called a combination of both extreme contempt and submission. It led to a media stir that forced him to resign as director, but launched him to folk hero status among the general population for his honesty and integrity. The trailer for “Bogota Change” can be found on Vimeo, and you can also watch the full hourlong movie with English subtitles.

Bogota Change

Andraas M Daalsgard’s film forms a narrative from archived footage and expert interviews to show the break from traditional politics that transformed Bogota from one of the early ’90s’ worst cities into a successful metropolis. Throughout the film, viewers watch interviews with various experts who recount their experiences and beautiful time-lapse displays of demolitions and renewal in the city. Most impressive is the film’s ability to act almost as a case study of how a community and its leaders can change habits and take on corruption, violence, and the task of modernizing a city.

Mockus’ time as Mayor renews Bogota, freeing it of the deeply entrenched corruption and nepotism hindering its progress, and he prepares it for molding in the hands of its next mayor, Enrique Peñalosa. Peñalosa’s vision of equality through design completely alters Bogota’s cityscape with public bike lanes, parks, plazas, schools, libraries and transit available to all. From beginning to end, the film contains insight on how change happens.

Mockus’ Impact

The culture of corruption Mockus is fighting is pervasive at all levels of society. Every politician and bureaucrat is expected to provide favors to a network of friends and relatives. – “Bogotá Change”

Antanas Mockus was elected mayor as an independent candidate by the largest margin in Bogota’s history. He had an unconventional style (including running around in a superhero costume) and championed morality-based initiatives. Fourteen minutes into the film shows Mockus’ inauguration ceremony, arguably the most definitive blow to a culture of corruption and nepotism because of his introduction of a completely new administration appointed by qualification, not solely by connections.

His administration’s tactics would have a lasting impact on the city’s people. Stunts like personally giving out non-fee-based “red cards” and “white cards” to bad and good drivers, respectively, or using mimes in public to display good behavior (i.e. when to cross the street, respect traffic laws, not littering) were stunningly successful.

He also imposed various behavior-changing initiatives, including a 1:00 a.m. curfew on bars, significantly reducing the nightly death tolls from drunken driving); the re-training of the entire police force in conflict resolution; teaching children to report abuse in their homes; and educating inmates in ways to express themselves without violence. The Mockus we see in the film’s first half is completely focused on raising the people’s morality and eliminating corruption.

Columbian law does not allow consecutive terms in office, but in his three years as mayor from 1995 to 1998, Mockus rebuilt Bogota’s economy, drastically reduced corruption, collected taxes in an orderly manner, and even convinced the city’s 55,000 wealthiest residents to give an extra 10 percent of their income to the city. The city still had major problems, but, after Mockus, it had more resources to solve them.

Bogota’s Infrastructure Boom

Enrique Peñalosa re-enters the film in campaigning as an independent against his former liberal party. He wins the election and takes office in 1998 on a platform proposing equality through design. He envisions buses, parks, bus lanes, new schools, libraries and hospitals available to every citizen as crucial to reinforcing democracy in Bogota. He enlists top-level business executives into his administration and goes about reconstructing Bogota for the benefit of all. He sees the private car as public enemy and pushes for the lofty goal of 100 percent public transit use.

The real class conflict today, is not the one predicted between a few billionaires and the rest of the [workers]. No, the real class conflict in developing countries is between those with cars and the rest of society….A bicycle lane is a powerful symbol of equality. It shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car” – Enrique Peñalosa

However, his radical overhaul was not swallowed easily by all and lead to strikes, protests and riots. The worst of which are found in Cartuchu, a slum built on public space that was completely leveled by Peñalosa’s administration. The changes required for Peñalosa’s overhaul dropped his approval rating down to 18 percent, forcing him to battle not only the strikes and protest but also an impeachment attempt.

Ultimately, the biggest triumph of his administration might be founding TransMilenio, a bus rapid transit system with 200 buses, known to be as effective as a metro for one-tenth of the cost. His progressive construction policies also created libraries, sewage management, electricity, schools and public spaces. Mockus would be re-elected after Peñalosa, ensuring a completion of Peñalosa’s upgrades to the city.

I have yet to watch the other three films in the “Cities on Speed” series, but I advise readers to take the opportunity to watch them, as well as the inspiring film “Bogotá Change.”

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