Cocaine Prison – A Film by Violeta Ayala – TIFF World Premiere

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An intimate documentary feature by Violeta Ayala

From inside one of Bolivia’s most infamous prisons, comes the story of the foot soldiers of the drug trade.


Director Violeta Ayala and Producer Daniel Fallshaw will be in Toronto for the duration of tiff.

In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the children “swim” excitedly in huge piles of coca leaves, like the Ball Room in a McDonald’s play area. Mediums tell fortunes by reading the leaves. When they grow older, the children help harvest the coca plants.

The relationship between the coca plant and cocaine is akin to grapes and wine. While growing a certain amount of coca leaves is legal, making, taking or transporting cocaine isn’t.

Amid this conundrum, teenagers may be paid $100 to transport cocaine, risking arrest and years in the notorious San Sebastian Prison.

This is the life on display in Cocaine Prison, where the boundaries of legality are blurred, in a country where the coca crop by-product all but props up a “grey market” economy.

Needing to pay lip service to the U.S. War on Drugs, the Bolivian government enforces drug laws, which allows it to charge powerless drug workers while often turning a blind eye to powerful “big fish.” As a result, half of all prison inmates in Bolivia are in for minor drug offences.

In her film Indigenous filmmaker Violeta Ayala puts a human face – three of them in fact – on the vicious circle of life in and outside the notorious San Sebastian Prison. Cocaine Prison follows Daisy a teenager who struggles to escape the lure to traffic cocaine, her brother Hernan arrested with two kilos of cocaine near the Argentinian border and his best friend Mario, a cocaine worker fighting for freedom.

Not a stereotypical prison, San Sebastian is more of an overcrowded, government-run slum holding 700 people, most of them in legal limbo.

Ayala and filmmaker partner Dan Fallshaw, managed to smuggle in cameras to various inmates. As a result, Cocaine Prison is a rare case of a prison documentary partially shot by the inmates themselves.

The twists of the tale are almost movie-like, with Daisy mulling a devil-or-angel choice of freeing her brother by becoming a “mule” herself, or cooperating with authorities seeking her testimony against her boss.

“The universal truth of the War on Drugs is that it targets the most vulnerable everywhere: the drug workers at one end and the drug addicts on the other,” Ayala says. “They are the ones who are called criminals. But the world economy runs on drug money. And the key players, the big fish, live outside justice. The justice system is based on money, class and race.

“We spent four years filming this movie, this is a very personal issue to me. We, the indigenous people from the Andes, have lived with the coca leaf for millennia. It was a white man who in 1859, made cocaine and now is the powerful people in the West who profits the most while we risk our lives. Cocaine Prison is one of the stories told from our side”

When you see what Daisy, Hernan and Mario are up against, the price of hypocrisy in the drug war is obvious and real.

About United Notions Film
United Notions Film was established in 2005 by award-winning filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw with the motto of challenging the status quo. UNF credits include Cocaine Prison (2017) to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Fight (2017) distributed by The Guardian Shorts winner of the Doc Dispatch Award at Sheffield Doc Fest, The Bolivian Case (2015) premiered as a Special Presentation at Hot Docs, it was nominated for Premios Platino and Fenix (two of the most prestigious awards in Ibero-America) and distributed by Ibermedia across Latin America to an audience of 625 million. Stolen(2009) premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, screened in 80 festivals worldwide, won 15 awards and aired on PBS.

United Notions Film is supported by PBS, Latino Public Broadcasting, Open Society Foundations, Sundance, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca, Chicken & Egg, Bertha Doc Society, Puma Britdoc, IDFA Bertha, Fond Sud Cinema, CNC, Strasbourg Film Fund, Screen NSW, Screen Australia, The Norwegian Film Institute, Señal Colombia, The Guardian amongst others.