Filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaards focused on urban design and planning in his earlier documentaries The Human Scale and Bogota Change. His latest film Life is Sacred follows the iconoclast philosopher-politician Antanas Mockus and youth activists through two Colombian presidential campaigns.
As a backer, I got to preview the film before its official premiere. I’m still processing Mockus’ 2010 decision to “radically trust the elections office” and not to contest a clearly irregular vote count and election dirty tricks. “Trust produces trustful behavior,” he argued. His campaign staff and volunteers were way less optimistic.
The footage from Mockus’ term as mayor of Bogota, however, reminded me that I had meant to post a few paragraphs from this oldie but goodie from Harvard’s student newspaper that neatly summarizes his municipal creativity. Images are borrowed from Life is Sacred.
Antanas Mockus had just resigned from the top job of Colombian National University. A mathematician and philosopher, Mockus looked around for another big challenge and found it: to be in charge of, as he describes it, “a 6.5 million person classroom.”
Mockus, who had no political experience, ran for mayor of Bogotá; he was successful mainly because people in Colombia’s capital city saw him as an honest guy. With an educator’s inventiveness, Mockus turned Bogotá into a social experiment
People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role. When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called “Supercitizen.” People laughed at Mockus’ antics, but the laughter began to break the ice of their extreme skepticism.
Mockus, the only son of a Lithuanian artist, burst onto the Colombian political scene in 1993 when, faced with a rowdy auditorium of the school of arts’ students, he dropped his pants and mooned them to gain quiet. The gesture, he said at the time, should be understood “as a part of the resources which an artist can use.” He resigned as rector, the top job of Colombian National University, and soon decided to run for mayor.
The fact that he was seen as an unusual leader gave the new mayor the opportunity to try extraordinary things, such as hiring 420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic and dangerous streets.
Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn’t follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.
“It was a pacifist counterweight,” Mockus said. “With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations.”
Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus used narrative, spectacle and metaphor to communicate with residents. Years of mistrust meant that policy alone wouldn’t reach the populace. I suppose now in the era of social media he might be a prolific Instagrammer. Pedestrian safety mimes are super visual, and more playful and less policy wonk than say, Vision Zero.