Festival and Massacre

Staging Excess in Mapa Teatro’s Los Santos Inocentes 

by | Mar 11, 2015

Festivals are privileged spaces to help us understand the meaning of community. They are a special way of presenting historical narratives, bringing together past and present, myths and historical facts in a single commemorative event. Festivals bring together joy and fear, peace and violence, happiness and sorrow in an unending paradox. They celebrate life, but often can be occasions for mourning.

Festivals may also offer us sinister characters, such as devils—sometimes in a concealed fashion. However, festive and even comic, carnivalesque devils often are the incarnation of less tangible evils that afflict a society. In Colombia particularly festivals are deeply connected to massacres in ways that are not always straightforward for either the participants or their spectators. This is the case of the festival of the Holy Innocents, which served as inspiration for Mapa Teatro’s theatrical production Los santos inocentes. I read this play as a paradigmatic example of how a theatrical event can evoke the festive, the horror, the sacrifice and the sacred, all within the framework of real historical events presented through poetic devices as fiction.



Every festival has its origin in one or several myths. French intellectual Roger Caillois asserted this idea in “Festival,” his 1939 lecture for the College of Sociology. The Festival of the Holy Innocents is no exception. The story behind the production of Los santos inocentes mixes myths and historical facts that spring from both formal scholarship and oral traditions.

The first myth concerns the origins of Christianity, in which King Herod of Judea ordered the execution of all the male newborns in Jerusalem. This unconfirmed episode of biblical history is remembered in Christianity as the Massacre of the Innocents, commemorated every year on the 28th of December. The Holy Innocents, victims of this massacre, are considered to be the first Christian martyrs.

In Colombia, people celebrate Holy Innocents Day by playing pranks on each other in the style of U.S. April Fool’s Day. No matter how nasty the prank, both perpetrator and victim are protected by the motto “pásela por inocente” (“let it pass as innocent” but also “take that as innocent”). Anything that takes place that day, from newspapers publishing fake news to more domestic and private examples of lying and mischief, falls under the protection of the holiday and has to be, in fact, “passed as innocent.” This tradition gives rise to a day of unrestrained license to celebrate a festival of carnivalesque proportions in the department of Cauca in southwest Colombia, which takes us to the second story that frames our festival/play.

The second one is related to the never-ending process of foundation of that imagined entity called Colombia. It tells us about historically secluded regions in the country, especially the story of Guapi, a municipality in Cauca. The town, built on the border of the Guapi River and the Pacific Ocean, is accessible only through the rivers that run through the rainforest and a small airport to which no commercial airline flies. A town of about 30,000 people, Guapi has systematically been affected by the different conflicts in Colombian history. The site of one of the world’s richest gold deposits (some assert), the town was the setting for the African slave-based mining industry during the colonial period and for more modern colonial enterprises directed by multinationals ever since.

The 20th century brought a new and violent crop to the department of Cauca, all along the Naya River banks. The department’s rich soils, combined with the easiness with which the coca leaf can be packed and shipped across the Pacific Ocean from nearby ports, have made Cauca one of the main centers of the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Given the lack of government presence, the land has been the object of dispute between guerilla and paramilitary groups trying to gain control over the territory along with the production and traffic of coca and cocaine.

Between 2001 and 2004, a series of massacres known as the “Naya massacres” took place in the region traversed by the river. The Calima bloc of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (the United Self-Defense Forces), the national centralized organization of the paramilitary groups, was responsible for all of them. The leader of the Calima bloc, Hebert Veloza (alias HH, after Heil Hitler), confessed to around 2,000 crimes before being extradited to the United States for the crime of illegal drug trafficking in 2009.  Alias HH plays a very important role in Mapa Teatro’s Los santos inocentes, in which he becomes a haunting guest: both an uninvited intruder, and the not-so-festive devil of the festival.

Despite the ongoing violence, the people of Guapi take to the streets to celebrate their traditional festival on December 28. The men dress up as women, put on random masks “made in China” and go out to the streets with whips in their hands, hitting anyone they come across, inflicting real pain and sometimes even serious wounds, all covered under the motto “pass it as innocent.”

The third story that guides the play is that of a journey that begins with the pretext of a real birthday and ends in the production of a “fictitious documentary,” which provides most of the footage of the festival and daily life in Guapi shown in the play. Heidi Abderhalden, co-director and actress of Mapa Teatro, was born on December 28 and, as her character explains, decides to travel to Guapi in order to celebrate her birthday at the Holy Innocents festival. In the play’s narrative, this very real fact mingles with an alleged project of making a “fictitious documentary” about the festival, which brings the rest of the troupe to Guapi to take part in the carnival.



Mapa Teatro, “Laboratorio de Artistas,” was founded in Bogotá in 1984 by the Swiss-Colombian siblings Rolf and Heidi Abderhalden. Over the course of their artistic career they have collaborated with numerous artists in Colombia and the world, positioning the group as one of the most widely recognized Colombian theater companies.

Within the framework of the stories described above, Mapa Teatro constructed a narrative that mixes truth and fiction in a way that makes the audience question every fact that the play presents. The piece begins with the story of the troupe travelling to Guapi, mixing footage of the town and its river with interviews with its inhabitants about the coming celebration of the bicentennial of the independence of Colombia (2010). As the piece unfolds, one can see the birthday celebration taking place in the middle of the town festivities, interrupted by a nightmare in which HH appears on a screen only to remain there until the end of the play. The massacre is brought onto the stage through this image as well as a display of “festive” violence that evokes that of a massacre. The party, the festival and the massacre evolve together to converge in one and the same final image: bodies lying on the floor all over the destroyed stage, surrounded by pieces of clothing and masks, tiny prostheses of exhausted and transgressed bodies. Ambiguity reigns as historical facts are mixed with the storyline of the play. The only moment where truthfulness is unquestionable is at the end, when HH’s confession is displayed on the stage screen, along with a list of names that correspond to the victims of the massacres of the Naya River, while an actor violently whips the floor until exhaustion.

Despite the fact that Los santos inocentes is principally a fictional story, one can’t escape the true story told through so many layered narratives. It begins with a real birthday used as a pretext, a real festival used as the background, and a real massacre incarnated by a real character of Colombian history that haunts the entire production almost as a ghost. However, the mechanisms of the real operate in a different format in this production. The festival is brought to the stage, and even though it is brought through footage of the original event mixed with the group’s poetical devices, it is no longer the festival of the Holy Innocents in Guapi, but the festival within the play. On a second level, the festival operates within the frame of Heidi’s birthday, on December 28. The on-stage festival is framed by these two events, one of which is immediate (the play) and another one that is brought through narrative (the birthday). On a more global level, the play works as a festival itself. It introduces the myths of origin (the Christian holiday, Heidi’s birthday, the festival in Guapi, the massacre and the journey to record the scenes for the documentary), recreates the characters that incarnate these myths, and then proceeds to its own celebration of the festival/play, creating a completely new event that involves the audience. Past and present come together in the single event of the performance that inscribes itself in a new space and temporality and imposes itself on the spectator through images, sounds, objects and bodies. Past and present come together, too, with the juxtaposition of the legendary and the recent “Holy Innocents.” Two massacres, two festivals, one event.

The piece also (re)produces the excessive experience of the festival and shows the aftermath where all that’s left is a sense of mourning. Rolf Abderhalden asserts that the production wanted to explore the literality of the events it refers to, instead of producing a representation of them. And it effectively does so by using a poetics of destruction in which simple festive elements like masks, pieces of clothing and balloons become sinister reminders of the massacres of the Naya River and the Holy Innocents alike. By privileging the register of the “real” over the “true,” the play operates as an aesthetic mechanism that combines the form of the massacre and that of the carnival, constructing a new instance of excess.

It is said that “representations” can be even more real and threatening than the actual events they are set to imitate. Antonin Artaud stated in The Theater and its Double that there are uncontrollable forces in theater—at least what he considered good theater—“that make the incarnation of a crime committed on a stage much more disturbing for the spirit than the real crime when it is actually committed.” Mapa Teatro, very much in sync with Artaud’s precepts, is committed to making a theater that disturbs and moves every single fiber of a human being: a total experience.

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Camila Aschner-Restrepo has a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Emory University. She is currently developing an artistic research project at a.pass (advanced performance and scenography studies) in Brussels. You can contact her at camilaschner@gmail.com

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