A modern adaptation of Lysistrata, the Greek story of how women withheld sex to persuade their husbands to negotiate peace, stars Maria Eugenia Vasquez, a former prostitute whose life, burdened by HIV, has been reinvigorated by the stage.
“Theater helps us to heal because there are emotions we put into our characters that we can’t always express in real life…The way we are healing the realities of our lives,” says Maria in “Acting Lessons,” a new documentary by Bogota filmmaker, Manuel Contreras, based on her life.
“When you act, you try to embody a character from a script. You become the character from the script. When you’re a prostitute, you have to forget that you are a mother…You must consider your body only as a sexual instrument.”
In the play, Colombia is rife with political violence and Maria plays a brazen First Lady who comes up with the idea of withholding sex until the government signs a peace treaty. When the chastity idea comes to the First Lady, Maria leads her fellow actresses.
“We, as women, with silence, reason, and heart, will be the solution to this problem that men have created,” the actresses repeat after her.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, director Manuel Contreras explained the documentary’s origin.
“When I found out about this woman, I thought…she was very inspiring. I thought it would be interesting to do [a] film about someone who had gone through a lot but who had a lot of spirit — in the way she expresses herself, in the way she communicates with everyone — she’s totally alive.”
Maria, a capable actress based on the excerpts shown in the documentary, was diagnosed with HIV nine years ago. She is the single mother of a 15-year-old daughter and works as a street vendor in Bogota.
“I’m very happy with the life I have now, with the woman I am.” But as she explains throughout the film in minute and poignant detail, contentment was difficult to find.
“I remember when I was 15 and I liked hanging out…but because [who] I was hanging around…I ended up in detention centers…just to prove things to my friends. Now that I have HIV, how many friends do I have? None.”
“I’ve lived through drugs, prostitution, crime [and] abuse,” she says without batting an eye.
“When I wanted to leave prostitution and work for a company, there was [this] boss…who had been a client of mine. I wanted to earn an honest living and have a more dignified life, but I only lasted two months [on the job] because…they found out I had been a prostitute.”
Because of her troubled past, Maria takes several medications a day in order to keep her illness at bay, and not just in an intravenous sense, she also has kept her illness a secret from her daughter’s friends, something addressed halfway through the film.
“Sweetheart, if your friends come to see the play they’ll find out about my disease. What do you think about that?”
Her daughter wastes no time with her response.
“Well, I’ll realize who my real friends are. Whatever the case may be, I’m proud of [you]. I’m not embarrassed of my mother.”
After the play concludes and the actors and actresses finish bowing and thanking the scattered crowd, Maria, no longer the First Lady, but rather the former prostitute who climbed out of “a ten-year darkness” to stand proud on center stage and address a crowd of approving, grateful strangers.
“I’m done mourning. Anger and hatred won’t rid the virus from my veins…I don’t see the HIV that I carry…as an overwhelming obstacle, not just because of the medicine…but [because of] the love of those who accompany me, whose strong love has allowed me to be alive and where I am tonight.”
When we last see Maria she is walking down a starlit avenue on a beautiful Bogota night with her daughter leaning against her arm.
“I’m a fighter with troubles, difficulties, problems, a lot of things, but with a new outlook on life,” she says as the screen fades to black.
“That diagnosis of death became a diagnosis of life.”