The Kings of the World (Review)

Laura Mora’s new film depicting five boys on a journey to claim a small piece of land severs the violent myths governing heterosexuality in Colombian society, crafting potent worlds of queer possibility, care, and liberation in the face of violence and dispossession.

January 6, 2023

An earlier version of this piece was originally published in Spanish by Cerosetenta.

In Los Reyes Del Mundo, the new film by acclaimed Colombian director Laura Mora (Matar a Jesus, 2017; Antes del Fuego, 2015; Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal, 2012), five boys from the streets of Medellín set off across the arch-conservative rural landscape of Antioquia in search of land. Subverting both pioneer and coming-of-age boy gang genres, Mora’s self-described “épico-punk” style unveils the necropolis of a society bound by land concentration, patriotism, and unceasing extractivism. Through communal acts of care and defiance, the boys refute and transform the extreme violence of Colombian masculinity. Following sociologist Rita Segato, Los Reyes del Mundo is a refusal of the mandate of masculinity, a masculinity undergirding capital accumulation, which punishes those who refuse to “show and prove that they have thick skin.”

Their journey begins one day fleeing on a bike without pedals from a machete fight over street territory. Ra, the 19-year old leader of the crew, receives a letter stating that, through the 2011 passage of Law 1448, the Law of Victims and Land Restitution, he is the recipient of his grandmother’s small farm.

The question of land is inseparable from histories of violence that structure Colombian society and long histories of struggle for territorial reclamation and liberation by Colombia’s working class, campesino, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous communities. In the official discourse of Colombia, the 2016 peace accords signaled the peaceful resolution to five-decades of conflict between the State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The accords would initiate a new period of redistributive land reforms and resolve attendant paramilitary and narco-violence. The first component of the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian state and FARC guerrillas was a massive project of rural reform based in redistributing about 3 million hectares to rural people dispossessed by violence (complying with the 2011 Law 1448 that had only redistributed about 1 of 3 million hectares). Six years after the peace accords, only 16 percent of the promised 3 million hectares have been returned.   

By July 2020, government reinvestment and reincorporation projects had arrived to less than 30 percent of FARC ex-combatants. Massacres of former FARC members have also soared, harkening back to the extermination of hundreds of ex-guerrilla members during the 1980s when many demobilized to form the political party, Unión Patriótica. While the accords claimed the State would provide viable alternatives for campesinos producing cash crops of coca and marijuana, the high-profile Program for the Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use has faltered, with little material support and the persistence of forced eradication programs. Protracted conflict has continued, with reprisals against rural social movement leaders, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities, and women spiraling at a staggering rate.

After gathering their few belongings, the boys mount an 18-wheeler that screams through high Andean passes. Ra and Nano are hitched to the truck, steering their bikes while holding on to ropes. The others—Culebro, Sere, and Winny—celebrate wildly, swinging knives, smoking joints, and taking selfies. The middle-class audience at the Museo de La Tertulia theater in Cali audibly gasped at the boys’ unhinged and unencumbered taste for freedom. These boys and multitudes of other “ni/nis” (“ni trabajan, ni estudian”, those that neither work nor study) formed the front-lines of the previous year’s national strikes, exercising anti-authoritarian, anarchic modes of life practicing collectivity and justice outside of juridical-legal frameworks.

In Los Reyes del Mundo, Mora depicts how the boys suffer from but do not reproduce masculinist brutality that silences dissent and preserves centuries’-old social structures rooted in (neo)colonial violence, theft, and inequality. The boys confront omnipresent violence but do not lapse into nihilist escapism nor place their hopes in making reformist appeals to the State for recognition and protection. In the process they produce worlds that, while constrained and overdetermined, are potent and beautiful places of queer possibility, care, and justice. In Los Reyes del Mundo, there are no rainbow flags, drag shows, or any aesthetics normatively recognized as “queer.” Yet the boys’ collective, chosen family is a queer one, opposed to and condemning the model Colombian Family where masculinist norms of racial and sexual violence, property management, and national fealty are reproduced. The boys invent collective relationships that sever the violent myths governing heterosexuality. Structurally unable to participate in state processes of recognition and recuperation, their journey also critiques the reformist aspirations of many multicultural and identity-based social movements.

To get to the farm in Nechi in Bajo Cauca, the lowland region of the far northern part of the state of Antioquia, they must cross through the homeland of far-right ex-president Álvaro Uribe. Early 19th-century interior migration of creole farmers from Antioquia to other regions to colonize, whiten, and modernize the Colombian frontier has continued to form popular, racist, and masculinist ideals of the Colombian rural landscape and its agriculturalists. This overshadows violent forms of expropriation and genocide that underwrite historical and contemporary forms of appropriation. Upon reaching the land in Nechi, the boys ask directions from an old Afro-Colombian couple resting on the porch outside their home. As the camera pans inside, a house of ghosts is revealed. Trees grow through walls. The rooms have crumbling walls and rusted bed springs. Mora meditates upon the gradual temporal aspect of extinction, the crumbling lifeways of the not-yet despojados (dispossessed). The farm lies in the shadow of a future mining site beginning to encircle and morph the territory at-large. But as Marx described two centuries ago and Nazih Richani discusses in regards to contemporary Colombia, land values are based on future speculation and investors care little about existing livelihoods.

Being disappeared through land theft and extractivism does not just mean an instance of physical removal but the withering away of livelihoods, economies, social and physical connections, and entire epistemologies. Depeasantization not only strips campesinos of land but erases place-based knowledge and relations to livelihoods far less articulated to market concerns. Living in ruins, there is little hope that the knowledge the couple possess might be passed on to rural generations of the future. Even so, the elderly couple give the boys warmth, directions, and food for the final leg of their journey.

During a mysterious night in a brothel, the boys all slow dance gently with aged prostitutes, a scene of maternal care instead of sexual conquest. In the morning, the boys stand embarrassed and sheepish outside the brothel before unleashing into an ecstatic communal bathing ritual. They scrub each other’s bodies between raucously throwing each other into a cement water tank. As they dry off in the morning sun, they capture a rooster and blow weed smoke in its eyes to get it high. The camera pauses on a close-up of the clean, soapy skin of Culebro who has just been bathed by his chosen family. Yet during breakfast the mood quickly changes when they mention their aim to reclaim the lost land. “Better not to mention it”, the head of the brothel mentions, it’s a “complicated zone.” A few minutes later, an elderly man sitting hunched in the corner of the room insults Culebro, the only Black boy.

Small moments of warmth and hospitality are never far from the threat of violent reprisal. What makes the journey livable, at least for moments, is what has made their lives in Medellín livable: a form of queer friendship, a subcultural space that neither pretends an outside to violence nor becomes complacent, callado, or consumed by its omnipresence. Against a landscape of death both glaringly ubiquitous and hidden, the boys live of the violence but not as that violence, reinterpreting and reforming it through property destruction, collective self-defense and care, and play.  

The insults at the brothel prefigure the assassination of Culebro in a cattle ranch fronting as rural church (or vice versa). While the other boys escape, Mora shows the pervasive force of Colombia’s anti-Black racism. Yet to be a mestizo ni/nis (and not Indigenous or Black) is little consolation (and the boys show no overt internal racial hierarchies inside their crew). When the surviving boys arrive to the land, they are met by a gang of youth (including the ghosts of the now deceased Culebro and Nano) and day laborers who murder them to defend the necrocapitalist expansion of gold mining.

Before arriving, their land papers had been nullified by the regional land reclamation office. Official processes of reformist land retitling mean very little without the pressure of liberatory movements directly occupying land, especially of the most productive and fertile soil. Land recuperation and liberation make possible forms of social reproduction based on regeneration of life and not the expansion of capital. Enacting this requires unlearning the historical and political forms of machismo and racism that support colonial-capitalist production of inequality. For the boys, accessing the farm is a death sentence, but their journey shows the tenderness and determination that all politics of liberation must learn.

The election of Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez has generated widespread hopes for deeper societal transformation. However, many Indigenous groups including Liberation of Mother Earth have maintained a deeper skepticism of official narratives of governmental change, continuing their  processes of direct-action land liberation. If, after 500 years, the modes of capital accumulation and its winners and losers have largely stayed the same, should they stop direct action and put their faith in aspirational state reforms with little guarantee of success? Is Petro’s presidency really the moment in which the State will finally prioritize the lives and access to land of Colombian’s Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and campesino communities?

For the ni/nis, there is a similar perception of the fallacy of reform and the types of clandestine care needed to weather the violent storm of liberalism and/as territorial violence. In this storm, the State operates in a mythic time of always deferred arrival, inciting hope while distributing violence. Here it is manifest as either a civil force regulating all norms—the interfaces of violence and care, racial slurs, the limits of spatial movement—or as raw violence. This mixture—gratuitously violent accumulation on one hand and the civil regulation of lives bound to capital on the other—is, of course, one of the primary dynamisms of racial capitalism.

After failing to acquire the land at the reclamation office and before arriving at the family farm-turned-mining dump and cemetery, Ra, Winny, and Sere enter a bar in the Nechi. Full of straight couples dancing and brooding men hovered over liquor bottles and buckets of beer, the boys queer the cumbia. They hold each other, dance wildly, and mock the bodily stiffness of opposite-sex dancing rituals. Eventually they are kicked out and beaten terribly. In a direct call to the frontline protests of 2021 that rocked the nation and tested the legitimacy of right-wing president Iván Duque, Covid austerity measures, and the racial capitalist status quo in 2021, the three boys, beaten, with no belongings and no place to go, proceed to make and torch a road blockade on the outskirts of town.

In perhaps the film’s most poignant scene, Ra, Winny, and Sere run around wildly and draw the outline of their future farm into the sandy mining waste that spills onto their land. After such an arduous journey they collapse into each other’s arms, lying with their bodies entangled, gently caressing each other in the fading afternoon light. There is no specific sexual subtext to their sweaty cuddling but rather the manifestation of new relationships uniting people, place, and subversive dreams in queer webs of unregulated movement and tenderness based on mutual interdependence. Shortly after, they are murdered.  

Subverting the institutional and moral premises of masculinity, reformism, and structural violence, Mora creates mobile punk geographies of (in)dignity, inventing incommensurable worlds that never seek recognition nor permission. In a wasteland world, livable space is created through acts of daily rebellion even—or especially—when these are inseparable from acts of survival. Rather than falling into played-out tropes of hope or nihilism, the boys show how holding our dreams close produces new spaces of queer, communal care that stitch a fabric of tender being through and against the unceasing nightmare of late capitalist society. 

Alexander Liebman (@alexandermxfine) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University. He works with youth and women’s agrarian social movements in the norte del Cauca, Colombia, studying the links between illicit crop production, intergenerational political processes, and everyday forms of sociality in relation to transformations in development science, State repression, and industrial agriculture in the region.    

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