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Colombia's Oscar hope: biopic of a drug lord

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'El Rey" is probably the only film among the 50 in the running for this year's foreign-language Academy Award that had its reels searched for cocaine as they left Bogotá's El Dorado airport, en route to France, where the film was edited.

"There's always suspicion if anything leaves Colombia,'' says the film's director, Antonio Dorado. "They figure there's got to be something inside."

Luckily, none of the reels was damaged by prying hands. Still, the search had its built-in irony, considering that "El Rey" ("The King") is a fictionalized account of Jaime Caicedo, Colombia's largely unknown first cocaine drug lord, a violent but Robin Hood-type figure who rose to power during the 1970s in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city.

Dorado, a native of Cali, sees the film as Colombia's chance to tell its own version of the drug war's beginnings, decades before the country became the third-largest recipient of US military aid that it is today.

Having police manhandling his reels wasn't the only hurdle Dorado had to overcome, however. Colombia initially nominated "Maria Full of Grace," a high-profile favorite among US critics, as its entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But the choice ran up against a little-known Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences rule: Foreign-language films must be made largely by people from the country doing the nominating. "Maria" was written and directed by Joshua Marston, a US native. Colombia's answer was to choose "El Rey." The five candidates for the foreign-language Oscar will be announced Jan. 25.

The series of events only served to underscore Dorado's belief that Colombia needs to tell its own story.

"This movie was made in answer to all the movies that have been made in North America about 'the other' - about us,'' Dorado says.

"I think Colombia is sufficiently mature to begin talking about this whole thing with the drug trade, through real-life characters - characters that we all know, events that we have all lived,'' he adds.

Daniel Lesoeur, owner of Eurocine, the French company still looking to broker a deal that would bring the film to US theaters, chose to back the film because of Dorado's compelling characters.

"The main character doesn't even realize that he is betraying his own wife and his friends just to stay at the top. It's crazy,'' Mr. Lesoeur says.

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