Activists vs gangs in Days of the Whale

B- Urban youth drama
Written and directed by Catalina Arroyave

Doing the right thing can be dangerous in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, even if the war is initially battled with paint. Days of the Whale (original title: Los días de la ballena) isn’t quite exciting enough to be called a thriller – even though it manages an almost constant sense of dread. Nor is it as emotionally deep enough to be a serious drama. And yet, it’s compelling.

Cristina (Laura Tobón) and Simon (David Escallón) are teenage lovers, artists, and activists. They paint beautiful and politically powerful graffiti throughout the city (the painting makes up the best moments of the film). The two belong to a group of similar young activists, who also hang out in their own clubhouse.

The film’s central conflict ignites when violent gang graffiti appears across the street from the collective. It’s the last thing these young idealists want in their neighborhood. For Cristina, this means war. She wants that message covered over, despite the danger. Reluctantly, Simon helps her.

One would assume that Cristina should know better. Her mother, a former journalist, had to flee the country for her own safety. Perhaps she wants to follow in her mother’s dangerous footsteps. Instead she lives with her moderately alcoholic father in a comfortable, middle-class apartment.

Simon comes from the working class, and therefore has connections with gang members. He can talk to them, but unlike Cristina, he knows how dangerous they can be.

Oddly, for a film about activists and street gangs, there seems to be no police presence at all. We never see any cops, and no one talks about them. The activists are neither harassed nor do they ask for protection. The gangs have no fear of arrest. The only hint of police behavior is the graffiti that sparks the plot: “Snitches get stitches.” (I assume it also rhymes in Portuguese.)

So, what about that title – Days of the Whale? Three long shots show a whale lost and dying. I don’t know how they created those visuals. I doubt the filmmakers had the money for the needed special effects. On the other hand, I couldn’t find any news items about a whale in Medellin that got far enough into the city to block traffic. Whales are Christina’s mother’s favoritte animal. Beyond that, I have no idea what the symbolism meant.

Speaking of animals, Cristina and David befriend a mangy but adorable dog in the very first scene. The lovable canine becomes the artist collective’s mascot.

Tobón gives a fine performance as a young idealist ready to change, if not the world, at least the city. Escallón is not quite as good as the boyfriend who can sometimes barely hold on.

Days of the Whale will be streaming this Friday through the Roxie.