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The Freeing of Ingrid Betancourt: A Documentary Gets a Happy Ending, Five Years Later

By Tom White

When Ingrid Betancourt was among 15 hostages rescued last week after six years in captivity at the jungles of Colombia at the hands of FARC guerillas, the documentary community must have been thinking about The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, the 2003 film by Victoria Bruce and Karin Hayes. The filmmakers had originally planned to document Betancourt’s campaign for president of Colombia, following her eight years in Congress during which she spoke out against Columbian politicians who had been linked to drug cartels. Then, on February 23, 2002, she was kidnapped and held hostage, and the filmmakers redirected their story on Betancourt’s family’s desperate struggle to free her and keep her campaign alive. The film went on to win the Audience Award at Slamdance and, after airing on HBO, a DuPont-Columbia University Award. The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt also screened at IDA’s DocuWeek.
IDA spoke to Victoria Bruce, via e-mail, about the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt and the impact Bruce and Hayes’ documentary has had on their filmmaking career.

IDA: How did you first hear about Ms. Betancourt's rescue?

Victoria Bruce: Karin was in Paris, where she was doing some interviews for a book on the topic of Ingrid and the hostages and heard it from some sources within Ingrid's support committee. Karin was the first one to give the news to Jo Rosano, the mother of one of the three American hostages, whom we also made a film about in 2003. I heard the news from another source close to the US government at about the same time. It was totally unexpected. I had a meeting that night to discuss ongoing plans to try and get the hostages free.

IDA: Have you been in contact with Betancourt or her family over the past 24 hours?

VB: Karin has been in Paris, and because she was there for some demonstrations to bring attention to the hostages, she was able to spend time with Ingrid's daughter and ex-husband the day before the release. Then she saw them again the day after, when Ingrid returned to Paris with her family. Of course, they were beyond elated.

IDA: Although you have made two documentaries since The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, you have been keeping website visitors informed about the latest news about her. With this experience of having made the film, what are your thoughts about the ongoing responsibility of the documentary filmmaker to his/her subjects?  

VB: I think that the only responsibility a filmmaker has is to make an honest film and make sure that the characters whose lives you explore are dealt with with dignity. Had the story of Ingrid been over when the film was made, we would have moved on completely. But I don't think that Karin or I ever felt that The Kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt, or our second film, Held Hostage in Colombia, were ever really finished, and we joined the families of all of the hostages in the anguish and the hope that they would be free. There were many exhausting and discouraging times along the way when we could get absolutely no interest by our government to do anything about the situation. Fortunately, the end result was more than we could have ever hoped for. 

IDA: As you continue in your profession as documentary filmmakers, how has your perspective about the documentary form changed, from when you first started out?

VB: I can't speak for Karin, but I think that good storytelling can be done in all types of forms or methods, so in that way, my perspective hasn't changed at all. I'm always looking for the next good story, and once I find it, the story will guide the project into the form that best fits.