Haven’t we all once thought about covering a concrete wall in vibrant colours? Spraying graffiti is a classic act of modern rebellion; issues that can’t be talked about are brought to the literal surface of their environments. The artist themselves stays anonymous, as long as they aren’t caught in the act of painting or decide to specifically label their work with a trademark, which obviously heightens the chance of them being traced. It holds a particularly strong significance in cities where power monopolies with oppressive tendencies are located. Medellín, Colombia has a long and bloody history of drug trafficking; the cartel of the infamous Pablo Escobar had the city in its firm grip for decades. After this grip dissolved, Medellín showed its will to move forward and displayed massive changes in both infrastructure and mindset. One of the big signs of that change can be seen on the streets: Graffiti artists young and old use the walls of the city as their creative outlet and poignantly change the streetscape. This movement is a sign for the undying hope of moving on from the past and a rebellion against the oppression of expression. In Days of the Whale, we are introduced to this scenario through the eyes of Christina and Simon, two young people often spotted at La Selva, an old house that offers refuge to a collective of graffiti artists, which they both belong to.
Christina’s parents are divorced, but decide in a collaborative effort that she has to move out of her dad’s house in Medellín and into her mom’s new flat in another city. Christina isn’t pleased by the idea, as she has developed a crush on Simon and feels comfortable in the environment of La Selva. At home she is a no-show most of the time, much to the dissatisfaction of her dad and his new girlfriend. With time, Christina grows closer to Simon and they become a couple. But as he starts to rebel against the rulers of the neighbourhood by continuing to spray on their walls, Christina becomes uncomfortable and finds herself conflicted between wanting to support him and being afraid of potentially dangerous consequences.
The film is shot on digital, and while colour is an essential part of the film’s visual identity, the cinematography defines itself by its doc-style, which works tremendously in combination with the naturalist scenarios and performances. Arroyave-Restrepo uses this aesthetic to let scenes full of natural dynamic play out – the moments between Christina and her father are particularly strong, because they dig out nuances of parent-child relationships that aren’t explored frequently. The characters are potent across the board, with even minor parts such as Simon’s grandmother fleshed out. The cast’s chemistry contributes largely to the success of the film, but there is no denial that Arroyave-Restrepo knows what she’s doing as a writer/director. Feature films with a proportionally short runtime are sometimes in the danger of feeling rushed, but Days of the Whale is riveting throughout; every scene not only has purpose, but also space for sketching its environment in high detail. The grounded flow of Christina’s story is interrupted by magical-realist shots of a whale that tries to find its way into the city, an obvious but never irritating allegory on finding one’s purpose.
While its scenario offers plenty to tell, Days of the Whale is a coming of age film at heart. Christina’s journey to independence is blended with the immensely compelling political background only in subtle moments. It tells a story of boundaries and the conflict between pleasing your loved ones and pleasing yourself, especially when not fully in touch with your identity. When Christina has made her final decision, she leaves behind a colourful, giant whale. It will change the neighbourhood and announces a fight against Medellín’s trauma, until it gets sprayed over. The film might lack a punch during its final minutes, but Arroyave-Restrepo’s debut is an absolute treat regardless.