Narcos blazes a trail for global storytelling and Latin American culture

Netflix's success in making a Spanish- language series shot in Colombia paves the way for the streaming giant to take on more non-American original drama

Received wisdom has it that Americans baulk at watching anything with subtitles.

So for Netflix, it was a bit of a gamble making a Spanish-language television drama in 2015, when most of its subscribers were in the United States. And if that was not risky enough, it decided to shoot on location in Colombia, a country not known for hosting big Hollywood productions.

Yet the experience of producing Narcos, a drama about the Colombian drug wars, has proven instructive for the streaming giant, which last month announced it is bumping up its crop of locally produced, non-American original series from 17 this year to between 70 and 100 in the next couple of years.

In exclusive interviews with The Straits Times in Bogota last month ahead of Narcos' Season 3 premiere, vice-president of Netflix original series Peter Friedlander and the series' Colombian director Andi Baiz say the show has blazed a trail in many respects, providing a major boost to the country's film and TV industry and undermining that old canard about subtitles.

Mr Friedlander says of the show, which has been well-received by American critics and features only a smattering of English: "Once we launched Season 1 and saw the reception to this multilingual show around the world, it was enlightening and inspiring.

"I'm excited to find more stories that are set in certain regions, but feel like they're global in terms of the narrative. So I look at Narcos as really being a seminal experience for us in terms of the change in storytelling," says the executive, one of a handful of Netflix bosses empowered to independently greenlight big-budget shows based on their concept alone, without a single scene having been filmed.

Netflix does not provide viewership numbers for its shows, but showed recently that it would not hesitate to can poor-performing shows. It cancelled Baz Luhrmann's period musical The Get Down after one season and sci-fi drama Sense8 after two.

As the company expands its stable of non-American originals - Brazilian dystopian thriller 3%, French political show Marseille and the Japanese drama Hibana were added last year - what exactly is it looking for?

"Just good storytelling," says Mr Friedlander, who reveals there are Netflix teams specialising in scouring different regions of the globe for content.

"We feel very fortunate that we have the ability to discover it around the world and then have all these titles sit side by side on your user interface for everyone, whether you're in Colombia or the Philippines. It's a whole new world for the way people consume content."

Narcos' broader narrative structure may provide a clue as to what types of stories are more likely to get the wave of the wand from Netflix: Seasons 1 and 2 tell the true story of Colombia's Medellin cartel and its leader Pablo Escobar, but after Escobar dies at the end of Season 2, Season 3 turns the spotlight on the Cali cartel, which rose to power thereafter.

For its next chapter, the show is said to be eyeing the Mexican Sinaloa cartel and its infamous leader El Chapo.

"We weren't going to do just the Pablo Escobar story - we also really wanted to tell the story of drug trafficking," Mr Friedlander explains.

"It was always about having a long-term vision for this and, as a network, you get really excited about that - there's so much to tell, there are so many characters and it's this universe of stories and intersections that we had never seen before."

A couple of years before Narcos aired, the Colombian government had already begun trying to change the country's old image as a place blighted by drug violence and was wooing Hollywood with tax incentives and cash rebates to film in Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena.

But nothing beats successfully hosting a high-profile production such as Narcos. Baiz, who directs four episodes this season and is one of 800 Colombians who have worked on the show, says: "It's been great for the industry in Colombia. This is one of the biggest projects that have come here and people were eager to work on it because they knew the experience was invaluable."

The 42-year-old, who wrote and directed the Colombian thriller film The Hidden Face (2011), adds: "We had the chance to learn from not only Americans, but also people from other countries because we had crews from Mexico and Brazil. And more productions are coming to Colombia to shoot because of Narcos."

Actress Taliana Vargas - who plays Paola Salcedo, wife of the Cali cartel's surveillance chief - agrees.

"It's a great opportunity for our industry. It has taken Colombian talent to another level," says the 29-year-old, who was Miss Colombia in 2007.

Since the show debuted, though, it has been reported that some Colombians are not exactly fans. Weary of the country still being associated with the drug trade, they fear Narcos merely perpetuates the image.

Baiz says: "It is a fear we have, especially now that the country is welcoming tourism from all over the world, it's growing economically and we're making peace with the Farc (rebel group).

"But the fact that we're shooting in Colombia tells you how much we've evolved as a country," he notes. "All these actors and crew from all over the world seeing it with their own eyes become ambassadors for us.

"More importantly, the show defies the stereotype because now, people from all over the world understand what we lived through and the complexity of the war on drugs. People write to me and express an admiration for the country that wasn't there before."

Vargas argues that the series, despite its dark storyline, is nevertheless a showcase for Colombia's natural beauty and culture. "I think Cali will be so famous after this. I'm sure many tourists will start going there and it's a wonderful city to visit - it's in the middle of a jungle."

Narcos viewers will get a taste of the salsa dancing Cali is famous for as well. "You have no idea - the salsa nights in Cali, they're awesome," Vargas adds.

As for the drug wars, they are a period of history the country must never forget, she says. "And not every country has the opportunity to tell its story. We have, thanks to this platform. It's a tough reality, but that helps us to not go back and do it again."

•All three seasons of Narcos are available on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Narcos blazes a trail for global storytelling'. Subscribe