Berlinale film ‘Pepe’ presents a hippo’s experience of colonialism

By Thomson Reuters Feb 20, 2024 | 8:42 AM

BERLIN (Reuters) – The story of Pepe, a hippopotamus from Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s private zoo, inspired Dominican director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias to make a film reflecting on the impact of colonialism, he said.

The hippo, one of many wild animals kept on Escobar’s private estate, escaped into the surrounding countryside and lived there for many years after the drug lord’s death in 1993.

“I was interested in all the symbolism and everything that emanates from that story… and it made me think about displacement,” the director said.

“Pepe”, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Tuesday, tells the story from the hippo’s perspective, giving the creature a series of multilingual voices. It envisages Pepe’s Afrikaans-speaking youth in Namibia and death as a Spanish speaker at the hands of a German hunter in Colombia many years later.

“Pepe is almost a decolonial philosopher,” the director said, noting the film begins in the historical context of apartheid. He described Pepe’s monologue as “a kind of poetry” on his situation.

Throughout, Pepe lives according to other people’s terms: performing for a group of German tourists in Namibia, facilitating Escobar’s megalomania, serving as the monster of the local Colombian villagers’ imaginations and finally becoming a trophy for a German hunter called in to shoot an animal considered an invasive species.

Pepe’s musings are conveyed in a guttural tone by a range of actors, depending on which language he is speaking.

“I saw an ad in which they were looking for the voice of a hippopotamus and I said, right away, ‘that’s me!’,” said one of them, Jhon Narvaez.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Miranda Murray, Alexandra Hudson)