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Local director Monica Cohen follows a Colombian musician’s life in the US in ‘Dreams of Chonta’

Diego Obregón, an Afro-Colombian musician, performs at Terraza 7 in New York City.Monica Cohen

The Boston Latino International Film Festival (BLIFF) takes place virtually this year from Sep. 24 to Oct. 3, and for its ninth anniversary features nine films. Among them are 2021 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for Itand local filmmaker Monica Cohen’sDreams of Chonta.” Following the screenings, viewers can see pre-recorded Q&As with the filmmakers.

Cohen’s documentary focuses on Afro-Colombian musician Diego Obregón, who came to the US 16 years ago as an undocumented immigrant to pursue his passion for making music. Also from Colombia, Cohen studied contemporary writing and production at Berklee College of Music and currently lives in Jamaica Plain. She first heard Obregón play bass with her friend’s band at Terraza 7 in Queens. The next time she saw him perform, he played his main instrument, the marimba de chonta. After she met him and heard more of his story, she began imagining ways to tell it on film.

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The Globe sat down with Cohen to discuss her film, which follows both Obregón’s career as a musician in New York and the family he left behind in Guapi, Colombia, ending with his return to his hometown.

Q. You start the film with waves.

A. For me, the water represented Diego’s music and immigration itself. Water can make you think about distances and traveling somewhere far away. But water is also, for the people of [Colombia’s] Pacific coast, the sound of the marimba de chonta, which is Diego’s main instrument. They call it a piano de la selva, meaning the piano of the jungle. They say when you play it, it resembles the sounds of the Guapi river.

Q. Obregón eventually goes back to Colombia. I feel like there’s a misconception in the US about immigration, that everyone who comes here is planning to stay.

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A. He talks about the karma of being lonely in New York, and it is a karma, but it was the only way for him to provide anything for his family for many reasons. So it’s a sacrifice, but he always said, ‘I will go back to Colombia. At some point, I want to be close to my family, but I just don’t know when.’ He kept putting these goals in his life like ‘Once I do this, then I can go back,’ or ‘Once I finish the album, then I can go back.’ I finished the film maybe five months before he passed. [But] he was able to have the last years of his life close to his family, and that’s all he wanted at the end, redefining this initial dream of making it in America, expanding his culture and music to other corners of the world. For him, it became central to just be close to the people he loved.

During the years Diego Obregón was away in the US, his wife, Diana, found a job in healthcare.Monica Cohen

Q. You also tell the story of his wife finding work, so that when her husband came back, she had accomplished all these things. What was that experience like, going back and forth and examining their different stories?

A. Diego comes from a culture that is very machista, very male oriented. When I went and met his family, I was pleased to meet Diana, his wife, this incredibly strong, beautiful, driven character. It reminded me of many women in Colombia. They’re left by themselves to raise the children and take one, two, three jobs to [do it] by themselves. Diana had her own passion, but I think she was inspired to follow her passion because Diego was an example of that. I also knew when Diego used to live in Colombia, he wouldn’t let Diana work. When Diego came back, [their daughter] Michelle said, ‘This is the new Diana,’ and Diego just had to accept it. Because he had lived in New York, somehow he was also exposed to a different way of treating women and seeing women.

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Q. What do you want viewers to take away from the documentary, ultimately?

A. I always see documentary film as a way to be transgressive with imaginary, cultural, political, or economic lines we’ve created in our societies and somehow show the truth of people you would never meet other than through film. Ask yourself questions not only about that culture you’re watching on the screen, but about yourself. And hopefully create a more inclusive, open world. My films are about crossing those imaginary lines, and inciting others to cross them.

Q. You’ve said Obregón passed away last year, without having seen your film.

A. It meant everything to show him the film. It meant everything to see his reaction to it. I was in shock. I was already close with his family, but we grew to be closer after that. We were all able to raise some money for Diego’s family, and his son, Francho, decided to continue Diego’s legacy. He took on the studio he had in his house and decided to call it Dreams of Chonta, continuing Diego’s legacy to record local artists. Somehow, Diego is still alive in our lives, through his music.

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“Dreams of Chonta” can be viewed online from Sep. 24 at 6 pm to Oct. 3 at 10 pm. Visit bliff.org for the full festival schedule, tickets ($10 per film), and access to the screenings.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Riana Buchman can be reached at riana.buchman@globe.com.