Cartagena world premiere Manos Sucias shows a different side to the Colombian drug trade.

There have been many films about the Colombian drug trade, but none are quite like Manos Sucias, which is having its world premiere this week in the Colombian Cinema Official Competition at the Cartagena Film Festival.

Manos Sucias is especially unusual because it is directed by an American of Polish and Japanese descent, Josef Kubota Wladyka, who became fascinated by the Colombian culture when he traveled extensively in the country. It’s a case of a foreigner bringing a fresh set of eyes to the Afro-Colombian culture found on Colombia’s Pacific Coast.

The story follows two ordinary fishermen who get caught up in the transport of cocaine.

Wladyka co-wrote the script with DoP Alan Blanco; both had attended NYU film school alongside one of the producers, Elena Greenlee. Spike Lee, who had been Wladyka’s tutor at NYU, has become a mentor and now an executive producer on the film.

Greenlee and fellow producer Marcia Nunes (formerly of Goldcrest Films), both based in New York, were part of Film Independent’s Producers Lab with the project. When they pitched it at the Film Independent Forum in 2012, they landed WME to represent domestic rights and find financing from Mary Regency Boies of Heart-Headed Productions, who wanted to work on films that give back to the communities where they are shot.

That goal was certainly accomplished, as the team used Kickstarter to raise $60,000 to use partially for a series of workshops teaching filmmaking skills to the people of Buenaventura, Colombia, where they would later shoot the film. Blanco says those workshops drew an inspiring mix of people from age 18 to 50. “Different age groups came together to tell a story, it was really interesting,” he says.

“They wanted to see this film made, people were very helpful,” says Greenlee of working in Colombia. The production team had scouted Puerto Rico to do some pickups but decided to shoot entirely in Colombia for authenticity’s sake.

The lead actors had done some theatre work but were making their first feature film; lots of locals were recruited on camera as well. The crew was almost all Colombian.

Colombian film agency Proimagenes was supportive of the project, and Mirlanda Torres Zapata and Carolina Caicedo were the Colombian producers, via El Colectivo Grupo Creativo. The Colombian finance came from theatrical distributor Cine Colombia and broadcaster Caracol.

Nunes tells Screen: “People recognised the genre we were working in, a thriller with dramatic elements…with this authentic Colombian context.” The film was made for a budget under $1m.

Adds Greenlee: “We’re all interested to tell stories that show a side of the world people haven’t seen before…We’d love to do projects that show the connection between Latin America and North America in a different light.”

Manos Sucias will next screen in Tribeca’s Spotlight programme. The producers are talking to international sales companies now.