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In Bogota, Vox Pop in a Box

Times Staff Writer

She was a young woman with a message, and she wanted the whole city to hear it.

So on a recent afternoon, she marched over to one of Bogota’s busiest street corners, stood before a flimsy-looking cardboard kiosk, punched a green button and addressed the video camera that whirred to life.

“To all publicists: I’ve had it up to here with seeing butts and breasts. There are more intelligent ways to market a product,” she said, her voice full of exasperation. “If you have daughters, sisters, whatever, please think....

“Women, respect yourselves! We have something called a brain, which lasts longer than this and this,” she declared, clutching her chest and backside. Then, satisfied with her diatribe, she plunged back into the teeming sidewalk traffic.

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That same week, a middle-aged man with a harried look stepped up to the kiosk and delivered a different sort of plea.

“I want to tell all the mothers-in-law of the world, you’re very much loved by us sons-in-law,” he said a little nervously, with one particular mother-in-law clearly in mind. “But sometimes you’re too intense, and you don’t support the couple enough.... I love you very much, but you’ve got to change.”

Both appeals were broadcast on television a few days later, beamed into living rooms across this bustling capital of 7 million people. The clips formed part of the hit show “Citycapsula,” a weekly compilation of footage of ordinary residents who stop at one of several camera-loaded kiosks around the city and opt to put a few moments of their lives on film.

The motives and the messages are as diverse as the people. For some, it’s a fleeting shot at fame: They sing, crack jokes, pitch weird inventions. Others promote pet causes, share their thoughts on life, or make confessions of lust or love. Then there are serious civic announcements -- complaints about public services or police abuse, or requests for information on missing loved ones.

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It all adds up to a fascinating weekly snapshot of Bogota, a revealing dip in the city’s stream of consciousness in a society where culture, religion and the grinding effects of civil war have long discouraged individual expression.

“The expectation has always been that it would be a mirror of the city,” said Takeshi Pedraos, the director and producer of “Citycapsula” at the independent Citytv channel.

From its start seven years ago, the program has been predicated on a simple premise: Let people talk, and the results will surprise you.

The show’s inspiration came from a sister channel in Toronto, home to “Speakers Corner,” a program named after the famous spot in London’s Hyde Park where people station themselves and declaim on any subject under the sun.

Intrigued by the idea, producers from Citytv here decided to try it themselves. They set up two “capsules” -- camera kiosks -- in Bogota, one outside the channel’s studio downtown, the other in a shopping mall. Each user would have 30 seconds to say his or her piece. Unlike the case with the Canadian program, which is still on the air, using the capsules would be free of charge.

The initial results weren’t promising. People tended to act and speak stiffly or overdramatically, perhaps too mindful of the possibility of getting on the tube.

But as Citytv began sprinkling its regular programming with spots from the capsules, and as the number of kiosks expanded, Bogotanos -- normally a formal, buttoned-down bunch -- grew accustomed to the concept and started to relax.

Here was a place they could say anything they wanted, with no fear of backlash or judgment. Here was a place where they could vent.

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So they did.

“I am sick and tired of people who bring their dogs to green spaces. Green spaces are for children and for people. Whoever has a little doggie and takes care of it ought to take care of its little doggie doo too,” one woman grumbled.

Another appealed for help. “My name is Yolanda Toro. I’m looking for my brother, Andres Toro, wherever he is,” she said, then read her phone number.

“Mr. Mayor, I have a request,” added one serious-looking, bespectacled young chap. “I want to go out in the streets naked without fearing the police. Please declare a Nudists Day.”

And from a woman who stopped by on her bike: “Here people are so worried that the person next to them might be gay. No! Look! There are people sleeping on the streets.”

Viewers started tuning in to “Citycapsula” in droves, hoping to see themselves or friends, to peek into their neighbors’ lives, or to be pleasantly scandalized by a bad word or two. (Only very strong language gets edited out.) Kiosks began popping up in all manner of locations, to attract a wide variety of people: at universities, outside an army post, at sporting events, in a high-security women’s prison, libraries, a cemetery, even next to the entrance of a brothel. The number of users surged from 500 a week in the beginning to between 6,000 and 10,000 currently.

What began as a small experiment, a series of short clips aired during commercial breaks, blossomed into its own half-hour show in 2000, then hourlong in 2002. “Citycapsula” is now a fixture on Citytv’s Saturday evening lineup, a program that’s equal parts “Candid Camera,” bully pulpit, psychiatrist’s couch, confessional, community bulletin board and complaint hotline.

Clearly, a nerve was struck.

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“In our country, we have a high level of authoritarianism. There are no means for common citizens to express their will and address the public,” said Marithza Sandoval Escobar, a psychologist at Konrad Lorenz University in Bogota.

“ ‘Citycapsula’ is a means of expression.... I draw a similarity between the ‘Citycapsula’ user and those who do graffiti, except that with ‘Citycapsula’ the person has a face, doesn’t wish to remain anonymous and wants to be heard.”

Dozens of hours of video are collected each week, from which Pedraos and his sleepless staff of six distill a wide selection of material that they feel captures the personality of Bogota and the up-to-the-minute concerns of its residents. “We try to balance the program so it’s not too sad, not too brutal, not too political,” Pedraos said. “It’s a fishing expedition.... Sometimes we have weeks with great material, and some weeks it’s very monotonous.”

Each episode features up to 300 spots, most lasting 10 seconds or less. Users identify themselves only if they choose.

Predictably, as an expression of the collective id, sex and love are dominant themes. Young women swoon over boyfriends. In one segment, two youths who looked no older than 15 sang a safe-sex rap.

A daring few have performed stripteases, but the show has a strict no-nudity policy for its prime-time slot. Some of the racier segments, however, get woven together for the program’s popular late-night “uncensored” specials.

Politics too is a recurring topic. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe once showed up unexpectedly to urge people to vote. The mayor of Bogota, Luis Eduardo Garzon, stopped by a kiosk in April to plead for understanding and for a little slack from his constituents, many of whom were using “Citycapsula” to lambaste his administration.

Celebrities, especially Colombian rock stars, have also mugged for the cameras.

But giving ordinary folk the chance to sound off remains the raison d’etre of “Citycapsula,” whose name implies its function as a kind of time capsule, a repository of the local Zeitgeist at a specific point in Bogota’s history.

Although plenty of the messages are silly and light, emotions are surprisingly raw in some of the clips. In one poignant example, a woman who hadn’t seen her daughter for years, after a falling-out, went on the air to say that she’d forgiven her and tearfully begged her to call. The two women were eventually reunited.

In a clip from inside a women’s prison, one inmate held up a baby, hoping that the father, who was incarcerated in a men’s jail, might see his child for the first time on “Citycapsula.”

In another excerpt, a nearly hysterical street vendor sobbed about mistreatment by the police. “They don’t let me work, and the officers in that patrol threaten me, that they’re going to take me away, [saying] that I sell drugs, that we’re all selling drugs. I’m no criminal!”

Even foreigners get in on the act: “Hey, Colombia, it’s Scott from California. Thanks for everything. Colombia is rico, bonito, que lindo!” -- all expressions of its loveliness.

Earlier this year, a hospital in north Bogota asked “Citycapsula” to put one of its kiosks inside the facility, so that management could find out what patients were thinking. They got an earful: complaints of lackadaisical service in the emergency room, too much paperwork, not enough doctors.

Pedraos is on the lookout for such innovations to keep the program fresh. He won’t release ratings or viewership numbers because the channel forbids him to for competitive reasons. But he emphasizes that the program is going strong after seven seasons “because it’s unique.”

The producers are trying to expand the concept beyond Bogota, to other Colombian cities such as Medellin. Ads advising Medellin residents where the camera kiosks would be located resulted in hundreds of people eager to participate.

Pedraos looks forward to a time when speaking to a capsule is routine throughout Colombia, the outlet of choice for a longrepressed society.

“People use a telephone to call, they use an ATM to take out money, a post office to send mail, and a capsule to complain about or praise something,” he said.

Already in Bogota, he added, “the people really feel like it’s theirs. Sometimes they don’t even think it’s the property of the channel, but that it’s a public service by the city.... We let people make their problems public, to vent, to rally other people to their cause. There’s the recognition that whether or not they resolve the problem, they have the right to air it before everybody.”


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