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A Man Commandeers A Plane, Then The Silver Screen

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The Cannes Film Festival has always screened the avante-garde, and this year there was a particularly quirky entry from Colombia. It's a film about a man, paralyzed after being shot by police, who grows so desperate for state compensation that he hijacks an airliner with two grenades hidden in his diaper.

What may be even stranger is that it's a true story — and in the film, the hijacker plays himself.

'I'm Going To Show The Government'

In 2005, Porfirio Ramirez boarded a flight in Florencia, a bustling jungle town in southern Colombia. He was in his wheelchair, but he commandeered the flight with two live grenades he'd hidden in his diaper. He then demanded the state compensate him for a 1991 shooting that had left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"I said, 'I'm going to show the government and get them to listen to me,' " Ramirez says.

He claimed rogue police officers had shot him. An investigation was opened, and then closed.

The hijacking ended peacefully when government negotiators snookered Ramirez, giving him a receipt for a $43,000 check they claimed to have deposited in his account.

He was promptly arrested, convicted and sentenced to eight years of house arrest.

Porfirio Plays Porfirio

Colombian filmmaker Alejandro Landes read about the story, flew to Florencia to meet Ramirez and felt he had a fascinating tale to tell.

"He did something which has a very strong suicidal connotation, almost ridiculous, or idiotic, and he played, you know, his biggest hand, his life," Landes says. "For someone who really loves life, I think those kind of contradictory elements are what made Porfirio attractive."

Landes said he found a proud man, one who longed for the life he once had as a small-town bon vivant who staged horse races and ran a local pool hall.

In an audacious move, the young director cast Ramirez to play himself.

"A lot of people were very hesitant about him," Landes says. "I mean, I think even people around me — my family and some producers — initially thought it was a rather crazy idea and that there was no way that he could act. And the screenplay demanded a lot of emotions from him."

But it turned out that Ramirez could act.

"I knew I had to play the role fully for the film to be good," Ramirez says. "I never felt uncomfortable."

The result of seven weeks of filming is Porfirio. Though sentenced to eight years of house arrest, Ramirez was eventually paroled, permitting the filmmakers to shoot Porfirio across the gritty town.

Made for less than $1 million, the film relentlessly focuses on Ramirez's ordeal using a lens that centers the action at his level — that of his wheelchair.

A Quiet Dignity

It's graphic and raw, but in Porfirio, it's the small things that count — like a scene in which Porfirio gets at an itch near the healed bullet wound in his back with a wooden back scratcher. Another scene has him barreling down the street in his wheelchair.

The film's power comes from capturing the everyday life of a man trapped in his broken body.

"It's a life sentence," Ramirez explains. "Imagine finding yourself on your backside for 20 years without being able to go out."

Despite the indignities, there is something quietly dignified about Ramirez, who is 55, barely 5 feet tall and speaks in soft, measured tones. And there's also something a bit humorous, like when he sings the bawdy songs he has composed. He made up one about his own travails, which helps anchor the film.

"This is the story of a man," he sings, "who everyone knows, named Porfirio."

Porfirio, the air pirate, he sings, who had never had any problems.

Until one day in 2005, when he hijacked an airliner. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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