CHINCHINÁ, Colombia (AFP) — Dozens of peasants wearing face masks remain immobile under the baking midday sun in a coffee plantation in central Colombia.
Suddenly a voice shouts out: "Face masks off, we're going to roll!"
Colombia's popular daytime soap operas — known as telenovelas in Latin America — were forced off the screens by the coronavirus pandemic.
But after six months of silence, they are back in all their steamy and corny glory — kisses included.
Filmed in the central-western Caldas region "Coffee with the Scent of a Woman" is operating under strict restrictions in terms of staffing capacity, the use of masks, personal protective equipment and regular Covid-19 testing.
It's constrained by a reduced budget and the perennial risk of being shut down again — a far cry from the romanticism of its characters and storylines.
Social distancing is a near-impossibility in an industry that relies on close contacts, whether between actors or in their interactions with make-up or wardrobe artists.
There are also dozens of people working in close proximity behind the camera.
Actors Laura Londono and William Levy, the stars of "Coffee," talk to each other without masks, centimeters apart as the romance between their characters Paloma and Sebastian bubbles to the surface.
"If we were astronauts we'd have a different distance but we're actors, we work with the voice and the body," said Katherine Velez, who plays Paloma's mother, Carmenza.
To ensure safety, the entire production staff take Covid tests every Monday and most of them live at the farm that doubles as the soap's set.
Colombia has recorded more than 1.5 million coronavirus cases and over 42,000 deaths.
'Things became bleak'
"Coffee" is a modern adaptation of a famous soap written in the 1990s by Colombian screenwriter Fernando Gaitan, who wrote the original telenovela that inspired the hugely popular "Ugly Betty" series in the US.
Filming was due to begin in April but the pandemic put it on hold.
"Just 10 days before starting ... we were locked down for almost six months," said Yalile Giordanelli, the show's executive producer.
Many of the 270-strong production staff had already arrived on set.
"We were told to pack up everything and go home, but at that time it was temporary," said make-up artist Adriana Ortiz. "As the time passed things became bleak."
The RCN television channel that was due to screen "Coffee" kept paying a reduced salary during the months of lockdown.
"We had to tighten the purse strings," said Ortiz, 54.
The pandemic hasn't been so kind to much of the arts and entertainment industry, though.
The national statistics department says more than 200,000 jobs were lost in the industry between October 2019 and the same month this year.
The national media and communications association says that television channels RCN and Caracol had to cancel 38 productions between them after Colombia imposed a lockdown in March.
Colombia started lifting lockdown restrictions in September and production companies began to gradually return to work under strict protocols.
However, the production staff are not in a bubble and everyone is allowed to go home at weekends to visit their families.
Testing everyone when they return is costly but Giordanelli said it's a price worth paying as any positive cases could mean actors needing to stay in isolation, which would delay filming.
'Safe kiss scene'
Director Mauricio Cruz says the testing is crucial to give confidence to actors working closely with each other.
"Yesterday we did a kiss scene for some promotional material ... the test was the day before so ... we were very safe," said Cruz.
It's impossible to entirely shield the cast from the virus, says Velez.
But once the cameras roll "everyone is without face masks, confident that the production has the situation under control as much as possible."
The world of telenovelas is rife with contradictions.
"Since people are enclosed at home they're watching more television ... but on the other hand, industry in general, companies, ... have stopped investing in advertisements" due to the economic crisis inflicting the country, said Giordanelli.
It means television productions have smaller budgets while the pandemic has pushed up logistical costs.
The virus, though, has not only disrupted revenues and schedules, it's also affected storylines.
Script writers were forced to rewrite scenes involving parties or major social events in favor of small family gatherings.
It's created "a much more cosy, intimate story" that is faithful to the difficult circumstances it's filmed under, said Giordanelli.
by Juan Sebastian SERRANO
© Agence France-Presse
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