Art & Unrest in the Andes

Boliviau2019s indigenous filmmakers explore race and identity issues with a frankness that has forced these debates into the national dialogue.

By Cristina Ver Jul 21, 2004

As Bolivia’s political struggles intensify, the country’s indigenous filmmaking—which first made an impact in the 1960s—has been invigorated anew. It is currently producing some of the most exciting and innovative work in all of Latin America, as filmmakers fervently resist the otherwise-dominant commercial norms of the region’s conspicuously Caucasian-flavored, Spanish-language film and television programming. They have dared to explore race and identity issues with a confrontational frankness that has forced these debates to the surface and center of the national dialogue. Additionally, they’ve become a most vibrant chronicle and critique of globalization-related and U.S.-specific involvement in the Andes, from the ground up.

The Quechua and Aymara people, concentrated in the states of Potosí and La Paz, respectively, comprise Bolivia’s largest pueblos indígenas; their languages flourishes with literally millions of speakers each, sharing “official” status with Spanish. And yet, the void of mass media and educational materials produced in the mother tongues of its 60-plus percent majority is gaping. This void, however, is being ambitiously filled by a vanguard of visionary collectives from Aymara, Quechua, also Guaraní and the country’s 33 other pueblos, fomenting a new kind of revolution in Latin America—not with guns but through harnessing the newly accessible audio-visual production means of the digital age to give both voice and face to Bolivia’s long-silenced indigenous majority. Additionally, they could directly counter—or at the very least, balance—the tide of foreign-produced, “anthropological” documentaries which have attempted to present or dissect Bolivia’s pueblos indígenas, often without regard or respect for indigenous community protocols and cultural/intellectual property rights.

The seeds were sown as far back as the late 1960s, with the rise to prominence of Jorge Sanjinés, director of the groundbreaking Quechua-language production Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor, 1969), starring Reynaldo Yujra—the first certifiable Andean cinema idol (he also directs and produces). The film’s decidedly anti-imperialist bent shone through in its portrayal of Peace Corps workers, dramatizing an alleged Uncle Sam-initiated program to sterilize indigenous women without consent; it helped bring about the Corps’ expulsion and decades-long ban from Bolivia.

The efforts and output of indigenous producers and directors first achieved a national level of synchronization in 1996 under the country’s (indigenous—not government—founded) National Plan for Audiovisual Communication. Pivotal organizations such as CAIB (Indigenous Audiovisual Coordinator of Bolivia) founded by Jesús Tapia, CEFREC (Cinematography Education and Production Center) founded by Iván Sanjinés (son of Jorge Sanjinés), and CLACPI (Latin American Film and Video Council of the Indigenous Peoples) carried the torch by providing professional and aspiring indigenous film and video makers with education, training and practice, as well as distribution services for their finished works—including providing battery-powered video projectors to communities lacking electricity.

"It’s especially important to note the collective nature of this movement,” explains Amalia Córdova, Latin American coordinator for the Film and Video Center at the National Museum of the American Indian. “Each project involves an entire community, with members taking on a variety of audio-visual production responsibilities; sometimes doing the lighting, sometimes the camera work, other times directing or script writing—there’s no one individual with sole authorship or creative control.” Key works among the 100-plus produced thus far under the auspices of CEFREC and CAIB include: 1998’s award-winning Qati Qati (Whispers of Death), La Nación Clandestina (The Clandestine Nation) in 1989 and last year’s Aymaranakan Sarawinakapa (Traditional Aymara Democracy).

The profile of works by Bolivia’s pueblos indígenas is growing far beyond the Andes, especially through the support of the NMAI’s tri-annual Native American Film and Video Festival as well 2002’s touring Ojo del Condor/Eye of the Condor festival. These events have helped to bridge the continental and cultural divide, broadening the Bolivian film and video audience across North America in Native and non-Native communities. “It has been especially rewarding,” says Luna, “to have these opportunities to meet and share experiences with indigenous directors and producers from the United States—Navajo, Lakota and many others.”

Quechua director/writer Marcelina Cárdenas’ Llanthupi Munakuy (Loving Each Other In the Shadows), which has also screened in the U.S. via the African Diaspora Film Festival’s special Latin America program, is a rare dramatic feature produced entirely in the Quechua language (available with English/Spanish subtitles). The movie incorporates aspects of Andean myths to weave a dramatic saga of star-crossed young lovers in the director’s home state of Potosí. “The screenplay comes from specific historical information,” she explains, “presenting the myths and legends of our Quechua existence in a new form of storytelling.” Cárdenas began her communications career in community radio as a teenager. She fashioned herself into an outspoken voice of social justice, saving up to buy airtime from other stations in order to speak out for her community against corruption and the environmentally and socially devastating policies of the government and local institutions. “The authorities would confront me with guns, threatening to kill me unless I’d withhold my findings,” she says, noting that an outpouring of community letters and acclaim nevertheless reinforced her work. At the invitation of CEFREC, Cárdenas began to study video production. “I realized that through this medium my message would reach the community—especially women, who are often illiterate—in its most comprehendible form and additionally, to foster communication among and about all the 36 different pueblos indigenas.”

Patricio Luna’s Ángeles de la Tierra (Angels of the Earth), meanwhile, relates a tale about a young Aymara villager who leaves home for the first time to seek his long-lost brother in the city, only to find that the brother has invested his life and soul in a dominant culture that expresses disdain for indios. It tells the all-too common contemporary tale of the self-“deindigenization” required in order to join a mainstream Bolivian life and economy which still insists that indigenous must mean not only rural and materially poor, but also backward. Even a full-blooded Aymara can conceivably erase his identity by thwarting those presumed conventions—moving to the city, speaking only Spanish, etc.

Identity politics anywhere in Latin America can be challenging to dissect for U.S. residents. In Bolivia, it helps to know for example that, according to the CIA World Factbook, more than 85 percent of the population is of Amerindian extraction—non-white by U.S. (and, for comparison, South African apartheid-era) notions of whiteness requiring a “pure” European bloodline. Bolivia’s full-blooded Native population, which maintains a more “traditional” lifestyle primarily in rural villages and enclaves, exists as distinct and largely apart from mestizos—mixed-race Bolivians of Native and European descent. Like South Africa’s “coloured” population, mestizos comprise an altogether different category from the pueblos indigenas. They are seen as “de-indigenized Natives,” despite both groups’ shared Andean-origin story.

What began as a clash of civilizations—the Spaniards’ arrival in the territories of the Inca—remains so, centuries after both empires have long gone. The colonial mindset prevails in modern times, for example through Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform Law of 1953. Its purpose was to force the cultural, linguistic and physical assimilation of the country’s indigenous peoples into the dominant, capitalist model; breaking up their collectively-held land bases and thereby destabilizing—if not immediately dismantling —each group’s autonomous, sustainable existence.

“ The system gives no importance to us, to our culture, which it sees as being non-conducive to the Western idea of ‘getting ahead,’” says film/video maker Patricio Luna. He notes with clear frustration organized Christianity’s role in this process. “We are the target for many churches and their evangelists who come to our indigenous communities, not in a spirit of equality, recognizing there are many things we could teach them, but to bombard us with their own ways and beliefs—refusing even to acknowledge that we Aymara have our own beliefs which are important to us.”

Luna was cameraman for K’anchariy, the piercing Reynaldo Yujra-directed documentary about the Kallawayas—Aymara spiritual leaders of the Chari community of La Paz. Significantly, the work also confronts the interference and denigration they have experienced from career-Christians. For some of these evangelicals, however, K’anchariy has provoked an opposite response. “After viewing it themselves, some feel even more convinced that we need ‘evangelizing,’” Luna explains, noting that any display at all of traditional religious practices, on film or throughout the community, is pronounced heathen by the churches.

Coca, meanwhile—Andean peoples’ most culturally and spiritually important crop, first made into cocaine by a German scientist—has brought the United States into Bolivia’s tumultuous political process, via “the drug war.” It is not the Pablo Escobar-style cocaine-cowboys who bear the brunt of this policy, however, but indigenous farmers who find their traditional crops destroyed by airborne chemical assaults—with neither viable alternative crops nor economic resources to replace their livelihoods. The seeds of Bolivia’s unrest, therefore, have many sources. Throughout recent years, the pueblos indígenas have become increasingly politicized, organizing huge protest actions from mass marches to regional road blockades.

The cauldron approached boiling when former President Gonzalo Lozada bargained with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to radically restructure the Bolivian economy, in exchange for increased aid. The effects of his crushing 12 percent income tax increase, privatization of the national water system (such that H2O became unaffordable to the lowest-income Bolivians), large scale ceding of mining and timber rights on indigenous-held lands to U.S. and multinational conglomerates, not to mention a proposed pipeline to export Bolivia’s natural gas to the United States and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas—have all wrought the resistance of indigenous and non-indigenous social movements throughout Bolivia. At the boiling point, the collective culmination of popular and pro-indigenous movements—led by Aymara congressman, MAS leader and former coca farmer Evo Morales—finally succeeded in ousting Lozada on October 17, 2003.

As they continue to demand greater representation in the national political process, indigenous Bolivians have discovered the key is producing their own audio-visual media—from news reports to music videos to dramatic features. They realize this makes their languages and cultures just as alive and relevant in the national discourse. “Originally, I was presenting my works on indigenous themes for our Quechua communities only, but now,” notes Cárdenas, “they are being viewed and discussed among all peoples, not only the pueblos indígenas but the Mestizos, too. Those of the middle and upper classes are also joining in the dialogue.”

As of December 17, 2003, indigenous media makers have had an official on-air slot on Bolivia’s nationally broadcast Channel 7 to present their own programming each week. Entre Culturas, their flagship “edutainment” program, offers everything from Quechua music videos to history lessons on Amazon-based tribes to Aymara-language cartoons.

Patricio Luna describes the next level of progress for indigenous film and video. “[CAIB and CEFREC] are now building our own networks, our own factories, our centers of production, so we can best disseminate our own counterpropaganda,” he explains, with palpable pride

“ Through our films, our videos, the pueblos indígenas of Bolivia will be heard. ”