Bolivia, a nation with a large indigenous population and a rich yet sporadic film history—which has traditionally been in the hands of its cosmopolitan elite (all of European descent)—has come full circle. New and powerful films are being produced by indigenous collectives, thanks to the initiative of Ivan Sanjines, the son of a pioneer filmmaker who founded and directs the Cinematography Education and Production Center, or CEFREC.
In 1996, CEFREC launched an ambitious audio-visual project throughout the Andean region and the Bolivian Amazons with various national indigenous confederations. This effort gave birth to the Coordinadora Audiovisual Indígena Originaria de Bolivia , or CAIB, a coordinating body among native filmmakers that is creating audacious projects using high-definition video. No country south of the Rio Grande has, since the Cinema Novo of Brazil in the 1960s, produced such engaging and provocative work with such visual understanding of the cinematic medium as these collaborative enterprises from Bolivia and the indigenous nations of Aymara, Quechua, Guarani and Trinitario. Bolivian production of digital films such as Nuestra palabra, about a highland Aymara community’s struggle to maintain control of their land, and Dusting Off Our History, about Quechua elders from different villages who rediscover the ties between their two communities, have given a voice to native nations from South and Central America.
During the Eleventh Native American Film Festival in New York City, indigenous filmmakers from across the Americas were invited to participate in a weeklong program of films, videos, and talks. The following conversation, among Bolivian filmmakers Julia Mosúa (Moxeño-Trinitario), Alfredo Copa (Quechua), Marcelino Pinto (Quechua), and myself, took place during the festival.
Daniel Flores y Ascencio The work that you are doing is very innovative, and it’s shot on high-definition video. What has the learning process been like? You started out working on sound, and then went on to direct Nuestra palabra [Our Word], about an Aymara community’s history going back to the 1930s, and their struggle to maintain control of their land.
Julia Mosúa Well, in our workshops we learn—how do you say it, “bit by bit”—what is sound, production, post-production, and script. They always told us video gets the job done as well as film, and requires less equipment, less money. In past CAIB productions, I’ve been in charge of sound. But more than anything, I wanted to direct. So I went to productions, saw how my other colleagues did it and decided that I would direct one day, just like them. We work very closely with the communities we film. When we wrote the script for Nuestra palabra, we told the community, “This video, these images are not going to be sold; these images will return here where we made them.” So people participated enthusiastically.
DFA To what extent do the native communities take part in these sorts of decisions?
JM Every actor we use volunteers; we cannot pay them. The people who participate in these documentaries have rights. So, if the day comes that I sell these images, where does our responsibility lie? More than 50 people participated in Nuestra palabra, and they could say, “When are you going to pay me?” And I don’t want to betray them, but a person in the film collective could also say, “We should sell the images and use the profits to buy equipment for the organization.” So whose side do I choose?
DFA Alfredo, you directed Desempolvando nuestra historia [Dusting Off Our History], about Quechua elders. You work very closely with the community in the same way; they are not only your actors but also your authors, your storytellers.
Alfredo Copa Of course, but there’s something else. As indigenous people in Bolivia, we have a tradition. When you ask for our help, we help you without asking for anything in return. But the minute I need help, whether it’s in construction or in any other job, you must help me as well. It’s a permanent agreement.
DFA How do you help the community? Is there some work agreement?
AC They help me by telling me oral histories, and in some cases, we help by building houses together. It’s a moral commitment. I help the community on a continual basis, not only when I am making a video. I guide them. I work with them. And together we express the needs of the people.
DFA In other words, the community supports what you are doing.
DFA Julia, could it be, now that you have taken these films to an international arena, that the community might present some obstacle?
AC No, they actually want this to happen. But what will happen tomorrow if I sell this material? Then they are going to say, “Ah, that’s why she left,” and they will wonder how much I might be getting for their images. They will think I was deceiving them. That is why for two years we have been talking about whether we can sell these videos or not, if we show them internationally. Suppose a television station were to register a film as theirs and leave us behind. This is our fear. We want a distribution agreement that ensures that this money will serve the community.
DFA I’ve had a similar experience with a movie I produced with street youth. As producers and owners of the film rights, we agreed to pay the youths as a group, not as individuals. But even then, moral dilemmas persisted: how do you pay the people from your community for their contribution?
Tell me, Alfredo, did both you and Julia join CAIB at the same time? Are you the founders of this group? How was it founded?
AC CAIB was founded after the first workshop given by CEFREC. They had invited indigenous organizations to send representatives. In our case, our leader went first, but we wanted to go as well, so we started attending the workshops too, and now we are the core. After completing the training, we were responsible for organizing ourselves.
DFA And these organizations to which you belonged before working on digital production, whom did they represent?
AC Indigenous peoples, natives, campesinos. All of us who are filming were always part of those organizations.
DFA With political ties to some party or not?
AC The best thing about CEFREC and the CAIB organizations is that no ideology is imposed. But all of us share a conviction, a principle, we are native indigenous people and that is our class.
DFA When did this audiovisual program come into being? How many years have you been working?
AC We began in Potosí, Bolivia, in ’96. Since then, it has been a complete educational process with different subjects, different stages, and also different levels.
DFA Alfredo, your video, Dusting Off Our History, is one of the most recent productions and a very close collaboration with the community, but you wrote the screenplay, right?
AC Yes. But what interests and concerns me is how one speaks for indigenous peoples in the scriptwriting. There are many writers who only write because they want to tell us this or that. As if they intend to communicate to another public beyond their own society a message they feel should be shared. For me it is not only the message, I take into consideration the public I want to address as well.
DFA When you say the message, are you referring to the story? That which is going to be narrated?
AC What has to be narrated. For example, I’m telling you about my work, about my life. If you were to ask me about my private life (laughter), I don’t know if I would tell you or not. A people also have their intimate, private life. The spirit of a people can be very valuable.
DFA So up to what point do you make something public, and at what point do you protect what is yours? There are spiritual things that many native communities don’t want told.
AC That is the most delicate thing—a responsibility we feel we are holding in our hands. If we make a bad decision, we’re stuck with that decision. The community supports us, but they are not that familiar with the media, they could support the good as well as the bad.
DFA In the case of Dusting Off Our History, why did you decide to tell this story?
AC I ended up doing the film because it represents the most urgent need of my community, to see this, their story told. I had already escrito a pulso [written out freehand] part of our history, but the community said, “If our history becomes images, it, like memory, will help in remembering what our past was like.” So we made this video, which is now part of the history of my community that we want to exist forever in the memory of all of us born in this little town.
DFA And from that collective decision, do you present the script to the community? Did they discuss it and decide if it could be done? Did they already know your work?
AC They already knew my work because I wrote that history of my community about six years ago. Many people, whose stories I recorded then, are no longer with us, they have already died. If I had taken too much time, those old folks would not have had their stories told. They said to me, “You do the best possible for our story. You write it and if possible, publish it with photos.” My idea was to make a small book. But then we learned video production, so we made Dusting Off Our History.
DFA In the movie I produced, Homeland, I tell a story about my community, my people. I now have the movie, but some of the kids, who were gang members in this case, have been killed. In the end, you are left with a document that is nothing more than a document. Life is one thing, film is another, and video is yet another. What happens to stories when they are not told in the oral tradition? Why use video now? What I am trying to say is that we are losing our oral traditions. As an indigenous intellectual, you are taking responsibility, so that the ideas and the oral tradition that our people have had are not lost.
AC That is precisely the intent of the videos that I create. Video serves as a medium to save that which our grandparents can no longer tell. Many old people say to me, “Interview me, tape-record me with music. I want to leave something that my children never asked me, that my grandchildren never asked me.” I worry about what they are not being asked. Education in my country does not concern itself with this. They teach us the history of ancient Greece and Rome, but not our own history. So more and more memories are being lost. Video demonstrates that you have to remember. Young people see our ancient dress and say, “But were our grandparents like that? I hadn’t seen that up until now. No one told me about that.” Their grandparents reflected and then decided that they must tell it. Video is a motivation; people who are losing their culture can strengthen themselves in this way; although I’m not saying that stories and histories should only be told on video.
DFA Do people say what they want to freely, or do you ask them questions?
AC I ask questions—although the story of a town is large and I do not know all of it. At first, they gave me a general idea. Then, I met with elders and asked them, “Which part should we expand upon? Which part do you want to save? What is being lost?” Then we recorded those replies.
DFA If our stories are being told on video, what part of our oral tradition is being lost?
AC It is not being lost, rather it was being lost.
DFA But video is a transitory medium. In other words, do you opt for recording on video, rather than memorizing? Are you going to tell these stories to your children, or will you say, “Now we are going to turn on the television and watch the story of our lives.” Do you think there is no danger with video?
AC I don’t believe so. Rather, it is a way to motivate people to argue over whether something was like this but was also like that. In video, because only a small part is shown, in some way, it can motivate people to tell more. When the community first saw Dusting Off Our History, the technical advisors thought that they would be overjoyed, but that’s not what happened. Rather, they said, “That’s only part of it. We still have a lot here, but at least we have started to tell it.” In other words, the technical advisors were only half praised. But without the video, there might not have been that moment in which they told us our stories in such detail, in a big gathering.
DFA But that is precisely what happens in one of the films at the festival, Qati qati: susurros de muerte [Qati Qati: Murmurs of Death]. It questions why our people no longer believe in the traditional stories, and why others are no longer told. This particular video reflects on the progressive loss of respect for Aymara beliefs as the Aymara assimilate.
JM But that depends on the beliefs of each individual, don’t you see? If the person does not believe something, it affects how they tell it. My little boy says that with nothing but stories, he brought up his grades in school. I’ll tell you how this happened: There’s a moment each night when our family sits down together and becomes brothers and sisters. This is when I tell my son what my father and my mother told me, in little pieces that I keep and pass on to him. My son was having trouble in two subjects. His teacher said to him, “Whoever tells me a story that lasts at least five minutes will receive ten points.” And right there my son started telling the stories that I told him. I take full credit. His classmates asked, “Where did you come up with that?” He said, “My mom told them to me.”
DFA Julia, are you telling a story with your film, Nuestra palabra?
JM That is not a story, but reality that has been lived. You have to distinguish between that which is a history, a documentary, and that which is fiction or legend. The concern is how I’m going to convert a history into images. You have to think about how our people, our grandparents, lived.
DFA In your case, Alfredo, how do you see your video?
AC I believe the story of a village, whether big or small, has various sources, even if it seems to have only one writer. It’s a part of the history that we are able to salvage. But we also have that which our grandparents tell us, and these leads can be investigated. The video I have made is part of the history of my community.
DFA Marcelino, tell me about yourself.
Marcelino Pinto I am from the community of Chapare in the district of Cochabamba. My country is Bolivia. I am currently working in the audiovisual field. I used to work a bit as a schoolteacher and as a farmer, but not anymore. I want to explain a little of my village’s situation. Chapare is the most combative place in Bolivia. The government has a problem with Chapare due to the coca leaf. For us, the coca leaf is sacred. Chapare is a tropical region, and my fellow campesinos are employed in the cultivation of coca leaf in order to supply not only the state, but the entire country. It is a tradition: they sell coca leaf in Chapare, and they take it to the valley where potatoes, broad beans, and other products not cultivated in the tropics are bartered and exchanged. But not too long ago, there was a national blockade against the Chapare region. All of Bolivia supported it, even campesinos from other regions were quick to join the blockade; the whole country was paralyzed. For this reason our people have had to mobilize. There are a lot of human rights violations against campesinos who cultivate coca leaf, all under the pretext of the fight against drugs. Soldiers paid by the United States government are in charge of this fight against drug trafficking. The money goes straight to them. They have modern weapons and are able to quickly mobilize. And I tell you the worst part of it is that these soldiers are not North Americans, but Bolivians like us, Quechuas and Aymaras. This is the most unfortunate part. With all of the economic power, they can do whatever they feel like. And the United States continues to give them money.
DFA What caught my attention in Oro maldito [Cursed Gold] was that the coca leaf trade is presented as a natural part of daily life. One scene in particular, in the village market, demonstrates how it is part of a living culture.
MP You’re partially right. When you say daily life, that’s the reality. If you go to Chapare, the first thing you will find is that many people work in the cultivation of coca. People grow coca, harvest it, take it to the market, and in the market they sell it in the open. I could not ignore this fact; it is vital. Not shooting that would have been like going to a fishing village and not showing the fish, it would have been completely absurd. It is cultural, the campesino who produces coca and sells it to others also consumes the coca in the morning, at midday, and in the afternoon. You nourish yourself with coca. Coca leaf gives strength and vitality. And it is used as a medicine; all of us are healthy because of the coca leaf. It is very good for you—a matecito tea of a few coca leaves calms your stomach. But it seems the world doesn’t know the cultural value of the coca leaf.
DFA Well, I for one, want to congratulate you on the work that you are doing. I haven’t seen films this interesting since Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. Tell me how you began to produce videos.
MP Until a few years ago I was working as a teacher of traditional dance and customs. I would tell stories to the children, stories my grandparents and other people from the community had told to me. Then CEFREC invited me to participate in the filming of a radio station in our village that belongs to coca producers. I participated in one way or another, sometimes simply watching, and I saw that there were various aspects of the music and the culture that I was interested in preserving. The documentary is called La radio soberania, voz de nuestro pensamiento [Sovereign Radio, the Voice of Our Thought]. That was my initial experience, where I first grabbed a camera, and it was incredible. I’ve always had an aptitude for things that are technical. When they saw my enthusiasm, my organization, the Federacion Especial de Trabajadores Campesinos del Trópico de Cochabamba [The Special Federation of Tropical Peasant Workers of Cochabamba] helped send me to national workshops that had been organized in Bolivia. There I began to learn about other cultures—there are 36 indigenous groups in Bolivia with their own languages. I worked very hard writing five different scripts. The scripts I wrote about coca were not chosen by CEFREC to be produced, because any overt mention of coca in Bolivia is a frightening and alarming problem.
DFA To whom?
MP The society itself, the state, and urban society all across Bolivia. The mestizos and the q’aras, as we say.
DFA The q’aras?
MP Q’aras are white people descended from the Spanish who are part of high society; they are in government, and control large areas of land. The script that was selected to be made into a film, Oro maldito, is not a denunciation, it is a rescued story. You are so limited in the region that you can’t do anything! Soldiers stand every hundred meters in Chapare. It is a completely occupied zone. It looks like a war zone. The only thing that’s missing is the coca farmers grabbing their arms and facing off against the soldiers. That’s not happening, but things are leading in that direction. It would seem that we do not have rights. We no longer have means to express what is happening. We have nothing. The only support is our Radio Soberania. Thank God they are still allowing this radio to operate.
DFA How was it that Oro maldito was selected? Who selected it and why?
MP As I said, it’s a screwed up situation in Chapare. If soldiers see you walking around with a camera, you’re already creating a problem—more so because we are not journalists from large media outlets, but reporters from the community. There is total discrimination against indigenous people. So the government shows up with its agents and says to us, “Where are your credentials? You’re not a professional journalist.” The government agents mark the people who are dangerous. In this case, I would be marked, for example. So I had to find another, more subtle way to express what my people are like. That’s what Oro maldito is about.
DFA But the selection of your script, what was the process?
MP The first script I wrote was based on the legend of the coca leaf, written by a Bolivian author. But that script didn’t work because it implied that the coca leaf was evil, that it caused misfortune and led to death. So I threw that script aside. Then I did another, which was more like a denunciation, where the soldiers and the campesinos act out conflicts as they often happen there. But CAIB and CEFREC saw that it was premature to make that sort of video in what was and is a very tense time. Since the majority decides, they opted to make Oro maldito, a traditional fairy tale that functions on a metaphorical level. It was selected by all of the indigenous peoples.
DFA Are you satisfied with how the film came out?
MP Yes, very satisfied. It was my first experience as the person in charge and I gave my all to reflect what my community is like. And I’m happy to continue making other sorts of videos, fictional stories, documentaries, or docu-fictions. Currently I am doing a little investigation into the failure to eradicate coca. Because it really is a failure. I’m not doing this to support the eradication, but rather to learn what is going on in Bolivia with all the money the government requested from the United States—supposedly for a program in alternative development. That money went into somebody’s pocket; it never arrived. Pineapples, plantains, and palms have been cultivated, but up to now none of these products have yielded profits. With the failure of alternative development and the betrayal of the Chapare campesino, coca is inevitable.
DFA In your short documentary there is a scene with beautiful cinematography, it’s very moving and intelligent—especially considering you’ve only been making videos for five years. That ingenious shot of a girl being chased through the jungle creates such suspense, and helps maintain the tension building in the film. How did you come to consider that scene?
MP In each scene I proposed something to the cameraman. This isn’t Hollywood—in Bolivia, in my film particularly, it’s a collective job. We—the soundman, the cameraman, and the director—decide together. I was inspired by the location where we did that shoot. It is a park where children play, a cable stretches across a hill and children slide down the cable by hanging in the air from a hoop. Writing the script, I was thinking of various places that I knew in my region. I thought, to give it a little more life, I could shoot that scene as if someone were chasing the girl. I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t see Hollywood movies. I have been watching movies since I was a boy. Perhaps I remembered certain scenes from gringo films, which may have influenced me. We don’t have much equipment to record movement with finesse. But I wanted to make use of the park, which was created so that children can have fun in the middle of a jungle.
DFA Did you grow up in that area?
MP Yes, I grew up right there.
DFA Did you slide down the cable as a child?
MP Yes, it was a personal experience. I have climbed up to that cable and slid down it. It gives you the sensation that you are flying. Many people have congratulated me about that take. It is unique, but you know, I marked it in the shooting script, then my other colleagues read it, thought about it, and decided it was excellent. It was agreed upon by all of us.
Translated from the Spanish by Susan Briante with Freya Schiwy.
—Daniel Flores y Ascencio is a poet and filmmaker, born into the matriarchy of the king of the Nonualcos from a Mayan-Pocoman descent of Aguachapanecos, into what is now El Salvador. Presently he is working on his new film, Ama—La Voz del Silencio, based on the life of Jose Feliciano Ama, political leader of the Pipiles of Izalco, the largest Nahua nation in El Salvador.