Jorge Sanjinés and Beatriz Palacios on location filming To Hear the Song of the Birds (1995).
The Clandestine Nation (1989) -- A leftist student is taken away by the army after failing to communicate with Sebastián Mamani.
The Clandestine Nation (1989) -- women of Sebastián Mamani’s community.
The Clandestine Nation (1989) -- Sebastián Mamani putting on the mask of Jacha Tata Danzante. This is the mask he orders to be made for his last dance and death.
The Courage of the People (1971) -- Women of the mineworkers’ community demand food. Domitila Chungara, a well-known and important Bolivian activist, can be seen in the middle.
Blood of the Condor (1969) -- The two protagonists ascend a sacred mountain to make an offer to the gods of fertility.
To convey the indigenous world’s mentality, sensibility, and vision of reality is a principle that underlies all of Sanjinés’ work. Stylistically, his aesthetic formulation of these principles is condensed into the previously mentioned concept of the integral-sequence-shot. I must expand a bit on this key concept. As Pedro Susz indicates, for Sanjinés this is “the most adequate narrative resource for visual translation of the circular conception of Aymara time” (169). This kind of sequence shot tries to integrate and make the spectator participate in a narrative point of view common to these recipients. Thus, in The Principal Enemy:
This cinematographic language is more or less present in the director’s films posterior to Blood of the Condor and is in some way the mark of Sanjinés’ films.
As Blood of the Condor marks a precise moment in the development of a cinematographic aesthetic, it also marks a new political level. Besides the implications of a people’s cinema opening up to their political participation, for the first time Sanjinés explicitly points out the principal enemy of Bolivia’s indigenous society: North American imperialism and its servant, the Bolivian state. In this sense, Blood of the Condor completely distances itself from any kind of Arguedian proposition and rather approaches Jorge Icaza’s ideas in Huasipungo. Both that Ecuadorian novel and the Bolivian film have narratives based on denouncing imperialist manipulation and the way that it creates social conflicts between indigenous communities and national states. Huasipungo denounces the occupation of indigenous land by the rich landholders of the region whose goal is to allow exploitation by North American companies; Blood of the Condor denounces the sterilization of Indian women performed by a North American program for cooperation and development (Alliance for Progress) 9 and the way such actions are done with the collaboration of the Bolivian government.
However, Sanjinés notably differs not only from Huasipungo but also from indigenist literature before the work of José María Arguedas; he uses a metaphor of blood to replace that of the raped indigenous woman. Without leaving the semantic space of violent fertility or sterilization, Sanjinés goes beyond the fact of violation/exploitation itself in order to visualize its destructive extent and consequently the social and cultural bleeding of the indigenous and popular Bolivian social classes.10
Representing the loss of indigenous vitality in Blood of the Condor are the sterilization of indigenous women without their knowledge or consent and the blood loss of the Mallku (leader of the indigenous community), wounded by the police of the region and for whom no one can obtain blood in the city. Sanjinés denounces the double aggression to the indigenous communities: against the women whom imperialism sterilizes and against the men who try to defend them from this violence. Imperialism and the national state share a similar attitude of aggression toward the Indian. By means of the blood metaphor, in Blood of the Condor this aggression acquires its true dimensions, which include the following social elements: racism against the Indians which originated in idealistic colonial prejudices, such of those of blood purity or of seeing the Indians as “naturally” sloths and beasts; the national state’s disregard for indigenous life; the negation of an indigenous communities’ future; and the nation’s loss of social and cultural vitality.
In addition, Blood of the Condor indicates another theme that will be fully explored in The Clandestine Nation: those internal conflicts within the individual provoked by the social and political systems to which that person is subjected. For example, in Blood of the Condor, the women’s sterilization provokes conflicts in the indigenous couple, as seen in the physical aggression of the drunk man against his wife; or the protagonist’s brother’s acculturation -- pressured by the racism of the city environment, he denies his Indian ancestry. That is to say, the movie shows the consequences in the lives of individuals and a family as they face troubles provoked by the political conflict between the state (and North American imperialism) and the indigenous community.
Sanjinés’ later movies show a change of emphasis. Leaving behind the conflicts of the individual protagonists, the director focuses on exploring the possibilities of political organization within indigenous communities. From this, for example, comes his use of collective protagonists and his use of dialogue about whether or not the tactics of guerilla warfare serve a campesino struggle -- as in The Principal Enemy. Similarly, The Flags of Dawn depicts periods of democracy and the political organization and resistance of the campesinos and workers. The impact of the sociopolitical on the individual is developed once again in The Clandestine Nation, but now with an added complexity. Now the narrative takes up more than just one social front (the indigenous) and questions all Bolivian social structure.
Returning in order to die, dying in order to return
The thematic richness of The Clandestine Nation has to do with the protagonist’s position in Bolivian society. In Sanjinés’ previous movies the protagonists, individual or collective, belonged to a clearly defined and fixed social group. Here, Sebastián Mamani, this movie’s protagonist, is a drifter. He is a person who loses and then recovers his place of origin. In this sense, with this film Sanjinés does come close to the work of the above mentioned novelist, Peruvian José María Arguedas, by means of a narrative glance which opens itself to opposite worlds.
Let me briefly summarize the film’s main plot. The Clandestine Nation is the story of a rejection and of a reconciliation. Sebastián Mamani abandons his community in order to go and live in the city. There, with the will of integrating himself into the “white” world, he changes his name from Mamani, a typical indigenous last name, to Maisman, a last name that sounds English. Yet this move and name change do not change his social situation; little by little, he senses his own corruption as he tries to gain access to better economic and social conditions. In spite of his efforts, Sebastián is used and despised by the city people just for being Indian. His Indianness returns again and again, like a stigma, to disturb his social and human relations. When his life in the city gets to the point where he cannot endure it any more, he decides to return to his community. There he is assigned the leadership position (Jilakata), but he cannot perform well because he has forgotten the political concept of communal power and authority. His contact with urban power and corruption has marked and separated him from the practices of his community. Sebastián makes unilateral decisions without consulting the community and without taking their interests into account. Moreover, his actions, like those of the government he served, seek only to satisfy his personal interests. Prosecuted by the community, he is expelled and threatened with death if he tries to return.
At this moment, the protagonist is fractured since he no longer has a social space to belong to. He is neither a Bolivian citizen, with full rights and duties -- since he’s Indian; nor is he an organic part of the indigenous community -- because he has been corrupted by the state power. Sebastián returns to the city looking for a way to recover his place among his own people. He realizes that it is only a ritual, an ancient aesthetic ceremony -- the dance of the Jacha Tata Danzante -- that can return him to his community. But the price for such social restitution is nothing less than his life. The dance that Sebastian chooses, executed in times of starvation and as a sacrifice to appease the gods, is performed until the dancer dies. With this dance, Sebastián will redeem himself for “betraying” his community and recuperate his place in that social space, if not in lived reality then symbolically. The final scene shows us his burial and -- as in El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz” -- in the film’s imagery Sebastián is among those who accompany his own funeral courtege. A “new” Sebastián, redeemed, is burying the old one -- victim and traitor at the same time.
Through Sebastián’s life and death of, the movie shows the constitution of a national subject and not just the awakening of an indigenous conscience, as in Sanjinés’ other films. One sees the constitution of that national subject in Sebastian’s going astray, which permits the film to approach and critique many of the social spaces and national institutions that serve to construct subjects as “good” citizens and “true” Bolivians. Thus, the script has Sebastián serve in the army, an institution that inculcates in indigenous conscripts the rejection of their ethnic identity; and then it shows him as part of the government’s secret and repressive police, a space of even greater identification with state values. These spaces move the protagonists further and further away from his cultural roots but only partially integrate him into a society where being Indian translates into never being accepted as equal. Sebastián’s passage through these institutions structure his identity as a Bolivian but always with the condition of that he deny his Indian origin. As these state systems educate citizens in love of the country, in order to assure the formation of “good” national subjects, they also inculcate a contempt for indigenous social and cultural roots. The scenes of Sebastián’s return to his village, when he already decided to dance and die, illustrate how in all those spaces directly related to the national state, there is an extreme ignorance and denial of the values of the indigenous world.
Sanjinés situates the protagonist’s final return during an historical moment of social agitation and political repression. On his return trip, in the middle of the Altiplano, Sebastián is detained by the military who at first see him as a subversive element -- as is to be expected, but after realizing that he is only an “Indian,” they let him pass. Further on, he encounters a leftist university leader escaping from the military, but in spite of his protective and paternalistic attitude toward this “poor” Indian, the revolutionary young man cannot communicate with Sebastián as an equal. Sanjinés here emphasizes that neither political wing, right or left, understand nor even less can create a worthy social space for a Indian Bolivian citizen.
With The Clandestine Nation, Sanjinés focuses on another aspect of the Bolivian social condition absent from his previous films: the condition of the “mesticized” and transcultured Indian. The Clandestine Nation follows in a long tradition of indigenous or Indian-mestizo narratives that comprise a so-called “heterogeneous” current of Latin American literature.
Although the heterogeneous literatures are exceptionally complex, the concept that define them is rather simple: they use literatures in which one or more of its constituent elements correspond to a socio-cultural system that is not what directs the composition of other elements put into action in a concrete process of production. (Cornejo Polar 60).
Precisely, if anything characterizes Guamán Poma de Ayala, the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the drummer Santos Vargas, or José María Arguedas -- those most representative writers of the Andean indigenous world, it is their living and speaking from such a duality’s conflict, from such cultural, political, and social heterogeneity. In this tradition, The Clandestine Nation accomplishes for cinema what José María Arguedas achieves for indigenous literature -- to create a textual space that permits speaking of/from the intersection of those two worlds without losing a profound identification with the indigenous world. 11
For that reason, Sebastián Mamani is not easily classified according to the typology of heroes in the Western narrative tradition. He is not a victorious epic-hero nor a problematic-bourgeois anti-hero (in Lukács’ terminology), nor a romantic character, rebellious and demonic. He is not an ideal hero who conserves the indigenous world’s “pure and sacred” values and fights westernized culture’s contamination. Nor does the Indian who denies his culture, after having been assimilated to the westernized world, become the worst enemy of that which is Indian -- as the mestizo or “mesticized” Indian has usually been represented.12
What makes Sebastián an extraordinary character is that, subject to error and fall, in his wandering destiny he discovers the place and value of his culture and his community within the Bolivian nation. By surrendering his life to his community, he is also offering his personal experience as an Indian and as a Bolivian to constitute new social subjects. At the end of the movie, we have a Sebastián whose identity is shaped out of a series of identities that he has been assuming in his trajectory through the spaces which form the nation. In reality, the new Sebastián who looks at the burial of the old Sebastián is a new subject. He is not only indigenous but also national, nourished from his native culture as well as from his experience with the national state institutions. Sanjinés seems to tell us that the process of the successive reconstitutions of Sebastián’s identity provides a new mold for the formation of national subjects. That it is to say, it is a vision of those subjects who can submerge themselves in the world of the state without losing indigenous values or with the capacity of recuperating them. In a Bolivian world, populated increasingly with Sebastiáns, with cultural Yanakunas (wandering Indians who do not belong to a particular community), that place-without-place is the privileged space from which one can formulate a new national subject.
Yet, not all of the Sebastiáns know how to return to their origins. The place of wandering and of passage through state institutions does not guarantee modification of the actual national subject. It is a position, on the contrary, more vulnerable than one endorsed through fixed and monolithic identities. However, it also offers more liberty and knowledge and a better vision of the nation. For this reason, the Sebastián that returns has more integrity than the one who does not return or the one who does not even leave the community.
From this perspective, the end of the movie acquires another dimension. Which Sebastián is buried? Without doubt, the Sebastián who could not return, who stayed trapped in the corruption of power and who betrayed his own. Yet the new Sebastián, the one who looks at his own burial, the one who returns to recuperate indigenous values, is as different from the one who is buried as from the one who left the community to go to the city for the first time. In other words, what is buried is the impossibility of being Indian and being Bolivian at the same time. This new Sebastián now represents something more than the world of the community. He represents a more ample subject: the national subject.
Sanjinés’ political proposal in The Clandestine Nation is rather bold and does not have anything in common with the tradition of literary Indigenism of Alcides Arguedas and Jorge Icaza, nor with the leftist projects that since González Prada and Mariátegui have tried to solve the “problem” of the Indian in the state. Since the first years of the independent nations in Latin America, for the state and its critics (liberal, conservative, or leftist), the Indian has been a problem and not a social sector or an integral part of the nation. And this problem of the Indian gets reduced to ideas about granting land and providing education, seemingly technical solutions. These discourses, of course, do not take into consideration the political, social, and cultural values of the Indian. It is the state, the social and political institution of governance assimilated from the Western experience, that seems to serve as the political and ideological frame in which to “solve the problems” created by those uncomfortable, yet necessary, groups. Be it a socialist or capitalist solution, the final result is the same: the integration of the Indian into state-national machinery.
For Sanjinés the situation is the opposite; that is to say, he tries to think of the state-community relation in a scheme different from the Western one. For the filmmaker, the only possible form of Bolivian nationality now is one of imagining the nation within the framework of Indian community values, within the framework of moral and cultural relations that the indigenous groups can propose to the Bolivian community. The real problem is not the Indians nor their communities but the fact that the state and the groups associated with its political power cannot understand the nation as a cultural, or better, as a multicultural phenomenon. To imagine a Bolivian community from this perspective acquires a new revolutionary reach, even more profound than Sanjinés’ proposals in his previous films.
The integral-sequence-shot in Sanjinés’ political-aesthetic discourse now acquires another meaning. It is more than just “a stupendous work of camera in constant movement.” It is “the more adequate narrative resource for visual translation of the circular conception of Aymara time, as well as of the indestructible bond of the individual from this culture with his social and natural environment” (Susz 169). But above everything else, the integral-sequence-shot is a profound form of knowing and understanding the larger Bolivian reality.
As a matter of fact, Sebastián’s life is, in the form of its contents (Hejmslev), like the very sequence shot that integrates all Bolivian social spaces. Sebastián’s life becomes the eye of the camera that adopts the points of view by which and in which national subjects are constituted. This eye goes accumulating in its gaze interrogations of the other social actors with whom the protagonist enters into contact. For this reason, Sebastián’s view is at the movie’s end a heavy look, weighed down by the social dysfunction created by the present national state. It is such a heavy load that the only form of liberation is death. In order to accede to a liberating death and not one of defeat, Sebastián resorts to the ritual of his community, which brings with it the memory of a cultural past. He seeks to free himself from a wandering existence in which he has been kept from his desire to be Bolivian and Indian at the same time. He needs to transform this wandering to make it offer him a possible place to formulate his self as a national subject. To that end, he searches in his most intimate soul for a light, a remembrance, a memory of his childhood that even his community has forgotten. Thus appears, with its reconciliatory power, the memory of the dance of Jacha Tata Danzante.
With this dance, Sanjinés introduces into his film the memory of an ancient past, and he recuperates the long memory, to use a concept developed by Silvia Rivera, that goes further than recent history and back to the colony. Thus, Sebastián’s moment of lucidity: when he is denied the possibility of occupying neither of the two worlds he has experienced in his life, he realizes what he has to do in order to recuperate his cultural origins, to unload the heavy experience of his life, to extract his body like one of the “aparapitas” (Indian workers carrying loads in Bolivian markets) that Jaime Saenz describes, and to open the doors to the formation of a new national subject. This is also the moment when he remembers the dance that he had seen when he was very young. He recuperates an infantile memory and a history before the creation of the Bolivian state. In his gesture, awareness of the present and a memory of origin unite and compliment each other. That is to say, his awareness of his national identity needs to be rethought in terms of his indigenous culture, his memory of his vital and mythic foundations, and also his experience of the historical present.