You Only Live Once
[La vida es una sola],

dir. Marianne Eyde

The opening scenes of La vida es una sola show the arrival of the young students in a remote Andean hamlet.


Shots of the students' arrival are interspersed with scenes of the community fiesta. The music of the fiesta is contrasted with the ominous, silent approach of the Senderistas.


Florinda is in the middle, participating in the festivities.


Villagers look on as Meche and her comrades announce the new people’s organizations.


Meche leads chants supporting President Gonzalo, leader of Sendero.


The villagers are forced to bear witness to a “People’s Trial”, whose outcome has already been decided by Meche and her comrades.


The Senderistas no longer appear amidst the community and have adopted a fully militarized image.


Sendero as insider/outsider

The theme of the exotic Andean “other” is also played out in the film You Only Live Once. As this film attempts to historicize Peru’s political violence in an Andean context, it strives to subvert the dominant discourse about the nation and views of the Andean in Peru. Set during the early years of political violence, the Andean appears in the film as something entirely foreign, which is used to highlight the cultural clash with outsider military forcers. You Only Live Once centers on the experiences of an Andean community and the ruptures posed by both the military and Sendero.

The film begins with the arrival of three young students in a rural community during their semester break and at the time of a community fiesta. The opening dialogue is in Quechua and is not subtitled for the Spanish audience. All the stuff of Andeanist anthropological study is present such as indigenous music, dance, and traditional dress, and sheep being decorated in what appears to be a spiritual ritual. We soon learn that two of the students are from the village itself, and they have brought a friend in order to carry out “research.” However, that research, it transpires, is to study the community’s customs in order to recruit members to Sendero. The arriving students are all members and their friend, Meche, is their leader.

Like the soldiers in Lombardi’s The Lion’s Den, Sendero’s presence in the community serves to disrupt community order as community-appointed leaders and rules become replaced with a new political power driven by Sendero, and the primary means of social identification through community is replaced with that of party. In a scene that mirrors the military roundup of villagers in The Lion’s Den, community members are taken from their homes and rounded up into the village square where they must assert their allegiance to the new law. However, they must swear allegiance to not the law of the Peruvian nation nor the flag but rather the law of the Party. They are gathered together to witness a “People’s Trial.”

The film has as a subplot a love affair between two community members, Florinda and one of the returning students and senderistas, Aurelio. Florinda is young and naïve; she contrasts with Meche, the young woman leader of the Sendero students. Florinda wears traditional dress and seems passive, unlike Meche who wears Western clothes and has a leadership role in Sendero. Although Meche is clearly indigenous, her primary identity appears as a Sendero party leader. Florinda, on the other hand, must negotiate her indigenous identity and the party's demands and is unable to reconcile both. After she joins Aurelio and his comrades, Florinda soon discovers that his declaration of red love is a metaphor for love of the Party. She becomes disenchanted with the senderistas and returns to her community, but the people will not let her stay, fearing the military's inevitable reprisals. The community response to Sendero’s presence has been to organize itself and not be drawn into the war between the military and Sendero.

Critics have found You Only Live Once's conclusion reactionary. For example, Cynthia Tomkins interprets Eyde’s portrayal of Sendero as equally destructive of the community as the military. She goes so far as to suggest that Eyde “reproduces the propaganda of the state apparatus” and ultimately “justifies the army’s repression” (Tomkins 142). However, I believe that Eyde’s film is more subtle in its critique of the army, going beyond the traditional anti-dictatorship and anti-military narratives of Latin American film. In doing so, Eyde has presented a more complex Sendero subject in order to historicize the movement. That the army’s presence is disruptive and repressive is assumed in You Only Live Once; it does not need to be unravelled for the viewer. When the military imposes leaders of its own choice onto the community in order to to organize a “civil defence” group, it knows that the people chosen will certainly face danger from Sendero.[7][open notes in new window] The army also has no regard for the villagers, roughening up any suspected Sendero member, including women and children. The soldiers go so far as to pull young boys from a school to be questioned (and most likely tortured). The teacher is herself threatened as the military assumes that anybody teaching in that region is a senderista. As the commanding officer states:

“This community doesn’t even exist on the map. What you are viewing is a geographical error.”

Unlike Lombardi’s representation of the military, there is no ambiguity in Eyde’s portrayal of the armed forces. She does, however, present an ambiguous Sendero subject in order to provide a visual representation of the disjunction between Sendero’s goals and the reality of violent revolution. This ambiguity does not reinforce common assumptions about the movement and its relations with indigenous peoples as something simply imposed on a passive indigenous population. Rather, this film shows how the movement, initially acting as insider from within the community, turns outsider, as a consequence of its “ambiguous identity.”[8] This kind of narrative allows for reflection on the movement’s development and recognizes its relation with Andean communities, as one complexly mediated by community and urban intellectuals. It also serves to historicize the emergence of Sendero and by extension, the experiences of indigenous communities during the years of political violence when they were largely ignored.

Historian Carlos Iván Degregori has attributed Sendero's transformation from an insider into an outsider movement to its failure to develop its relation with the Andean, which weakened its link with the communities. He identifies a series of ruptures between Sendero and the peasantry which led to this transition. These are Sendero's use of violence and mode of domination; its approach to history and perceptions of time and space; its attitudes toward Andean culture; and methods of organizing politically (Degregori 133-52).

You Only Live Once builds its script around these ruptures, in particular the way in which the senderistas fail to relate to Andean culture and social structures. These include:

  • Sendero’s treatment of animals, which are important to the community. A key scene, as with The Lion’s Den, shows the killing of animals, except that in You Only Live Once, we see Sendero ordering animals killed to feed Sendero. Florinda is also ordered to kill a dog.

  • Sendero’s inability to comprehend kinship ties to the community (Florinda is forced to kill her fellow community member, which she says is like killing her brother).

  • Sendero’s administration of people’s justice and public use of violence and punishment by death (the execution of community leaders and so-called traitors).

  • The idea of territoriality and abandonment of the community (Sendero flees into the mountains after organizing the community as a support base, leaving people vulnerable to attacks from the military).

  • Sendero’s lack of respect for local rituals (derision towards popular religion and prohibition of burials for suspected collaborators who have been assassinated).

  • Also, more importantly, Sendero’s replacement of community political organizations and leaders with new ones (Sendero nominates the new community leaders to the new posts it has created). Out of these ruptures, Sendero becomes an outsider whose approach to the community resembles that of the military.

Representing the Andean on screen

Both The Lion’s Den and You Only Live Once generated different responses in Peru, which I believe has to do with how the Andean is represented in these two films. The Lion’s Den, despite being more graphic in its denunciation of the military, was not subjected to the same opposition as Eyde’s You Only Live Once. Lombardi’s film screened to packed audiences once it was released and received national acclaim. Eyde’s film, however, despite being dubbed by the country’s foremost film critics as one of the best films on an Andean subject to be produced in Peru since 1972, and initially awarded government funding, proved to be far more controversial (Bedoya 454). Following its release, the Film Commission expressed its objection to You Only Live Once and a number of Lima cinemas refused to screen it, because it was regarded as pro-Sendero.[9]

That Eyde’s film was produced under different conditions is an important factor in considering these reactions and the two films' different receptions. By the 1990s, with Alberto Fujimori newly elected as President, much of the countryside had been militarized. The state had also embarked on a more sophisticated clamping down on discussions about the war in Peru as the military assumed even greater political powers amidst neoliberal economic restructuring. This ideological restructuring included the overhaul of Peru’s law on cinema; the law's main articles were overturned so that theatres no longer were required to screen local films. Furthermore, the public mood following the arrest of Sendero leader Abimael Guzmán in 1992 would little tolerate a critical appraisal of Sendero after ten years of political violence. Moreover, that Eyde presented guerrillas entangled in a love story rather than in all the blood and tragedy of war, also made her portrayal of the war with Sendero unconvincing (Cotler 98 and 101).

It is compelling to understand that, in terms of public consciousness, the emotional toll of twelve years of political violence resulted in a less rigorous and objective study of this period of Peru’s history. However, I believe this response to Eyde's film has more to do with prevailing Andeanism and reluctance to historicize the experience of political violence for Peru’s indigenous peasants who had, until the war reached Lima, been largely ignored. The representation of Sendero in You Only Live Once is clearly critical of the organization, evident in scenes which depict Sendero’s execution of “people’s justice” and the characters' seemingly rabid repetition of Gonzalo-inspired slogans. I interpret the failure to recognize Eyde’s critique of Sendero as related to the ongoing inability of urban intellectuals to relate to the Andean. Just as the military in Lombardi’s The Lion’s Den cannot discern between the senderistas or the peasants, it would seem that these also appeared as one to urban audiences.

The polemic generated by Eyde’s film highlights two important issues for film and history in appraising the years of political violence in Peru. In terms of history, it demonstrated how this period was dominated by a historiography and cultural politics that could not accommodate the complexities of the Andean. In terms of film, it reveals the way in which Peruvian cinema continued to be an exclusive domain still centred in Lima.

Cinema in Peru developed as a largely urban enterprise in close association with the state. It was under the left-military Velasco government that Peru’s film industry was given a boost in the 1972 Law. This law encouraged local productions by way of requiring compulsory screening of Peruvian cinema, and offering tax incentives for local producers. This was followed two years later with a censorship law specifically aimed at cinema and which denied certification of compulsory screening to films that did not conform to the official discourse put out by the state. Yet state administration of the laws on cinema was inconsistent. Considered an integral part of industrialization, cinema was initially covered by the Ministry of Industry. However, once the military government recognised the possibilities of using cinema to promote its projects, it became the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, which put out the official state propaganda. Deriving from the military government’s drive to stimulate Peruvian cinema and also from its own reconfiguring of national identity drawing on indigenous culture, the government promoted the idea of an Andean or “campesino” cinema. Documentaries with an Andean subject and for an Andean audience were produced under the military government, but these were to sell the government’s agrarian reform project.

In general, bar a few attempts, Peru has not had an Andean cinema such as Bolivia's Grupo Ukamau led by Jorge Sanjinés. Originally appearing on screen in the form of documentaries about Peruvian tourist attractions and exotic indigenous cultural traditions in the 1950s, the Andean has for the most part been excluded from Peru’s cinematic tradition. Even when Andean cinema is discussed in critical terms in Peru, it is generally against indigenista literature without an acknowledgement of indigenismo’s ideological underpinnings, that is, as a literature with an indigenous subject, written by and for an urban white audience.[10] This partly reflects the way in which the Andean has been used in political debates in Peru. As with literature, cinema in Peru has also been bound by conditions in which intellectual life continues to serve urban cultured elites and set the rules by which the Andean subject can be represented on screen.[11]

Andeanism and national identity

Drawing on this point of regional differences in Peru, I see as one of the reasons why Lima audiences rejected You Only Live Once is that Eyde subverts the dominant discourse of the nation by promoting a local identity centred on the Andean. In contrast, Lombardi’s The Lion’s Den still upholds in some way the liberal underpinnings of nation in Peru. In The Lion’s Den, the first lieutenant who is later killed by the guerrillas, emphasises to his men the need to abide by the law; he reprimands his soldiers when they take liberties with the community. His replacement, Roca, is the opposite, obsessive in his campaign to exterminate Sendero. But Roca’s brutality is explained through his own personal obsession resulting from an incident in his past. He is determined to be successful in Ayacucho in order to secure a promotion denied to him in his career. Even his own men refer to him as crazy so that his behaviour is rationalized according to a psychological defect.

On the one hand, The Lion’s Den offers a critique of the military’s tactics in Ayacucho. On the other hand, Lombardi seems to propose that there is a law, one not correctly implemented. The military presence is not the problem, but rather, how the military behaves towards the community. By breaking the law, the military’s activities are damaging to the nation at large.[12] The Lion’s Den seems to place hope in the figure of Vitín who is able to morally extricate himself from the military.

After playing a game of Russian roulette with Roca, Vitín exposes his commander’s weaknesses. In a sort of statement about machismo, Vitín asserts that the weak do not invent the laws, as Roca would have it, but rather the weak do not respect them. Thus Lombardi’s portrayal of the military, while warning of things to come, still allows for a sympathetic reading of the military. The coastal viewer can empathize with the soldiers who find themselves in this "foreign" land — one still technically part of the same nation but whose peole are not treated as equal citizens. We are a part of Vitín’s own awakening, not only to the military’s institutionalized violence but also to his own attitudes to indigenous people and to racism in the army. Moncada’s warning that one day people will find out about the massacre serves as a warning to everyone that truth will prevail. With the proper enactment of the law, enshrined in the Peruvian Constitution, national concerns may be met.

However, the idea that truth will emerge is not matched by the film's politics. As Bedoya has pointed out, part of the weakness inherent in The Lion’s Den is precisely its failure to centrally address the massacre, loosely based on real events in Soccos. By focusing on the emotional and psychological turmoil of Vitín and Roca, Lombardi has managed to depoliticize the film and present a variation of the adventure narrative — a group of paranoid soldiers confronting an invisible enemy in an alien environment (Bedoya 2003; 186).

A critique of the military is also present in You Only Live Once, except that in Eyde’s portrayal, the film does not focus on possible salvation for the officers. The military appears out of place, structurally corrupt and ruthless. Their very presence gives credence to the political movement they are there to wipe out. Unlike Lombardi, whose reading of the war with Sendero is centred on upholding the nation's true values, in You Only Live Once, Eyde appears to reject the national in favor of the local. Her portrayal of Sendero organizing in an indigenous community highlights that the script will not focus on a passive Andean Other incapable of change, but rather on an active people, able to engage in “resistant adaptation” and determine its own history.[13] Here she presents the ambiguous identity of Sendero as “insider/outsider” in order to historicize the movement’s emergence and demise.

In her critique of Sendero’s presence in the community, Eyde highlights the failure of what were the two predominant competing discourses on the nation in 1980s Peru:

  • that of the state, which emphasised national identity and defence of la patria or “fatherland” against the internal communist threat; and

  • that of Sendero, whose emphasis was on the overthrow of the Peruvian state in order to establish a new power.

In opposition to these two competing discourses, she asserts the regional alterity of the Andean, but not as an exotic, enigmatic Other characteristic of hegemonic representations of the indigenous in Peru. Rather she depicts an Andean community as one that has its own local identity and political authority.

To assert the primacy of community self-rule has much broader implications for the debate on Peru’s democratization and role of indigenous peoples, a debate which then had not assumed the same urgency as it has today.[14] Peru’s indigenous communities long retained their own forms of governance on local issues by way of elected, rotating heads of community, communal assemblies to make decisions, and a politics based on persuasion. But successive governments decreased the power of local forms of government. And during the years of political violence, these were further eroded as Sendero assassinated local leaders who would not comply with them and attempted to establish their own political authority. At the same time, while emergency zone territories were denied basic rights, the military handpicked community leaders who would collaborate with them, denying communities their long-standing tradition of electing their own representatives (Montoya 106-8).

Under the Fujimori government, politics in Peru became centralized as local forms of government became increasingly targeted under the President's neoliberal program. Moreover, unlike his predecessors, Fujimori did not appeal to any pre-hispanic referents in his promotion of national identity in Peru (Oliart 421). Rather, it could be said, he represented an appeal to multiculturalism in Peru, with much being made of his own ethnic background as the son of Japanese immigrants.

By way of conclusion, I would posit that both The Lion’s Den and You Only Live Once may be read in the context of the debate on democratization in Peru. Peru failed to make a successful transition to democracy in 1980. In the absence of a genuine debate on democratization, Sendero posed the major challenge to this failure. Both Lombardi and Eyde appear to be critiquing the models for governance presented by the military and Sendero respectively. The Lion’s Den may be read as promoting the principles of liberal democracy, which continue to place a high value on the Constitution and the importance of transparent state institutions. In the case of You Only Live Once, the alternative put forward is the existing model of the indigenous communities who cannot be represented in the dominant model of Western democracy.

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