Still from Grupo Ukamau’s El coraje del pueblo/ The Courage of the People. The shot is meant to capture the community as a collective group.
This glitzy image of the emcee for the television broadcast of Miss Universe cuts ...
... to this one of a girl watching the television show, emphasizing the influence that TV has on girls.
This image of a beauty pageant contestant dancing at a disco cuts...
... to this image of a woman cleaning a baby’s bottom, emphasizing the contrasts in these women’s ways of life.
Miss Universe includes a number of images of the Peruvian elite speaking in support of the beauty pageant. Here a woman speaks of how the pageant will unite all countries. Chaski contrasts her words and her elite appearance.
With this image of the beauty pageant promoter's hands, Chaski emphasizes how much her rhetoric is at odds with the people of Peru.
A neoliberal landscape shot from Miss Universe. The billboard for National Car Rental contrasts with the man walking on the bridge, in a sharp critique of how modes of transportation reveal class division.
An advertisement for Coca-Cola from Miss Universe.
An overhead landscape shot from Gregorio. This shot of a beautiful colonial city cuts to images that reveal the class divisions and inequities in the city.
An activist speaks about how the Miss Universe pageant demeans all women.
An image from Miss Universe where the contestants pose in bathing suits in a major city plaza during winter.
A feminist critic says the pageant uses women for commercial purposes.
Thus far, I have briefly traced the political, ideological, and cinematic context within which Chaski emerged as a film collective dedicated to influencing Peruvian society. When I began the previous section, I indicated that their choice of name linked their work to the history of Incan forms of communication and community building. Those familiar with Latin American film history, however, will hear in their name another obvious intertext that reveals an additional significant influence on their work. The name “Grupo Chaski” seems like a Peruvian revision of the Bolivian Grupo Ukamau, which was named after the Aymara expression for “that’s the way it is” — the title of Ukamau's first film. One of the most significant film groups connected with the New Latin American Cinema movement, Grupo Ukamau was founded in 1966 by Jorge Sanjinés, Oscar Soria, Ricardo Rada, and Alberto Villapando. Later joined by Antonio Eguino and others, the Bolivian group made three feature length films – Ukamau (That’s the Way it Is, 1966), Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor, 1969), and El coraje del pueblo (The Courage of the People, 1971) — which progressively moved from fiction to documentary-type visual style and which also progressively became more and more the product of collaborative work with the communities they were filming.[open endnotes in new window] Similar to Ukamau, Chaski is a filmmaking collective with comparable goals. Both groups have made films with social relevance, focused on the challenges facing marginalized communities, integrated feature filmmaking with documentary, and considered the filmmaking process as integrally tied to the film experience.
Without question, Chaski has been influenced by their precursors in the New Latin American Cinema. Legaspi begins an essay reflecting on his experience with Chaski by referring to his admiration for the Brazilian cinema novo directors Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Glauber Rocha in addition to Jorge Sanjinés. In an on-line interview he mentions La hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces), the ground-breaking documentary by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, as the film that probably influenced him the most (Int. with Arévalo). As mentioned earlier, Barea had worked directly with Sanjinés. Despite these links, though, there are a number of ways in which the work of Chaski differentiates itself from the political filmmaking practices of the New Latin American cineastes of the 60s and 70s. To narrow the point of comparison, it is worth noting the particular ways in which Chaski's work builds on yet differs from that of Ukamau.
Following in the practice of the Italian neo-realists, both Chaski and Ukamau sought non-professional actors and worked closely with the populations they filmed, leaving their scripts open to adaptation by the actors from the communities. Like Ukamau, Chaski used a number of non-professional actors to help produce their scripts. In one example of the collaborative process, the group originally wanted Gregorio to have a happy ending, with the protagonist spending the money he has at the end of the film in a socially useful way, but Marino Leon — the street child who played Gregorio — said that ending was ridiculous and that no one in his position would give away money. So the group allowed the boy to script his own ending where he takes his stolen money and treats himself to a feast that includes steak and ice-cream.
The collaborations between these film groups and the social groups they were filming were an essential feature of their collective politics. Sanjinés describes a series of challenges Ukamau faced working with the communities they were filming and then later screening their films in those same communities. With Blood of the Condor, he explains
Chaski avoided some of the challenges faced by Ukamau since they were not working in rural communities but rather in urban spaces with which they were intimately familiar. Where Chaski faced its greatest challenge was with their work with children.
Chaski’s decision to make films with child protagonists follows in a long-established neo-realist tradition of focusing on children as a way to highlight social problems. Some of the most well known films to link political filmmaking with the stories of children are Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (The Young and the Damned; 1950) and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981), both of which films reveal the difficult lives of lower class children who are often abused or abandoned by their parents. In contrast to film projects like Babenco’s Pixote, whose lead actor died after filming in a shoot-out with the police, Chaski’s members considered their relationship with the children they worked with as emblematic of their overall film project. For each of their two features, after casting the children, they established a house where they all lived during filming. When the films were completed, each of the children had a sponsor, something like a “big brother,” who mentored them after the film was over. To give only two examples, Marino Leon, the protagonist of Gregorio, went on to become an award-winning documentary director, and Rosa Isabel Morfino, the protagonist of Juliana, was supported as an actor in a number of post-Chaski projects by members of Chaski. Almost twenty years after the Chaski features were produced, both Leon and Morfino remained in close contact with Kaspar.
The differences between Chaski and Ukamau largely reflect differences in their socio-historical and cinematic contexts. Ukamau considered imperialism as “the principle enemy” and set out to attack all identity markers and socio-economic structures that derived from the long history of oppressing the indigenous population in the Andes. The political context for Ukamau stems from the 1952 coup by the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which led to one of the first genuinely social revolutions in the region. Then from 1966 to 1971, the time-frame for Ukamau’s first three films, right-wing generals exercised more and more significant power in Bolivia. Simultaneously, the revolutionary efforts of Che Guevara’s guerrilla movement were extinguished when Che was murdered in Bolivia in 1967. The Ukamau filmmakers, consequently, were working in a moment of heightened revolutionary consciousness and had a militant view of the social role of filmmaking. They wanted their films to create new conditions of political possibility and to inspire their viewers to move toward revolution, which explains their emphasis on armed collective resistance.
Such revolutionary clarity was not possible for Chaski since the urban spaces and neoliberal economics that were the focus of their work did not permit clear cut notions of good and evil, enemy and ally. In García Canclini's metaphor for this kind of social and economic condition, globalization means that David no longer knows where to find Goliath (La globalización imaginada; 26). By the time that Chaski began working, the revolutionary politics of the New Latin American Cinema directors like those of Ukamau had entered a stage of transformation away from the call to militancy of the 60s and 70s and towards a call to civic agency and democracy. The filmmakers of the New Latin American Cinema had responded to the political context of the 1960s and 70s: armed struggle, revolutionary politics, and the rise of dictatorships across the region. They conceived of their films as playing a direct role in these struggles, literally imagining the camera as a gun. For instance, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s term “third cinema” described films that “directly and explicitly fight the system,” and the writing of those two directors inspired filmmakers across the region to conceive of cinema as an integral force in the struggle to change society (42). Chaski’s project also holds to the idea that cinema plays a direct role in both the formation of identity and the struggle for social change. In that sense they continue the project of the New Latin American Cinema and groups like Ukamau. Where they differ, though, is in their less confrontational, less militant approach that takes a more inclusive view of the types of films they support and a more flexible view of media activism. Chaski has realized, for instance, that while they might not make films like those of Francisco Lombardi, promoting his work is essential in the fight to defend Peruvian cinema.
If film for Ukamau in the 60s and 70s was a weapon in militant revolutionary struggle, then for Chaski it was conceived as a tool for democracy and empowerment. In 1988 their magazine Chaski Informa described their main goal as:
In contrast to the call to arms that accompanied Ukamau's films, Chaski’s films aimed their militancy in a different direction, one that never advocated violence of any kind. In an internal document they described their cinematic militancy in these terms:
The transitional nature of Chaski’s politics is evident here. A continuation of 60s leftist thinking remains in their obviously radical sense of film as an essential part of social struggle and their emphatic desire to combat capitalist media. And yet, unlike their counterparts in the 60s, Chaski’s films also acknowledge that the lure of consumer society and the attraction of mass media are often far more seductive for the disenfranchised than social commitment — a concession to the realities of political ambivalence that was less common in the revolutionary era of the 60s and 70s.
Perhaps one of the most significant differences between Chaski and Ukamau lies in their commitment to using both alternative and mainstream forms of distribution. Ukamau and Chaski were each concerned with their access to the public and their ability to compete with alienating forms of mass media. In 1976 Sanjinés wrote:
Ukamau had begun the early practice of public screenings accompanied by members of the group, who led after-screening discussions, a practice that Chaski also used as a way to disseminate their work and provide communal spaces for debate and reflection around their films.
Similar to accounts by Ukamau of their experiences in these screenings, Chaski’s René Weber recounts a story of a screening in a small rural village where later the community referred to “la pared que habla” (“the talking wall”) (9). In addition to bringing cinema to spaces that had no experience with film, Chaski also set up screenings in urban shantytowns, showing films in public squares and community centers. Where their interest in distribution radically differs from Ukamau's has been in their work with mainstream formats. Their participation in commercial avenues of distribution signals a difference in approach from that of the early period of the New Latin American Cinema, which had considered any contact with commercial media to be a form of bourgeois contamination. Chaski’s films appear on television in Peru and in the United States and Europe, and they have extensive distribution on video and now on DVD.
Further, they have taken advantage of the low cost and easy access provided by digital technology. Thus, they have worked in digital video since the 1990s and use digital technology for screenings. They also fully use the open access of the Internet via their own website, connections with blogs, and video source sites like YouTube. In contrast, Sanjinés’ suspicion of media imperialism has kept Ukamau’s films from being distributed on video and DVD, and Ukamau has not used the Internet as fully as they could to access the public. Arguably Sanjinés’s decision to avoid any contact with what he considers imperialist forms of media communication has had a negative impact on his work's potential political influence, since refusing to use digital technology radically restricts access to his work, especially by marginalized communities with limited resources. Interestingly, in an interview in 1990 Sanjinés reiterated his concern about access to the public, but now added his worry that Hollywood films had pushed out commercial films from Argentina and Mexico; the latter, he said, while objectionable, were still preferable to Hollywood films. In an almost direct paraphrase of Chaski’s commitment to films for and by Latin Americans, Sanjinés argued that it was essential for Latin Americans to have access to films where the actors spoke their language and affirmed “una identidad latinoamericana” (qtd. Mesa Falcón; in 3) (“a Latin American identity”).
This last point indicates yet another significant shift between the political filmmaking practices of the 60s and 70s and those of the 80s, 90s and today. In the 1960s national cinemas still had a chance of competing with Hollywood, but by the 1980s, with television, cable, and multiplexes primarily screening Hollywood movies, the possibilities for bringing political films to a broad spectatorship had radically changed. These changes in exhibition and technology were accompanied by massive deregulation and by trade agreements that granted the U.S. and Europe greater opportunities for saturating Latin American media markets. Prior to the NAFTA and WTO agreements, 50% of Latin American countries had film quotas that protected national cinema. In Mexico post NAFTA, for instance, 85% of all films shown in theaters were from the U.S. and 80% of all videos in video rental stores were U.S. in origin. Only 10% of video rentals available were Mexican. By the late 80s politically engaged filmmakers in Latin America were coming to recognize that any film that could draw Latin American audiences to see a film by Latin Americans and about Latin America was itself a political act.
An aesthetics of survival
The context of Chaski’s collective film project reflects three major shifts in the possibilities for socially progressive filmmakers in Latin America. First, progressives rethought left strategies after the experiences of the 60s and 70s, away from violent militancy towards democracy, and away from clear-cut paths of resistance to more complicated, nuanced appreciations of micro-rebellions. Second, they dealt with the changing shape of the media industry: the rise of television, the deregulation of the film market, and increased access to new media technologies. Third, they reconsidered notion of personal identity and social agency. While former theories of the marginalized imagined the poor as either hopelessly victimized and/or essentially heroic, groups like Chaski advocated for a new aesthetic for filming marginalized communities, one which simultaneously emphasized marginalized people's strength and resilience while also pointing to the concrete ways in which neoliberal economics, entrenched racism, and capitalist ideology created material conditions that threatened these communities.
According to Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, who saw Miss Universe in Peru and Gregorio in 1986 at the Havana Film Festival:
Thus, Chaski’s films reflect a new political aesthetic that heralds a transition in the ways that progressive filmmakers imagine their work. According to Martín-Barbero, Latin American spectators, who are inundated with mass media, do not passively absorb these images. He explains that the 1980s witnessed a transformation in Latin American debates about national identity; now these debates called for rethinking the notion of civil society and reconceptualizing the idea of a “political subject” (208). Martín-Barbero’s theory of cultural mediation is especially salient in Chaski's case. The paradigm of the spectator as either a passive victim or a liberated revolutionary fails to account for the complex ways that communities respond to alienating images. As a way of rethinking these categories, Chaski has developed what might best be called “an aesthetic of survival.” Two of the most significant features of this aesthetic are their scripting of social protagonists, what the collective refers to as personas-personajes, and their emphasis on spectatorship as a process of knowledge and recognition, or conocer-reconocer. While each of their films reflects these aesthetic strategies, the following analysis traces their appearance in the group's three most well-known films: Miss Universe in Peru, Gregorio, and Juliana.
Miss Universe in Peru
Miss Universe in Peru, Chaski’s first film, was hastily organized when María Barea saw in the pageant an excellent opportunity for Chaski. In a brilliant use of Eisensteinian montage, the documentary juxtaposes images of the pageant with images of girls and women watching the pageant. The contrast between the European features of the contestants, especially when these hail from Latin American countries, and the indigenous features of the spectators highlights the ways that conflicting value systems cause social damage. Kleinhans and Lesage note that the film’s explicit feminism and anti-imperialism ask the spectator to consider:
The film further exposes other sources of conflicting views of Peruvian and Latin American identity when it contrasts the voices of the Peruvian elite and pageant officials against those of indigenous women organizing a protest of the pageant. These contrasts serve to show how official state-sponsored culture promotes racist, neocolonialist, and sexist ideologies that fail to account for the Peruvian “nation.”
Three additional features of the film provide salient examples of Chaski’s aesthetic. The first might best be referred to as the establishing shot of the neoliberal landscape — a technique they use in many other films as well. Chaski often shoots crane-like, overhead views. These shots, though, serve an opposite function from the standard technique in dominant cinema. Typically such a shot establishes an authoritative, masterful perspective that shapes a coherent narrative. The use of the shot by Chaski, however, deconstructs this trend by showing the cracks in this narrative. As we hear voices by the Peruvian elite describing how the pageant will help to promote a view of the Peruvian nation to the world, we see Lima's landscape dominated by foreign corporate images, such as neon signs advertising Coca-Cola or Pan American airlines. Given the angles of these shots, these corporate images often seem to loom over the masses of people in Lima’s urban setting. The technique is subtle and effective.
The second key aesthetic practice reflects the film's complex gender politics. Clearly one main goal is to critique the obvious racism, patriarchy, and sexism behind beauty pageants and to contrast the pageant with the lives of everyday Peruvian women. The film's first section establishes this critique in clear terms. The community activist women who are interviewed have an eloquence and political engagement that contradict the stereotype of such poor women as weak victims easily appropriated by dominant society. On the contrary, these women represent examples of Chaski’s commitment to filming social protagonists. By presenting them as individuals engaged in struggle, Chaski reveals their power to resist while simultaneously exposing the challenges they face. But the film refuses to hold to a class-driven binary between the pageant contestants and the women activists. In one interview a woman activist explains that the pageant serves to distract the public from the very real challenges facing Peruvian society. Then, in keeping with the complex ways left struggles have tried to work across lines of oppression, the women recognize how their feminism links them to the women in the pageant. As Kleinhans and Lesage explain:
Later, as though the organizer's words scripted the filmmakers' moves, the contestants are interviewed. Their complaints about the pageant's long hours and harsh conditions serve not only to demystify the aura of the beauty queen, but also to establish tentative lines of solidarity between them and the lower class women activists.
The third and most significant aesthetic technique is a shot-reverse shot repeated as a motif throughout the film. A television set broadcasting images of beauty contestants, advertisements, or news announcers cuts to the image of a woman with indigenous features watching those images. She is in center frame in a medium-close-up that reveals only her body surrounded by blackness. Her face shows little expression. The images of the contestants and the advertisements that follow them display all of capitalist media culture's grotesque trappings. The contrast between these images and that of the woman is so extreme that it creates an intense dialectic of social conflict.
The montage of these images offers a powerful critique of western ideals of beauty, of consumer society, and of the ways that these images both attract and reject the Peruvian marginalized majority. But Chaski’s aesthetic pushes the critique even further by adding a few key twists to this form of political montage. First, the editing holds on the face of the indigenous-featured woman longer than one might expect. This slowing down of time coupled with the unclear expression on the woman’s face and the absence of a context for her viewing, produces a profound unease in the viewer. Unlike the images on the television that proceed at a rapid rate for facile consumption, the image of the woman resists standard viewing techniques.
Remembering that the film's intended audience was a population similar to that of the woman framed in the darkness, we can then note how this technique is an example of Chaski’s aesthetic of knowledge-recognition, or conocer-reconocer. The shots provide viewers with information, raise their consciousness of the contradictions that rule Peruvian society, and then move to a process of recognition. Chaski emphasizes repeatedly that one of the group's main goals is to provide images of reality and to offer information that challenges official discourse. Consciousness raising, though, is not the end of their project. The key to political filmmaking for Chaski is to ask the viewer to see him or herself in relation to the images. They explain their goal this way:
Chaski’s emphasis on recognition over identity politics as a source for political engagement and social transformation is in keeping with a similar critical move made by García Canclini, who following the arguments of Paul Ricouer argues that it is better to “emphasize a politics of recognition over a politics of identity” since “recognition permits a dialectic of same and other” (Consumers 13).