Spectator shot from Gregorio when the boys are at the movies. The boys’ expressions range from delight to bewilderment, but at all times they are engrossed with what they are watching.
When the viewer sees what the boys are watching, the images alternate between sex and violence. The first reaction of the viewer is to appreciate how these mass media images demean the boys who watch them. Soon, though, the viewer realizes that this audience is also consuming the same images. The effect is to create both distance between the viewer and the boys and affiliation with them.
Spectator shot from Juliana as she watches a telenovela. The light from the television illuminates her face and emphasizes how her identity is influenced by what she is watching.
She's watching a typical soap opera about the conflicts of an upper class family. The viewer both critiques Juliana as a spectator of these images and identifies with her.
A spectator-image of Gregorio as he stares in a store window. He is in awe of the products on display.
Here Juliana (as Julian) watches herself on television at the mall.
Her serious “look” quickly breaks down, and her smile makes it hard for the film viewer to see her as an alienated victim of mass media.
This image from Juliana reveals the lure and repulsion of mass media. Here a member of “the gang” pretends to play hit music.
In this shot another member of “the gang” pretends to be Rambo. Each image shows the characters relating in complicated ways with media culture. They both passively look and actively interact.
Early images of Gregorio represent his life in the sierra as based on community, family and an appreciation of nature. His family arrives in Lima and experiences massive culture shock.
After scenes of Gregorio bonding with his new friends, this shot, which comes after they fight over the stolen money, emphasizes his loss of community.
Juliana fears her stepfather as she watches him abuse her mother. The lighting on her eyes stresses the impact of what she sees on her identity.
The boat where Juliana and her friends live after fleeing Don Pedro is framed as a utopic space of community that allows the children to avoid the conflicts of the city.
Bathed in blue light, Juliana describes her dreams of a magical bus.
One way Chaski provokes the process of recognition is by repeatedly screening images of spectators. In addition to the motif of the woman watching the pageant in Miss Universe, Gregorio has a scene where a group of street children watch a Hollywood movie full of violence and sex, and Juliana has a scene where Juliana watches a telenovela. [open endnotes in new window]These scenes are complemented by various occasions when the audience watches Gregorio or Juliana's gaze as the young protagonists observe advertisements, shop displays, video games, billboards, magazines, or other forms of media culture. The technique of the spectator shot allows Chaski to highlight the pervasive existence of mass media culture and the problematic ways the consumption of this culture influences Peruvian people. When the viewer watches a spectator watching alienating images of mass media, a series of critical reflections emerge. First, in an obvious way, the spectator who appears on screen is demeaned and alienated by the media s/he consumes, but the almost immediate connection between the spectator watching the film and the image of the spectator within the film does not allow that impression to persist. It is instead followed by recognition. Film viewers translate the experience viewed on screen to their own experience, and they also critically distinguish both the affinities and distance between the on-screen kind of spectatorship and their own. In this way the audience both identifies with the image of the spectator onscreen and refuses that identification. Merging a technique of distanciation with one of recognition, Chaski creates an intricate web of relations to media processes that does not allow for one-to-one associations or absolute representations of power dynamics. The viewer recognizes the lure of media society with its offer to distract people from practical reality while also being repulsed by it. By showing the viewing of media as a process, one which is alienating but not necessarily devastating, Chaski exemplifies Martín-Barbero’s description of the consumption of media as mediation (187).
Towards a social bildungsroman
Added to the aesthetic effects of screening spectators, in their two feature films Chaski framed their child protagonists in four key types of shots: gaze shots, walking shots, testimonial close-ups, and contextual sequence shots. Together these shots create a social bildungsroman that narrates these children’s identities as caught between the alienating forces of society and an individual desire to develop a sense of self. Both Gregorio and Juliana focus on the stories of two children who face extraordinary obstacles to their survival. Living in a hostile world and virtually abandoned by their parents (their fathers are dead and their mothers seem incapable of caring for them), Gregorio and Juliana are forced to take care of themselves. Both of them undergo radical transformations as a result.
Gregorio must abandon his Andean way of life, including his language and mode of dress, in order to adapt to life in the city. His family is forced to migrate to the city because they are unable to survive in the Andean village of Recuayhuanca. Prior to Gregorio’s departure we see him working, enjoying nature, and learning from his grandfather. As he leaves on a truck to join his father in the city, we see him facing backwards towards the sierra in an obvious sign of loss. Here the bildungsroman is troubled by forced migration with Gregorio shown as a passive victim of social forces. Once the family arrives in Lima they encounter the shock of urban life and in reaction, Gregorio’s father, Jacinto, chastises his mother, Juana, for continuing to speak in Quechua.
The economic hardships of the city force Gregorio immediately to seek work as a shoeshine boy, forcing a rapid immersion in urban life that requires him to mature practically overnight. In one crucial scene he approaches a group of street performing boys. While enjoying the show, he becomes the butt of one of their jokes due to his migrant status and indigenous looks. He immediately leaves in shame, his first moment of urban community shattered by the reinforcement of his outsider status. Meanwhile his father’s health is deteriorating and he can no longer work, causing the family to be forced to abandon their apartment and participate in the land grab of Villa el Salvador. There they live in a shack made of straw and are forced to endure the sands that the winds blow into their home and the constant police raids that terrorize the community. Shortly after this, Gregorio's father dies.
Once his mother begins a relationship with another man, Gregorio feels abandoned. The street performer boys who had initially mocked him soon become his friends, and he spends more and more time with them, returning home later and later with less and less money to offer his mother. Eventually, conflicts with his mother lead him to move in with the boys, who live in an abandoned bus. With the boys, he takes drugs, plays video games, goes to the movies, looks at porn magazines, and steals, but he also has a sense of community that he had not had since arriving in Lima. After a robbery in an amusement park causes the group to scatter, he takes the stolen money to his mother. When she refuses it, he spends it on himself. Later when he sees the boys again, they beat him up, telling him,
At the end of the film, he has returned home, but he will never be the naïve boy he was when he came to Lima. The last scene presents Gregorio describing his experiences in an interview that has been shown in pieces throughout the film. His final words are, “A veces tengo ganas …” (“sometimes I wish”). Indicating the ways that the film is a narrative of becoming, Gregorio has not only learned how to survive in the city, he has learned how to express his desires.
Bedoya compares Gregorio to De Sica’s Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946) and Juliana to Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1950) suggesting that Gregorio’s documentary realism gives way in Juliana to a utopian, marvelous ending, but that both films also have many parallels (278). Juliana lives in greater comfort than Gregorio and is at home in the city, but her abusive stepfather forces her to run away from home. Since her options as a young girl on the street are not appealing, she hopes to join Don Pedro’s group of street performers with whom her bother Clavito also lives, but to be accepted she must disguise herself as a boy. The disguising of her gender adds narrative tension that was absent in Gregorio, but this element does not overtake the central theme of the challenges that poor young children face in Lima. After being admitted to the group, she is shown working hard singing on buses for money and trying to avoid the regular punishments of Don Pedro’s Fagen-like personality. Like the gang that Gregorio joins, the solidarity among the “boys” is fragile, devolving into racist slurs against the two afro-Peruvian boys and breaking down into cliques. But, in contrast to Gregorio, rather than bonding over drugs, they bond over music, responding to the harshness of their lives with jam sessions where they create music that they will perform later on the buses. Similar to those in Gregorio, documentary-like scenes allow the boys to tell their stories, which often include abusive, alcoholic parents, or the sudden death of a father. In keeping with the lighter nature of Juliana, they also recount their dreams, a tactic they use when they are depressed, frightened, or sad.
Eventually Juliana’s gender transgression is discovered. When Don Pedro threatens to beat her, the boys come to her defense and they all flee. The end of the film has them staying in a beached ship, living off of the money they earn singing on buses. The final scene presents their dream of a bus that travels throughout the city and has a “nice” driver. All the passengers are their loved ones. The dream converts a hostile space that they see as threatening into a womb-like space of collective comfort and compassion. Most importantly, the dream-ending allows Chaski to remind the audience that these young children not only worry about survival and companionship, but they also have desires and fantasies. Unlike Gregorio, who literally had to find his identity, Juliana had a sense of herself and her dreams from the start of Juliana. Her bildungsroman, to the degree that the term applies to this film, relates to her learning how to negotiate between her needs and her possibilities without abandoning her dreams.
Gregorio’s story reflects the hardships suffered by migrants to the city and Juliana’s focuses on the double marginalization caused by poverty and patriarchy. It is easy to imagine how both films could have been overtaken by dogmatic moralizing, an overwhelming sense of doom, and a romantic view of the oppressed, but Chaski’s aesthetics combine social critique with visions of everyday forms of agency and empowerment. One way that Chaski complicates the framing of images of marginalization is through what I call the gaze shot. Similar to the spectator shot described above, the gaze shot implicates a complex articulation between structures of social power. If the spectator shot asks the audience to reflect on the ways that mass media influences the identity of the disenfranchised, the gaze shot adds another layer of complexity to this process. Throughout the films the audience is offered images of Gregorio and Juliana actively looking.
At times these gazes are of bewilderment, but more often than not the children's gaze is one of knowledge, reflection, and/or resistance. Ever since Laura Mulvey’s influential essay on the gaze in 1975, film theory has considered the power relations that result from active gazes and objects of the gaze. These theories first considered the gaze in terms of gender relations but later moved to include race and class. What is significant in terms of the context of Chaski's work is the way that it highlights the gaze in order to reveal and challenge its dominant structures of power, knowledge, and identity.
Taking the stills on the sidebar and below as examples of Chaski’s gaze shot, a number of significant features of this aesthetic practice emerge. While many of Gregorio’s gaze shots early in the film reveal his wonder at the city, a shot from near the end of the film shows him looking at a park attraction and taking pleasure in what he sees. Another still showing Juliana is from the first part of the film, before she has cut her hair. What is significant about this shot is the way that it captures her looking back – returning the gaze defiantly. When we consider that in Peruvian society children like Gregorio or Juliana would have been overlooked or looked at, but never considered to be a source of visual power, such shots produce an extraordinary impact. Add to that the fact that representations of children like Gregorio or Juliana were either non-existent in visual media or dominated by stereotyping, and we can begin to appreciate the significance of these kinds of shots. At a very simple level these shots emphasize the children's identity as sources of the gaze and as individuals who acquire knowledge, form judgments, and feel pleasure. Building on recognition rather than difference as a political strategy, these shots demand that the characters be viewed not as incomprehensible “others” but rather as social actors who use the power of looking to construct their own views of the world.
Walking shots and testimonial shots
The next two types of shots – the walking shot and the testimonial shot – complement the aesthetics of the gaze shot. Like the gaze shot, which at times reinforces identity only through a recognition of the character's marginalization, these shots similarly project a dialectic between becoming and alienation. They create identity while also reflecting on the fragile ways in which these identities suffer. The walking shot is used to best effect in Gregorio, given the film’s focus on the effects of migration. This shot quite simply follows the footsteps of the character, sometimes taking a long view to show the character moving through space, and other times focusing solely on the feet. In the early parts of the film, this shot serves to reinforce the idea of Gregorio’s forced displacement, his movement in foreign, hostile urban settings. In these shots, Gregorio is carrying his shoeshine box, which practically dwarfs him, coding his walking as not only an encounter with the city but also as a forced movement caused by his need to “commute” to work. Later, though, the shot includes him walking with his friends, where their movement is purposeful and determined. These scenes have Gregorio walk by choice in the city for the first time. The end of the film returns to the walking shot, but now Gregorio walks alone in the sandy plains outside of Lima. His movement is not forced as in the opening scenes, nor is it celebratory as in the scene with his friends. In keeping with his character's development as a social protagonist, Gregorio’s walk balances between revealing the hostile forces that affect his life and expressing his own personality.
In Juliana the walking shot has less weight given the different ways she develops as a character, but it is still used to significant effect, especially in three key moments. First in the opening of the film, as the camera traces her morning routine, she walks with her mother to the opening gate of their community, then they both part and turn in opposite directions. Juliana’s steps as she walks away from her mother are still purposeful, revealing her jubilant personality, but there is also a clear sense of loss as the 13-year old girl must walk to her job at a cemetery tending graves. The second key use of the shot shows her approaching Don Pedro's hangout while trying out her identity as a boy for the first time. Her walking combines confidence with fear. Later the walking shot shows her leaving with her partner for a day’s work singing on buses. In each case, her movement reveals her need to move. Chaski’s use of the walking shot is a subtle technique that reveals a complex aesthetic. It reveals the daily displacements of the mass of poor Peruvians who must travel, often on foot, for hours to arrive at work. This movement, however forced by the urgencies of daily life, is one carried out by the individual's physical will. Moreover, the same movements that comply with the need to work are later balanced when the characters use their bodies to walk according to choice.
If the walking shot locates the dialectic between social oppression and resistance in the moving body, the testimonial close-up shot exposes that dialectic through voice and face. Balancing documentary technique with that of feature film, Chaski uses documentary interview shots in both films as a way to let the characters address the audience directly. Carpio describes the shot this way:
The testimonial shots incorporate an interplay of distanciation, where the spectator is distanced from what is seen, and recognition, where the spectator perceives a connection to the image on screen, similar to the of the spectator shot. Distanciation occurs as the testimonial ruptures the narrative flow. The children can no longer appear as fictional characters but demand recognition as social actors. Both Juliana and Gregorio incorporate scenes that allow the groups of children to tell their stories to an off-screen interviewer. The interviewer's absence from the shot produces the effect of placing the audience in the role of interviewer and confidant, a place of distance and power vis-à-vis the speaking subject. That distance breaks down, though, as the children themselves speak with greater and greater intimacy. Their power of self-expression is the power of testimonial. The previously ignored story of the marginalized lower classes becomes at once representative of larger social trends and also highly personal and specific to the individual. In a context within which the faces and stories of these children were repressed and ignored not only by the Peruvian elite and middle classes but also by lower class adults (i.e. their parents), these sequences are a powerful effort to demand that these children be regarded as human beings with rights, needs, and social value.