Long context shot of Gregorio watching the street performance. Gregorio is on the left-hand side of the group.

Close up of him showing his pleasure at being part of the group.

Close-up registering his anguish when singled out as object of joke.

Long shot, part of a long take that shows Gregorio leaving the group after being humiliated.

Long shot, part of a long take that reveals Gregorio’s isolation and his loss of innocence.

Microcine presentation of Madeinusa in Villa El Salvador, Peru, in March, 2007, with the participation of the film’s director, Claudia Llosa.

Community preparing screening for the microcine in Corona, Lima.

Film Forum run by the youth group PAEBA in the San Juan de Lurigancho community.

Production still from “Encuentro de hombrecitos.”

Skeletal crew typical of Chaski productions on location shooting Sueños Lejanos.

Walking shot from Sueños lejanos reveals the continuity in Chaski's aesthetics.

Flyer announcing a screening of Sueños lejanos in Lima to be followed by discussion.

Alejandro Legaspi minutes before the IDFA presentation of Sueños lejanos in Amsterdam.

Francisco Lombardi works in a different vein than Chaski, but they distribute his work on DVD and together have a common goal of promoting a national cinema.

Barrio, a film from Spain, dir. Fernando León de Aranoa, which Chaski distributes.

Martín Hache, a film from Argentina, dir. Adolfo Aristarain, which Chaski distributes.




Chaski’s use of the sequence shot

Sequence shots, or very long takes, play an integral role in Chaski’s aesthetic of the persona-personaje. This practice is reinforced by the use of a sequence shot that shows the protagonist in social context. The contextual sequence shot or plano secuencia for Chaski differs from its use by Sanjinés in Ukamau films. For Sanjinés, the plano sequencia is a single shot of long duration that in its attention to the character’s interaction with his surroundings is preferable to close-ups that alienate and isolate the individual. The sequence shot would become the trademark aesthetic of Grupo Ukamau since Sanjinés argued that the close-up provided an artificial view of the individual—a view more intimate than that of everyday human interaction and one which inevitably created an aura around the film’s protagonist and reinforced Western individualism at the expense of indigenous communal identity. When the close-up is used, according to Sanjines, it must respect the distance of real, everyday life:

“To cut to a detail shot is to brutally impose the point of view of an author who stamps and imposes significations to be accepted” (qtd. in García Pabón; n.p.).

These aesthetics are most manifest in Ukamau’s, The Courage of the People (1971) a film that reenacts the 1967 massacre of miners in the town of Siglo XX.

Chaski’s practice differs from Ukamau’s shot selection in films like The Courage of the People where the close-up indicated bourgeois alienation and the sequence shot represented the collective identity of the indigenous. Chaski Informa explains that Legaspi developed the sequence shot to show the movement of the children in context (7). Because Chaski created their characters in a political context of social democracy that seeks both a collective and an individual sense of self, their shot selection alternates between showing the films' protagonists as individual agents and as members of a group. For instance, in Gregorio, long sequence shots are used during a scene when Gregorio is ridiculed by the street performance actors for being from the sierra. Here the long context shot shows the hostile world in which Gregorio lives while the close-ups serve to register Gregorio’s pain and to reinforce his need to assert his own identity in an antagonistic environment. Long sequence shots are used again when Gregorio is accepted by the group of boys and they collaborate together. Then the testimonial close-ups reflect Gregorio’s developing sense of self and his power to narrate his life.

Chaski employs a flexible use of both the distance between the camera and the subject and also the length of time the camera holds on the subject before cutting to the next shot. Chaski alternates both the timing and the distance to create an effect, occasionally shooting a long take from a long distance or a long take of a close-up. Unlike the use of the plano secuencia in Ukamau, which was a long shot of long duration meant to represent the indigenous community, Chaski occasionally holds on a subject to emphasize a character's solitude and loss. In this way, long shots alternate between, on the one hand, recording the ways that the masses of Peru have been marginalized and, on the other hand, indicating that collective collaboration is essential to democracy. Similarly, close-ups indicate the alienation as well as the coming-into-consciousness of these children. Such a technique reflects the fact that these children have long been completely absent from public consciousness.

The use of the close-up in the development of a central character, which completely contrasts to Ukamau’s association of the shot with Western individualism, indicates a significant feature of Chaski’s cinematic storytelling. Whereas Ukamau sought to narrate the story of a community, Chaski’s work refuses the binary between the individual and society and rejects the assumption that the social agent is necessarily a vehicle for Western modes of being. In a visual world saturated by Hollywood images, a close-up of an indigenous child, especially when it is linked to a visual bildungsroman, creates an alternative narrative that holds political potential.

Chaski’s aesthetics in these three films highlight the question of how film art can speak to social issues. These films also call attention to relations between the process and product of filmmaking. Have audiences found these films more moving or more politically powerful because of the collective, collaborative filmmaking process? As has been the case with testimonial literary projects that dream of rescuing the voice of the marginalized from historical oblivion, but often find that those dreams are impossible to realize, the ideals of collective filmmaking are often grander than the realities. For instance, Chaski’s films have had most success with the urban, indigenous community, but they have tended to alienate the Peruvian middle class, a problem for films that sought democratic transformation rather than armed rebellion. As Pat Aufderheide explains:

“Within Peru, the film [Gregorio] has drawn dramatically different reactions among different classes. According to members of Grupo Chaski, who often accompany the film, middle class audiences often criticize the film for harping on the ugly and depressing sides of national reality. In the slums, audiences often get engrossed in the main character's problems, with heated discussions afterwards of how he ought to have solved them” (n.p.).

Chaski’s focus on child protagonists requires the viewer to see the social crisis of street children in personal, intimate terms that undermine Peruvian society’s historical indifference to such children. The group's films ask the audience to remember that social struggle depends on possibilities for self-narration. For Chaski, media activism requires images of self-reflection and recognition. Chaski’s films ask us to consider how the stories of individuals and their communities are scripted, screened, and remembered.

Not so distant dreams

Chaski’s most recent phase of activity has focused on its microcines project and documentary Sueños lejanos (Distant Dreams; 2006). According to their website:

“EL MICROCINE es un espacio de encuentro y participación donde se exhiben películas que fomentan valores, reflexión y sano entretenimiento. Es gestionado por líderes de la comunidad que son capacitados para desempeñarse como promotores culturales que buscan la autogestión y la sostenibilidad” (“Información de Microcines;” n.p.)

(“THE MICROCINE is a meeting place and a space for community participation where films are shown that promote values, reflection, and healthy entertainment. They are organized by community leaders who are trained as cultural promoters. The goal is to empower them to be able to sustain the projects on their own”).

The microcines project expands on their earlier work with alternative forms of distribution and exhibition while also taking advantage of advances in digital technology. As Paola Reategui explains in a 2007 document describing the early years of the microcines project, the viewing practices and possibilities of the Peruvian public have radically changed the screening opportunities for Latin American cinema. Neoliberal economic policy has resulted in a national film industry controlled by an increasingly smaller number of transnational corporations. The biggest change, one that García Canclini notes in relation to Mexico as well, regards the reduction in movie houses and shift in their location (Consumers; 99). Reategui notes that from 1990 to 2007 Peru went from 240 movie theaters spread out across the country to 35 multiplexes (with 150 screens), of which 30 are in Lima with only 5 movie theaters in the rest of the country. The location of these theaters is typically close to supermarkets and malls and 95% of tickets are sold to U.S. films. Ticket prices have risen, putting them out of reach for the majority of the population. Instead, many lower class communities have completely abandoned the custom of attending public film screenings, favoring instead home screenings of television or video. Film viewing has been reduced through “centralismo, exclusión, discriminación, consumo pasivo, dominación económica y cultural” (Reategui; 6) (“centralism, exclusion, discrimination, passive consumption, economic and cultural domination”).

Alongside these increasingly dire prospects for Peruvian filmmaking and socially committed media, though, the rise in digital technology and decreased costs of projection equipment has opened a space for intervention. Seizing this opportunity and building on their years of experience with distribution and exhibition, Chaski has conceived of an innovative way to reconnect progressive films with marginalized communities via microcines. In a transition from Chaski’s earlier work with exhibition and distribution, the microcines project envisions far greater collaboration with communities and far greater local initiative. Their goal is to establish throughout Peru, and eventually throughout Latin America, small, local screening sites where it is possible to see films by and about Latin Americans at reasonable prices. These screening sites are to be in already-existing community spaces easily converted into theaters. Tickets cost about two soles or less than one U.S. dollar, and audiences typically range from 50 to 200. Proceeds go to the local microcine organizers, to pay local taxes, to pay modest exhibition rights for the films screened, and to support Chaski (Reategui; 16).

Key to the microcines' success is the development of local organizers. While Chaski is pleased to organize local screenings, the microcine project seeks a more integral notion of film and community – one that depends on the microcine as a locally driven cultural space. Chaski's goal is not only to reacquaint Peruvians with Latin American cinema and attending pubic screenings, but also to promote the film experience as a moment of reflection, debate, and critical exchange. To this end, they organize workshops to train community organizers. These workshops cover a range of issues including how to promote screenings, how to use screenings as a means to discuss and debate topics of importance to the community, how to develop critical media literacy skills, and more. The outside funding Chaski has received has helped cover the costs of buying projection equipment, organizing initial screenings, and running workshops.

Another major component of the project relates to expanding their catalogue of films for distribution and working to develop “kits” that package groups of films together. Each “kit” includes one short, one feature, one documentary and one film for children. It is accompanied by a copy of Chaski's magazine “Nuestro Cine” (“Our Cinema”) with information about the films, a guide to promoting the screenings, and a screening license. By 2007 they had developed seven “kits” and had over 60 films for digital distribution. The array of films available varies from gritty documentaries to more mainstream-styled features like those of Lombardi, but the common thread that links all of these films together is that they each exemplify the goal of “cine latino para gente latina” (“Latin American film for the Latin American people”).

“El Grupo Chaski defiende desde sus inicios, una actitud y una metodología ante un cine responsable, inmerso en lo cotidiano, con personajes auténticos y con la experiencia social compartida de todos los días. Es allí donde se encuentra las bases de sus conceptos, fundados en la expresión de lo real, lo auténtico, lo social” (Reategui; 10)

(“Since its founding Grupo Chaski has maintained an attitude and a methodology of responsible cinema, one that is immersed in the everyday, that has authentic characters and that reflects the shared social experience of daily life. Our work is based on an expression of the real, the authentic, and the social”).

In some ways globalization has had an ironic effect on Chaski's success. After they'd worked for over twenty years to reach a Peruvian audience, by the turn of the twenty-first century the possibilities for alternative filmmaking seemed grimmer than ever. When Chaski began the microcines project there were only 35 movie theaters in the country and the experience of watching films on the big screen was reserved for a small minority of the population. But just as globalization has meant the homogenizing of media culture, it has also brought technological innovation that has opened a space for alternative media access. Digital technologies and flexible distribution rights have allowed Chaski to match in numbers the exhibition venues (but not yet the screens) of commercial theaters. Chaski currently supports 35 microcines throughout Peru and six more elsewhere in Latin America. The microcines project has proven that it is possible to circumvent the centralization of media access, creating a true alternative to the neoliberal model. The microcines project has also considerably expanded the local participation of communities, who now take an active role in their film experience from the moment of promotion on. Moreover, the considerable exposure that Chaski has on the Internet via their own website, on video sites like YouTube and Daily Motion, and through bloggers and Peruvian film sites further indicates the ways that their project has benefited from the development of Internet technologies unavailable to them in the 1980s.[32][open notes in new window]

In the context of this resurgence, Legaspi, who was teaching a course on documentary at the Pontificia Católica Universidad de Perú, asked all of his students to bring in a documentary to analyze. One student brought in an early Chaski documentary short that Legaspi had directed, entitled “Encuentro de hombrecitos” (“Encounter with Little Men,” 1988). What struck Legaspi during the post-screening conversation was the fact that rather than discuss the techniques used in making the documentary, the class focused on what had become of the little boys.  Proving to a certain extent the success of Chaski’s aesthetic commitment to using film as a medium through which Peruvians could connect with Peruvians, the students were immediately engaged with the people on the screen rather than mesmerized by the filmmaking apparatus.

After class Legaspi began talking about trying to find the boys, who would be in their 30s, and shooting a documentary about how their lives had changed. Once they had found the boys, Legaspi was intrigued by the fact that one of them – El Gringo – had remained in El Agustino Lima district all his life, while the other – El Negro – had traveled extensively both outside of and within Peru. Contrasting how the boys lived over the past twenty years with the dreams they had had as young boys, Legaspi imagined Sueños Lejanos as a documentary that would trace the changes in their personal lives and in Peruvian society. Mixing footage from the original documentary, especially the scene where each boy describes his dreams for the future, with archival footage of historical events during those years, Legaspi’s goal was to create “ventanas a la memoria” (Legaspi “Proyecto;” 4) (“windows onto memory”).

And, in keeping with Chaski’s aesthetics, these memories both reinforce the sense that the boys are representative of a larger social group at the same time that the memories expose their individual identities and the different paths their lives have taken. Many of the shots are taken from moving buses or taxis that are meant to capture the protagonists’ point of view as they are looking out at the Peruvian landscape, indicating, like the walking shots of Gregorio and Juliana, the ways that the majority of Peruvians engage in daily displacements that are both forced and willed.

The project received funding through an award by CONACINE, the Peruvian national film board, in 2006 and was released in the fall of 2007. Shortly after its first screenings in Peru, it was screened at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), one of the biggest and most important documentary festivals worldwide. The IDFA screening will likely mean that the documentary will receive European distribution on television and possibly in theaters. Most importantly, the film will travel the circuits of Chaski’s distribution, hopefully screening on Peruvian television. While the commercial venues will be a struggle, one site of exhibition is guaranteed: the microcines. As a film that promotes reflection on the process of making documentaries about Peru’s marginalized class and that reflects on Chaski's film project, the ultimate triumph of Sueños lejanos will be the way it offers local Peruvian audiences yet another opportunity to use the film experience as a means to engage in recognition, reflection, and critique. Perhaps Chaski’s dreams are not so distant now.

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