An image from the early days of Grupo Chaski.
Francisco Lombardi’s La Ciudad y los perros/ The City and the Dogs, based on a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, was successful both within Peru and abroad.
Production still used to promote Miss Universe in Peru.
Audiences often waited in long lines and came back night after night to see the film Gregorio. Image courtesy of Susana Pastor and Silvia García.
This production still used to promote Juliana frames the film as a story of children bonding together to defend themselves.
This banner advertising Gregorio in Lima emphasizes it as national cinema. Image courtesy of Susana Pastor and Silvia García.
Billboard advertising Juliana in a lower class neighborhood of Lima. Chaski sees promotion as part of its mission. Image courtesy of Susana Pastor and Silvia García.
Younger members of Chaski represent the group for the Ashoka Prize for the microcines project.
The first microcine screening in Comas, Peru on March 25, 2007 drew a lot of younger members of the community.
An image of an Incan Chaski drawn by the colonial chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala.
Chaski Collective during the filming of Gregorio. Image courtesy of Susana Pastor and Silvia García.
Maria Barea, a founder of Chaski, also performed a role in Gregorio as a friend of the boy’s mother.
This scene from Juliana shows women’s solidarity as they take up a collection to help another member of the community.
Miss Universe in Peru shows peasant women’s activism in a community meeting dedicated to women’s rights.
Don Lucho from “El taller más grande del mundo” explains how he has managed to attract a large clientele even though his workshop is in the street. The shot balances his face speaking in testimonial against the object of his labor.
Luis Figueroa of the Cine Club Cuzco directed the first Peruvian feature length film in Quechua, Kukuli in 1960.
Chaski often held community screenings in open, public spaces. They accompanied the film and held discussion afterwards.
Audience reactions to Gregorio. Image courtesy of Susana Pastor and Silvia García.
Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’ La hora de los hornos/ The Hour of the Furnaces is key Latin American documentary, which Alejandro Legaspi, a Chaski founding member, says is the film that influenced him most.
Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados has a mix of documentary and fiction and a focus on lower class youth that influenced many Latin American directors.
Hector Babenco’s Pixote, a far more gritty and pessimistic film than Buñuel’s, exposed the brutal lives of young street children in Brazil.
The Peruvian cinema collective Grupo Chaski was formed in 1982 by María Barea, Fernando Barreto, Fernando Espinoza, Stefan Kaspar, and Alejandro Legaspi. Growing to over sixty members by the late 1980s, the group joins a long history of collective filmmaking in Latin America. Beginning with the work of the Argentine Fernando Birri who founded the Santa Fe documentary school in the 1950s and who made a number of socially significant documentaries that traced the lives of the lower classes, the Latin American practice of collective filmmaking incorporates two main features: a commitment to making films with and for a marginalized community and a desire to alter mainstream commercial filmmaking practices. Such a concept of the collective, then, meant that these filmmakers wanted to collaborate with the communities they were filming, asking for their input and avoiding as much as possible the imposition of their ideas on the subjects of their films. Similarly, these film collectives were attentive to the power dynamics of filmmaking and they hoped to avoid the hierarchical structures common in Hollywood and in auteur cinema. If commercial cinema conceives of film as a team project where there is a clear division of labor, and auteur cinema conceives of film as the product of the director’s creative will, then collective filmmaking, in its desire to differentiate itself from these trends, understands filmmaking as a collaborative practice whose process is organically tied to its product.
Despite the fact that the practice of collective filmmaking enjoys a rich history in the Latin America, especially with regard to documentary projects, the ideals of the practice are often grander than the realities. Similar to the history of testimonial literature [testimonio] in the region, the practice of collective filmmaking is always necessarily engaged in a complicated power relation with the protagonists of the films. Moreover, the nature of filmmaking means that at certain stages in the film process, especially during editing, an open, democratic decision-making process necessarily gives way to the aesthetic vision of only a few — at most — of the group’s members. Otherwise the collective runs the risk of making films with no aesthetic cohesion.
Especially significant in Grupo Chaski's practice of collective filmmaking is the way they have balanced the ideals of their theory with the challenges of their practice. In a number of ways, their work represents both an expansion on and an innovation of the Latin American tradition of collective filmmaking. One clear example of their singular achievement is their tireless effort to combine socially relevant filmmaking with circuits of distribution. From the group's inception, they have consistently worked on creating alternative modes of exhibition at the same time that they have sought to make their films available to the public via commercial releases, television screenings, videos, and other more mainstream distribution outlets. An important aspect of this effort includes their commitment to promoting cinema in solidarity with (or at least a connection to) their vision made by different directors. For example, in 1985 they managed the Peruvian commercial release of Francisco Lombardi’s La ciudad y los perros (City and the Dogs) and in 1986 Alberto Durant’s Malabrigo; and their current catalogue for distribution includes films from across Latin America. This commitment to creating a public space for Latin American cinema so that Latin Americans can see themselves reflected on screen reveals the ways that their project has been characterized by a politics of inclusion and a practice of flexibility, where no component of the film process is overlooked, ignored, or repudiated in their struggle to facilitate film experiences of social relevance and potential political impact.
Chaski's work is noteworthy, then, for its multi-pronged approach to politically progressive filmmaking that includes production, distribution, and exhibition. In addition, their three most well-known films were a tremendous success both within Peru and in the international community. Their first film, Miss Universo en Perú (Miss Universe in Peru; 1982), is a documentary that juxtaposes the 1982 Miss Universe pageant in Lima with the lives of lower-class Peruvian women. Their first feature film, Gregorio (1984), traces the effects of urban migration on a young boy from the Andes who joins a group of street kids only to later be rejected by them. Their second feature film, Juliana (1988), focuses on the life of a 13-year-old runaway girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to be part of gang that performs music for money. Each of these films attracted a massive audience relative to other similar types of film projects. For example, by 1990 Gregorio reached over 1 million viewers on the big screen in Peru, 7.5 million had seen it on Peruvian television, and dozens of millions had seen it on television worldwide (Carpio; 6). Their films continue to run on U.S. television on channels like IFC and they also screen regularly on the pan-national channel Cine Latino, distributed in the United States via Direct TV. Unlike many of the films associated with the New Latin American Cinema, which attracted larger audiences outside of their home countries than within them, Chaski’s films have captured the attention of both a Peruvian and an international audience. It is surprising, then, that they have received so little scholarly attention. Beyond brief mentions in articles and books, there has been no article length study of their work to appear in English and relatively little has been written about them in Spanish as well.[open endnotes in new window]
Correcting this lack of attention is the primary goal of this essay. In the first section, I begin by placing the group's work within the socio-political context of Peru and within the history of Latin American film practice. This section offers background on Chaski's founding members and describes how the group both participated in and challenged Peruvian debates about culture and identity. The section outlines a series of key social factors that influenced Chaski's work. First, the legacy of colonial structures that oppressed, enslaved, and abused the indigenous populations for the benefit of the Spanish-descended elite, otherwise known as the criollos, continues to play an enormous role in debates about social inequities, identity politics, and political repression. These tensions also shaped the emergence of the militant Maoist revolutionary group, Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path, in the early 1980s and the government’s violent military response. Influenced by maoist marxist theory, Sendero Luminoso wanted to replace bourgeois social structures with a peasant revolution that would also incorporate Incan forms of life. Their approach, though, was extremely violent and the military responded with even more violence. As a consequence of the violence in the rural areas of Peru and also as a result of the increasing turn to free market economics promulgated during the regime of Alberto Fujimori, leader of Peru from 1990-2000, these years also witnessed massive migration to the city of Lima. After explaining how Chaski has responded to these issues, I discuss how their work relates to the history of Peruvian filmmaking.
I then explain how Grupo Chaski can be understood within the tradition of Latin American political filmmaking with particular attention to how their filmmaking project builds on, yet differs from, the work of the Bolivian filmmaking collective, Grupo Ukamau. The section closes with a brief mention of how changes in technology, media policy, and trade agreements have affected Latin American filmmaking today.
The second section moves from context to specific analysis of their films. I focus on Chaski's three most significant films to date — Miss Universe in Peru, Gregorio, and Juliana — with an eye to revealing how these films link theory and style. This section offers a theory of Chaski's aesthetic practices that comes from a combination of their own writings and a close analysis of their films. The section analyzes what I describe as their “aesthetics of survival.” Their aesthetic practice strives to represent marginalized communities in a way that balances depicting the challenges poor people face, the creative ways they meet these challenges, and the fact that despite these hardships they continue to have dreams and desires. This section offers an analysis of shots and sequences to trace in detail how this aesthetic is developed.
In the third section, I close with an analysis of Chaski's renewed activities since 2004, when they began working on a project of local, grassroots distribution and exhibition, a processs they call “microcines,” and later released the documentary Sueños lejanos (Distant Dreams; 2006). This new phase also marks the group's shift to using digital media both to create and exhibit media, a move that corresponds to their desire to use inexpensive formats that are easily accessible to a broad community. After the release of Juliana in 1988 the group lost momentum, effectively dissolving in 1991, one year after Alberto Fujimori took power. According to Kaspar, Chaski disbanded because it was difficult to maintain a democratic collective in the middle of a dictatorship (qtd. in Pitteloud; n.p.). Despite the challenges of the decade of Fujimori’s reign, they reconfigured in 2004 with new participants joining a number of the original members in the reconstituted Groupo Chaski. Using new media and digital technology as a way to further their mission, their work with the microcines project and their release of Sueños lejanos exemplify their dedication to creating socially relevant films, their commitment to making films with and for the “people,” and their desire to promote cinema that can attract an audience, provoke social reflection, and rescue Latin American cinema from the onslaught of Hollywood.
The context of the Grupo Chaski film project lies at the intersection of a number of Latin American filmmaking trends and socio-political developments. The first clue to the way that their work links Peruvian history and Latin American filmmaking is their choice of name. The group takes its name from Quechua, the native language of the Incans, and it means “messenger.” During the Incan empire the chaskis were messengers that carried information between communities. Oswaldo Carpio, one of the key early members of the group, gives this explanation for their choice of name:
Without question, one of Chaski's primary goals has been to make films that communicate about Peru to Peruvians. Building on the long legacy of intellectuals like José Carlos Mariátegui and José María Arguedas, who vigorously worked to defend the rights and improve the social status of Peru’s indigenous communities, Chaski politically confronts the long history of racism and exploitation that has characterized the status of Peru’s indigenous cultures.
One important aspect of their films, though, is their focus on urban spaces and their interest in a broad, heterogeneous demographic of oppression that dismantles the indigenous as a monolithic category of Peruvian social concern. This reconsideration of the identity politics attached to Peruvian marginal communities may be accounted for, in part, by the variety of perspectives and experiences of the founding members:
Stefan Kaspar studied communications in Biel and Berna, Switzerland, where he also worked as an independent journalist until 1978. He then traveled to Peru to work on a film project on urban migration. Four years later he participated in the foundation of Chaski.
Fernando Espinoza was one of the energetic forces behind the creation of Chaski. Prior, during, and after his work with Chaski, he struggled for the rights of Afro-Peruvians. His dedication to highlighting the marginalization of Afro-Peruvians added an important perspective to Chaski’s approach to filming the challenges of urban life. Espinoza was instrumental in recruiting Alejandro Legaspi to Chaski.
Legaspi arrived in Peru from Uruguay in 1974 when he was forced into exile by the Uruguayan dictatorship. As a boy he had worked on a number of films and had been influenced by the work of the New Latin American Cinema, especially that of the Argentine directors Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Serving as one of the main directors for Chaski’s films, he brought to the group a poetic vision combined with a clear commitment to politically relevant filmmaking.
Another key perspective was added by María Barea, who had worked as a producer with Luis Figueroa, one of the founding members of the Cine Club Cuzco, and also with Jorge Sanjinés and Grupo Ukamau on El enemigo principal (The Principle Enemy; 1972). Prior to forming Chaski she had directed Mujeres del planeta (Women of the World; 1982) and had already established herself as a director committed to filming women’s issues from a feminist perspective.
Chaski's founding members brought together a rich background in filmmaking and a dynamic interest in merging progressive politics with a social commitment to the disenfranchised. This vision required Chaski to rethink the traditional parameters that had guided identity struggles in Peru prior to the massive urban migrations. The contrast of the rural with the urban and of the indigenous with the criollo that had shaped decades of debate about Peruvian identity politics no longer obtained in the hybrid, complex societies that were emerging as a consequence of massive waves of migration.
As Jesús Martín-Barbero notes, Lima presents one of the most extreme examples of urban migration in the 1980s (198). The city's rapidly changing social landscape called for new ways of thinking about progressive action, political resistance, and the politics of national identity. Afro and Asian Peruvians and Andean highlanders struggled together in the land grabs that would eventually result in new communities like that of Villa El Salvador, which was formally established as a district of Lima in 1983. Sensitive to the integral role that women were playing in these social movements, Chaski’s films attempted to reflect the changing nature of what José Matos Mar calls “a new pattern of solidarity” (qtd in Martín-Barbero 198). In a 1990 document intended to reevaluate the successes and failures of Chaski, Carpio noted that Chaski’s work was a direct response to the population explosion of Lima. Even if they had wanted to focus solely on the problems of Andean cultures, he explains, they would have been unsuccessful because that was the not the context they knew best. Carpio indicates two key points about Lima's urban explosion that drew Chaski's attention. First, the group understood the extraordinarily intense degree of change affecting the city, placing the mestizo in the center of Lima’s new identity. Holding to the notion that cinema is one of the most significant forms of culture capable of reflecting and shaping national identity, Chaski hoped to intervene in the historical marginalization of the majority of Peruvians by challenging the hegemony of dominant Peruvian culture and offering an alternative cinematic narrative of identity. According to one document defining their goals, they wanted to
Their work centers on
In addition, the waves of migration pointed to significant social problems beyond questions of ideology and identity. The migrations were a direct consequence of political violence and an economic crisis devastating the agricultural economy. Caught between the violence of Sendero Luminoso, state violence in response to Sendero, and neoliberal economic practices of the Peruvian government, many Andean members of rural communities fled for the cites. In the context of the increasing authoritarianism shaping everyday life, Chaski advocated for democracy, development of civic agency, and opening of spaces for the cultural expression of marginalized sectors. They were opposed to
Chaski, then, had two major themes dominating their work – a constructive effort to reshape the historically hegemonic narrative of national identity and a politically progressive project dedicated to exposing the socio-political structures that ruled Peru.
Chaski rejected the dominant narratives of Peruvian identity offered by both the government and Sendero. Moreover, they discarded nostalgic, romanticized characterizations of indigenous culture that tended to create heroic images of oppressed people. Instead, they moved outside of the reigning categories of political identities. Chaski’s films do not idealize the disenfranchised, nor do they cast them as helpless victims. One example of this practice is the documentary short “El taller más grande del mundo” (“The Largest Shop in the World”), which focuses on the work of the mechanic Don Lucho. After being unable to find work in a car shop, he decided to open his own shop on the street. Before long, he hired a number of mechanics and had such an excellent reputation that people preferred coming to him over going to conventionally established mechanics. In Don Lucho’s story Chaski emphasizes the ways that the marginalized “survive” through flexibility and perseverance. Their lives constantly negotiate their needs and desires, and the possibilities afforded by Peruvian society.
Chaski explains that the group is committed to cinematic works that reflect the economic, social, and cultural reality of Peru with the participation of the marginalized sectors as both actors and protagonists (“Grupo Chaski,” 1986, 3). Throughout their documents they return to the idea that their films develop protagonists for the people. Because these film protagonists have traits drawn from the community, they hopefully will lead the audience to recognize themselves in the characters on screen and then engage in civic action. In this sense, Chaski’s self-image as social messengers indicates their interest in highlighting the process by which communities identify themselves as social agents. Thus the group also has a commitment to exposing the material and ideological forces that attempt to limit those processes.
The film industry in Peru
Chaski’s commitment to intervening in the politics and ideologies shaping Peruvian society in the 1980s and their firm belief that culture and communications play an essential role in shaping social consciousness necessarily led them to confront the politics and practices of the Peruvian media industry. At the time that Gregorio was released in the mid 1980s, 99.5% of all films screened in Peru were foreign. Chaski indicates one of their primary goals was to develop an alternative politics of commercialization “frente a la hegemonía transnacional” (“Grupo Chaski,” 1986, 4) (“in order to challenge transnational hegemony”).
This goal led them to work with distribution (commercial and alternative), trade unions and other areas of film training, legislative advocacy, promotion and marketing, and film production. Chaski’s approach to the culture industry is noteworthy given that they have simultaneously attempted to change the laws governing media communications in Peru, while also trying to function within those laws and around them.
Unlike Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, Peru has never developed a strong national cinema. Consequently, Peru has had no state-sponsored legacy of nationalist films that has required rethinking, such as happened with the Mexican nationalist melodramas of the 1930s-50s. This point is central to understanding Chaski, since their repeated references to creating a national cinema for the people could sound retrograde to scholars accustomed to critiquing the ideologies of state-sponsored nationalist cinema, examining the ways that directors managed to work within the parameters of state support, or analyzing the relations between nationalism and cinema. The key difference is that cinema history in Peru is not linked to the state but rather to the role of foreign films, many of which were Mexican, in national theaters. In fact, the contemporary invasion of Hollywood in Peruvian theaters was preceded by the dominance of Mexican films in Peru during the 30s, 40s, and again in the 60s (Bedoya 157). The lack of a strong national cinema industry is tied directly to the absence of state support for feature length films.
The best guide to Peruvian film history is provided by Ricardo Bedoya, who explains that it was not until 1972 that the Peruvian government passed Law 19327 to support the development of a film industry. Prior to this law, Bedoya explains, there was an tradition of filmmaking in Peru, but it had been sporadic and constantly overshadowed by foreign imports (187). Key precursors to the law for the work of Chaski were the directors associated with the Cine Club Cuzco, founded in 1955. The Cuzco school combined film production focusing on the rural themes of the campesinos with the establishment of a film club to show their films. They also made both shorts and feature length films, a practice that Chaski would later adopt as well.
Manuel Chambi and Luis Figueroa, members of the Cuzco school, formed part of the executive committee of the Peruvian Society for Cinematography established in 1967 that lobbied for the passage of a law to promote state support for Peruvian filmmaking. In a clear sign of the connections between state cultural policies and the development of the communications industry, Law 19327 heralded a growth in Peruvian film production. The specificities of the law, however, created an unusual pattern of production. The law decreed that any foreign feature film had to be preceded by a Peruvian short of up to ten minutes. The obligatory screening of the short resulted in a 25% return of the tax charged on theater tickets to the production company. If the theater screened a feature-length Peruvian film, the entire sum of the ticket tax was given to the production company. The result was a “big bang,” to use Bedoya’s term, in the production of shorts, which were often referred to as “cortos de la ley” (“law shorts”). Companies sprang up instantly to take advantage of this law and COPROCI, the state body that managed the law, immediately began to favor shorts that promoted a self-congratulatory, stereotyped, didactic view of Peru (Bedoya 190-1). Nevertheless, the law opened a space for filmmaking practice that had otherwise been absent, and a number of new directors emerged as a consequence. For instance, Francisco Lombardi, perhaps the most internationally recognized Peruvian director, began his career making shorts. And, even though the law favored the production of shorts, the number of Peruvian features increased during this period as a consequence of the tax revenues as well.
Chaski understood their role in filmmaking to grow out of this tradition of trying to create a national film industry. They repeatedly reference the fact that when they began, Peru's marginalized social sectors had no history of seeing themselves reflected on screen. It is through this interest in representing local circumstances that they have come to find solidarity with filmmakers like Lombardi, whose films arguably present a far more bourgeois view of Peruvian politics than those of the more politically engaged Chaski. While Chaski read Law 19327 as supportive of Peruvian filmmaking, they also took a critical stance, making a point of releasing their first film Miss Universe in Peru, at a running time of 40 minutes, in a format that would challenge the existing practice of showing a ten minute short before an imported feature. In practice Chaski's early years indicated the ways that they worked both within the system, producing a number of ten minute shorts, and outside of it. In a move that parallels Néstor García Canclini’s argument that state support is both essential and problematic for the development of local culture industries, they have consistently considered public advocacy for state support of filmmaking as central to their work at the same time that they have always been suspicious of state interference and wary of state ideology. In keeping with their refusal to depend on the state, Chaski has received funding from international groups and also local Peruvian philanthropists. Their recent work with a number of philanthropy groups like Ashoka and organizations like UNESCO, and their collaborations with European funding sources like the German television channel ZDF, further indicate the ways that they seek funding according to the structures available. In the neoliberal model, support for national culture comes not from the state but from private organizations. The practice of Chaski provides a model for flexible advocacy in the complex structure of global communications.