2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 50, spring 2008
The theory and practice of the Peruvian Grupo Chaski
by Sophia A. McClennen
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:
“Por hacer películas desde adentro, asume el nombre de los antiguos comunicadores del imperio de los incas, los Chaskis, sistema que funcionó y que puso la COMUNICACIÓN al servicio de todo un pueblo” (2)
(“Because we make films from within, we use the name of the ancient communicators of the Incan empire – the Chaskis. The Chaskis were an efficient system that put COMMUNICATION at the service of an entire people.”)
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
“servir de canales de expresión de aquellos sectores excluidos del sistema de comunicación” (“Grupo Chaski,” 1986, 3)
“serve as a channel of expression for those sectors excluded from the system of communication”).
Their work centers on
“el desarrollo de una conciencia cívica en los sectores populares, sobre la problemática nacional” (“Grupo Chaski,” 1986, 3)
(“the development of civic consciousness among the marginalized majority in order to promote attention to the problems of the nation”).
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
“toda forma de autoritarianismo e intolerancia” (“Grupo Chaski,” 1986, 3)
(“all forms of authoritarianism and intolerance”).
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 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.
Grupo Chaski and Grupo Ukamau
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. 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
“we still chose shots according to our own personal taste, without taking into account their communicability or cultural overtones… In certain scenes we put the emphasis entirely on sound, without paying attention to the needs of the spectators, for whom we claimed we were making the film” (qtd. in Pick; 118).
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:
“forjar un cine nacional que exprese los sentimientos populares, que afirme la cultural nacional y contribuya a democratizar al país” (1)
(“forging a national cinema that expresses the feelings of the people, affirms national culture, and contributes to democratizing the country”).
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:
"El cine que el Grupo ha pretendido hacer es militante en la lucha por alcanzar la independencia y la identidad histórica y cultural. Es militante porque se forja en la lucha contra una cinematografía dominada por las trasnacionales de la comunicación, contra una forma establecida de hacer cine que prescinde de las particularidades nacionales, que manipula al espectador, que tiene cánones rígidos de creación, que tiene como objetivo esencial la ganancia o el lucro, y no la liberación del hombre." (2; “Experiencia de siete años del Grupo Chaski”)
["The cinema that the Group has tried to make is militant in its struggle to achieve independence and to reflect historical and cultural identity. Our films are militant because they struggle against the dominant filmmaking of transnational communication companies. Our films are militant because they challenge the established forms of filmmaking that disregard national specificities, manipulate spectators, and seek profit rather than the liberation of man."]
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:
“La principal debilidad del cine revolucionario latinoamericano ha sido, y es aún, su imposibilidad práctica de llegar cuantitativamente a sus destinatarios” (82)
(“The principal weakness of Latin American revolutionary cinema has been, and still is, the practical impossibility of getting large numbers of our desired audience to see our films”).
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:
"All of this kind of narrative development and characterization might distress a critic stuck in the standard Marxist political and aesthetic categories of fifty years ago. […] As Grupo Chaski has analyzed it, the models of fully developed capitalism have to be rethought to account for the Third World. This implies a different aesthetic as well, one which doesn't simply see the poorest people as desperate or as a negative example, but which acknowledges the unemployed poor's strength in the face of harsh circumstances and their role as an essential component of revolutionary transformation.” (n.p.)
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:
“What does this celebration of European standards of beauty and consumption have to do with the majority of Peruvian women?” (n.p.).
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:
“We see a vibrant and articulate Quechua woman organizer argue that the contest demeans every woman participating in it because the contestants are not only privileged, but also smart and talented, yet made to look like dolls” (n.p.).
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:
“Esto se expresa en la posibilidad de que el espectador reflexione, tome conciencia, asuma un sentido crítico, y que sobretodo la comprenda, se comprometa con ella y busque actuar en su transformación” (“Experiencia de siete años;” 2).
(“We hope that the spectator will reflect on reality, become conscious of it, and will assume a critical stance. Above all we hope the spectator will understand reality, will commit to it, and will look to be active in its transformation”).
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).
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. 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,
“No sirves para esto, quítate” (“you are no good at this, get away”).
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 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:
“Este corte da lugar a un trato directo con el público, y contribuye a desmontar los mecanismos de comunicación del cine tradicional, que muchas veces impide momentos de reflexión en el público” (8)
(“This shot allows us to directly engage the public, and it contributes to dismantling the traditional modes of communication used in film that often impede reflection”).
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.
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.
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.
2. As is common with research on film groups of this nature, my research has included screenings of Chaski’s films and readings of published work on them, but it has also been shaped by contact with members of the group itself. While on a Fulbright to Lima, Peru in 2003 I had the opportunity to interview three of the founding members of Chaski (Stefan Kaspar, Alejandro Legaspi, and María Barea), one of the early additional members of the group (Susana Pastor), and the two leading actors of their feature films (Marino Leon and Rosa Isabel Morfino). I was also given access to their archives and internal documents, most of which had never circulated publicly. Stefan Kaspar was extremely generous with his time and with offering news clippings and other documents that helped me to trace the history of Chaski. After I returned to the US, I maintained email contact with Kaspar, Legaspi, and Pastor, who continued to share important information and documents with me.
3. When I was in Lima in 2003 all former members of Chaski I interviewed considered the group to no longer exist. In contrast, their website (http://www.grupochaski.org/index.php?id=576,0,0,1,0,0) states that they have worked continuously since 1982. In a sense both versions are true, since no film projects carried the group’s name from 1991-2003, but Kaspar’s work regarding distribution and production continued tirelessly. In 1992 after the waning of Chaski, he founded Casablanca Latin Films, a project that focused on distributing Latin American (largely Peruvian) features and documentaries. He also worked as a producer during this period, most notably associate producing the award-winning documentary Choropampa in 2001 that traces the devastation wrought by a mercury spill on a small rural town in Peru. In 2003 he started the Fundación Cine Latino, which later led to the resurgence of Chaski and the microcines project. Legaspi had also continued to work in documentary films during this period. His reconnection with Kaspar for the documentary Sueños Lejanos (Distant Dreams) indicates Chaski’s return to the full range of its former activities.
5. All of the current members of their advisory board were active participants in Chaski in the 1980s
There are now a number of younger members involved in various aspects of Chaski’s organization, including Paola Reategui and Renzo Reyes, key organizers of the microcines project.
7. Espinoza died of a heart attack on July 21, 2002 while filming the last scenes of a documentary on the role of African descendents in Peru. Titled “El Quinto Suyo” (Their Fifth One), the film references the Incan empire’s division into four geographic and political regions. The film’s goal is to add a fifth region to this story, one “en el que los Afroperuanos nos incluimos como parte de la historia del Perú, porque nosotros... también tenemos una historia que contar” (“in which Afro-peruvians include ourselves in the history of Peru because we … also have a story to tell”).
8. Barea has continued to be an active feminist filmmaker and has worked with Women Make Movies. In 1989, she co-founded the women's film group 'WARMI Cine y Video', with which she produces and directs documentaries. Her films incluye Andahuaylas - suenen las campanas (1987), Porcon (1989/92), Porque quería estudiar (1990), Barro y Bambu (1991), Antuca (1992) and Hijas de la guerra (Daughters of War; 1998).
10. René Weber mentions that Chaski members needed to take additional security measures in April of 1989 after two articles published in the Sendero paper El Diario accused Chaski of producing a bourgeois culture for export that was not dignified to be consumed by the masses (9). According to Weber, after these two articles appeared the members often worked in fear.
11. Terms like “reality” may be out of fashion in some circles today, but it is important to note that for Chaski the capturing of reality has been an essential part of their effort. Given the distortions emanating from official discourse and the mass media, they feel a tremendous need to correct the prevalence of these misrepresentations with versions of the practical details of everyday life of the marginalized majority. In the struggle for representational politics, Chaski has viewed their work as both a corrective to official distortions and as a revelation to social sectors that only appear on screen as caricatures or stereotypes.
12. This law is no longer in effect today. A new law was passed several years ago to promote Peruvian filmmaking, but it has yet to be put into effect. At the time of writing, Peru has no state mechanism in practice that supports Peruvian filmmaking.
15. In an internal document written in 1986 that explains why they were formed Chaski specifically references the impact of Law 19327 and the way that the films supported by the law were precursors to their work (1).
16. Francisco Lombardi is the most internationally recognized Peruvian director. He shoots in a realist style and his films are often adaptations of novels. His filmography can be viewed here:
18. For a list of their current sources of support see:
19. While Sanjinés and Rada were editing The Courage of the People in Italy, Bolivia suffered a coup that forced them into exile, split the group, and censored the film. Once in exile Sanjinés continued to work on collective film projects under the banner of Ukamau and his most recent film was released in 1995 but the continuity of the film collective was disrupted by the fact that within Bolivia another group, also using the name Ukamau, continued to work as well.
20. Sanjinés identifies two major moments in Ukamau’s filmmaking: first a period of denunciation and political confrontation and second, after the opening of democracy, a moment for films that explore problems of identity (Interview with Mondaca; n.p.).
23. Karen Ranucci of the now defunct Latin American Video Archive (or LAVA) explained in a conversation with me that she had long tried to convince Sanjinés to distribute his work on video, but that he was reluctant to do it.
24. While this term does not appear directly in their work, they repeatedly emphasize the theme of survival as central to their project. One of their most popular series of documentaries is entitled “retratos de sobrevivencia” (“portraits of survival”). It would be interesting to consider Chaski’s aesthetic of survival in relation to Glauber Rocha’s aesthetic of hunger.
27. In an intertext with these scenes their new documentary Sueños lejanos opens with a scene where two men watch a documentary of themselves as boys that Chaski shot in the 1980s called “Encuentro de hombrecitos” “Encounter with Little Men”).
28. The bildungsroman is a type of novel that narrates the social formation and transition of a child into an adult. It often tells of a loss of innocence and describes the tension between social norms and the development of an individual personality. The protagonists typically have to overcome a series of obstacles. The form is common in films with the films of the character Harry Potter as a recent example.
29. Kleinhans and Lesage explain that “the film quite clearly does not set these actions up as deplorable examples of lumpen proletariat degeneracy, but frankly portrays them as justifiable minor pleasures of those at the bottom of the capitalist pile who must live by their wits and daring.”(n.p.). In contrast, Ramos Salinas reads these scenes as formulaic condemnations of the city as the source of all evil.
32. See for example the site for Cinencuentro (Filmencounter) (http://www.cinencuentro.com/) and the blog for the independent movie house, the Cinematografo, in the Barranco district of Lima, (http://elcinematografodebarranco.blogspot.com/) both of which regularly cover the activities of Chaski. There is a two part interview with Alejandro Legaspi posted by Cinencuentro on the Daily Motion site: http://www.dailymotion.com/videos/relevance/search/alejandro+legaspi/1. View their promotional video about the microcines project here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PX2ErN5dqLs.
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