4. Emblems of the process of mestizaje

“For some time now Sebastián has been breaking my heart because, when living in the city, he changed his surname […] Since then he has been ashamed of us […].”

With these words, uttered in Aymara and in a pained sob, Sebastián’s mother opens the film. The background to this expression shows that Sebastián’s distancing from his community marks the characteristics of the image of the ‘acculturated Indian’. It is not, however, the simple displacement from countryside to city that defines this image of Sebastián. Beyond this duality is a rupture with the “Andean essence” which makes possible the constitution of this cultural condition. In other words, we might say that the image of the “mestizo” or rather “cholo” germinates from the cultural negation that Sebastián seeks in the city in attempting to move away, without any great success, from his original condition.

For this reason, the film’s perspective leads us to think that the city operates as a mechanism in the process of mestizaje. All the same, the errant condition of Sebastián incarnates the socio-cultural prejudices associated with the figure of the “Latinized Indian” which accentuate a difference from the indigenous. Hence the community’s perception of Sebastián becomes conflictive in relation to his non-indigenous attributes. Hence relations between Sebastián and the community, despite its partial acceptance of him as a political authority, are expressed in terms of rejection.

In this way reference to “the process of mestizaje” is constructed not in relation to a biological synthesis but according to a countryside-city social mobility that forms, then defines, Sebastián’s errant condition. This is clarified — I insist — with Sebastián’s negative self-onslaught regarding his condition as a native Bolivian. The perception, it seems, that the indigenous villagers themselves have of Sebastián could be better expressed with the term “acculturated Indian.” But besides this, the negative view from below (from the community) is constructed above all in relation to the “Latinized profile” of the protagonist. Betrayal, servility, and personal benefit at the cost of the community are among the elements that cause Sebastián’s relationship with the community to become tense when he is named jilakata: thus his rejection and expulsion from the community is a product of the protagonist’s Latinized exteriorization.

Definitively the city-countryside relationship expresses, in terms of a cultural counter-position, the tension in Sebastián’s identity. Let’s say, then, that the concrete sense of cultural estrangement does not emerge from mere displacement from countryside to city, but rather that it is constructed both as a negation-rupture of the indigenous and as a permanent desire to assimilate to the city’s “otherness.” Hence the appropriation of linguistic elements, clothing and non-indigenous experiences are decisive in this characterization. These elements show with some clarity the cultural displacement of the “Indian condition” towards mestizaje.[8] [open endnotes in new window]

5. Marginal image of the mestizo

In “Indigenism and National Subjects in the Cinema of Jorge Sanjinés” (1998) Leonardo García Pabón underlines that, in The Hidden Nation, Sanjinés proposes the constitution of a “national subject” through his protagonist, Sebastián. Sebastián’s “errant condition” permits Sanjinés — according to García — to approach “social spaces and national institutions” (the army, for example). For that reason, the critic maintains, Sebastián’s identity at the end of the film is the “result of a series of identities” formed inside these spaces. From this configuration, then, emerges a subject that is not only indigenous but, fundamentally, national. In other words, the “new national subject” in the broadest sense is the consequence of the experience that Sebastián has forged, both with the values of his Andean culture and with those values that he has assimilated in “national spaces” (García 1998: 258-260).

I believe that Sanjinés, in proposing a “national subject” in this film through Sebastián, does so by privileging the Andean experience and by rather negating that experience constructed in his “errant condition.” It is evident that at the end of the film the superseding (preceded by negation) of Sebastián’s “acculturated condition” is made concrete, thus giving way to the “indigenous subject.” The metaphorical elements of this operation (overcoming-negating) are quite eloquent. Thus the protagonist’s death is the fundamental fact of this transition. It is not a case, then, of a senseless death; on the contrary, death symbolizes the circular conception of Andean time, as well as the beginning of a new existence, or rather of a rebirth. That death-birth is articulated as such in the dance of the “Jacha Tata Danzante” which requires a sense of the Andean in memorizing an almost forgotten past. Only by means of this ritual, in a background of collective meaning, can the “errant” Sebastián again become a part of his community. Sebastián’s appearance, then, at the moment of his burial, announces a profoundly Andean rebirth. In this way the Sebastián of betrayal, of deceit, of lying, is entombed by the Sebastián who has returned to his cultural roots.[9]

The considered image of the “acculturated Indian” dissolves, as a consequence, into the accepted canons of the indigenous. In this way the affirmation of the “integral subject” is the negation of the “acculturated Indian”; the new Sebastián, profoundly Andean, is imposed upon the uprooted Sebastián. All in all, it is the negation of the “errant subject” that makes possible the configuration of the new indigenous subject. It gives the impression, however, that this negation is not a mere systemic rupture since Sebastián’s experience, forged in the “national spaces,” allows construction and projection of the (re)affirmed profound indigenous subject. Be this as it may, the experience of acculturation vanishes at the end of the film, instead acquiring a completely negative character.

6. Circular aesthetic: under the Andean gaze

The plot of the film is constructed with filmic resources from Sanjinés’ own cinema. On the aesthetic plane two specific elements can be noted: firstly, the reappearance of the individual protagonist (Sebastián) in contrast with the representation of the collective protagonist (people/community) in his previous films and, secondly, the consolidation of the “all-encompassing sequence shot” which develops from The Principal Enemy onwards. This opting for the individual protagonist, as a narrative strategy, centers the problematic tension on Sebastián. If the idea of the “collective character-author” of his previous films represented community (collective) conflicts, now this tension is manifested according to the dilemmas within the indigenous subject. For this reason the reflection on cultural identity in Sebastián is the nucleus that articulates this representation. The turn towards the individual protagonist does not imply in any way a rupture with Sanjinés’ political-ideological focus: the preoccupation with the background of indigenous peoples acquires a more specific dimension in The Hidden Nation.

The use of the “all-encompassing sequence shot” is the narrative resource that allows Sanjinés to structure the film’s storyline according to the Andean circular conception of time. It reflects, as such, the “visual perception” that indigenous cultures have of the world. Sanjinés says in this regard:

“The ‘all-encompassing sequence shot’ as I call it (which is a long shot that takes in a whole scene-sequence in which there are no cuts; in which there are no breaks; in which the movements of camera and actors interweave; in which it is possible to include all possible shots, from a close-up to a long shot) responds to an idea of circular time in the Andean world, which is distinct from western linear time and which, on the other hand, is expressing the feeling of integration, of collectivity, particular to the Andean people” (quoted in Bajo 2003).

The Hidden Nation, as Sanjinés underlines, is a film of “100 sequences and 100 shots” which “captures the spectator, wraps him up, traps him within it but allows him to think, carries him along in aesthetic enjoyment, in reflection” (quoted in Bajo 2003: undated). Hence the “all-encompassing sequence shot” also constitutes the filmmaker’s profound affirmation of Andean cultures. Now, within these profoundly indigenist/Andeanist guidelines, we should ask ourselves — perhaps at the risk of 'over-interpreting' and being too radical — whether or not Sanjinés' films fall into a kind of 'aesthetic mestizaje,' since cinema originates in the western world. In other words, the thematic and aesthetic elements with which the filmmaker works, if they correspond principally to the Andean cultures of Bolivia, nonetheless elude all the models associated with this so very western invention. This, of course, is nothing if not a product of the strange and ambivalent modernity that Sanjinés, it should be pointed out, professes to recognize.

7. Disenchantment with the idealized mestizo

In a dialogue concerning The Courage of the People, Fernando Calderón and Javier Sanjinés reflect that the cinema of Jorge Sanjinés produces a “rupture with the verticality of aesthetic resources” constructed under the aegis of the lettered.[10] This new process, for which the authors use the term “de-sublimation of reality,” consequently subverts the vertical and abstract lettered search for the national (v Calderón and Sanjinés 1999: 65). Certainly, from the lettered sublimation of reality or “aesthetization of the real” we are present, with Jorge Sanjinés (let it be made clear, the filmmaker) at a “politicization of the aesthetic” that breaks with “the lettered abstract” in order to construct itself in the here and now.

The subversion of “the sublimating gaze of reality” is not, however, a background exclusive to The Courage of the People, for the filmic work by Sanjinés as a whole is constructed on democratic parameters — if anything — as a rupture with “the lettered.” This is not a case, then, of a cinema constructed “for” the people; on the contrary, the films of Sanjinés are constructed “with” and “from” the people. This is precisely the originality of Sanjinés within Bolivian cinema. In this sense, the background of the “all-encompassing sequence shot” that, as a narrative resource, is closer to the visual perception that Andean cultures have of the world. All the same, the structuring of the film aesthetic according to Andean elements, making indigenous people active participants, is the reflection of what Calderón and Sanjinés call “de-sublimation of reality.”

The rupture in the cinema of Jorge Sanjinés with the “lettered gaze” is expressed clearly in relation to the discourse on mestizaje constructed in the early 20th century by Bolivian intellectuals and strongly disseminated, in its homogenizing version, by “revolutionary nationalism.” For, if the idealized and homogenizing quest for mestizaje is constructed as a “sublimating intention” (v Sanjinés & Calderón, 1996) of the nationalist discourse as a search for “the national,” Jorge Sanjinés, on the contrary, questions this idealized and vertical gaze to propose, with his cinema, a more open way — let us say it in those terms — and a more radical way (at the same time) of defining the nation. According to this logic The Hidden Nation, just like this filmmaker’s other work, questions the construction of the homogeneous and idealized mestizo to project, as a counterpoint, an “organic nation” according to the “Andean essence.” However, the representation of the homogeneous and idealized mestizo as negative, in contrast with the affirmation of the Andean quest for the construction of the national, conceals — it appears to me — the same authoritarian form as the “lettered ideal.”

8. From the clandestine to the visible,
by way of a conclusion

The Hidden Nation is, strictly speaking, Jorge Sanjinés’ political-ideological and aesthetic self-affirmation with regard to the Andean indigenous cultures of Bolivia. Prevailing in the background of the film, without a doubt, is a radical criticism of mestizaje “as a discourse of power,” to cite Javier Sanjinés (2005) which, throughout history, has negated the indigenous as a way of conceiving the national. Hence the way in which the interpretation of mestizaje is constructed, in the narrative weave, is a negative way, subjected to an impossibility. This characterization, as we have seen, emerges from a rupture with the indigenous and its consequent negation. In this way, ethnic and cultural mixing, in counterpoint to the cosmic vision of the Andean world, is associated — almost mechanically — with the betrayal and servility that characterize the figure of the “acculturated Indian” underlying social imaginaries. For this reason Jorge Sanjinés, countering the national discourse on mestizaje, understands that the only possibility of constructing and constituting an “organic nation” in Bolivia is through an assimilation of the “Andean essence.”

To conclude, the proposal made by Sanjinés with regard to the national problem not only reveals the cultural limits of mestizaje in the possible national construction of Bolivia, but it turns this on its head, as Javier Sanjinés (2005) suggests, with regard to the recent social movements faced with the image of mestizaje — and proposes its disarticulation. Given these circumstances we can today note the grave crisis in this homogenizing discourse of mestizaje and the emergence, still ambivalent, of new ways of thinking the national from the multiple, from the diverse, and, with Jorge Sanjinés, above all from the “Andean essence.” In some way, then, the film is also a synthesis of the subaltern movements against hegemonic integration, at least in its idealized outline of mestizaje.

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