JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Scenes of indigenous meetings and festivals are typically filmed with ...

...circular hand-held camera movements and long-shots.

In another flashback, Sebastián enlists in the army…

…a job that involves terrorising the civilian population. In this scene, Sebastián is beaten by his superior for not taking part in the extra-judicial killing of a suspected subversive.

Near the beginning of The Clandestine Nation, the village elder Uncle Tankara voices a circular notion of time that is bound up in Andean cosmovision.

At the beginning of a series of sequence shots, Sebastián is captured by the inhabitants of Willkani…

…and brought to trial before the community (here Sebastián wears a pointed hat).

The handheld camera reframes and tracks in towards the speakers, as a man voices some of Sebastián’s crimes.

Sebastián’s family enters the fray.

His mother is framed in close-up as she speaks. This is consistent with Sanjinés’ ideas about filming Andean notions of time and space, since the close-up is just one part of a much longer sequence-shot that respects the spatial dynamics of the scene.

Sebastián is then expelled from the ayllu.

A cut to an extreme-long shot at extreme-high angle brings us to a bird’s eye view of Sebastián’s expulsion…

…and a slow pan right and tilt-up reveals this to be the point-of-view of the present-day Sebastián reflecting on his past crimes.

A similar visual trope is used at the end of the film, when the camera films Sebastián’s approaching funeral procession with a frontal shot,…

…integrates into the crowd as it passes by, bearing Sebastián’s corpse…

…and comes to rest on Sebastián himself, bringing up the back of the procession, who stops to observe the cortège. In reflecting on his own death from beyond the grave, the figure of Sebastián comes to represent the idea that indigenous cultural identity is not a lifeless artifact, but a process to be activated in the political present.

Theory of Andean realism:
Noël Burch/André Bazin/Jorge Sanjinés

Some years ago, when I was looking into the links between Jorge Sanjinés’ cinematic praxis from the 1960s to the 1980s and contemporary European film theory, cinematographer César Pérez pointed out to me the formative influence that the work of Noël Burch had had for the group.[13] [open endnotes in new window] Indeed, the rejection of Western, industrial or bourgeois cinema expressed by the Ukamau Group during their militant phase, in common with other contemporary militant Latin American filmmakers such as the Argentines Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino (Sanjinés and Grupo Ukamau 1979; Solanas and Getino 1973), can certainly be aligned to an extent with Burch’s critique of the Institutional Mode of Representation (IMR) (Burch 1973).[14]

Burch poses that mainstream narrative cinema, with its roots in the nineteenth-century novel, creates an illusory “transparent narrative time” that, by negating the materiality of the cinematic process, equates its own ideologically-charged language with “reality.” The IMR’s narrative time is erected upon a “linear discourse,” resting on a set of narrative codes that ensures the seamless glide of plot at the expense of the symbolic or metaphorical properties of the filmed image. Such false transparency, which Burch describes as the “zero point of cinematic style,” has become stripped of its legitimacy and universality. It is therefore up to the oppositional filmmaker to forge their own idiom, finding

“a truly consistent relationship between a film’s spatial and temporal articulations and its narrative content, formal structure determining narrative structure as much as vice versa” (1973: 15).

Yet while Burch embraces a radical modernist film practice that might deconstruct the aesthetic premises of dominant cinema, the Ukamau Group has taken quite a different path. La nación clandestina, faced with the immediate social urgency of communicating with a wide constituency of viewers and of participating directly in political change, bypasses the deconstructive stage of Burch’s process and sets about building a “new” cinematic grammar based on Andean temporality. This would seem to confirm Michael Chanan’s (1997) observation, writing in 1985, that radical “new” film practices in Latin America since the early 1960s bore certain parallels with their European and North American counterparts insofar as their attemps to unhinge certain institutionalized grammatical norms in mainstream cinema. But, argues Chanan, while European and North American film cultures often tend to lean on structuralist and formalist theoretical concepts to call into question and deconstruct the truth-value of the image, for Latin American filmmakers

“truth is far more immediate and material [; … it] lies in the relationship with the audience, in the film’s mode of address, because the meaning of what is shown depends on the viewer’s position” (1997: 215).

With La nación clandestina, Sanjinés sought to construct a new cinematic grammar based on his own prior deconstruction of mainstream cinema, which in turn, by the filmmaker’s own account, was informed by many years of communication and mutual critique with indigenous actors and audiences.[15]

In what is perhaps his most important theoretical essay since Teoría y práctica junto al pueblo (Sanjinés and Grupo Ukamau 1979),[16] Sanjinés outlines the “integral sequence shot,” the visual and narrative lynchpin of La nación clandestina, which was still in production when the essay was written (Sanjinés 1989). Here, Andean thought is characterized as a system in which “the collective prevails over the individual,” while Quechua narrative form (“Quechua,” it seems, is used as shorthand for Andean here) “is built upon the prior divulging of the plot, so that the contents of the story take precedence over the ins and outs of the narrative” (Sanjinés 1989: 66). Western cinema, with its grammatical preference for close-ups, intrigue and identification with a single main character, is seen as dramatically consistent with a world-view founded on the Hellenic-Judeo-Christian belief in a unique deity in the image of man. This culture, for Sanjinés, is associated with a pervasive individualism that has spawned the sanctity of private property, personal accumulation and the dominance of man over man. Western cinematic narrative reflects Western philosophy’s conception of time and space as quantifiable, measurable and saleable substances, malleable to the needs of the individual. Its modes of storytelling naturally fragment time and space, re-assembling them according to the dramatic needs of plot.

Sanjinés therefore argues for a film praxis that respects the natural unity of time and space by “neutralizing” plot and by using “integral” sequence shots and long-shots with deep focus, allowing the filmed image to encompass all of the protagonists of a scene rather than privileging a single character who drives the narrative forward. Decisions regarding scale and angle of shot, mobility of the frame, length of take and rhythm of editing are determined by the needs of the action: the cinematographer is subordinate to the actors playing out the scene. The proposal goes beyond a mere technical one: the “internal mechanics” must respond to a “clearly-defined proposal” (Sanjinés 1989: 66). Sanjinés is at pains to emphasize that the approach developed for La nación clandestina corrects the methodological and philosophical imposition of Western values that he himself had detected in the earlier film Yawar Mallku (1969). The 1989 picture is no longer an outsider’s interpretation of an “alien” reality, but rather the film writes itself into and becomes a part of that reality:

“In our previous attempts we basically tried to convey the impression that the viewer was participating within the scene. The camera’s movement was an interpretation of its own point of view and it selected moments and framing on the basis of the natural and logical interests of dramatic action […]

[In La nación clandestina], so as not to go on imposing an alien, external, intrusive, dominating point of view, […] the rhythm was to be determined from within [the action], by the movement of people and things, which both provided the motivation for and generated camera movements, close-ups and long shots that served to integrate the entire group.” (Sanjinés 1989: 68-70)

In the same essay the Bolivian director evokes the “reflexive space” that his new methodology opens up. Although Sanjinés does not mention André Bazin by name here, the integral sequence shot and its reflexive spaces owe much to the work of the French critic. I would argue that both in this theoretical essay and in the film it describes, La nación clandestina, Sanjinés both builds upon and surpasses Bazinian realism, not merely offering the viewer the opportunity to enter into and explore a cinematically-recreated reality, but to transform that reality as an extension of everyday life. The success of this strategy is a matter for debate.

Writing in the early 1950s, Bazin traced a tradition of realism, in opposition to montage-based cinema, back to the work of silent-era directors F.W. Murnau, Robert Flaherty and, in particular, Erich von Stroheim, in whose films “reality lays itself bare like a suspect confessing under the relentless examination of the commissioner of police” (Bazin 1967: 27). Bazin further admires the use of composition in depth, deep focus and the long take in filmmakers such as Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and William Wyler, as well as in Italian neo-realists Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti.[16b] In the work of these latter directors, there is a determination to do away with the effects of montage altogether, “to transfer to the screen the continuum of reality” (Bazin 1967: 37). This historical tendency in cinema, for Bazin, signalled

“the regeneration of realism in storytelling and thus…[the capability] of bringing together real time, in which things exist, along with the duration of the action, for which classical editing had insidiously substituted mental and abstract time” (Bazin 1967: 39).

The realist aesthetic was seen as democratic in that its inherent ambiguity required the viewer to participate actively in the creation of meaning.

Some years before Sanjinés began experimenting with the sequence shot in Jatun Auka (1973), Jean-Luc Godard put the same device to a quite different use. Brian Henderson notes that in Weekend and La chinoise (both 1967), Godard uncouples the sequence shot from composition in depth: a combination that for Bazin was key to the realist aesthetic:

“Godard’s later style does require the active participation of the viewer, but not in Bazin’s sense of choosing what to see within a multi-layered image […]. Godard presents instead an admittedly synthetic, single-layered construct, which the viewer must examine critically, accept or reject. The viewer is not drawn into the image, nor does he make choices within it; he stands outside the image and judges it as a whole. […] Through flatness of frame and transparency of action, he seeks to eliminate ambiguity” (Henderson 1970-1971: 4; original emphasis).

Henderson goes on to argue that in privileging flatness over composition in depth, Godard undoes the latter technique's projection of a

“bourgeois world infinitely deep, rich, complex, ambiguous, mysterious. Godard’s flat frames collapse this world into two-dimensional actuality” (1970-1971: 14).

Sanjinés’ 1973 picture Jatun Auka has much in common with Godard’s deconstructive modernism. Although it concentrates less on visual flatness than do Godard’s cited works, the Peruvian film deflates narrative depth by other means, combining sequence shots with distancing techniques such as the use of an onscreen narrator that neutralizes narrative tension (García Pabón 2001).[17] The later movie La nación clandestina, and the theoretical apparatus erected around it, by contrast, would seem closer to Bazinian realism.

In rejecting the repressive nature of Western narrative, and in their consequent political imperative to reconstruct cinematic realism under a new law, by the late 1980s the Ukamau Group thus came back almost full circle to the Bazinian spatio-temporal unity that Burch had dismissed for its naïve, outmoded faith in the mimetic properties of film.[18] Sanjinés and his collaborators, though, go beyond Bazin’s liberal-democratic celebration of spatio-temporal unity, which implies “a more active mental attitude on the part of the spectator and a more positive contribution on his part to the action in progress” (Bazin 1967: 35-36). In La nación clandestina the maintenance of spatial and temporal unity remains a firmly anti-colonial enterprise that not only is consistent with indigenous spatio-temporality, but also aims to opens up space for the viewer to link screen reality to their own historical reality and to take political action in the present. Western narrative, on the other hand, “manipulates attention by closing down reflexive spaces and times” (Sanjinés 1989: 66). A (perhaps simplified) conception of indigenous narrative form merges into the type of militant spectatorship proposed in the heat of the New Latin American Cinema by the Argentine radicals Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, who put forward that

“a film that is closed in on itself casts the viewer down into a passive, spectatorial role, with the option of approving or rejecting. A film that transmits experiences and knowledge that are not yet concluded, and that invites its audience to complete them and to critically question them, transforms the viewers into co-authors and live protagonists of the action.” (Solanas and Getino 1973: 163-4)[19]

The “reflexive space” of the integral sequence shot, though, is far removed from the self-reflexivity of montage techniques and narrative disruption that both Sanjinés and other practitioners of the New Latin American Cinema had previously used. Writing on the more overtly militant 1960s and 1970s cinemas, Ana López traces an evolution from the earlier films and theoretical writings of the New Latin American Cinema, which held to “a naïve belief in the camera’s ability to record 'truths' – to capture a national reality or essence without any mediation,” to the later works in which

“‘Realism,’ no longer seen as tied to simple perceptual truth or to a mimetic approximation of the real, was increasingly used to refer to a self-conscious material practice. The cinema’s powers of representation – its ability to reproduce the surface of the lived world – were activated not as a record or duplication of that surface, but in order to explain it, to reveal its hidden aspects, to disclose the material matrix that determined it.” (López 1990: 407-408)

Sanjinés’ integral sequence shot holds just as much faith in cinema’s capacity to document reality as does Bazin’s notion of the reconciliation of real and dramatic time, and the two theorists share a belief in the complexity of cinematic reality’s construction. The French critic celebrated deep space as a mode of conveying a spatio-temporal universe artificially constructed by the director and cameraman, who “have converted the screen into a dramatic checkerboard, planned down to the last detail” (Bazin 1967: 34). In the same way, Sanjinés recounts the complex camera maneuvers involved in achieving the integral sequence shot in La nación clandestina using dolly, crane and an agile crew, adding that each shot must be “rehearsed to perfection” (1989: 71). This was a great improvement on the Ukamau Group’s previous attempts in Jatun Auka and Lloksy Kaymanta!, in which a lack of planning had hampered the actors’ freedom of movement, creativity and improvisation. This limitation was only partly corrected in La nación clandestina by pre-filming on video the more spontaneous actions produced in rehearsal, and reconstructing them with precise direction upon filming (Sanjinés 1989: 69). Sanjinés, though, goes beyond Bazinian realism in justifying the formal reconstruction of reality as a vessel to express the broader philosophy of his protagonists. Sanjinés’ camera is endowed here with the capacity to reflect, document and participate in an already existing material and cosmic reality, and is seen as an engine of potential social and political tranformation.

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui latches onto this point when she comments that previous films such as Jatun Auka are “constructed from outside the story” in a naturalist manner, “as if” a transcultural understanding between Marxist guerrillas and indigenous peasants were possible (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990; original emphasis). La nación clandestina, on the other hand, uses non-naturalist techniques and “reconstructs the lives of the inhabitants of Willkani’; “the fiction is managed […] as a symbolic, archetypical representation of this reality” (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990; my emphasis). This again chimes strongly with Bazinian aesthetics in which, for Gilles Deleuze, “the real was no longer represented or reproduced but ‘aimed at’” (1989: 1). Deleuze, writing on neo-realism in the nouveau roman, goes on to paraphrase Alain Robbe-Grillet, who describes traditional realism as that which “presupposes the independence of its object” (in Rivera Cusicanqui’s words, an object conceived “from outside”). Conversely neo-realist description, in Deleuze’s summary of Robbe-Grillet,

replaces its own object, on the one hand it erases or destroys its reality which passes into the imaginary, but on the other hand it powerfully brings out all the reality which the imaginary or the mental create through speech and vision” (Deleuze 1989: 7; original emphasis).

A great deal of consonance can be found here with a later theoretical piece by Sanjinés, in which the director outlines his bid to “create a reality that is more real than the impression of reality that we live every day,” by “fascinating the viewer, bewitching him with the magic of the images and sounds” (Sanjinés 1999: 34, 41). Here, Sanjinés condemns mainstream cinema not for its seductive use of film language per se but for its tendency to employ that language in the service of a “deceptive,” formulaic and often violent view of reality. It is therefore the job of the scriptwriter (and by extension, one can assume, the director) to “capture” the viewer in a “hypnosis” deriving from a studied and “truthful” depiction of the world (Sanjinés 1999: 35).[20] Recognizing that the film is consonant with her own society’s “internal rhythms,” the viewer will naturally engage in a creative and poetic (rather than rational) determination to change, or to participate in the ongoing construction of, that reality:

“A script, the spirit and soul of a film, can lay out the means whereby the true and profound dimensions of reality can be conveyed, transforming everyday life, reinventing it, deforming it, changing it, through a process, that is to say art, that goes beyond rational intelligence, that is closer to the power of intuition, so as to bring to us the true nature of things in a marvellous way…” (Sanjinés 1999: 34)

Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995) reflects upon the problems that Sanjinés and his crew had encountered during the filming of Blood of the Condor (1969), recounting the experiences of a film crew unable to convince members of an indigenous community to participate in their movie. Sons of the Last Garden (2004) is a thriller set in both La Paz and a highland indigenous community, in which a group of urban youths are caught up in criminal activity, but are ultimately redeemed by learning indigenous values.

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