JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Two subsequent integral sequence shots inThe Clandestine Nation as Sebastián begins his sacrificial dance:

1. Dressing for the dance.

Looking down in extreme long shot, a child enters the building where Sebastián is putting on his costume for the dance.

2. The dance continues.

This is an important transitional sequence shot that gives a detailed view of fellow ayllu members joining and following Sebastián’s dance, denoting his eventual acceptance back into the community. Framing is through relatively tightly framed full and medium shots. Some dancers wear masks typical of many Andean celebrations, white faces that parodically mimic Spanish colonialists. It becomes clear here that the pipe music, now dominating the soundtrack along with the sound of percussion instruments, is diegetic.

 

The praxis of Andean realism:
the flashback and the integral sequence shot

Upon release, La nación clandestina was not universally celebrated for successfully merging Andean temporality with film style. The poet Eduardo Nogales Guzmán (1990), for one, cast the Ukamau Group’s movie as a violent imposition of European thought onto an entirely misunderstood Aymara reality, reading the film as a Foucauldian dissertation on medieval concepts of madness and redemption. Nogales Guzmán, along with other critics and participants in the contemporary Bolivian audiovisual sphere, have also seen a problematic purity of Andean values and structures of thought even in La nación clandestina, the most nuanced of Sanjinés’ films in terms of its exploration of the transcultural relationships between indigenous and mestizo (mixed-race) Bolivian society.

The camera reframes down and right, and Sebastián, screen right in medium shot, explains to the curious children that he's putting bells on his legs. The hand-held camera is virtually motionless. "You're Juanito? A nice name."
More smooth reframing as light falls onto Sebastián’s dancing mask. "Why are you putting on these clothes?" "I'm going out to dance now." Sebastián moves the large mask and headdress through the narrow opening as ...
... the camera tracks left under the next arch to frame another group of children passing by outside. The headdress brushes past the camera in extreme close-up as he puts it through the passage and then comes out. The altiplano wind swirls on the soundtrack.
As Sebastián settles the mask on his head, the hand-held camera paces almost 180 degrees around his body… ... and we now see the arches at the back of the frame. The Jacha Tata Danzante pipe music tentatively punctuates the soundtrack, marking the onset of Sebastián’s new role as ritual dancer.
He tries moving around and ... ... begins to dance, albeit stiffly, moving backwards away from the camera.
The camera tracks back slightly and tilts down to move a boy into the front of the frame. He admires the mask, as do… … more onlookers, taken in by a long pan left. At least to these young inhabitants of the ayllu, Sebastián’s personal identity has now been subsumed to that of the community. Here ends the sequence shot of some 80 seconds’ duration.

The rights and wrongs of these arguments are beyond the scope of this essay. What interests me here is rather the way in which the integral sequence shot combines a (perhaps essentializing) notion of the nature of “the people’s internal rhythms” with a political will to place the collective empathy deriving from the instinctive recognition of those rhythms at the service of social change. As I have outlined above, it does so by rejecting a Western realist narrative tradition that converts time and space into fragmented units of exchange, replacing it with what we might call an “Andean realism” that both idealizes and normalizes Aymara time.

The cinematography and editing of La nación clandestina spatially integrate “historical actors’ into the topography of the altiplano:a technique much used throughout the Ukamau Group’s films. In the same way, as I observed above, the film’s narrative structure knits Sebastián’s personal journey into the wider, mythologized journeys of indigenous and national history in Bolivia. As Sebastián walks back to his ayllu Willkani, earlier episodes of his life are narrated via flashbacks, in which his personal experience as an acculturated Aymara cuts across recent Bolivian history. The Ukamau Group had already made wide use of flashbacks in Yawar Mallku (1969), but according to the group’s own self-critique, that film’s temporal structure responded to the rhetorical requirements of dramatic tension: a classical technique in which editing is employed to manipulate the plot’s presentation of story time.

In La nación clandestina, the transitions between the narrative “present” and “past” are not marked by the fades or dissolves that would denote a temporal disruption in classical cinematic narrative. In classical cinema, flashbacks “are usually motivated as mental subjectivity, since the events we see are triggered by a character's recalling the past” (Bordwell and Thompson 2008: 91-92). However, Bordwell and Thompson explain, these moments of subjectivity are most commonly subordinated to an overarching objective narration. In Sanjinés’ 1989 film, in contrast, the “past” sequences appear less as prompts that add historical depth and subjective insight to a narrative, objectively-narrated present. They exist rather on an even epistemological footing as the “present” scenes,[21][open endnotes in new window] as equal parts of a temporal sphere constructed around Sebastián’s psyche, which in turn slips in and out of synch with the memorial time of his ayllu.

This formal strategy is foreshadowed in the opening sequence when Uncle Tankara, a village elder, proclaims that

“our past comes back to the present. It is the present. We live in the past and present at the same time.”

From its outset, then, the film lays out, in a schematic and didactic fashion, the multi-directional nature of Andean time that is to frame the Ukamau Group’s aesthetic of national redemption in La nación clandestina. In Andean (Quechua and Aymara) thought, the categories that Western rationality separates out into “time” and “space” are encapsulated within the broader cosmic category of pacha.[22] Accordingly, in La nación clandestina, the temporal device of the flashback is deeply linked to the spatial implications of the “integral” sequence shot.

After Sebastián has been discovered embezzling North American aid money as community leader, the six-minute sequence from his capture, through the community meeting and up to his final expulsion, contains just three cuts. Actors, cinematographer and editor use space through 360 degrees. After Sebastián is rounded up the camera spins right round on its axis to establish a new plane of action as it accommodates the gathering crowd. The hand-held camera hovers at the edge of the group of villagers as Sebastián is dragged to the front, remaining in long-shot as various speakers move forwards from various angles to air their views. The camera paces around the edge of the group and crosses the centre circle as the speakers shuffle in and out of shot. It approaches one speaker to move him into medium close-up at the right-hand edge of the screen, with Sebastián standing at the opposite edge. The rest of the screen is filled by the crowd, which looms in the background but occupies centre-stage and is clearly visible in deep focus. As the villagers argue over the traitor’s fate the hand-held camera establishes its point of view behind the speakers. But a cutaway to Sebastián’s wife, mother and brother joining the meeting flips the plane yet again to the opposite side of the axis, opening up a further field of space to reveal yet more villagers looking on in the distance. The camera integrates itself into the crowd to the extent that it appears to encompass all the available space.

There is no deconstructive suggestion here of a “lacking” or absent off-screen space or time; there is no possibility for a narrative “outside” of the action we are shown. Unlike the distancing effects used in some of the Ukamau Group’s previous films, La nación clandestina is seeped in the mythologized idea of Andean spatio-temporality as a permanent, immutable cycle: a notion that bleeds into the film’s formal structure. The spatial dynamics of the integral sequence shot described above, in which the unseen (offscreen space) is constantly re-integrated into the frame, can in turn be read as a metaphor for the management of time in the film’s plot as a whole. Time is constantly reframed throughout La nación clandestina in order to incorporate both Sebastián’s personal perceptions of history, as an urbanized Aymara striving to recuperate the values and memory of his ayllu, and the great events of national time.

The point here, though, is not that this spatial and temporal integrity is static, discrete and holistic. Rather, the community’s progression towards the future depends on a simultaneous and redemptive return to a past, following the Andean sense of nayrapacha (discussed above). Sanjinés draws here on the common cinematic figure of the returning exile who redeems both himself and his homeland through a renewed connection with his origins. La nación clandestina, though, does not seek to dislocate or interrogate the yearning for the homeland in the style of many of the “accented” filmmakers discussed in Hamid Naficy’s (2001) study of exilic, diasporic and “ethnic” cinemas. Rather, Sebastián’s ultimate rediscovery of a forgotten ancestral dance is to be conceived as a symbolic and political act of progress: indeed, the trope of Sebastián’s recuperation of the Jacha Tata Danzante itself stands as a narrative metaphor of the entire film’s spatio-temporal dynamic. The integral sequence shot thus reflects the notion that lived time is both historically unchanging and integral, and engages with ongoing processes of social upheaval.

Sebastián is now flanked by his fellow ayllu members as his dance gathers pace. The camera edges backwards to bring more villagers into view, giving us an impression of the scale of the parade.
As the figures approach us they are framed more tightly… … and their ruanas swirl by in extreme close-up as they move on past. The camera has now nearly come to rest in the midst of the parade, slightly reframing down and left to bring the remaining villagers into view.
A group of spectators come last, mostly women and children. The pipe and percussion music fades into the background… … and competes once more with the swirling wind, as the dog brings up the rear.
 
The camera swiftly pans right as they leave the village, set against the austere scenery and harshly contrasting colours of the altiplano landscape. The sequence shot ends after just under a minute.  
A cut creates a temporal ellipsis, moving our perspective to an extreme-high angle, a bird's eye view, with the dance continuing in the valley below. The camera pulls further and further back, first bringing into view additional villagers looking on… … and then converting them into barely-perceptible specks on the majestic Andean landscape.

If La nación clandestina in some respect narrates the clash between indigenous and non-indigenous histories, the Andean conception of history as a cyclical repetition of an organic process (rather than a Western march towards national progress) is embodied in one of the film’s visual motifs. As Sebastián is ousted from the ayllu, a high-angle extreme long-shot frames him from a mountain ridge, being carried slowly on the back of a donkey across the vast altiplano below. A steep tilt up reveals that it is from Sebastián’s point-of-view (in the present, journeying back to Willkani) that we have been observing this scene. Many of the film’s “flashbacks” end with a similar shot, and it becomes clear that Sebastián’s personal past exists within his own present as he undergoes the long process of atoning for his wrongdoings.[23] In La nación clandestina’s final sequence, though, individual identification is cast onto the broader plane of a communal, trans-historical indigenous consciousness.

After his performance of the Jacha Tata Danzante brings Sebastián’s death, his funeral procession is framed in a slow, baleful extreme-long-shot before a closer shot then pans and tracks across the mourners as they walk past. The camera comes to rest on the last mourner in the group: Sebastián himself. He stops and watches the ceremony proceed; the frame freezes in medium-close-up and the credits roll. In observing his own funeral Sebastián completes his personal journey of self-consciousness, of realising his individual role both as a vessel of indigenous cultural memory and as an agent of Bolivia’s national renewal. Executive producer Beatriz Palacios found that this message struck a chord among viewers at the film’s premiere in Sucre (Gamboa 1999: 241). But in transcending the narrative “now” of his lifetime, Sebastián also acts as an organic spiritual presence informing and renewing the cultural and political memory of his community.

The film’s abiding image, I would argue, is not so much that of Sebastián perishing just as his compañeros return from their concrete political struggle alongside the miners, but rather that of them bearing aloft Sebastián’s corpse which comes to embody the reactivation of Willkani’s collective oral, visual and ritual memory. On a broader allegorical level, Sebastián can be taken here as an incarnation of the new national subject that might offer an alternative to Bolivia’s slide into neoliberalism.[24] Given that the integrationist revolutionary nationalism of the post-1952 era had been falling into obsolescence for some years by the time of La nación clandestina’s release, Sebastián's cultural renewal of his Aymara community seeks not so much to renew the MNR’s co-optation of the indigenous for the national project, but rather to re-align the national project along the lines of Aymara culture.

La nación clandestina’s integration of Andean thought into film form, of course, has its limitations. We might reasonably object that the entire theoretical basis of the integral sequence shot derives from a reworking of realist cinematic aesthetics that foreground visuality: an originary property of both cinema and photography that is steeped in a colonial logic of surveillance and control (Schiwy 2009: 87-90). If reality is to be “aimed at,” in Bazinian fashion, the film in some ways does not quite get there, in the same way that Sebastián himself can watch from a distance, but no longer participate in, the material progress of his community. The indigenous appropriation of visual technology would thus seem to be incomplete. The space that separates Sebastián from the ongoing struggle that his compañeros conduct at the end of the film is analogous to the space that separates the symbolic or metaphorical realist aesthetic from the reality it documents.

Andean structures of thought and social struggle, then, do not entirely permeate film form in La nación clandestina. Rather, the indigenous presence is used strategically and didactically in order to signal an alternative path for Bolivian nationhood as a whole: a theme mantained in the Ukamau Group’s two later works Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995) and Los hijos del último jardín (2004). After all, the essay “El plano secuencia integral,” which I have discussed at length here, emphasizes from the outset that the Ukamau Group’s cinema is no longer mainly for the consumption of Andean indigenous peasants. It is equally intended to open the eyes of Europeanized highland mestizos for whom “centuries of Aymara and Quechua thought have infiltrated their being in spite of their own racism” (Sanjinés 1989: 65).[25] Yet La nación clandestina’s failure to envisage currents of thought that decenter the question of the national altogether, means that the film’s stance of national redemption has in some senses been rendered outdated as a critical discourse.

The fact that La nación clandestina works precisely on the level of nationality leaves it open to the critique of masculinist national redemption voiced by Geidel in relation to Yawar Mallku and cited above. Geidel argues that a similar patriarchal mode of “nationalist redistributive politics” is currently embraced by the government of the Aymara president and former cocalero leader Evo Morales, and contrasts it to contemporary “post-statist feminist scholars,” who consider the issue of territory in conjunction with that of female and indigenous autonomy (Geidel 2010: 782-783). Despite coming to power in 2006 thanks to a great extent to popular mobilization, Morales’ subsequent government has attracted criticism for marginalizing the decolonizing logic of pachakuti, and for allowing a destructive “mestizo mediation” to frame indigenous struggle within an instrumental and centralizing vision of national rebuilding (Rivera Cusicanqui 2011: 72).[26]

Even so, La nación clandestina remains of great interest both in terms of aesthetic accomplishment and as a provocative political statement that challenged the guiding logic of mainstream politics of its day, proposing an “indianizing” of the public sphere even as Bolivia forged its new model of (neo)liberal, “pluricultural” democracy. It remains, though, far more than a statement of political intent. Still regarded by many as one of the best films ever produced in Bolivia, it stands as a film that asks the viewer how far he or she is able to identify, on both a rational and an emotional level, with Sebastián’s voyage in which collective history, indigenous struggle and subjective identity are closely intertwined.

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