Juan Pablo Urioste adds an eye for the decorative elements of indigenous culture and history.

The isolation of President Villaroel in the Palacio Quemado is emphasized.

The film focuses on several generations of indigenous rebellion: here, that of Bartolina Sisa and Tupac Katari in the late 18th century.



Insurgentes: the slight
return of Jorge Sanjinés

by Keith John Richards

Insurgentes (2012) marks a homecoming for Jorge Sanjinés, once exiled geopolitically by implacable political enemies but more recently estranged, and for more enigmatic reasons, from the thematic current most readily associated with his work. Since A Clandestine Nation in 1989, Sanjinés had only skirted the radical indigenism with which he made his name and which characterizes his best films. This tendency was a part of the militant New Latin American Cinema that offered a response to the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 70s. In the case of Bolivia, and the Ukamau Group of which Sanjinés was part, it took the form of a cinematic practice conceived as directly concerning popular interests and involving the relevant groups and communities, as the filmmaker explained in Theory and practice of a cinema with the people.[1] [open endotes in new window]

This notion of popular participation in filming envisaged close identification between the filmmaker and a marginalized subject in its address to audiences in both urban and rural spheres. The ideal was to obtain prior consent and subsequent contribution, particularly from the indigenous communities that were the specific focus of Ukamau’s films. This is best expressed in Sanjinés’ late 60s output; Ukamau (And so it is, 1966) is less ideologically-informed than his later films, but a sense of outrage is already visible in its story of the rape of an indigenous woman by a mestizo landowner. The Courage of the People (1971) tells of a notorious massacre of miners, while Blood of the Condor (1969) with its denunciation of the covert sterilization of indigenous women, resulted in the expulsion of the U.S. Peace Corps from Bolivia. Both films were made with direct participation from the communities concerned.

On the one hand, it is gratifying to see Sanjinés returning to what he does best – direct political commentary – after dabbling in allegorical and poetic approaches with To Hear the Birds Sing (1995) and Children of the Last Garden (2004). On the other, Insurgentes is a somewhat patchy and unsatisfying return to the territory once graced with the above classics. With the almost ubiquitous shift in Bolivian cinema to an urban context, this may well be the last film of its kind.

That this film appears at all is partly a reflection of the sea change that has occurred in Bolivian society: to champion indigenous rights is now to inhabit the political mainstream, however contradictory the ostensibly indianista position of the current MAS (Movement to Socialism) government may have become. The coca workers’ union leader Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidency at the second attempt in December 2005, since when his administration has faced numerous challenges from the right, particularly in the form of secessionist threats and gestures from the peripheral areas of the country (mostly Santa Cruz, Sucre and Tarija) that semi-surround La Paz. However, the government has also faced charges of corruption and become too close to corporate interests, above all Brazilian, for the likes of many of its supporters. Almost exclusively hostile media coverage exacerbated the situation, but at one time paradoxically helped create the image of Evo as martyr. But MAS has still contrived to fritter away much of the goodwill it once took for granted in a string of pratfalls and scandals. The famous knee-jerk (literally) to the groin with which Morales felled an opponent on the football field in 2010 only added to his flesh-and-blood credibility. There have been far more serious problems, though, such as the series of scandals involving Santos Ramírez, the man once groomed as Evo’s successor, and the state petroleum company YPFB. Despite such setbacks, the MAS government still has little serious opposition and will probably prevail at the next election.

The premiere of Insurgentes illustrated the paradox. It was held, not in the municipal Cine 6 de Agosto (saved and restored by popular demand and at government expense) but in the incongruous surroundings of the recently-built Megacenter, a capitalist cathedral located in La Paz’s wealthy Zona Sur, with Evo and Vice-President Álvaro García Linera in attendance. Evo’s and Álvaro’s arrival, and their passage among the gleaming SUVs and domestic appliances on offer to greet a purportedly revolutionary film, seemed to sum up this government’s quandary: a radical posture and defiant discourse confounded by craven obeisance to external economic forces. The Morales government has, from the outset, taken a defiant attitude to the US, seeking alternative trade links such as China and, more controversially, Iran. However, the government refuses to acknowledge any validity in the opposition to its plans to build a road through the lowland indigenous sanctuary and national park known as TIPNIS, a move that would benefit the highland peoples who form much of the MAS power base. The decision to open TIPNIS to a trans-continental road development has had a deep impact on Evo’s erstwhile supporters, who see the government’s refusal to even receive the delegation that had marched for over 60 days to La Paz as a moral abdication. Instead, the government has run TV ads describing inhabitants of TIPNIS as impoverished and in need of ‘development’ – even linking them to the secessionist movement centered in the east of the country that attempted to bring the government down during its first few years in office.  MAS has largely squandered the support generated during its inception, and during those beleaguered times, and made itself enemies even in much of its rural indigenous power base.

Thus Sanjinés finds himself, late in life, in an unaccustomed position – as an establishment figurehead, after so many years in varying degrees of opposition to political authority. The very construction of Insurgentes can be largely seen to reflect the official position. The film, indeed, was largely funded by the Morales government. Indeed, the lukewarm response received by the film perhaps reflects the cooling of support for Evo, whose lamentable refusal to accept indigenous opposition flies in the face of his avowed stance as champion of native rights. If Insurgentes has meanwhile been seen by substantial numbers of people, this might be due to the undeniable importance of Sanjinés and his work. This position seems to be echoed in Sanjinés’ concentration on Andean highland rebellion; the lowlands are mentioned, briefly, on only one occasion.

Juan Pablo Urioste’s excellent photography ensures that the Andean landscapes are fully exploited for their dramatic potential while the film takes a diachronic view of successive and to some extent repetitive conflicts marking Bolivian history; the early 20th-century execution of the indigenous rebel Zárate Willka, the lynching of left-leaning president Gualberto Villaroel, the last 18th century rebellion of Julián Apaza and Bartolina Sisa, the Water War and Gas War at the dawn of the new millennium, etc; all these are visited as stages in an inexorable process of native liberation. This progression is, however, so familiar to a Bolivian audience that it suggests the film is primarily for export, to garner support abroad for Evo’s increasingly embattled position. Why else has it taken so long to produce a film that supports the government position, and why have the communicational and potentially militant possibilities of cinema not been used here as, for example, in Cuba? Support for television and educational media has, similarly, been minimal.

Insurgentes is an occasionally schematic trawl through Bolivian history, exclusively from the Andean indigenous viewpoint, with only the merest element of fictionalization. Its most successful elements are, indeed, the conscientious reconstructions of historical events, with acting kept to a minimum (an exception being the notable Reinaldo Yujra, known for his Sebastián in Sanjinés’ tour de force, The Hidden Nation). Other historical events, though inherently dramatic, seem stilted and overplayed: the death of President Villaroel at the hands of a mob inflamed by propaganda from the Right is one example, while the execution of Zárate Willka could have been more effectively portrayed with a less redundantly Manichaean treatment. The feeling that this is a film intended for export is backed up by the visual metaphor, late on in the film, of the president in a rising cable car passing the aforementioned rebels on their way down. Insurgentes conflates the current process with its perceived precedents, but overlooks flagrant inherent contradictions on the way.

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