The “new” and the “old”
in Bolivian cinema

by Verónica Córdova S.

translated by Amy L. Tibbitts

Towards the end of the 1960s, a group of Latin American filmmakers recognized the existence of common experiences and objectives in their films and they defined themselves as a continental film movement, putting aside differences in forms of production or in aesthetic approaches, and privileging the political themes and positions that they shared.

The filmmaker Fernando Birri, one of the founders of the New Latin American Cinema Movement, defines this commonality with only two words:  human dignity.

“The theme of the dignity of man is still a realistic-ideal aspiration, but when this concept is incarnated in praxis, in the action to rescue the dignity of a man who has been condemned to indignity, then the word liberation appears…If this is valid, then I would say to you that 99% of the works that today have certain value in Latin American production are characterized by this common denominator…All of them, in one form or another, with one language or another, also respond to this concept of liberation politics of the continent and the imaginative liberation of the filmmaker.”[1][open endnotes in new window]

The most legendary representative of New Latin American Cinema in Bolivia is, without a doubt, Jorge Sanjinés.  It is impossible to understand current Bolivian cinema without having the work of Jorge Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group as a reference.  This work, however, is not frozen in time but rather, in its own way, has traversed moments of redefinition, crisis, and rebirth.  The practice of filmmaking cannot be analyzed without taking into account the social, political, and economic context that surrounds its production, and between the year 1969 when Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor)primered, the year 1989 which saw La Nación Clandestina (The Clandestine Nation), and the year 2004 when Los Hijos del Ultimo Jardín (The Sons of the Last Garden)was filmed, many things have changed in Bolivia, just as much in the social as in the cinematographic realms.

In the first place, there has been an important change in the modes of production.  In the 70s, the New Latin American Cinema was just as opposed to Hollywood’s industrial form of production as to Mexico’s comerical industries or Brazil’s auterist films, an imperfect cinema, a cinema that could be made with only

“an idea in the head and a camera in the hand.”

On the level of forms, this cinematographic subversion was characterized by filming at real locations, working with non-professional actors and with not always professional personnel, and by the use equipment that was as light, managable, and cheap as celluloide-based motion pictures permitted.  At the narrative level, a clear poltical objective generated the necessesity to refelct social problems and denounce both individuals and organizations responsible for those problems.   In the words of Jorge Sanjinés,

“revolutionary film does not tell histories, rather it makes History.”[2]

Furthermore, given the political instability and in many cases the clandestine form in which the films from that era were filmed and projected, the Ukamau Group developed during their time their own exhibition and distribution circuts outside of commerical movie theaters, creating an itinerant web of projections in schools, union meeting places, and rural communities.

Lastly, in ideological terms the New Latin American Cinema in general and the films of Jorge Sanjinés in particular, arose the main objective to make film for the people and together with the people.

Today, as a result of the domination of the large North American chains of film distribution and exhibition, it is much more likely that the people would gather outside a movie theater at the premier of a Holloywood blockbuster film, than at the premier of a Bolivian film.

In fact, the word popular aquires various contradictory meanings when it is applied to forms of mass communication.  On the one hand, popular is something that attempts to reach or reaches massive audience’s support; in the sense we refer to music groups or popular fashions.  On the other hand, popular also refers to something that pertains to the people, and that makes the people a protagonist upon reflecting its struggles and problems. In Bolivia there even exists a more pejorative meaning of the popular when referring to something that appeals to a lower-class audience, such as when one speaks about “popular theater” as something other than theater in general. 

In today’s Bolivian film, there are three types of examples of appropriation of the objective of being popular, since only what is popular implies crowds in the movie theater: a last resort to get ticket sales and to recuperate what has been invested in the film.

There are movies that try to be popular in the sense of being commercial, utilizing narrative and formal strategies of Hollywood films with the objective of being

“film of good quality that reinterprets our reality and that, without stopping to be original and ‘ours’ achieves a universal language.”[3]

On the other hand, Jorge Sanjinés’ films continue to fight to be popular in the way they deserve, taking into account how they respond to the people’s needs.  From even a radical perspective, Sanjinés believes it is a contradiction to touch on a Latin American theme using narrative strategies that respond to cultural identities foreign to what is being shown.  Moreover, Sanjinés harshly criticizes those Latin American filmmakers who despite the social and political conditions of the region during the 80s and 90s, saying,

“we have remained too passive, too contemporary, and what is worse, many of us are proposing or making concessions to our films under the deceitful justification that what is most important is ‘occupying screens’, as if the remedy for prostitution is to prostitute oneself!”[4]

There exists a third possibility:  to make popular cinema that appeals to lower or middle class audiences, those characterized a priori as simple, undereducated, and as having vulgar taste.   For this reason, films are made that appeal to this supposed “popular” taste, utilizing a mix of regional archetypes, cultural entanglements and filmic clichés to achieve the support of a “people” upon whom the filmmaker looks down on from above, wanting to please them with the same simplicity and vulgarity used to pejoratively characterize them. 

This desperate search for popularity, in whichever of its connotations, has less to do with an ideological position than with the inescapable need to recuperate at the national box-office at least part of the investment that was used to produce the movie.  Since 1994, when the Fondo de Formento Cinematográfico (Film Development Fund), established by Law 1302 or Law of Bolivian Film, started to work, producers and directors have had access to funding in cash to undertake cinematographic projects.  This financing is, however, a double-edged sword.  The State, through the National Council on Film, lends the producer amounts of up to one hundred thousand dollars for the production of films at a 7% interest rate and with only two years to pay it back. 

The logic with which Bolivian film is “promoted” has brought two disastrous consequences.  The first is the direct destruction of the Fondo de Formento Cinematográfico, since the filmmakers see themselves as constantly obligated to adjusts their payments or to default, which has reduced the fund to the point that it is practically inexistent.  Because of this, filmmakers from new generations who today want to access the fund cannot do so, which means that Bolivian film looses films of potential directors.

The second consequence of the inappropriate form in which the promotion of Bolivian filmmakers has been regulated, is that filmmakers who have obtained this financing are in debt for a number of years, during which they must concentrate on making their payments and, therefore, cannot generate new film projects.  It is because of this other form that Bolivian film also looses potential movies from established directors.

From this situation, one could deduce that the production of Bolivian film—as much the “old” directors as the “new”—have diminished over the last years.  But exactly the opposite has happened, thanks to one final aspect that I want to consider in this article:  the inclusion of digital technology and its consequences in the mode of production and the narrative of Bolivian contemporary film.

Since Jorge Sanjinés premiered Los Hijos del ultimo Jardín in 2004, his first movie filmed digitally, there has been a boom of national cinema not only filmed but also shown in this format.  Between the years 2002 and 2006 we can count 10 feature length movies filmed digitally and 3 feature length movies filmed in digital and transferred to celluloid that have been shown in commercial movie theaters in the country.  If we add to these feature length films those filmed and shown in celluloid during this same time period, we have an astonishing number of 19 feature length films over the span of 4 years, converting this time, by a lot, into the most fruitful period in the history of Bolivian film.

Contradictorily, this period of technological and narrative innovation, and the inclusion of new generations, perspectives, and regions in Bolivian film have come accompanied with a series of crisis in the internal cinematographic market.  The decline in the purchasing capacity of the majority of the population, the access to television, video, and cable, as well as the enormous expansion of piracy of the DVD medium, has provoked a massive closing of movie theaters and independent distributing companies.  As a consequence, there exist greater possibilities to make movies, but the probability of recuperating the production expenses at the box office gets more remote each time.

From the mode of production’s perspective, today there exist in Bolivia many ways to make films.  In the majority of the cases, the films from “old” filmmakers or those who count on support from Conacine (National Film Council) film in celluloid and in professional work conditions, requiring because of that a much higher investment and risk level.  On the other hand, the majority of feature length films from “new” filmmakers made digitally are produced in a mode of production more reminiscent of that from the 60s and 70s: minimum equipment, real locations, non-professional personnel, and in many cases, unpaid.

One could think that the changes in technology mean that we newly have arrived to the era in which film is done with “an idea in the head and a camera in the hand.”  The “new” filmmakers today are united with the “old” filmmakers in terms of passion and the need to make films against all the obstacles, even though their nature has changed over time.  The “old” filmmaker of New Latin American Cinema risked jail, exile, or even life by making a film.  The “new” Latin American filmmakers risk their family’s stability, prestige, and sometimes even their shirt.  I remain doubtful if the motives have also changed.  The “old” filmmaker made films to change History.  Why does the “new” filmmaker make films?

I prefer that each of them (us) answer this question as individuals. 

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