Poster for The Courage of the People (1971), in which the Ukamau Group denounces and reconstructs massacres of mining communities in Bolivia from 1942 to 1967. The film was made alongside survivors of the “Night of San Juan” massacre, in the town of Siglo Veinte in 1967. One of them was Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who related her own version of the ordeal in her testimony Si me permiten hablar (1977).
Poster for The Principal Enemy (1973), a film that debates the collaboration between indigenous peasants and leftwing guerrilleros in the Peruvian highlands, using a combination of sequence shots and distancing techniques.
In The Clandestine Nation (1989), protagonist Sebastián (Reynaldo Yujra) travels across the Bolivian altiplano in his rediscovery of ancestral Aymara cultural values.
The Flags of Dawn (1983) documents popular street protests in early 1980s Bolivia, during the transition from military dictatorship to democratic rule.
Get Out of Here! (1977) plays out popular reactions to the collaboration between the military, transnational mining interests and evangelist missionaries in an Ecuadorian Andean community.
In The Clandestine Nation, Sebastián, carrying the Jacha Tata Danzante mask on his back, leaves the city of La Paz as gunshots punctuate the soundtrack.
As Sebastián walks across the altiplano, he encounters a roadblock installed by indigenous protesters…
… and he refuses to help a leftwing militant student fleeing from the army. This scene can be seen as a critique of the mutual incomprehension that has historically divided leftwing and indigenous politics in Bolivia: a problem that Sanjinés’ films have consistently sought to remedy.
In a flashback, set during the Military-Peasant Pact of the 1960s, Sebastián tries and fails to disarm his brother Vicente. Such flashbacks do not serve to build narrative tension, but rather form part of an integral experience of past and present moments from Sebastián’s life.
In a didactic brochure produced for the exhibition of the 1989 Bolivian feature film La nación clandestina (The Clandestine Nation), the Ukamau Group’s director Jorge Sanjinés set out his critique of the Western concept of time. For Sanjinés, Western time
By contrast, his new picture La nación clandestina was steeped in a cyclical Aymara notion of time, in which
The highland Aymara, together with the Quechua, make up the bulk of Bolivia’s majority indigenous population; both groups are concentrated mainly in Bolivia’s Andean west. In drawing on the intellectual heritage of the Aymara in La nación clandestina, Sanjinés continued the Ukamau Group’s deep involvement with Andean culture that dated back more than thirty years.
By working Aymara time into his film form, Sanjinés did not seek merely to conserve or to express an indigenous world-view. Neither were his Aymara protagonists to be seen largely as a privileged revolutionary vanguard for whom cinema might serve as a tool of consciousness-raising and political mobilization, in the manner of his earlier features such as El coraje del pueblo (The Courage of the People, Bolivia, 1971) or Jatun Auka (The Principal Enemy, Peru, 1973). Rather, in the 1989 brochure Sanjinés cast Aymaran temporality as the basis on which to build a new sense of Bolivian nationality, seeped in indigenous morality, democratic reciprocity and environmentalism. Faced with what he saw as a widespread crisis of identity on the part of a symbolically “uprooted” Bolivian people, La nación clandestina was to make the Ukamau Group’s case for
As I will argue in this essay, the ideological posture that Sanjinés adopts here and the formal strategies he develops to express it in La nación clandestina, both based on an idealized conception of Andean cosmology, are problematic in their reworking of European film theory’s discussions of realism. Yet they are also productive aesthetic discourses in the context of late 1980s Bolivian politics.
1989, the year of La nación clandestina’s release, marked the end of the second presidential period of stalwart Bolivian politican Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Paz had first come to power following the 1952 Revolution, when his Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) embarked on a populist program of nationalizing capitalist reform and modernisation of a deeply unequal, oligarchic and in some senses quasi-feudal society. The MNR ruled until 1964, and although the following two decades were dominated by authoritarian military regimes, the post-1952 revolutionary nationalism continued to shape Bolivian politics. During these years the mining and worker sectors provided the base of the left’s continued capacity for radical mass mobilization. Stable civilian rule returned with the democratic leftist presidency of Hernán Siles Zuazo from 1982-1985 (Siles had previously governed for the MNR from 1956-1960). Paz Estenssoro’s 1985-1989 term initiated the onset of neoliberal reform in Bolivia, against the backdrop of the traditional institutional left’s crippling weakness and the general decline of the MNR’s guiding narrative of revolutionary nationalism (Dunkerley 2007).
The short 1980s (from 1982), then, constituted a transitional period from military dictatorship to liberal-democratic rule. These years also saw an ongoing political realignment in Bolivia of the constituencies on which the Ukamau Group’s films had focused, and that had formed a crucial part of their audiences, since the 1960s: mining communities (most explicitly portrayed in El coraje del pueblo) and the highland Andean indigenous populations. The Aymara katarista movement dated back to the 1960s, when it had emerged as a counter-hegemonic ideological force articulated most forcefully by Aymara intellectual Fausto Reinaga, advocating self-determining Aymara political and cultural struggle in opposition to the MNR’s co-optation of Bolivia’s largely indigenous peasantry into its nation-building project. In the 1980s, though, katarismo underwent a process of restructuring that would give way to an electoral alliance between the movement’s moderate wing and the now-neoliberal MNR during the 1993-1997 presidential period. Katarismo’s more radical strain, meanwhile, would prove instrumental in the reconfiguration of the Bolivian political landscape in the early years of the twenty-first century (Albó 1992; Sanjinés C. 2004a; Sanjinés C. 2004b).
As debates over indigenous identity moved towards the mainstream of Bolivian politics, the miners’ historical political clout was fraying but by no means extinguished. The sector fell into crisis during the neoliberal adjustments of the second half of the 1980s. By April 1989, just months before La nación clandestina picked up a Concha de Oro prize during its premiere at the San Sebsatian film festival, protests by redundant miners were in full swing in La Paz to considerable public sympathy. By now, according to James Dunkerley’s account, “there was an increase in talk of the country’s historic debt to the miners, [and] public recognition of their sacrifice” (Dunkerley 2007: 174). Even so, many former miners were turning to the coca trade that served both the legal production and consumption of the coca leaf that was (and is) central to everyday life and ritual in the Andean region, and the illegal production of cocaine that boomed during this decade (Dunkerley 2007).
As several critics and commentators have noted, La nación clandestina in a sense marks a rupture with most of the Ukamau Group’s previous productions, which had been firmly anchored in the direct political contexts in which they were produced:
Although La nación clandestina indeed works on a symbolic, moral and allegorical rather than an immediately political level, both the film itself and Jorge Sanjinés’ comments cited at the beginning of this essay can be read in terms of a concern for a general social splintering in the face of neoliberal reform. They are also symptomatic of a search for a valid oppositional narrative responding to indigenous values at a time when both Bolivian revolutionary nationalism and the Marxist left of which Sanjinés was very much a part were losing currency both at home and globally. In the presidental elections of May 1989 Carlos Palenque’s nationalist and personalist Condepa party stepped successfully into this void: a political movement linked to Palenque`s popular television program La tribunal libre del pueblo (The Open Tribunal of the People) (Himpele 2008). La nación clandestina offers a clear counterpoint to the mass-media appeal of Palenque’s populist mobilization of indigenous ethnicity (Schiwy 2009: 105).
Sanjinés’ “organic nation” can also be read in the context of ongoing debates over the plurinational and pluricultural status of the Bolivian nation, which would be enshrined in the 1994 constitution instituted by the neoliberal MNR/katarista government, and that would take a more radical turn in the following decade under president Evo Morales. As I will discuss in the following section, La nación clandestina is centered around the figure of its Aymara protagonist Sebastian, whose story is cut across but not defined by the immediate political events surrounding him. Because the 1989 picture creates a more horizontal dialogue between indigenous identity and national politics, that film might seem to offer a partial corrective to the teleological vision of political progress that, for some critics, appropriated or eclipsed debates over cultural and ethnic identity in the Ukamau Group’s previous productions. Molly Geidel, for instance, holds that in the case of Yawar Mallku, “even as it condemns [the US model of] modernization, the film reiterates modernization theory’s imperative to transform populations from feminized passive indigeneity to masculine nationalist subjecthood” (2010: 764): a state in which the awakened indigenous subject “finally attains a revolutionary consciousness and returns to lead his people” (778). In the next section I will begin to consider the extent to which a similar critique might be leveled against La nación clandestina and Sanjinés’ broader conception of national renewal in late 1980s Bolivia.
Indigeneity and national renewal
La nación clandestina dramatizes the Bolivian nation as a traumatic ethnic encounter, charting the journey of Sebastián Maisman (Reynaldo Yujra) from El Alto, the Aymara city above Bolivia’s de facto capital La Paz, back to his ayllu (community) Willkani. Sebastián had previously forsaken his Aymara roots to live in the city: like Sixto, hero of Yawar Mallku, at one point he angrily declares “I’m not an Indian!.” His adopted surname “Maisman” is a Hispanized version of his original Aymara surname “Mamani.” Some years later, as community leader, he is discovered embezzling aid money for Willkani from a U.S. organisation. This leads to his definitive expulsion from Willkani. In the film’s narrative “present,” Sebastián embarks on a final return to the ayllu to dance the Jacha Tata Danzante, a long-forgotten self-sacrificial ritual performed in times of crisis by an ayllu member who dances until dying of exhaustion. The film closes with Sebastián dancing the Jacha Tata, just as it had opened with Sebastián as a young boy witnessing the since-forgotten rite.
The plot’s main strand, centred around the disgrace of Sebastián and his redemption through a rediscovery of ancestral Aymara values and traditions, is set against a historical backdrop that encompasses numerous key moments in recent Bolivian history. In the narrative “present,” Sebastián resolves to return to Willkani as bloody military action strikes La Paz. Although the film offers no precise historical reference, Souza (1999: 253-254) reasonably surmises that these scenes are set during the crisis of November 1979, when the brief but vicious fortnight of Colonel Alberto Natusch Busch’s military rule (1-16 November) was succeeded by the vulnerable interim presidency of Lidia Gueiler (16 November 1979-17 July 1980). The Gueiler government, following IMF dictates, delivered an economic package that included currency devaluation and an end to fuel subsidies. In response, the katarista-led CSUTCB, Bolivia’s national peasant union, organized a massive roadblock that paralysed the country’s transportation network and cut off the major cities for a week, provoking violent reactions from both military and non-indigenous civilian quarters (Dunkerley 1984: 249-291; Choque Canqui 2011: 27-28). This is the backdrop against which Sebastián’s story unfolds.
As Sebastián crosses the altiplano by foot, he remembers his own past that is cut across by political encounters and negotiations between the state and the Andean peasantry in recent Bolivian history. In one flashback, Sebastián, employed as a Ranger in the Bolivian military, vainly attempts to convince his brother and father to surrender the arms that they keep to defend themselves and their political rights. This is a clear reference to the Military-Peasant Pact secured by the regime of General René Barrientos (1964-1969): a system of patronage under which the indigenous peasantry pledged loyalty to the army in its fight against leftist subversion in exchange for the government’s guarantee to uphold benefits already gained by the indigenous peasantry such as agrarian reform, and educational and union rights (Dunkerley 1984: 132). Sebastián’s final redemption owes much to his readiness to see the error of having sided with the indigenous peasantry’s collaboration with and co-optation by the authoritarian state. At the film’s close, Sebastián’s final arrival in Willkani to dance the Jacha Tata Danzante coincides with the return to the ayllu of his fellow community members, who bear their dead after fighting in solidarity with their mining comrades during the 1979 crisis. In stark contrast to the Peasant-Military Pact of the previous decade, this strategic alliance between the indigenous peasantry and the miners in opposition to the repressive actions of the military is seen as sowing the seeds of an emancipatory future.
This most crucial scene of La nación dramatizes the conflict between, on the one hand, the folkloric and historical revival of indigenous traditions embodied by Sebastián’s redemption, and on the other, the social and political struggle represented by the ayllu members’ solidarity with the miners. Freya Schiwy has read this dénouement of La nación clandestina as a vindication of the Ukamau Group’s consistent framing of indigenous knowledge “as the time of socialist revolution” (2009: 102). For Schiwy, La nación clandestina ultimately “insists on the primacy of social struggle over cultural revival”:
Schiwy argues that since Sebastián’s cultural redemption separates him from his politically engaged community, and since Sebastián’s ultimate sacrifice remains in the cultural sphere, emptied of any repercussions on the immediate political present, the film “seems to flatten the powerful Andean concept of nayrapacha”: the notion that “the past is seen as a guide for the future” (Schiwy 2009: 98). In contrast, Schiwy holds that nayrapacha is one of the two Andean concepts of time that effectively structure contemporary indigenous video in Bolivia. 
The second concept is pachakuti. Unlike the linear, post-Enlightenment European notion of revolution that implies the progressive institution of a new order, pachakuti implies an epochal shift in which “the present can brew an “other” time, and that time can be at once a future and a re-play of the past”; it means that “a temporal cycle has matured and the time has come for an alteration, an overturning in which indigenous society will recover control over colonised space” (Rivera Cusicanqui 2011: 60-61). Following Schiwy’s argument, the detachment between Sebastián’s cultural restitution of the past and the community’s present-day political struggle prevents the film from being read as an epistemologically-grounded vindication of Andean concepts of transformation.
I agree that class analysis remains at the forefront of La nación clandestina. It is worth noting that in a 1989 essay setting out the formal, technical and philosophical bases of the film’s aesthetics, Sanjinés refers consistently and vaguely to Andean “cosmovision” and “ideology”: not once does he refer directly to nayrapacha or pachakuti. When writing on Andean music, he notes that its structures “obey a group logic, a collective practice, an ideology that prioritises communitarian interests” (1989: 69). There is more than a trace here of the “Inca communism” that the Peruvian intellectual José Carlos Mariátegui had proposed some sixty years previously, which sought to harness a supposed pre-existing communist tradition in indigenous society to promote the goal of a revolutionary national renewal. Sanjinés, then, is far from achieving the effective “decolonization of knowledge” performed by the subsequent indigenous video projects on which Schiwy’s book focuses, which question and offer alternatives to the ideas of nation and revolution. I would argue, however, that La nación clandestina’s narrative structure and its revision of realist cinematic aesthetics equally suggest that in the context of post-dictatorship Bolivia, political action is meaningless if not accompanied by a corresponding cultural revival. Rather than simply subordinating the cultural to an existing model of revolutionary nationalism, I believe, Sanjinés’ 1989 picture can lay claim to a place in the (albeit limited) re-imagining of the Bolivian nation during its transition to democracy, even though some of its underlying philosophical premises might lack precision, and even though it may have been surpassed by later political and audiovisual developments.