Poster of The Clandestine Nation (1989) depicting the main character, Sebastián Mamani, played by Reynaldo Yujra.

Ukamau (1969) -- Sanjinés’ first feature film, which shows the struggle between Indians, mestizos, and landowners in the Bolivian highlands.

The Courage of the People (1971) reconstructed the1967 historical events that ended in the massacre of mineworkers and their families during the traditional June 24th celebration of the night of San Juan.

The Principal Enemy (1973) uses a collective protagonist, Brechtian distancing, and political radicalization.

The Flags of Dawn (1983), co-directed by Sanjinés and his wife and closest collaborator, Beatriz Palacios, is a documentary about the transition to democracy in Bolivia in the years 1978-1983.


Blood of the Condor (1969) represents a turning point in Sanjinés’ aesthetics. It shows social and political struggles through the story of a family in an Indian community. The title is a metaphor for the agression against the Indian communities, which the film depicts as being caused by U.S. imperialism (sterilization of Indian women without their consent) and the Bolivian state (no blood available in hospitals for a wounded Indian).

The Clandestine Nation:
Indigenism and national subjects of Bolivia in the films of Jorge Sanjinés

by Leonardo García-Pabón
translated from the Spanish by Maura Furfey

In a speech delivered on receiving honors from the mayor of Cochabamba in 1991 (July 19), Jorge Sanjinés (1936- ) emphasized contemporary Bolivian society’s strong racist and discriminatory traits. The speech should not have surprised any who knew his cinematographic work, which is essentially political and also the most serious in Latin America in approaching indigenous Andean cultures. New in his speech was a slight allusion to class struggle in describing the Bolivian situation (clearly times have changed) and a vocabulary referring almost exclusively to a nation’s construction rather than revolution. Sanjinés spoke as follows:

Far off is the construction of an organic nation, without discrimination, racially and socially integrated, in which all the people participate in the mechanisms that generate decisions; this would be a society that watches out for everyone without emotion, furnishes justice and protection to everyone, and prides itself in each person and may not be ashamed of anyone. Certainly that nation is still distant.1

Sanjinés’ speech, denouncing racism in Bolivia, essentially calls its listeners to reflect on what it is to be Bolivian or who is Bolivian. This question always seems tedious and disturbing within a society where every effort of the dominant classes to forge a “civilized” nation rests on contempt for the indigenous.2 This preoccupation for what and who is Bolivian in the framework of Bolivia’s racial and cultural conflicts comprises the essence of Sanjinés’ film, The Clandestine Nation (La nación clandestina,1989). However, the movie has a much more complicated narrative than simply denouncing racial, social, and economic injustices.

Sanjinés’ film-production up to The Flags of Dawn (Las banderas del amanecer, 1984) ended what the critic Carlos D. Mesa called the filmmaker’s stage of political radicalization, a stage that started with The Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971). Unlike that film, The Clandestine Nation returns to certain characteristics of And So It Is (Ukamau, 1966) and Blood of the Condor (Yawar Mallku, 1969). Notable shifts here include the reappearance of the individual protagonist in place of a collective one; the abandonment of the techniques of Brechtian distancing, in which the presence of a narrator sets the stage for the events, as in The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, 1973) and Get Out (Fuera de aquí, 1977); and the use of documentary techniques as in The Flags of Dawn.3 These changes imply the coming together of the two stages of Sanjinés’ work, those from before and after The Courage of the People.

Although Sanjinés’ cited lecture is distinct in his tone to his own previous declarations -- for example, those in his book Teoría y práctica de UN cine junto al pueblo -- his intellectual and aesthetic position is still as political and committed to socially marginalized groups’ interests. In The Clandestine Nation, Sanjinés displaces the narrative tension previously dealing with the external conflict between indigenous community and state power (including US imperialism) toward delineating the effects such conflict provokes inside the indigenous subject. In other words, denouncing the “principal enemy” has not dropped from Sanjinés’ political scene, but The Clandestine Nation now analyzes and reveals that enemy as shaping individual behaviors. Likewise in aesthetic terms, the director’s abandoning certain techniques does not mean his abandoning his basic postulate: a “cinema of the people.” On the contrary, Sanjinés still searches for ways to use a cinema whose language has as its base an “integral-sequence-shot” -- the basic concept of Sanjinés’ aesthetics -- which permits him to reflect indigenous cultures’ visual perception and world view.

The Clandestine Nation, therefore, introduces new elements that indicate Sanjinés’ films’ political evolution and aesthetic maturity. In this sense, the film notably proposes the indigenous community/state relation in different terms. To do that, the film adopts as a protagonist a character doubly-marginalized -- as much by his culture of origin as by an urban westernized world.

Tradition and rupture of literary indigenism

One can better appreciate the importance of The Clandestine Nation in Sanjinés’ cinematic development in the light of how literary indigenism has evolved in the Andean geographical and cultural area. On the surface, Sanjinés’ film-work seems to have few Latin American aesthetic antecedents. Critics have mostly discussed the aesthetic influence of Italian neorealism (Hess) and the political influence of Marxism (Gumucio Dagrón; Carlos D. Mesa). And few other filmmakers have profoundly tried to approach the indigenous world. Yet there is an underlying intertextual referent of Sanjinés’ work: indigenist literature. There are striking parallelisms between indigenist literary works and Sanjinés’ movies.

In this light, Sanjinés’ first two feature films, And So It Is and Blood of the Condor, develop themes and have points of view consonant with the indigenism of Alcides Arguedas and of Jorge Icaza in Huasipungo (1934). Especially And So It Is, which narrates the rape and death of an indigenous woman at the hands of a mestizo in a community on the banks of the Lake Titikaka, has a strong resemblance to Alcides Arguedas’ Raza de bronce (1945), a novel that also narrates the rape and assassination of an Indian woman in a location close to the same lake. From an ideological perspective, both works portray the indigenous people as the victims of abuses by whites and mestizos. Both continue to utilize the colonial metaphor of rape, in which the Indian woman symbolizes the violent exploitation of America and its native cultures. Also, both the literary text and the film resolve the conflict by depicting isolated acts of revenge, which neither bind themselves to the historic origins of social conflict nor open the doors to possible social and/or political solutions.

Perhaps A. Arguedas had a better perception of the historical roots of these conflicts. For example, in Raza de bronce the rape is perpetrated by white landowners, which more clearly indicates the “principal enemy,” while in the movie, the rape is carried out by a mestizo, who only serves the landholders’ power. Also, in the literary text the Indians get revenge through a community revolt, the level of which reflects social and historic tension, while Sanjinés places the revenge at the level of the individual in an incident without many social connotations.

However, Sanjinés does not repeat A. Arguedas ideologically.4 Luis Espinal, for example, writes,

The final fight, with the isolated men in the middle of the Andean high plateau (Altiplano), is a symbol of class struggle. That is the underlying reason why the movie also emphasizes the parallelism between the act of stealing his wife and the act of stealing the fruit of his labor; the rapist and the exploiter are the same person (316).

Although to make the mestizo the representative of a class relies on an inexact generalization,5 Espinal’s criticism aptly notes that Sanjinés raises the implicit idea that economic exploitation is the cause of violence against the Indians; this is better than pretending, as A. Arguedas suggests, that a bad patron causes the violence and that a change in the exploiter’s personality would change the Indian’s condition. For the same reason, the assertion of some critics (Gumucio Dagrón 227; Carlos D. Mesa 85) that And So It Is seems an “arguedian” movie does not take into account that Sanjinés breaks with A. Arguedas at a decisive point, in particular in the way the filmmaker recreates the Indians’ narrative, psychological, and cultural time.

In fact, what distinguishes Sanjinés from A. Arguedas is the construction of narrative time, and not only because the two artists work in different narrative media. A. Arguedas’ novel has a narrative based on action. From a campesino’s descent to the valleys to an indigenous woman’s rape and death, each event provokes others and this chain provides the book’s narrative framework. While Sanjinés also utilizes events in order to move the narration, he constructs a cinematic style that places emphasis on time spent waiting. As Espinal says,

All of And So It Is is a time of expectancy, like an Aeschylus drama, with the profound taciturnity of a campesino who seems to express himself only through his quena [Indian flute] (135).

The importance the film’s narrative gives to expectancy does not derive from an idealistic mythology of Indians, which would portray them as being impenetrable and taciturn while expecting who knows what destiny, but rather waiting represents an important element in Sanjinés’ whole aesthetic project, which tries to understand and transmit the experience of Aymara time. This is unthinkable in the novelist A. Arguedas’ mentality, since he is limited by his class position as wealthy landowner, and is one of the main ways Sanjinés and A. Arguedas differ in approaching the Indian world. In Sanjinés’ film, the narrator’s point of view is partially constructed according to indigenous cultural parameters. In other words, the filmmaker here tries to introduce the Indian not only as an object of consideration, which A. Arguedas and a good part of indigenist literature did, but as a subject narrating the film itself. To do this, in the tradition of Italian neorealism, Sanjinés also integrates indigenous actors in his movies. As a result, Sanjinés’ work does not so much explore indigenous psychology (Espinal 135; Carlos D. Mesa 85) but recreate an Indian subject’s vision of the world.

During the production of Blood of the Condor, such an exploration of Indian subjectivity encountered a decisive moment. An anecdote told various times by Sanjinés and by his scriptwriter Oscar Soria is very significant in this aspect. Sanjinés tells how he was forced to rethink his method of dialogue with the Kaata community where he went to film Blood of the Condor. In the face of resistance from the community to collaborate with “those whites who called themselves Bolivian but who didn't even know how to speak Quechua” (Sanjinés, Teoría y práctica 27), the film crew had to look for support from a community Yatiri or fortune teller. In Sanjinés’ words:

We had come to the conclusion that it was inexcusable to give an indication of humility proportional to the preponderance, arrogance, and paternalism with which the film crew had acted up until now within this ambience in which respect for peoples and traditions was fundamental.
To humble ourselves before the verdict of a jaiwaco ceremony [ceremony of offering and divination] -- which would develop in the presence and under the vigilance of all the members of the Kaata community -- became the best means for not only appeasing the community, but for obtaining its collective participation in deciding the destiny of the work which this group proposed to do and to accomplish it.6

In this way, only after the Yatiri’s favorable verdict could the crew start the filming with the total, extended collaboration of the community.

That which was seeded in And So It Is becomes explicit and determinant in Blood of the Condor. Henceforth, Sanjinés develops a political-aesthetic which, he says, requires the “acquisition of a new, liberated, and liberating language, [which] cannot be born except through penetrating, investigating, and integrating oneself in the people’s culture, which is alive and dynamic” (Sanjinés, Teoría y práctica 32). In the same way as Sanjinés sought the participation of indigenous actors, in his screenwriting he seeks to create a narrator and a perspective constructed out of cultural Indian elements. He understands the need to communicate with social groups without using the strategies employed by “imperialist” means of communication. For the Bolivian filmmaker:

Communicability should not yield to simplistic exigency. In order to transmit the content in its essence and profundity, the creative process itself must be thought through with a maximum of sensibility in order to grasp and find the most elevated artistic resources that would correspond culturally with the recipient. These should also grasp those internal rhythms that would correspond to the viewer’s mentality, sensibility, and vision of reality.7


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