by William Alexander
Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 45-48
As intellectuals in capitalist societies, we come mainly from the bosom of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, Jorge Sanjinés wrote in 1978,
And as Cuba's Tomás Gutierrez Alea reported in 1973:
Fernando Solanas, the Argentine filmmaker, elaborates:
As these and other Latin American filmmakers understand it, Latin American intellectuals have a colonized mentality. Their background, education, culture, and economic status are bound to the dominant ideology and characteristics of western capitalism. That is, they are bound to individualism in all of its ramifications, to consumerism, to international economic arrangements which serve their interests as members of a small elite, to indifference to native culture and traditions, and to willed ignorance of the suffering of others. Decolonization, then, becomes an essential psychological and political process for those intellectuals and artists who wish to participate in the revolution or in revolutionary movements. It means eliminating such ideology and characteristics and aligning oneself with national progressive forces and political activity.
Making films as weapons in the revolutionary struggle represents such an activity for the decolonized filmmaker, who in doing so often risks exile or death. But while "decolonization of the filmmaker and of films" will come simultaneously, as Solanas and fellow filmmaker Octavio Getino put it, it will not come quickly or easily. The Ukamau Film Group in Bolivia, Sanjinés recalls,
The Latin American filmmakers who accept this responsibility have two possible audiences: the middle and upper classes from which they themselves originate, the principal consumers of film entertainment; and the workers and peasants who make up the vast majority of most Latin American countries. The first audience is largely urban, accustomed to foreign culture, and upwardly mobile within the local elite power structure. The second audience is more difficult to reach. It often has a firmer grasp of native culture and tradition and thus is more resistant to normal film fare and other colonizing culture. And it also has a key stake in social, economic, and political change. Both audiences are composed of spectators, and in the "continent of hunger" spectators are "cowards and traitors." Therefore with both audiences, the filmmaker's purpose is not to create "understanding spectators," in Miguel Littin's phrase, liberals who despite themselves are collaborators with the enemy, but to transform spectators into actors, or participants in the revolution. In order to bring about this transformation, filmmakers seek an original and an empowering use of language.
First they must analyze the two predominant forms of film language, which Solanas and Getino called First and Second Cinema. First Cinema, which dominates Latin American screens through corporate control of distribution and theaters, is Hollywood and Hollywood-derived film. It has high, often slick production values. It presents a completed world where no serious change is necessary. It celebrates individualism, the consumer ethic, and superficial beauty and behavior. And it denigrates minority, third world, and working class people. Second Cinema is New Wave and related film. It has a subjective, individualistic, "auteur" perspective. It often is less linear than First Cinema, more fragmented, disruptive, and thought-producing. It is more likely to expose social problems. It attracts liberal and progressive intellectuals. But it seldom addresses the politics of change.
The language of both First and Second Cinema undermines any attempt at revolutionary content. A purpose of First Cinema is to pacify thought and subdue the will, while revolutionary art must lead to praxis, to action based upon reflection. And, in Solanas words,
Having rejected the language of First and Second Cinema, Latin American filmmakers find numerous resources for a new language, that of Third Cinema. The speech, environment, experience, culture and behavior of workers and peasants themselves become one resource; filmmakers like Sanjinés, Solanas and Getino, Littin in Chile, Marta Rodriguez and Jorge Silva in Colombia, and Federico García in Peru have worked in solidarity with peasant and worker communities to shape films that represent their struggles. A second resource lies in the hidden history of a country — in struggles, massacres, and victories of the past either not recorded or distorted in the schools and in history books. Littin's PROMISED LAND, Sanjinés' COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE, and Sergio Giral's THE OTHER FRANCISCO are but a few of the films that defy traditional history and historical language. And a third resource lies in the aesthetic of imperfection, that is, in the idea of film still in process, reflecting a society still in formation, opposed to the complete, complacent, perfected society and form of dominant cinema. Solanas and Getino's THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES ends with an appeal to the audience to add further stories, letters, and ideas to the unfinished film, which is an instrument of the unfinished struggle.
I would like to examine closely two films made in radically different parts of Latin America. Jorge Sanjines' and the Ukamau Group's THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY was filmed in Peru in 1973 during the relatively liberal military regime of General Velasco, but nonetheless under pre-revolutionary conditions. In such conditions in most of Latin America, movie theaters are under corporate and governmental control; more or less stern political censorship laws exist; filmmakers receive little if any subsidy; and filmmaking costs are nearly prohibitive. Even in the best of circumstances there is little or no support for film critical of the status quo.
On the other hand, Tomás Gutierrez Alea directed MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT in 1967 in revolutionary Cuba. There the Cuban Film Institute is subsidized by the government; the role of the filmmaker is to support the ongoing revolution; and Cuban-made films have complete access to all theaters. Cuban filmmakers understand the significance of this difference. Gutierrez Alea finds it "valuable to an extent" that elsewhere in Latin America there is
Yet, he says, the "cultural struggle must also be waged and won on the commercial screens." This is impossible, however, in a class society, where
Humberto Solás, another Cuban director, distinguishes filmmaking's functions in the two situations:
Although both in the Andes and in Cuba, First and Second Cinema's language remains problematic and potentially counterrevolutionary, the advantages and goals of Cuban filmmaking permit Gutierrez Alea in MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT to adopt the language of Second Cinema. Under his control, it becomes a language of decolonization, a powerful resource for the revolution.
MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT is stylistically very sophisticated. When the bourgeois anti-hero Sergio and Elena visit the late Ernest Hemingway's house outside Havana, Sergio thinks to himself,
Towards the end of the film, as Sergio becomes increasingly isolated while his compatriots mobilize during the Cuban missile crisis, he snaps off the head of a precious glass rooster. The viewer may make the connection: suicide stands as a probable option for Sergio. In the pre-credit sequence, a counter-revolutionary assassin shoots someone during a Carnival street dance, then moves quickly away through the crowd. Later in the film, the assassination is shown again, and we briefly catch a glimpse of Sergio moving through the crowd in exactly the same manner and position as the assassin had earlier and, like the assassin, wearing glasses. We also note the subtle parallels between the rape sequence with Elena and the tape recorder sequence with the voice of Sergio's wife, Laura, who left for Florida. We are challenged by the mix of documentary and fiction footage and by the puzzle of who narrates the documentary scenes. We link the camera's roving over the expensive objects in Sergio's apartment with the later camera's scanning Hemingway's possessions. And we appreciate the use of subjective camera and the constant isolation of Sergio in the frame.
Caught up in this sophistication of language, many of us in this country easily agree with Elena's declaration that Sergio is neither revolutionary nor counter-revolutionary, but simply nada — nothing. And thus we have a portrait of a sensitive existentialist anti-hero, unattractive, perhaps, and clearly out of step with his time, but someone recognizable, someone we may even half identify with. However — and the susceptible Cuban viewer knows this — Elena is wrong. Sergio is not just nothing. He is, for one thing, a rapist. He knew the effect his clothing, style, and status would have on Elena; and after the trial brought by Elena's family, he confesses to himself that he is not innocent.
He is also a racist. After Elena leaves his apartment following her second visit, he pictures her in comic poses and patronizingly sketches her as a typically underdeveloped Cuban woman, inconsistent and incapable of maturing. The scene shifts, as he talks, to show women, especially Afro-Cuban women, in the streets of Havana. Later, when he refuses to answer Elena's knock at his door, his television screen carries a Cuban Film Institute documentary called NOW, a powerful Santiago Alvarez short on racism in the United States. Sergio also has a class prejudice and despises the "darkened minds" of Elena's working class family.
And he is a sexist. Gazing at women from the walk above a swimming pool, he remarks to himself,
Immediately we see a Film Institute documentary on Marilyn Monroe, singing, "Baby, I'm through with love," followed by a newsreel showing "the provocations of military personnel and counter-revolutionaries exiled" on the Guantanamo Marine Base. Sergio has a narrow attitude, one which echoes those that helped destroy Marilyn Monroe. His machismo is counter-revolutionary. In contrast, Gutierrez Alea consistently shows the Cuban women Sergio is unable to notice: the powerful freeze frame of the Afro-Cuban female dancer in close-up under the credits, and shots of women militia walking in pairs during the mobilization for the missile crisis.
Finally, in some sense, Sergio is a murderer. If not the assassin himself, he stands as an accomplice or unresponsive witness to a counter-revolutionary assassination. He is not nada. He is a dangerous counter-revolutionary.
The Bay of Pigs prisoners sequence provides a philosophical base for my accusation. As we see newsreel scenes depicting gusano prisoners and Batista, his police at work, and wealthy Cubans, Sergio reads in voice-over from Leon Rozitchner's Moral burguesa y revolución, which he had picked up at a bookstore. The sequence has an intertitle — THE TRUTH OF THE GROUP IS IN THE MURDERER. Sergio finds that
Among the prisoners is the murderer Calviño, from whom the others erroneously disassociate themselves, failing to "recognize themselves as part of the system which entangles them in their own acts."
Sergio here, at some level, recognizes his own complicity, both in the pre-revolutionary period and now in 1963 in the U.S.-paid group that spread hunger, sickness, torture, and frustration over Cuba and that would do it again. Although he did not physically murder anyone, his current mode of existence and his indifference to the suffering of others under Batista have permitted murder to take place. He is responsible. His attitudes and behavior continue to perpetuate values inherent in the old system and would facilitate its return.
Sergio needs decolonization. And seemingly so does Edmundo Desnoes, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based. Seen in MEMORIES at a round table on Literature and Underdevelopment, Desnoes correctly brands U.S. treatment of Latin Americans racist, but still an Afro Cuban subordinate carries out minor functions in the background. Jack Gleber, also on that panel, helps us see that the panel members' elite phrases equal disengagement and that the panel's structure itself is undemocratic, perpetuating the panelists' own elite intellectual status. Panelists Desnoes and Gutierrez Alea openly acknowledge their own lingering colonization, their likeness to Sergio, their potential for counter-revolutionary language. As Julianne Burton has pointed out, and as Gutierrez Alea confesses indirectly in an interview, he and Desnoes
Yet Gutierrez Alea's appearance in the film, as a filmmaker acquaintance of Sergio, seems less compromised than that of Desnoes. Although friendly to Sergio, he screens for Sergio First and Second Cinema clips censored under Batista, clips which repeated over and over reflect Sergio's fixation on women as objects of sexual prey.
Gutierrez Alea, then, disasociates himself from the colonized behavior of Sergio and does so by using Sergio's own language. This is my key point. Gutierrez Alea has chosen to work within his own language structure — that of the middle-class intellectual — for he seeks an audience of such intellectuals, especially those who remain dangerous spectators of the Cuban Revolution. He hooks them with Second Cinema, a subtle film language that appeals to their sophistication, and through it enables them to see themselves for what they are. Here then is one use of film language for empowerment, for changing some spectators into actors in the revolution, and for further isolating those who will not change. By his own process of decolonization, by becoming hyper-aware and hyper-critical of his own class-based language, Gutierrez Alea can use that language to undermine others who still use it to perpetuate their privilege.
This language use would affect relatively few in pre-revolutionary countries, for where one is rewarded for maintaining privilege, such films will seldom catch the conscience. Although MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT has provoked useful discussions among alert and conscientious viewers, it remains true that by far the majority of the audience, as Solanas suggests, will celebrate the film for its beauty and sophistication. They will argue brilliantly over its meaning. And they will settle upon Sergio as an existential anti-hero. The film may well have functioned differently abroad than in Cuba. According to Gutierrez Alea,
If the audience in other countries merely admire MEMORIES for its cinematic brilliance, such film language may play into the hands of he status quo, as Sanjinés also points out. And it is to Sanjinés that we now turn to see another use of film language for empowerment.
Their eyes and ears were struck, in Sanjinés' words, by the sights and sounds of misery that demanded a response. Nonetheless, the Ukamau group "had to learn slowly what the responsibility of the artist and intellectual was." Their first films showed the misery of Bolivian peasants, miners, and urban slum dwellers. Quickly enough, however, the group realized that at best these films reminded the middle class attending city theaters that malnourished and mistreated people existed in the same city, in the mines, and in rural communities. Projections in the mines and slums taught the filmmakers that the people themselves knew their misery better than the filmmakers and did not need such films. What the people wanted instead was to know the causes of their poverty, the system of exploitation behind it, their enemies' names, and the means to combat those enemies. Having committed themselves to making films for the oppressed majority of the country, Ukamau took the lesson to heart.
BLOOD OF THE CONDOR, a fictionalized expose of the Peace Corps' sterilization of peasant women in Bolivia, was their next step. It indicted the principal enemy, United States, for imperialism. Although the film beautifully respected Indian peasant culture, and although it helped effect ejection of the Peace Corps from Bolivia, the relation of film and filmmakers to the peasants remained, Sanjinés says, vertical. Screenings in peasant communities taught the filmmakers that the narrative method of parallel stories, including one told through a series of flashbacks, was incompatible with native narrative tradition. So too was a plot built around individual protagonists and traditional suspense. The problem did not entail the peasants' ability to comprehend. It reflected a failure on the artists' part to find a film language corresponding to the internal rhythms of the people and to their conception of reality. The aesthetic issues reflected a problem of decolonization.
By ROADS OF DEATH (a film destroyed by accident or sabotage in a German lab), the Ukamau group had turned away from using an individual protagonist to a collective one, for the native Bolivian Quechua and Aymara cultures are collective. The filmmakers went even further in THE COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE, entering into a complete collaboration with the people of Siglo Veinte to reenact the government's slaughter of miners there on the night of San Juan in July, 1967. For the first time with this film, the Group
Yet film language problems remained. Shot composition and editing still corresponded to certain pictorial concepts of western art and were still over-conditioned by the filmmakers' alien perspective. The suspense remained too closely tied to western narrative.
By the time of making THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY, Sanjinés and those members of Ukamau who entered exile with him in 1971 had fully developed a theory of revolutionary film. Revolutionary film meant film united with, made with, the people — cine junto al pueblo. It was not film from outside, but film from inside, made in full collaboration with the protagonists, who gave to it their voices, their culture, the rhythms of their lives, and their ideas. This meant an interactive relation. The films would modify the people, and the people by participating and criticizing would modify the film in return.
Totally rejecting First and Second Cinema language, revolutionary film here deserted the compromised middle class audience for an audience of workers and peasants. Its aims were to illuminate imperialism's economic machinations, to resist imperialism's cultural infiltration, and to empower the spectators by making films in their own language and according to their own conceptions. In opposition to the emotional manipulation of First Cinema, revolutionary film would provoke reflection, yet in order to be effective it would insist on both beauty and emotion. In its Andean incarnation, it rejected individual for collective protagonists. It embraced Indian culture as a key dialectical element in its form and content and in the revolutionary struggle.
THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY opens with the camera moving over the ruins of Macchu Pichu, holding on an old man as he begins the narration, then moving over the ruins again as we hear his voice over:
Not only does the narrator identify and indict the enemy in the beginning, but he tells us, as he will do throughout, what is going to happen. He is a cuentista, a storyteller in the Quechua-Aymara tradition; the cuentista offers a happy solution to Ukamau's problem with narration. In this tradition, suspense over what will happen gives way to interest in how it happens. Our narrator is also a community elder: he speaks with wisdom and makes judgments about the events that take place. His voice, a voice of the community, controls much of the film.
A dialectical relationship between the outsider guerrilleros and the community results in a solidarity in which both learn from each other and resolve to join forces. Native culture becomes a key force in all decisions. Approached by the guerrilleros and asked to commit the community to the struggle against not only the local landlords but also the North Americans who keep them in power, the peasant Gerardo replies,
And a community dialogue between guerrilleros and peasants follows. Two other sequences are linked by a repeated distant camera position altered by a zoom to a medium shot. The first sequence follows a sequence in which the guerrilleros give medical assistance to the peasants. As the camera moves in, we see a group of guerrilleros and peasants listening to the queña-playing of a guerrillero and then of a peasant boy. This leads into several scenes in which the two groups share a ritual, drink, and work together, a series that the narrator concludes, as the camera zooms in on him, by declaring that the guerrilleros are indeed good people. In the second sequence we move from distant to medium shot on the trial of the landlord, another collaboration between the outsiders and the community that respects collective decision-making.
For the first time, in this film Sanjinés rejected the close up and adhered to the long take. Although technical limitations necessitated more cuts than he wished, generally he kept the camera running and at a middle distance. His aesthetic goal was that the community would be seen acting collectively, so that individuals would not be emphasized, and so that the spectator would not be manipulated by the filmmaker and could reflect upon the scene. Only when the collective's interest focused on an individual would the camera move in on him or her. When Jacinta returns to the community with her murdered husband Julian's head, the camera holds at a distance from her, circles and backs further off as peasants come up and cluster around her, then finally moves in, held above the heads of the crowd as they decide to storm the landlord's hacienda.
THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY was filmed in a Peruvian community that had experienced a similar incident; it was shaped by the memories and instincts of the participating peasants. In Humberto Solás's terms, it advocates insurrection when insurrection is appropriate. It is also somewhat open-ended, reflecting the imperfect and incomplete nature of the struggle. The narrator points to mistakes by the guerrilleros, who leave the community exposed to reprisal, and invites further comment on the strategy they have adopted.
Less directly than in MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, we have self-analysis in this film as well. The Ukamau group, like the guerrilleros, enters a community and works with the community to improve conditions and carry the struggle into a new phase. They are outsiders who know and respect the traditions and lives of community members and wish to learn from them. And they also risk exposing the community to the authorities by their presence. The pluses and minuses of the guerrilla presence in Tinkuy probably reflects Ukamau's exploration of its own ambivalence over its method.
Whereas Gutierrez Alea in MEMORIES utilizes the language of the colonized to undermine colonized mentality, he does so in a society where the rewards go to those who join the revolution. In contrast, Sanjinés offers a second road, a road more appropriate to the pre-revolutionary conditions of Bolivia, a road that goes to the people to empower them by adapting their language to the powerful language of film. He carries his decolonization to the point of a kind of class suicide, becoming as a filmmaker an instrument of expression for the peasant and worker. It was not easy, as Sanjinés notes:
But if one changes "relations of creation," it can "lead to a change of content and of form." It means trust, analysis, and a willingness to let go:
In Cuba, people returned time and again to sort out their relation to MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT. In the Andean countries, prints of Ukamau films constantly circulate through worker and peasant sectors and stimulate intense analysis. Both filmmakers have used film language originally as a form of power to undermine the language and politics of the dominant forces and to provoke the spectators into revolutionary praxis.
1. Jorge Sanjinés, "Sobre un cine contra el pueblo y por un cine junto al pueblo," Teoría y práctica de un cine junto al pueblo (Mexico: Cerro del Agua, 1979), p. 76.
2. Tomás Gutierrez Alea, "Presentación y autocrítica en forma de diálogo con Tomás Gutierrez Alea y Raymundo Gleyser," Hablemos de cine (Lima), No. 68 (1976), p. 21. The quotation is my translation, as are all quotations from Spanish sources in this paper. This one I translated from some notes, then discovered when I went to the source that I had skipped a lot of words in my notes; I haven't had time to revise, but the gist is accurate, as is the translating of it.
3. Fernando Solanas, "Fernando Solanas: An Interview," Film Quarterly, Fall, 1970, p. 41.
4. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, "Toward a Third Cinema," Cineaste, 4, No. 3 (Winter 1970-71), 10.
5. Jorge Sanjinés, "La experiencia boliviana," Teoría y práctica, p. 14.
6. Jorge Sanjinés, "Elements para una teoría y práctica del cine revolucionario," Teoría y práctica, p. 46.
7. The phrase comes from Frantz Fanon; it is used by Solanas and Getino in their film THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES.
8. Miguel Littin, "Film in Chile: an interview with Miguel Littin," Cineaste, 4, No. 4 (Spring 1971), p. 5.
9. See "Toward a Third Cinema," op. cit.
10. Solanas, op. cit., p. 40.
11. Tomás Gutierrez Alea, "'Individual Fulfillment and Collective Achievement': An Interview with Tomás Gutierrez Alea," Cineaste, 8, No. 1, p-13, and "Dialéctica del espectador," p. 17.
12. Humberto Solás, "An Interview with Humberto Solás: 'Every Point of Arrival Is a Point of Departure,'" JUMP CUT, No. 19 (1978), p. 31.
13. Julianne Burton identifies the title in her excellent discussion of the film, MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT in the Land of Overdevelopment," Cineaste, 8, No. 1, p. 19.
14. Ibid, p. 17. At the moment I'm not sure where the Gutierrez Alea indirect confession is.
15. Tomás Gutierrez Alea, "Individual Fulfillment …," p. 8.
16. Sanjinés, "Sobre un cine …," p. 77.
17. Sanjinés, "La experiencia boliviana," p. 14.
18. Ibid, p. 17.
19. Sanjinés, "Elementos para una teoría y práctica del cine revolucionario," Teoría y práctica, p. 62, and Sobre FUERA DE AQUI," Cine Boliviano del realizador al crítico, ed. C. Mesa, et al (La Paz: Editorial Gisbert, 1979), p. 159.
20. Sanjinés, Cine Boliviano, p. 162-63.
21. Sanjinés, Cine Boliviano, p. 163.
22. Material taken from throughout Teoría y práctica. See especially pp. 57-8, 78-80, 98.
23. This is a rough transcription of rough notes from the film. [Editor's note: Sanjinés used as his film's narrator a real life, indigenous, peasant-union organizer, Saturnino Quilca, who was featured in a 35mm documentary directed by Peruvian director Nora Izcue. Her film, including the negatives, was confiscated by the Peruvian government and has not been shown there. A print had already gone to the Leipzig film festival and is archived in the DDR. Sanjinés met Quilca through Nora Izcue. Given the narrator Quilca's organizing experience in real life, THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY's reduction of him to a cuentista without mention of that experience, in fact, heightens the importance of the guerrillero-outsiders in the film both narrationally and politically.]
24. Sanjinés, "Elementos para una teoria …," p. 64.
25. In the film he is now making [released at HASTA CIERTO PUNTO], Gutierrez Alea appears to be exploring the limitations of his position. He will portray a filmmaker, a revolutionary intellectual, who wishes to get close to and express working class life. The protagonist has his crew videotape interviews in the wharves of Havana in order to help him understand their reality better and give him the basis for a script. However it turns out that he and his scriptwriter disagree. The latter wishes to penetrate the reality more fully, while the director wishes to use the videotaped reality to make his fictional film. As a result the film is not completed. "Itself mixing fiction and documentary, my film represents a confrontation between the differing class histories, language, and visions of the revolutionary intellectual and the revolutionary worker," said Tomás Gutierrez Alea, speaking at the Third World Cinema Conference, April 28, 1983, New York City.
26. Sanjinés, ibid, pp. 60-61.