X-ray of a city

by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron
translated by Dan Wohlfeiler and Julianne Burton

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 6-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

The highest capital in the world lies at the bottom of an open abyss in the Bolivian altiplano. From the heights of the overhanging cliffs, it resembles a fairytale city with its miniature pastel-colored skyscrapers at the center. At the upper edge of the surrounding high plateau and along the riverbed live the poorest inhabitants, pushed away from the center by new settlers who occupy it like a reconquered fortress. In the city's lowest sections, the wealthy live in neighborhoods named Calacoto, Obrajes, La Florida, Irpavi and Achumani. Only 2400 feet from top to bottom, this urban abyss contains the entire spectrum of races and classes.

Few themes so tempt the filmmaker as charting the topography of a city — La Paz (known to the Amara Indians as Chuquiabo or Chuquiago) — drawing a curve which matches the social stratification patterns. The theme lends itself in very plastic terms to establishing the inverted relationship between geographical and social levels.

City planners in the past few years have concluded that La Paz is really two cities in one. The first, a marginalized city, removed from the center of power, hangs on the edge of the altiplano. The second, modeled after European metropoli, turns its back on the rest of Bolivia. Nevertheless, officially recognized or not, this is where the country's destiny is decided. Power rests in the hands of those who control the center of this urban crater.

In a sense, CHUQUIAGO (1977) has a precedent in BLOOD OF THE CONDOR (1969) by Jorge Sanjinés. (Antonio Eguino, CHUQUIAGO's director, was in fact the cinematographer for the earlier film.) BLOOD OF THE CONDOR also developed its analysis through the various characters, although instead of the social classes of La Paz, the film dealt with imperialist penetration through birth control in rural areas. Still, the parallels are striking. Ignacio, the peasant who arrives in the city in Sanjinés' film, corresponds to Isico in CHUQUIAGO. Sixto, the young worker in Sanjinés' film, corresponds to Johnny in Antonio Eguino's. And the bourgeois neighborhood which Sixto traverses looking for medicine for his dying brother is where Patricia lives in CHUQUIAGO. Whereas the middle class is absent in BLOOD OF THE CONDOR's analysis, U.S. imperialism is the missing component in Antonio Eguino's film.

Eguino wanted to produce an "x-ray" of La Paz through four vignettes, each one concentrating on a character who represents a different social class. Dividing the film into four segments also permits greater control of the material, avoiding the errors which characterized Eguino's first full-length film, PUEBLO CHICO. [1] CHUQUIAGO avoids the technical and "grammatical" errors of the earlier film as well; its quality is beyond reproach. The photography is superior to that of many recent Latin American films; the editing is much more fluid and confident than in PUEBLO CHICO.


In the first episode, a young campesino is taken by his parents from his home near Lake Titicaca and brought to the city. They apprentice Isico to an elderly lady, a beverage vendor in the marketplace, whose task is to teach him Spanish, since he will not get ahead in this Europeanized city speaking only Aymara. Almost upon his arrival, Isico succumbs to the temptation to visit the belly of the monster. He descends into the city, walking around wide-eyed, until hunger finally lulls him to sleep in some corner. He is rudely awakened by some "winos," who remind him that he won't get anywhere sleeping in the street. He takes a job as cargo boy in the marketplace. Without concealing its pessimism, the segment concludes with the assertion that he has no other future than carrying bundles on his back until the day he dies.

Its simplicity, the humor and warmth of certain scenes (like the one of the street vendor hawking palm oil shampoo "imported directly from the United States"), and the boy's moving character all make this episode sure to please and sure to salve the "indigenist" conscience of the audience. Juan Miranda's photography is daringly effective, with several difficult but well realized movements, not the least of which is the breathtaking first view of La Paz. Rather than painting an exclusively negative picture, the episode always maintains a certain balance. When, for example, mischievous boys provoke Isico and take advantage of his "greenness," another boy befriends him. The market women, though they exploit him, treat him in a loving, motherly way. Isico does not speak; he merely lets himself be carried along by daily events and, at most, registers a sad, resigned expression. That air of resignation pervades the film.


Johnny, in the second episode, is a bandit, a pícaro. Son of a bricklayer, he rejects his humble origins. He knows all the ways of the city, except those which will permit him real social mobility, hence his frustration. In his alienation, Johnny is drawn to the idea of a trip to the U.S. — a trip which, in his eyes, provides the certainty of achieving real social status.

Meanwhile, he makes desperate efforts to rub elbows with the petty bourgeoisie. He whitens his face with talcum powder, puts on his best shirt and tallest shoes before inviting Martita to the movies. He takes English lessons as if to hasten the moment of departure from the environment he hates, that of his own class.

When his father reproaches him at the dinner table for not working and for being ashamed of being a worker's son, Johnny replies that he doesn't want to turn out like his father — so exploited that even twenty years of work haven't enabled the father to buy a pair of shoes. The snapshots he receives from a friend who has already visited the United States and a travel agency's newspaper ad convince him that he must get cash by whatever means. He decides to rob the house of the parade marshal the day of the Lord of Great Power Festival. [2] Having imprudently stood his friends to a treat on the stolen money, he very quickly finds himself in a jail cell, being beaten by a police agent who feels no hurry to make him "sing." His family has to post a considerable amount in bail. Upon his release, Johnny discovers that the office where he bought his ticket to the U.S. has been closed for fraud. The second episode ends with this double frustration and no alternative in sight.


Carlos, or Carloncho, protagonist of the third episode, is a public functionary, a bureaucrat — but an exceptional one. Characterized by his excellent sense of humor, his ingenuity and spontaneity, he resembles Vittorio Gassman in a comedy by Dino Risi. Not only does his charm separate him from the gray “norm," but it reverses the reaction that the film supposedly sought in the spectator. Thus, the criticism of bureaucracy is turned into an ingratiating story in which the viewer identifies with the character who should have appeared most sinister but who, through David Santalla's charismatic acting, becomes instead witty and full of life.

Like the other episodes, this one narrates a frustration, portraying a character at the moment his life is cut short. This segment, however, differs from the others in that it begins with that frustration, taking for granted the total absence of alternatives — or indicating, perhaps, that the only real alternative is death.

Carloncho is already dead when his story begins. Subsequent plot developments reveal that he died upon leaving a brothel called “Little Chuquiago” at the end of a lively "Friday night out with the boys." [3] Despite the implied tragedy this is the most comic of the four episodes. It begins with the wake and ends with the funeral. Successive flashbacks reveal Carloncho at home with his family, at work, and at various nightspots. When his wife reproaches him for squandering on his "night out” the money his family needs to survive, he turns a deaf ear, defending himself with a phrase that many spectators have found justifiable: "My Friday night out with the boys is the only thing in life for a public employee." The audience is invited to "understand" the bureaucrat's plight.

At the office, Carloncho uses his infinitesimal power base to "take care of business" for influential people like Señor Cáceres, a bridge to the fourth episode. His fellow bureaucrats are corrupt and mediocre, manipulative and irresponsible. The files whose pages don't disclose hidden bills accumulate in piles which reach the ceiling.

The filmmakers chose the sequence with Carloncho and his friends in the bar, belting down glasses of "the blonde who never betrays you," to introduce the theme of politics into the film. Carloncho takes out a picture of himself with "the Chief" (who else but Paz Estenssoro?) [4] and launches into a revolting demagogic speech while passing out bills to his friends in imitation of his hero. This allusion to the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement)[5] seems gratuitous and out of place. Such handouts evoke General Barrientos' [6] career, but it is, of course, easier to ridicule the fallen civilians than the military who remain in power. In fact this film, which purportedly "tells things like they are," simply omits the military altogether.


The fourth episode is clearly inscribed within a political framework. Politics create the principal contradictions within the class dealt with here — the bourgeoisie. The character who serves as a vehicle for these contradictions is Patricia, a young woman with mildly revolutionary inclinations. Only a year before, she tells us, she "didn't think of anything but eye shadow." Later at the university she "became aware." She discovered that in Bolivia, "the dogs of the rich eat better than the poor."

Patricia's family belongs to the dynamic industrial bourgeoisie, friendly with the U.S. and confident that it owns the country. While the dispossessed characters act markedly insecure, resorting to subterfuge in order to survive, the members of the bourgeoisie conduct themselves with the confidence and authority of those who wield control over the political and economic apparatus. Patricia, sensitive and determined, feels herself pushed from one extreme to the other. Her feelings, which she believes sincere, push her toward university activities to the extent that these allow her to feel involved with the country's problems. The film depicts the university in turmoil, with demonstrations and repressive counter-attacks.

At home, Patricia's family subjects her to pressure and wants to marry her off to a young businessman. Her uncertainty soon becomes obvious. She feels more strongly tied to her family than to the university because she has an emotional rather than ideological bond to the latter.

She doesn't reject her bourgeois upbringing, nor does she perform, away from the university, any concrete activity that would allow her to break out of her bourgeois mentality. With one foot in the university and the other in the living room of the bourgeoisie, Patricia does not get very far. Her marriage to Toto signifies her unconditional concession to class pressures and the abandonment of her ideals. During the time in which this evolution takes place, the film nevertheless succeeds in presenting some parameters of the modus operandi of the bourgeoisie: e.g., the scene of prizes being awarded to artists and poets offers a clear allusion to private entrepreneurs promoting a certain style of art through events like the Biennial of Bolivian Painting.


Four episodes, four characters, four defeats. What then is the film’s objective? The director explains: We do not pretend to produce a cinema which gives the solution to all problems, but rather a cinema which verifies existing reality. But verifying reality is an ambiguous concept. Does one verify only the effects, or the causes as well? CHUQUIAGO registers the effects — certain effects. If this were a more complete portrayal, more consistent with national reality, within ten or twenty years Bolivians would be able to recognize from this film the times we are living through. However, so many years do not have to elapse in order to realize that the film will not fulfill this function. The contextualizing political framework is completely absent. The film depicts the causes" as if that framework were irrelevant to them.

CHUQUIAGO is, then, more of a photograph than an x-ray. The latter would have tried to uncover the profoundly complex nature of the problems addressed in the film. The former merely satisfies itself with portraying a parcel, which has been roped off from a complex totality whose reference points are essential.

The film tells us little of the situation after the military takeover in 1964. It makes no mention of the military itself. Certainly the director is partially correct when he explains that, given the political repression when they made the film, they could not be more explicit. Above all, he rightly advocates the production of films that people can see in, Bolivia, rather than those predestined by the grace of the censor for European audiences. This is an obvious reference to the films of another Bolivian, Jorge Sanjinés, but Sanjinés' films, in fact, prove that opportunities do exist in any dictatorship. We must remember that UKAMAU and BLOOD OF THE CONDOR were produced in the thick of the Barrientos dictatorship — a regime as anti-popular as that of General Banzer. [7] The first film provoked the closing of the Bolivian Film Institute, then under Sanjinés' direction; the second was banned for several hours until pressure from journalists and the university forced its release.

Antonio Eguino has not wanted to rely on that pressure. Nor would he take certain political risks, which, due to the nature of the film, are tantamount to economic risks. It is difficult to produce an explicit cinema, one that shows the causes of alienation, of inequality, of repression if one depends upon funds lent by the local banks. Antonio Eguino knows of the limitations this imposes, and his audience can verify them in CHUQUIAGO as in PUEBLO CHICO.


The publicity campaign for the current film centered around a poster which presented CHUQUIAGO as an x-ray of La Paz's social classes. The design, a graph, depicts four levels and identifies them with the four characters, making them a priori representatives of the four social classes. The poster asks to be read like a chart that hangs at a hospital patients feet or above a factory boss's desk. In a plot summary, the filmmakers themselves wrote that due to the topographical characteristics of the city, altitude determines the social class, as if it were enough to move to Calacoro to become part of the bourgeoisie, or to go to the top of El Alto to become proletarianized. Of course, altitude does not determine social class, but it so happens that the economic possibilities of each social category predestine it to a specific section, a specific neighborhood. The lowest zones are the most comfortable. Water, electricity and public transport, more accessible there, favor the development of these areas, while the difficult access of the same services in the peripheral zones further — excuse the redundancy — marginalizes the marginalized.

Critics who have reviewed this film have, perhaps precipitously, identified each character with a class: Isico is the peasantry, Johnny the proletariat, Carlos the middle class and Patricia the bourgeoisie. Close analysis of what each character represents, however, leads us to the following conclusion. The only social class represented with any breadth is the bourgeoisie in the story of Patricia. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the filmmakers know this class better than any of the others.

Despite Isico's origins, he cannot represent the peasantry as a class. On the edge of the city, he has left behind what made him a peasant  — working the land. Since mode of production determines class, Isico is simply another marginalized city-dweller. As for Johnny, only with great difficulty could we assume that he represents the proletariat. His father is a bricklayer, which already implies a special category within the working class. It isn't the same thing to be a bricklayer as it is to work in a textile factory, for example. Even if we accept Johnny's father as a representative of the proletariat, we still have to take two things into consideration. First, his role in the film is small. Secondly, he appears not as a worker but within a family situation, which reveals nothing but his exploited condition. As Johnny says, the father does nothing to escape the economic oppression in which he lives. The worker whom the film presents as Johnny's father is isolated from his class and his fellow workers. That man affirms his identity through, for example, his pride in the Aymara language, but he also seems to want to turn his poverty into a cultural asset, as if misery were a class privilege. To some degree, he defends his exploitation. Clearly, if Johnny's father does not represent the proletariat, Johnny — a class renegade — can only be less representative still.

We come now to Carlos, who supposedly represents the middle class. The most complex social class (in our country as well as in any other), the film reduces to only one of its components: the bureaucracy — or rather, a caricature of bureaucracy through a character who seems to be a refugee from an Italian comedy. Do we recognize the real bureaucrats of La Paz in the character of Carloncho, or is he simply a fiction?

The only faithful class description turns out to be the fourth segment. Unfortunately, the acting, the music (schlocky at best), the clichéd pretentiousness of certain dialogues, and the sketchy portrayal of some of the characters make this episode the least gratifying. Nevertheless, it is the only one which encompasses all the contradictions which can exist within a class. The three previous segments showed different levels of social marginalization. This one shows a class in a moment of crisis, which we can situate historically beginning with Che Guevara's guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1967. The film shows the university as the border territory contested by two rival bourgeois tendencies  — one nationalistic, the other foreign-looking. Instead of fleshing out this presentation, the characters help to gloss over the issue, reducing it to a few sketchy brush strokes. It is unnecessary to make Patricia so unstable that she abandons all of her ideas overnight. Antonio Eguino says, quite rightly, that he couldn't make Patricia the only positive character, since that would have been tantamount to giving the bourgeoisie a vanguard role and a lucidity which it does not possess in confronting the problems of the nation. After denying that role to the proletariat, minimizing its importance, the film had to make Patricia's story end badly as well. Patricia, however, not only ends "badly" but also starts out that way. Never fully aware of the contradictions which pervade her own development, she indecisively flutters from one side to another. Tellingly, she accepts with equal passivity the kisses of Rafael, the militant student, and Toto, scion of the ruling class.

Following the filmmakers' line of reasoning, there is something that does not fit in the development of these characters, revealing a certain special consideration for the bourgeoisie. If the first story is about a peasant boy, the second a bricklayer’s teenage son, the third a middle-aged bureaucrat, then the fourth should have depicted an old bourgeois (male or female) who would have served to symbolize the decrepitude of that ideology. The image of a young and beautiful girl (however insipid the acting) provokes sympathy for her, so that the ending — her betrayal and her return to the flock with ceremonial pomp — becomes incomprehensible. One questions the effect that this episode has on the audience. Isn't the bourgeois raison de classe in some way justified when confronted with the confusion and childishness of the university agitators? Isn't it symptomatic that, for example, to accompany the sequence where the police invade the university, the filmmakers chose music which recalls the arrival of the cavalry (against the “redskins”) in a Hollywood Western?

One begins to understand: the true danger lies in the film's ambiguity, because it can he interpreted from many different angles, according to the viewer's ideology. This ambiguity derives from the director's intention to suggest a series of questions while avoiding overly precise formulations which might provoke “institutional” reaction. But in the end this works against the film.

It has been said that the various social classes see themselves in their respective episodes. The bourgeoisie, then, must recognize itself in caricature. But acceptance is not the same as questioning either themselves or the problems evoked in the other episodes. The social categories remain as separate as oil and water. Divisions within the film are not purely formal; they transcend the real, profound class separations within the same city. To the extent that a viewer from a given social category is not familiar with other social categories, the film will not offer the parameters of a profound reflection on the others' situation. The film merely proposes to “verify" on celluloid what the viewers from La Paz verify in person every day of their lives.


What does CHUQUIAGO represent for Bolivian cinema? It represents an attempt to produce an intelligent, high quality national cinema. These very qualities, combined with the film's honesty, are the reason we can examine it with such severe scrutiny. We wouldn't write with as much respect about the commercial cinema — much of it in very poor taste — which other Bolivian filmmakers have produced in recent years. Filmmaking in Bolivia, Pedro Susa writes, is as difficult as "building a Camaro in one's garage."

In CHUQUIAGO, Antonio Eguino has taken care not to jeopardize the film's technical quality. In fact, he has made the most expensive Bolivian film ever, the "most costly super-production," as the advertising announced, "with the participation of the greatest stars of national stage and screen." Eighty-two thousand dollars was invested (PUEBLO CHICO cost $50,000), and the production company had every intention of getting it back. Weeks before the film's release, a publicity campaign unprecedented for a Bolivian film announced its imminent arrival. From the very first stages of production, stills appeared in the cultural sections of the local papers. The publicity can account in part for the long lines in the first days after its release, but the persistence of those lines has no other explanation than the film's high quality.

More than 250,000 people bought tickets, breaking the records of JAWS, CANTINFLAS, and all other box office hits. The film's success equaled that of the biggest European attractions on European soil. For example, the biggest recent hit in France is EMANUELLE, with five million viewers after several years of uninterrupted showings. Eguino's film has an even greater proportional success if we consider that the rate of movie attendance per capita is four times greater in France than in Bolivia. Many Bolivian viewers saw the film more than once; otherwise this record could not have been achieved. Furthermore, this is the official figure, representing the actual number of persons who paid for tickets, and cannot be inflated as in the case of films distributed in non-theatrical circuits. Thus, even before the bank loans fell due, the Ukamau Production Company could pay off its debts.

In the framework of national filmmaking, the “super-production” creates new problems. From now on it will be impossible to make "artisanal” cinema [8] as in the past. New films, striving after the some success, will be expensive and will tend to create a national film industry. At first glance, this may seem a move in the right direction, but it offers no guarantee of quality. In countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and more recently Colombia, where filmmaking has been turned into a business, a source of profit, we could count the number of good films made in the last decade on the fingers of one hand, while commercial films of dubious taste and workmanship number several hundred.

Another danger lies in the industrial growth of Bolivian film. It will impose high standards of technical quality and "professionalism” against which independent producers — because of their limited resources — will not be able to compete. This has already happened in other countries where the film industry has pushed film art aside. Films with social or artistic content will remain marginalized or reduced to "poor cousin" status — if not simply ignored, or persecuted. Once a film is stigmatized as "marginal," the production apparatus ignores it and condemns it to equally marginalized audiences, because distributors also close their doors on the pretext of its "artisan-like" quality. This is already occurring in Bolivia, where black and white films inevitably lose compared with new color films, even with disasters like EL EMBRUJO DE MI TIERRA (MY BEWITCHING LAND).

In a few years, the situation will look like this: films like those of Jorge Sanjinés, which are the very essence of Bolivian cinema, will remain marginalized due to their rudimentary technique, the lack of well-known actors, etc., while stupid, pseudo-folkloric films will end up comprising Bolivia's official film output. And of course, there will be no place for Super-8, unless some famous director decides to make use of it, as has happened in the U.S. and in Europe.

Against this bleak horizon, Antonio Eguino's film looms an important exception. One can only hope that the Bolivian film industry might produce films of the same quality and honesty. But nothing can guarantee that the new productions will follow in these footsteps. Instead, we must be prepared for dozens of films like MY BEWITCHING LAND. The extrinsic elements associated with "super-productions" will accustom still unformed audiences to artificially grandiloquent films. We are about to pass from a spare but solid period — that of Sanjinés and Eguino — to a purely commercial one which will undo all the accomplishments of our first internationally-known filmmakers. Bolivian film, though still in its infancy and admittedly small, is considered abroad to be of high quality. This state of affairs cannot last if we continue to create this absurd division between industrial and “content-oriented" cinema. We must reject this false and artificial split.

When CHUQUIAGO opened, Bolivian critics stressed its positive qualities, downplaying its negative aspects. The film merits this consideration because, despite its hesitations and ambiguities, it constitutes a huge step forward. But it is a film which also deserves an exacting analysis, that much more profound considering that it marks the beginning of a new era in Bolivian film. We can only hope that this new tendency parallels and complements the tradition of political and social film established by Jorge Sanjinés. It would be unfortunate should these two tendencies act in opposition to one another, thereby ceding ground to a third, purely commercial trend.

Antonio Eguino can count on 250,000 viewers — and perhaps even more — for his next feature length film. This film should definitively establish his place in national film tradition — either as a spokesman for the bourgeoisie, a partisan of class conciliation, or a sensitive filmmaker committed to solving the complex of problems currently facing his country.


This article was originally published in Semana de Última Hora, LaPaz, December 22, 1978, on the occasion of the film's re-release in Bolivia. Since then, after a so-called "deadlock" in the national elections, the military staged a coup and initiated a regime of terror and repression. The author of this article, Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, has had to seek refuge in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, and a letter from him is reprinted on p. 39 as our editorial.

1. For an account of this film, see Erich Keel, From Militant Cinema to Neorealism: The example of PUEBLO CHICO," Film Quarterly, 19, No. 4 (Summer 1976), 17-24.

2. La fiesta del Señor del Gran Poder, a nominally Catholic holiday traditionally celebrated with a procession featuring pre-Colombian costumes, music and dance.

3. Literally translated, "bachelor's Friday."

4. Victor Paz Estenssoro, leader of the progressive National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), was brought to power in 1952 through the machinations of his party, which coincided with a widespread popular insurrection against the ruling conservatives. Compelled by popular militancy to implement agrarian reform, universal suffrage, nationalization of mines and industries, he retained power for more than a decade but was overthrown in a 1964 coup d'etat engineered by his own vice-president, General Rene Barrientos.

5. A progressive party with a broad popular base, in power from 1952 to 1964.

6. Vice-president under Paz Estenssoro, General Rene Barrientos seized power in a military coup in 1964 and set about reversing all the advances of the previous government, with support and encouragement from the U.S.. Miners' salaries were cut in half. Protests ended in massacres of workers by the army, the most famous of these being the 1967 "Night of San Juan" massacre which Sanjinés reconstructed in THE COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE (1971). It was under Barrientos that the Bolivian army, with help from U.S. military "advisers,” tracked down and murdered Che Guevara. Barrientos himself met with a violent death soon afterwards when his personal helicopter, a gift from the U.S. military, crashed.

7. General Hugo Banzer seized power — again, by military coup d'etat — in August of 1971 from the progressive General Torres, under whose government a Peoples Assembly had been formed. The Banzer coup split the Ukamau filmmaking collective: Jorge Sanjinés and Ricardo Rada, in Italy doing postproduction on the Italian-financed THE COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE, were not allowed to return to Bolivia. Antonio Eguino and Oscar Soria, who had remained in Bolivia, decided against voluntary exile. Eguino was jailed for a time in 1974 for having a print of THE COURAGE OF THE PEOPLE in his possession.

Banzer's repressive regime lasted until 1978. Its demise was precipitated by a hunger strike organized by five miners wives on behalf of a general amnesty for political prisoners.

8. A term frequently used among Latin American filmmakers to connote the antithesis of film production in an industrialized setting with concomitant economic and technical resources. The analogy compares independent filmmakers in the underdeveloped countries of Latin America to the small-scale artisans or craftspeople who personally perform all the tasks necessary to the production of their product.

CHUQUIAGO is distributed by Unifilm, 419 Park Ave South, NYC, 10016; and 1550 Bryant Ave., San Francisco, CA 94103.