Conversation with Marta Rodríguez

by Dennis West and Joan M. West

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 39-44, 19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

Marta Rodríguez (born 1933) has never been merely an anthropologist or merely a documentary filmmaker. From her first film, CHIRCALES (THE BRICKMAKERS, 196672), to her present work, Rodríguez has always shown herself to be a politically committed, independent anthropological filmmaker who uses documentary to analyze the living and working conditions and the world view of peasants, native peoples, and workers in her native Colombia. The subjects themselves actively participate in the filmmaking process by critiquing the documentarist's depiction of their world as the film is being made. Her documentaries typically take several years to produce because of budgetary limitations and the anthropological research required. Rodríguez' work is not completed when the post-production process is over. Since she is an engaged filmmaker par excellence, she attends to questions of distribution and exhibition so that the documentary is turned back to its subjects, who can then debate the film and better analyze their own situations. Rodríguez, then, like the other members of the New Latin American Cinema movement that arose in the mid-1950s, views cinema as a powerful means to analyze socioeconomic and political reality and as a stimulus to the "lower" classes and marginal groups to better understand and/or to transform their politics and their lives.

By the mid and late 1960s, when work on CHIRCALES was initiated, Colombia seemed on the verge of a sweeping sociopolitical transformation. Several independent guerrilla movements had begun to challenge the traditional power structure, which had long been dominated by the country's two traditional parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. A major challenge to the power of the traditional parties was mounted in the mid-60s by the radical Dominican priest and educator, Father Camilo Torres, who came from the country's upper class. The charismatic Torres in 1965 created Frente Unido (the United Front Movement), which attempted to unite different popular movements in support of a common revolutionary program. When Torres' Frente Unido effort did not receive the support he had hoped for, he joined the Army of National Liberation, a Guevarist guerrilla movement. He was killed in 1966 in his first armed action. The priest-turned-guerrilla Camilo Torres exerted a powerful influence on Marta Rodríguez — both as educator and as a visionary leftist political leader.

All of Rodríguez' documentaries have been made in collaboration with her spouse, Jorge Silva, who was best known as a cinematographer, a career he began after having worked as a still photographer. He died in 1987 after twenty years of distinguished work as a committed documentary filmmaker.

A brief descriptive Rodríguez-Silva filmography follows. CHIRCALES examines the hellish life of a family of poorly paid, non-unionized brickmakers on the outskirts of Bogota. PLANAS: TESTIMONIO DE UN ETNOCIDE (PLANAS: TESTIMONY ABOUT ETHNOCIDE, 1970) is an example of denunciatory cinema. The film documents the genocide of an indigenous group and explores the economic and social causes of the slaughter. In CAMPESINOS (PEASANTS, 1974-76), the filmmakers analyze the violence and exploitation long visited on Colombia's rural population. NUESTRA VOZ DE TIERRA, MEMORIA Y FUTURO (OUR VOICE OF LAND, MEMORY, AND FUTURE, 1973-80) uses fictional elements to explore the magic, myths, and legends of the Indian worldview. AMOR, MUJERES Y FLORES (LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, 1984-89) exposes the dangerous conditions for women workers in Colombia's booming cut-flower trade. NACER DE NUEVO (TO BE BORN AGAIN, 1986-87) offers a moving portrait of two indigent seventy-year olds who must somehow get on with their lives after having lost everything in the landslides and floods triggered by the eruption of the Ruiz Volcano in 1985.

Colombian documentary filmmaker Marta Rodríguez visited the University of Idaho and Washington State University for a week during April 1991. In the course of her visit, the filmmaker was interviewed by Dennis West and Joan M. West. The following conversation draws on that interview and incorporates other remarks made during her stay. This material has been translated from the Spanish and edited by Dennis West and Joan M. West.

Would you tell us about your childhood?

Both my parents were from Colombia's Santander Department. I never had a father figure; my father died before I was born. The person who most influenced our upbringing was our mother, who was a very strong individual. After she got married she had five children, one each year. When she was pregnant with me, my father died unexpectedly. My father had been a successful coffee exporter in Santander, he had a lot of money. My mother came from a poor campesino background and worked as a teacher in a country school.

When my father died, my mother was left with only a small farm on the savanna near Bogota, where my brother and sisters and I grew up. We farmed there for five or six years. Growing up there, I came to understand that nearby there were four or five large ranches where the owners' children had everything. In contrast, right next door there lived campesinos who were very, very poor — almost living in misery. In that way, from an early age, I started to get to know my own country. I discovered that there were enormous economic differences and injustice.

When and why did you go to Europe?

My oldest brother wanted to be a physician, so my mother sold the farm and used the proceeds to take the family to Spain in 1953. Spain was very cheap then, and my mother had obtained from the Colombian government educational allowances that permitted all her children to study in Spain. In Spain at that time Marxism was a forbidden subject in the educational system. It was during the dictatorship of Franco — military men, priests. Everybody else kept their mouth shut. The lives of the Popes — that's what you studied in Franco's Spain. And a little history of economics. After four years of this I grew tired of Spain.

And then?

One of my sisters and I left for Paris to find work taking care of children. That was in 1957. One day at the Sorbonne I met a Spanish workers' priest, Antonio Hortelano, who asked me if I would like to work with him. He put me to work in the La Roquette women's prison, where I actually lived for a year.

And I collaborated with this priest on another very important project — offering assistance to the many poor Spanish itinerant workers who were arriving almost daily from Andalucía. They arrived in Paris very, very poor — with their wives, their mattresses, their earthen jugs, their kids — with all their stuff. There was tremendous poverty in Spain at the time, so many poor Spanish laborers came to France and Belgium to work in the coal mines and agriculture.

This is when I became interested in cinema...

Do you mean because of cinema's potential to explore social issues?

Yes, because these Spanish social problems were so urgent; and I realized that cinema is an effective denunciatory weapon. And because the imagery was so cinematographic.

The train from Spain pulled into Paris at six in the morning, bursting with itinerant workers and their families — I found this scenario very cinematographic. For instance, one woman, who was looking for her husband, showed up with an address on an envelope that just said, "Belgium." She's got five kids, a mattress and an earthen jug. But she didn't speak French. She didn't know how to read, or even how to make train connections.

How long did you remain in France?

My family and I returned to Colombia in 1958 at about the time that Camilo Torres also returned from Europe.

How did the great Colombian priest-thinker-leftist political leader Camilo Torres influence your life at that time?

When Camilo returned from Europe, he began to teach sociology in the National University; and I became one of his students. He also began to organize field-research teams in Colombia, and he requested that I work with one of those teams.

My team went to work in Tunjuelito, one of the barrios on the southern edge of Bogota. Tunjuelito had started as a squatters' barrio populated by migrants who had arrived in the 1940s and 50s. Many of them had fled the political violence and poverty of "La Violencia," which had plagued the Colombian countryside. The houses in Tunjueito were very poor, and the district lacked a sewer system and other public services. This is where Camilo established a community center.

What work did you undertake in Tunjuelito?

I taught six- to eight-year old kids reading and writing on Sundays, because during the week I was taking classes at the National University. Some of these kids appear later in my documentary CHIRCALES. They would show up at school in very bad shape: poorly dressed, often with their hands sprained from having carried loads of bricks, and all covered with mud.

Every Sunday we'd buy the children illustrated books, fairy tales, erasers, pencils, modeling clay. And it was very striking that after school the kids would just carry all these things off with them! That's when I realized how eager these children were to escape from their sad world, a world of absolute slavery. Work was their entire existence.

At what point did your interests shift from social work and the study of social sciences to actual filmmaking?

I worked on the Tunjuelito project with Camilo for three years, until 1961. I had started out in sociology, but I got tired of all the statistics and math, so I switched to anthropology. Besides, native peoples and cultures were starting to interest me.

In 1961 I returned to Europe to study filmmaking because there was no place to study it in Colombia. I enrolled in a program of studies at the Musée de l'Homme [in Paris]. This program offered a specialization in filmmaking, and I was able to study with the maestro Jean Roach from 1962 to 1964. The methodology I learned in this program was very appropriate for the Third World. I was taught as an anthropologist how to use a 16mm camera and a tape recorder. Students learned how to make a film with a very small budget. And we leaned all aspects of 16mm film production.

How did you meet your compañero, the late Jorge Silva?

I returned to Colombia in 1965 and tried to get into filmmaking. There were hardly any film production facilities in Colombia at that time. There was a very rudimentary production for television; they had a black-and-white laboratory. I tried to find help at the university, but without any luck. And that was when I met Jorge Silva, who was to become my spouse.

Until his recent death, Jorge Silva was your partner on all your filmmaking projects. Would you describe his background and interests?

Jorge came from a very, very poor family; his mother is an indigenous woman who worked as a maid in Bogota. Jorge had no father; he was a "natural" child as we say in Colombia. He had little formal education and worked as a bricklayer when he was an adolescent. He did a lot of things to earn a living. Finally he got a job with Associated Press as a journalist and got interested in literature. He was an avid reader, especially of the "Lost Generation," authors like Hemingway. He educated himself through his reading. And there was a very strong cinema club movement at the time, which is where Jorge learned about film.

Would you comment on your professional collaboration with Jorge Silva?

I met him in 1967, and he became my entire filmmaking crew. Our collaboration made us an ideal team. Jorge was a great cinematographer. His camera was lyric, poetic; camera work like this I had very seldom seen before. And Jorge had a great passion for cinema; it was really his life. I never found another filmmaker willing to go off to film indigenous groups for years at a time. No other cineaste wanted to risk her/his life for the sake of making a film "out there with the Indians," as they say. It is impossible to find anybody else in Colombia with Jorge's degree of dedication and commitment to cinema.

Did you and Jorge write the scripts for your documentaries together?

Yes. We did everything together from the very beginning of each project. On each film we first did field work, still photos, and tape recordings; then the elaboration of the script; and finally the filming and the editing. Everything we did together — even production and distribution. Collaborative filmmaking like this was common in Latin America in the 1960s.

How long did the production of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS take?

Four years. It took that long because of the specific methodology we employ.

Could you explain this methodology?

I am an anthropologist, and the film was made as an anthropological investigation. In the lust stage of investigation, we never film anything. The first thing we do is an anthropological survey.

Because of the repression of women workers in Colombia, a very delicate problem is posed for documentary filmmakers. A filmmaker can't just show up and start to film without people asking, "Why are you filming, and what are you going to do with your film?"

First of all the women workers asked to see CHIRCALES to get an idea of our previous work. It is important for working-class subjects to develop some confidence in the filmmakers. This is a long-term job. A filmmaker can't gain their confidence in just a week or a month. The idea is for filmmakers and subjects to get to know each other. The filmmaker must gain their confidence before beginning to film; we're not reporters showing up with a microphone and asking, "Do you work a lot?" "Are you underpaid?" So each of our documentaries has undergone a long production history.

For LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, some of the women we filmed came to my house, looked at the footage on the moviola, and discussed the editing process. As a result, some of them asked to be removed from the film entirely. They were afraid of losing their jobs when the film came out. So our work depends on the participation of our subjects. We only began filming after six months of fieldwork and interviews. This is the same methodology we had used for CHIRCALES and our other documentaries.

How was the controversial LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS funded?

LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS received the support of the Interamerican Foundation, which is based in the United States. But, when they saw the film, they really got upset about it. The Foundation requested that its name be stricken from the credits. They claimed that it was a political film, a propaganda piece. But the principal economic support for the film was provided by Channel Four in Great Britain. Channel Four is great! Really cooperative! Channel Four has given money to lots of Latin American filmmakers to make their films.

Has LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS been shown in Europe?

Yes, the film has already been shown on English television. Also, we toured Germany with LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS; this tour was an effort to denounce pesticides and the chemical companies, such as Bayer, that produce them. The pesticides mentioned in the film are not used in Germany; they are exported to the Third World. These pesticides are given a very special name: "the poor people's atomic bomb."

How did you obtain permission from the flower growers to film their operations?

In general, we sent letters to the growers, stressing the importance of the industry. Thus it was possible to film some of the growing operations. And there was an anthropologist collaborating with us on the film; his father had a flower-growing business. This connection allowed us to film certain activities that we had been banned from filming elsewhere. This anthropologist later requested that his name be removed from the film because he did not like the fact that we were denouncing what was happening with the pesticides.

How many flower-growing operations are there, and what is the nationality of the companies?

There are something like sixty companies — Japanese, German, Swiss, Argentine, Colombian, and American. Many companies have moved in because the land is so fertile and labor power is so cheap. And the cut-flower industry brings a lot of foreign currency into Colombia.

What does a job in the cut-flower industry represent for these women workers?

The women say that they go into the industry thinking that the work will be good, because it looks more appealing than going into domestic service and becoming a sirvienta. A sirvienta is a poor woman from the countryside who works as a live-in maid for families in Bogota. This type of work is very enslaving. Maids don't even receive any type of social security. So getting a job in the flower industry, where they understood they would receive social security benefits, represented a liberation for a lot of these women. The problem was that they did not realize their health would be so damaged by the industry's use of pesticides.

What other types of employment exist for women who live on the savanna around Bogota?

There is very little industry. There are some dairy and cattle operations, but they hire mostly men. Therefore, it is important to the women that the flower industry continue as a source of employment for them. They could get into garment making. And, there is a large ceramics plant that has work for women. However, the degree of air pollution is very high in that plant because clay is the primary material.

There is work for women in Bogota's textile industry. When the women in the flower industry were on strike in the film, women workers in the textile industry were also striking. Both groups of strikers made common cause. In the mills employment is also very bad for women because of environmental and health hazards. The conditions for women workers in Colombian industry are still very difficult.

What health hazards did you document in the cut-flower industry?

The industry has a regulation that the men who fumigate must be rotated every three or four months because the human body cannot be exposed for long to such a high level of toxicity. However, an anthropological study that I've just been reading indicates that the women who sort the flowers suffer the highest degree of toxic poisoning. When the flowers come in, they are loaded with pesticide; and few workers wear gloves. Masks are ill-fitting and sometimes torn. The uniforms are very inadequate. And you saw in the film that knives and forks are simply carried [uncovered] in the workers' pockets. Of course this all depends on the specific companies.

Another problem is children born with genetic defects. The pesticides become concentrated in the mother's milk. There is, for instance, a high occurrence of children born with harelip.

What legal problems and other hassles did you have after LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS was shown?

The growers hate this film. They say that it's all lies, that it's not scientific, that the film was made to eliminate the export market for Colombian cut flowers. They said I was a person with no morals. When I was finishing postproduction of the film in London, the Colombian Embassy accused me of trying to do away with the market for Colombian cut flowers. They copied the film from English television; and the growers began calling and interrogating the women workers who had appeared in the film. For example, the woman who had lost her eye was interrogated; and she became very afraid that she would lose her job.

What positive effects did your documentary have on the cut-flower industry?

We were successful in getting the growers to undertake research concerning the industry's impact on the environment.

What happened at the farm following the strike depicted at the end of the film?

After the soldiers had cleared out all the strikers, the woman who owned the farm liquidated the business. The women workers kept fighting, with the union's help, in order to receive their back pay. The owner paid what she felt like. The workers had also demanded compensation for genetic and health-related problems, but the Ministry of Labor did nothing about it.

Incidentally, the woman waving away the camera at the end of the film is the owner; she had just had her face scratched by one of the strikers.

It is unfortunate that you did not explore the strike in more depth.

This is the problem with working for television. European TV producers only allow you fifty-some minutes for your film. So the coverage of the strike was very limited. In actuality we had filmed the strike over a three-month period. It was much more complex than what we were able to depict in the film. This is a real problem now for Latin American cinema: much of it is being produced by television. The original version of our film lasted ninety minutes; television cut out forty minutes.

Did you personally edit LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS?

I started the editing process with Jorge. Our original cut lasted three and a half hours. Then I had to travel to England and further edit the film with persons who, culturally, didn't know anything about Colombia. It was hard to work with them because they did not know the inside story. It was difficult to finish the film because the British producers insisted on a length of fifty-two minutes or nothing at all. You can tell in the final version that the interviews have been somewhat shortened. This is a problem, when European TV producers meddle in the work of the documentary filmmaker — they want to impose cultural and narrative models that are not ours. That's the problem we had producing this film.

Would you comment on the accusation one woman makes in LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS to the effect that husbands don't work.

Some men work, some don't. But the problem is men have several families [concurrently]. Look, I'm not saying that men are inherently irresponsible. This is a violent society that makes men act in a violent manner towards their own families. Men get bored with the burden of children, and they go off in search of a more comfortable life for themselves. They'll go off with a younger woman, or one who has more money. That happens a lot. Most of the women in the film lived as single mothers with their children.

You have said that each time you finish a film, you give it back to the people who appear in it. What do you mean by this?

We give them video copies for purposes of popular education. For instance, video copies of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS have been used in community workshops on occupational health in order to teach people how to defend themselves from pesticides.

Some critics have charged that while you explore serious socio-economic issues in-depth in CHIRCALES and LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, you offer no solutions to those problems. How would you answer those critics?

In FLOWERS a woman worker exclaims, "This struggle is just beginning!" The solution lies with the unionization of working class people. After CHIRCALES was finished, a brickmakers' union was organized. Many students at the National University saw CHIRCALES, with the result that many people went out to work with the brickmakers: lawyers, social workers, etc. They implemented certain union activities for the brickmakers. And when LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS was finished, we took it on a tour of Germany.

The films, then, initiate a process. For instance, in the everyday world depicted in CHIRCALES, people were very accustomed to the idea of children working. But when these same people saw child labor depicted on the screen, it had a tremendous impact on them. We were able to bring about distanciation and a certain level of analysis. Talk to the Castañeda family [whose members appear in CHIRCALES] today; they now have a very critical vision of the slavery in which they used to subsist.

What do you see as the most important problems and challenges facing independent Colombian filmmakers at this time?

First of all, it's very difficult now to come up with money to produce a film. Years ago, when we made CHIRCALES, it won festival prizes and sold many prints in Europe. Back then Latin American cinema was fashionable in Europe. Nowadays people want to see Eastern cinema [Cine del Este], because it is certainly important; but Latin American cinema has fallen out of fashion in Europe. At least that's what they tell me in France.

Secondly, conditions in Colombia have become very dangerous because the drug traffic has unleashed a generalized state of war throughout the country. To film now in indigenous or peasant areas is practically to risk one's life; fifty-some journalists have been killed in this drug war. In certain regions paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and drug traffickers all operate. Filmmakers have to seek out small spaces [pequeños espacios] in which to work.

How has your approach to your material evolved over the years?

During the filming of LOVE, WOMEN AND FLOWERS, Jorge and I realized that the militant film language of the 1960s and 1970s had become exhausted — it was no longer viable. Jorge suggested that we retain the denunciatory aspect of our films, but that we also look for poetic and magical dimensions. In NUESTRA VOZ DE TIERRA, we undertook "documentalized fiction" [ficción documental]. NUESTRA VOZ DE TIERRA has an entire mythical dimension, and we actually began to use and direct actors. So we were really undertaking fiction filmmaking; we were directing actors.

And in NACER DE NUEVO our language really changes. There is a denunciatory aspect, but it's wrapped up in the poetic and magical dimensions of the protagonist's world. Jorge was always searching for new approaches to our material.

What films and filmmakers have most influenced your work?

I would say the French school, such as Jean Vigo's L'ATALANTE and ZERO DE CONDUIT. Also Buñuel's LAS HURDES, and Flaherty's MOANA and NANOOK. LAS HURDES influenced the editing of CHIRCALES. And Jorge had been profoundly influenced by Italian neorealism.

How has being a woman influenced your filmmaking?

In Colombia in the 1970s a women's movement, influenced by the Americans — women's liberation and all that — became popular. But I have never belonged to the feminist movement. You see, I work with indigenous and peasant groups, and people living in neighborhoods [barrios], whose cultures do not recognize these feminist values. For example, I spoke with an indigenous woman in the Cauca region about creating women's groups, but such groups aren't necessary because a collective culture exists in that region. Women and children are integrated into everything. So I think that these feminist movements, with their American ideology, have not been important to me. I have never been a feminist.

Women's lives in Latin American societies do interest me: the "double day," housework, childcare, economic burdens, and violence against women — particularly those living in poverty-stricken areas. The situation of women in Latin America is very precarious.

Would you describe your future filmmaking projects?

One project is a feature-length film-essay [cine-ensayo] that will recuperate the philosophy of Camilo Torres. This will not be a traditional biography — Francisco Norden has already done that. Jorge and I have filmed twenty years of worker, student, peasant, and indigenous struggles in Colombia. Our sociological-anthropological-political film-essay will draw on our own footage and other archival material to explore Camilo's philosophy and major historical issues such as "La Violencia" in the 1940s and its relation to the violence that plagues our country today.

Another documentary project is already well underway. This is a feature-length anthropological study of the Colombian guerrilla movement; it examines the figure of the guerrilla leader Tiro Fijo and explores the involvement of women and children in the movement. We Latin American anthropologists and sociologists must study the origins of Colombian guerrilla movements. We have to do this not from a leftist nor a militant perspective, which would blind us, but rather from an anthropological point of view.


1. Colombia's deep-rooted tradition of political violence dates from the mid-19th century. "La Violencia" refers to a period from the late 1940s to the mid 1950s or early 1960s during which tens of thousands of Colombians died violently in acts of banditry, local or regional feuds, and a civil war between liberal and conservative factions.

2. Norden's feature length CAMILO, EL CURA GUERRILLERO (CAMILO, THE GUERRILLA PRIEST) dates from 1974.

3. Tiro Fijo (Sure Shot) is the nickname of Manuel Marulanda Velez, the leader of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarians de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC), an orthodox communist guerrilla movement founded in 1966.