Building indigenous video in Guatemala

by Erica Wortham

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 116-119
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

Three years into Guatemala's peace process, Latin America's most prominent Native American film and video festival — the VI Festival Americano de Cine y Video de los Pueblos Indígenas — was hosted in that country. There, presenting an international indigenous film and video festival in the context of a shaky reconciliation process presented many challenges. In particular, just weeks before the festival opened, as Guatemala's left political coalition split and lost the possibility for a popular government, the tentative alliance of Mayan and ladino cultural and communications organizations who took it upon themselves to coordinate the VI Festival Americano broke into pieces.

Despite operating with a severely reduced staff and relying heavily on logistical support from international guests, the VI Festival Americano ran from August 6 to 13, 1999, in Quetzaltenango. It managed to showcase an impressive number of films and videos — the majority indigenous-produced — from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, the United States and Uruguay. Unlike most film festivals, the success of the VI Festival Americano does not hinge exclusively on how many films are screened or large audience attendance. This festival is a political and social project that puts an international, cohesive (if temporary) face on what are numerous "indigenous media" initiatives throughout the Americas.

For almost two decades Indian people have been appropriating audiovisual media in order to "shoot back," as it has been put, positioning themselves as protagonists in control of their own images and stories, and as active participants in the processes that shape their lives and futures. This festival is committed to securing indigenous peoples' access to audiovisual media and promoting their projects' sustainability and visibility. The Festival Americano also engages broader initiatives to defend indigenous peoples' human tights and self-determination movements through declarations and by training indigenous people in the use of video.

The process of media appropriation has often taken place with the support or intervention of non-indigenous activis-tminded filmmakers and anthropologists who continue to constitute an important part of this festival's project. In many of the festival's forums, it is this international "community" of media activists who develop the discourse which defines "indigenous media." Working jointly with native media makers, they position the works to have a potential role in transforming relations between Indian people and members of the dominant societies in which they live. In a sense, the international and activist-minded non-indigenous participants are brokers, and as such they have just as much at stake in the processes that define and launch indigenous media as the indigenous videomakers themselves.[1][open notes in new window]

The oldest festival of its type in Latin America, the Festival Americano was launched in 1985 in Mexico City by the Consejo Latinoamericano de Cine y Video de Pueblos Indígenas (CLACPI), an international group of non-Indian Latin American anthropologists and filmmakers with a strong interest in ethnographic film about Indian peoples. Since then, the festival has been held in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia, forming an active network of CLACPI members along the way.[3] In 1994, the festival that was scheduled to be organized by CLACPI in Quito, Ecuador, was presented instead by Quechua filmmaker Alberto Muenala and Ecuador's national indigenes council CONAIE. This festival was tremendously successful, screening most of the festival programs in indigenous communities prior to the main event in Quito. CONAIE has continued to present an annual film and video festival in Ecuador, and Alberto Muenala remains an active and essential member of CLACPI.

Over the years CLACPI has transformed itself into a loosely defined, open, umbrella organization with more indigenous members, but its headquarters remain in La Paz, Bolivia at the offices of CEFREC, the most active original member organization CEFREC is a non-profit organization that trains indigenous media makers and sponsors indigenous productions. When CEFREC coordinated the fifth Festival Americano in Bolivia in 1996, they offered pre-festival workshops to several novice indigenous videomakers who are now rising stars in the world of Latin American Native media.

In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the VI Festival Americano was divided into morning seminars and evening screenings. Video viewing was punctuated with cultural exhibitions of Mayan textiles, as well as indigenous theater and dance performances, photography and painting. The third annual Encuentro Interamericano de Cine y Video de los Pueblos Indigenas took place during the morning sessions of the first four days.

During the first day of Encuentro presentations, a noticeable look of disappointment appeared on the face of the Mayan shaman who opened the morning session with a prayer. Sitting in the front row with her candles lit and bundled in her colorful shawl on her lap, she said shaking her head, "My candles aren't happy — it's not going well." After a quick survey of the dozen or so people sifting somewhat slouched in the red velvet chairs of Quetzaltenango's elegant
municipal palace, it was easy to see that she was right. Almost as if she had ordered it to happen, the awkward separation of panelists and audience was broken by the next speaker who left the panelists' table and sat on the arm of one of those stately chairs near the rest of us. "That's better," the shaman said, and from that point on we convened more informally in a loose circle of chairs.

The shaman's scattered but constant presence throughout the festival was a comfort, though unfortunately her initial read remained the most accurate. The festival's audience barely exceeded the number of international guests invited specifically for the event at any time during the festival. In a city whose population is 85% indigenous, this dismal public attendance was one of the Festival's more serious shortcomings. But on the positive side, the small number of people attending melded into a cohesive festival environment. Most revealing, the spectrum of the people there demonstrates how indigenous events often have their most fertile reception with international audiences already attuned to the issues presented rather than with local or national audiences whose participation is crucial to social change.

The morning sessions continued on the fifth day with the round table, Mesa Redonda de los Pueblos Indígenas y los Medios de Comunicación. The same folks sat in the same chairs, but this time the presenters made an attempt to be more analytical, posing the following kinds of questions: Does the possibility of an alternative, indigenous aesthetic really exist? Why have media been kept from native people? Though no specific conclusions emerged from the discussions, the issues raised set the stage for the working sessions which followed. Divided into groups to discuss production, training, and distribution, the participants shared experiences, trends, problems, and they sketched out an idea of where to concentrate efforts in the future. Curiously each group brought up the issue of fundraising, but that problem was never given focused attention.

Though long and at times arduous, for anyone interested in native media in Latin America these forums are uniquely informative, allowing one to get quickly up to date and meet both major players and emerging ones. They also help outsiders understand the contexts that surround the making of the films and videos. While it was challenging to actually see the works I was interested in — with chronic late starts and daily program changes, it was difficult to know with any certainty what was going to screen where or when — I found the sheer number and diversity of the works impressive.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the works presented at the Festival Americana were documentaries. Because the genre has effectively captured historically ignored "truths" about Native experiences, documentary has prevailed in indigenous media workshops as the format for cultural recuperation. Most of the Guatemalan work was based in one form or another on testimonies about the ghastly and violent acts Indian people suffered during the 36-year war in which more than 200,000 Indian people were murdered or disappeared.

However, most of the strongest pieces at the festival — the ones most people kept talking about — were fiction. Indigenous media makers expressed general enthusiasm about fiction filmmaking. Inspired by the possibilities of a fresh genre, media makers spoke about fiction with a twinge of a "we can do it, too" attitude. Among the fictions most applauded (though only recognized with Honorable Mention awards by the Festival) were two shorts written by Bolivians. EL DIABLO NUNCA DUERME (THE DEVIL NEVER SLEEPS) and a CHALECO DE PLATA (THE SILVER VEST) were written by Aymara media makers and actors Patricio Luna and Reynaldo Yujra respectively. The video works were developed by CEFREC in association with Alberto Muenala as advisor and were funded in part by the Spanish Government's Institute for Cooperation (AECI). Spoken in Aymara with Spanish subtitles, these fictional videos take full advantage of the imposing beauty of the altiplano landscapes and weave simple, but penetrating stories about their characters' internal conflicts. Caught between rural life and opportunities to make fast cash, they jeopardized their traditional livelihoods. The fast track results in devastating consequences, but the characters' stories serve as lasting examples to their communities.

Some works were couched in positive stories of returning and rebuilding, like the big Guatemalan/ Brazilian hit, IXCAN, by Brazilian director Henrique Goldman. This work won the award for "Best Fiction with Indigenous Participation" The 75-minute fiction tells the funny but poignant story of two very different women dealing with mother-daughter issues. One is an in-your-face Italian "video artist" who spends an inheritance she recently received from her mother's untimely death to finance making a video in Guatemala. The other is a young Guatemalan woman living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Guatemala City whose mother returns after twelve years of fighting with the guerrilla in the mountains. Because the two Guatemalan women protagonists come from the village of Ixcan, which was devastated by a massacre during the war, the film casts Guatemala's reconstruction process in terms of personal relations and humor.

In contrast, much of the work from Mexico did not directly engage that county's systematic oppression of its native population. Rather, struggles for survival and for the preservation of identity were often couched in presentations of traditional lifeways and testimonies from community members. Thus two Zapotec videomakers from Oaxaca and a young Purepecha videomaker from Michoacan received awards at the Festival. All three videomakers were trained through the Mexican government's video program and their works were postproduced at the Indigenous Video Centers in Michoacan and Oaxaca. Maria Sanitiago R. got the award for "Socio-Organizational Processes among Indigenous People" with her video BUSCANDO BIENESTAR (LOOKING FOR WELL BEING), a 21-minute documentary in Zapotec with Spanish subtitles about her organization's struggle to improve the community's life and find ways to be self sufficient. The sincerity, persistence and ingenuity of those interviewed in the tape communicate a story of plodding but profound change. Crisanto Manzano A. won the "Life and Hope" award with MONTAÑA PODEROSA (POWERFUL MOUNTAIN), a 50-minute poetic and intimate exploration of his highland Zapotec community and the environment that gives them life. Slow and precise camera work reveal natural riches and human warmth at every turn, a view of Indigenous life in the Oaxacan mountains everyone should see. The award for "Preservation of Indigenous Identity and Culture" went to young Dante Serano of the Purepecha nation for his video CH'ANANTSKUA, EL JUEGO DE LA MADUREZ (THE MATURITY GAME), a lively thirty minute documentary about how Purepecha youth are adapting to city ways and fashions without losing a sense of their Indigenous identities.

Works from Chiapas, Mexico, were another mailer. Of note are two short pieces made by Mayan videomakers trained by the Chiapas Media Project, a US-Mexico project that has worked in Zapatista support communities since early 1998. You would have to know the basics of the rebellion to make sense of these videos since they are "told" from an insider's perspective and do not fully contexutalize the content for outside audiences. But their stories defy the victimization discourse so often present in documentaries about the war in order to demonstrate what the people are actually doing about their situation. In THE RECOVERY OF SAN ANDRES SACAMCH'EN DE Los POBRES, over 3000 indigenous people march on San Andres Sacamch'en, site of the 1995/96 peace talks, and peacefully take back their town hall which had been occupied by the police on direct orders of the governor. The police occupation was part of the ruling party's effort to dismantle autonomous municipalities that challenge its hegemony in the region. THE NATIONAL CONSULTATION IN THE MUNICIPALITY OF SAN JUAN DE LA LIBERTAD chronicles the voyage of the Zapatista representatives from the communities of the Municipality of San Juan de la Libertad who joined thousands of other Zapatistas in the "Consulta Nacional" referendum, in which over 3 million Mexican citizens cast their ballots in favor of the Zapatistas' proposals on four basic questions regarding indigenous rights. While technically a bit shaky, these videos get to the point quickly and show the situation in Chiapas in all its violent absurdity as seen from indigenous perspectives.

Chile and Brazil also made a strong showings at the festival. Chilean Rodrigo Sepúlveda received the award for "Women's Participation" with a documentary about a Quechua women's literacy workshop in the highlands of Peru. AHIMAM CHAY is a 24-minute documentary that beautifully captures women's experiences of literacy learning with all its initial mystery and uncertainty. The documentary successfully transforms words on index cards into agile guides through the cultural life of this community.

The winning Brazilian works underscored the festival's inclination towards fiction, but in surprising ways. 20 AÑOS DE LUTA (TWENTY YEARS OF STRUGGLE) a 31-minute documentary by Marie Correa and Vincent Carelli of the Sao Paulo-based "Video in the Villages" project won the award for "Artistic Creativity." The tape follows an Amazonian community's commemoration of twenty years of fighting off incursions into their traditional territory. For this extraordinary memorial, community members young and old reenact key events using theater and dance.

Carelli's new video, SEGREDOS DE LA MATA (SECRETS OF THE FOREST) won the special "Vitral" award from the National Video Movement of Cuba in recognition of its innovative creative process. Hilarious and bold, the video seamslessly weaves together fiction and documentary at the request of members of the Waiapi tribe who have been trained in video production by the Video in the Villages project. Impressed with their first horror movie, the Waiapi decided to bring their forest monsters alive with the help of a special effects artist and very willing Indigenous actors and directors. The Cuban presence at the festival was curious since none of the work presented from that island nation related directed to indigenous peoples (despite the growing Taino movement in Cuba and many other Caribbean islands). However, the Vital Award and an educational award offered by the International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, added a sense of prestige and possibility to the festival.

Just before the closing ceremony of the VI Festival Americano de Cine y Video de los Pueblos Indígenas festival participants assembled in one last round of discussion groups and tentatively approached the subject of why there was not more Guatemalan Indigenous participation in the festival. Evasive answers and disguised criticism began to fill the floor. Then the projectionist, a middle-aged Mayan gentleman who moved to Quetzaltenango with his family years prior to escape the war, broke his silence to explain to those gathered that the reason is clear. "Indian people are severely discriminated against in Guatemala," he said with all the authority of firsthand experience. His ensuing thirty-minute speech resonated long after we left the municipal palace and provided some uncomfortable but needed clarity for understanding the whole festival's uneasy dynamics. The VI Festival Americano was unlike the others that preceded it. Rather than serving as a culmination and showcase of efforts to train videomakers and solidify producing organizations, the VI Festival Americano marked a tentative beginning to the long process of creating relations and settings for indigenous media to flourish in Guatemala. Reports from the festival's evaluation meeting indicate renewed interest in reviving a Guatemala-wide independent media producers' organization that will include many Mayan media makers and their organizations. Such initiatives are exactly what this festival is about. Those involved in indigenous media production and distribution want to ignite the sparks and create contexts for indigenous media producers to gain control over their representation.


Field research for this review was assisted by a fellowship from the International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship Program of the Social Science Research Council with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

1. The author is an anthropologist and media programmer for the Film and Video Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. She has followed and participated in this festival since 1992 and has recently concluded a year of field research on indigenous media in Oaxaca, Mexico.

2. CLACPI's omission of a 'V' for video reflects both its origins and the sometime awkward relationship between film and video. All of the works at the VI Festival Americano, whether shot on film or tape, were screened on video, and most Indigenous media makers working today use video exclusively.

Organizations directly involved in the VI Festival are listed below:

LUCIERNAGA; 9 Av. A 0-25, apt. F, zona 1; Guatemala; Guatemala; tel. 502-251-8232; luciern@quetzal.net

IXIM; 14 Av. A 1-04; Quetzaltenango; Guatemala; tel. 502-761-3547; centroixim@net.gt

CHOLSAMAJ; 1 Av. 9-18 zona 1; Guatemala; Guatemala; tel. 502-232-5959; cholsamaj@micro.com.gt

CEFREC/CLACPI; Av. Perú 29/3p; Casilla Postal 9368; La Paz; Bolivia; tel. 591-360-389; comarn@ceibo.etelnet.bo

VIDEO IN THE VILLAGES; Centro de Trabalho Indigenista, Rua Fidalga, 548 s/13; 05432-000 Sao Paulo; Brazil; tel. 55-11-81-30-747; vincent@dai1data.com.br

CENTRO DE VIDEO INDÍGENA; Circuito de la Cascada, 103; Fracc. La Cascada; Oaxaca Oaxaca 68040; Mexico; tel. 52-951-537-15; videoindioax@laneta.apc.org

CHIAPAS MEDIA PROJECT; 4834 N. Springfield; Chicago IL 60625; tel. 778-583-7728 or in Mexico 52-967-81-684; cmp@vida.com

US-based resources for Latin American indigenous media

FILM AND VIDEO CENTER; National Museum of the American Indian; One Bowling Green; New York, New York 10004; tel. 212-514-3730; gghc.seubertm@ic.si.edu

LAVA: Latin American Video Archive; 124 Waverly Place; New York NY 10014: tel. 212-463-0108: www.lava.com