The Principal Enemy
Fighting imperialism in the Andes

by Victor Wallis

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, p. 8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

For guerrilla warfare to be successful, the fighters must be supported by the masses of the people. The same rule applies to a film about guerrilla warfare or, in fact, about mass political struggle of any kind: The constituent population must enter the film directly. It cannot be replaced by professional actors, however skillful.

Only on the basis of such popular participation will the film have an impact on its most important audience, namely, people like the ones that it’s about. In an immediate sense, the impact will come simply from the viewers’ identifying with those who appear on the screen. More important, however, is the underlying process which made such a screen appearance possible. This is where the politics of revolutionary filmmaking comes in. Its basic principle is that a director learns how to reach the people only by going through the process of enlisting their collaboration. The filmmakers are themselves a band of guerrillas, with their special equipment and often with their strange language. The burden is upon them to persuade the entire community that they are or its side.

THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY is a product of this type of work.(1) It is a people’s film in the fullest sense. Its title refers to U.S. imperialism; its main protagonists are the inhabitants of an Indian village in the mountains of Peru. The credits, placed at the end, do not specify whatever division of functions might have existed between director, performers, and technical workers. Some fifteen names are given, with that of Jorge Sanjinés distinguished only by being at the head of the list. The villagers of Rajchi are gratefully mentioned. And a final note indicates that the film is intended as an instrument of struggle, addressed above all to the peasants of Latin America.

The main language of the film is Quechua. The events, drawn from actual Peruvian experience of the 1960s,(2) are introduced by a veteran Indian peasant-organizer who serves as narrator.

The story is a straightforward one of traditional injustice, a revolutionary response, and official repression. It begins with the peasant Julian Huamantica having lost his only bull. He suspects the landlord Carilles of having stolen it. Accompanied by his family, he goes to confront Carilles, whose insults provoke him into a direct accusation. Carilles and his henchman respond by killing Huamantica and beheading him. When Huamantica’s fellow peasants learn of this act, they proceed en masse to capture Carilles. A majority then votes not to kill the landlord but to bring him before the local judge for trial. The judge, after getting the police to release Carilles from the peasants, takes their depositions—not only about the murder but also about some of Carilles’ earlier acts against them—and promises to draw up a report for “the authorities.” The peasants then go home. When the selected witnesses are called back “to testify,” they are arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned for terms up to four years.

Some of the peasants now speak of rising in revolt, but they have no specific plans. At this point, the narrator introduces us to a band of a dozen or so guerrilla fighters, coming to “bring justice.” They gradually win the confidence of the peasants by placing their skills at the people’s disposal and by sharing even in some of the heavier agricultural work. They are soon in a position to talk explicitly about revolution. The peasants are receptive, and they ask for the guerrillas’ help in dealing with Carilles. The guerrillas manage to capture Carilles and his servant. This time, a People’s Court is established. An immediate trial is held, with mass participation, and the two are condemned to death and executed.

A celebration is then held. The guerrillas tell the peasants that the land held by Carilles, which had been stolen from their ancestors, is now once again the local farmers’. As for themselves, however, they say that the time has now come for them to leave in order to fight elsewhere. They invite any of the peasants to join them. After much deliberation, only three end up doing so. The others stay back, not for lack of sympathy but simply because of heavy responsibilities. They express their support with gifts of food and clothing.

The scene now shifts to the forces of counterrevolution. A small detachment of government soldiers, posing as part of the guerrilla band, learns the whereabouts of the guerrillas. Back at Headquarters, we see a U.S. colonel directing the counterinsurgency operation. In two final scenes, we are shown, first, troops terrorizing the almost defenseless peasants, and then, on different terrain, a shoot-out between government troops and the guerrillas. The shoot-out produces heavy casualties on both sides, but ends with the troops fleeing while napalm-induced flames rise in the background.

The film ends as it began, with the old narrator. He expresses confidence that despite all losses, the peasants will eventually gain their liberation, for they are the majority. The one hint at an appraisal of their immediate experience came earlier, just after the villagers’ farewell to the guerrillas. At that point, he said that if only the revolutionaries had not departed, “we might have organized and done better.”

Expressed in passing rather than in conclusion, this hint of criticism, however unmistakable, is extremely gentle—perhaps more so, even, than Debray’s recent book-length critique of Che, (3) which Debray embarks upon only reluctantly and which he concludes by saying:

Che seems to survive his last venture better every day, seeming somehow bigger than his own frustrated plans even though it was the whole of himself that he put into them.”

Likewise in THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY. The guerrillas emerge in a strongly positive light, not only in terms of their moral qualities, but also—in contrast to Che’s band—in terms of their success in winning the peasants’ trust. To some extent, this reflects the actual experience of Peru, where the various revolutionary groups of the early 1960s gained a much firmer popular foothold than Che was to get in Bolivia. But still they eventually met defeat, and the film has to reflect this. Under such conditions, we may well see the film’s main purpose as being that of building in its peasant-audience so strong an awareness of the need for revolution that even scenes of the most horrendous repression—peasants dragged from their fields and pushed off a cliff—will not be able to shake it.

To the degree that this is accomplished, the question of pinpointing the specifics of the defeat becomes secondary. It is enough for the film to show that the question must be raised. So far as an answer is concerned, it confines itself to the most general level. On the one hand, the plot shows the role of a “principal enemy” who is beyond the reach of any single community. On the other, it indicates at least one key juncture at which things might have been done differently. Conceivably, there are any number of additional issues that the film might have focused upon but didn't. It showed no discussion within the guerrilla band. It said nothing about the balance of forces in the region as a whole. And, despite the heavy consequences which flowed from Carilles’ execution, the film suggested no other way in which he might have been dealt with.

But are these omissions to be regarded as a drawback? I think not. I say this not because I consider such questions unimportant (which I don't). Rather I feel that they would naturally be raised in any case by an audience of potential participants. We must recognize the film’s role as being that of a catalyst, not a compendium; a stimulus to action rather than a critical treatise. No film about an ongoing process can give us “the last word” on political strategy. In the end, this can only be provided by a triumphant outcome; and the details of the answer—as of the questions—will be different for each particular regional or national setting. A major filmic dramatization must be suitable for many settings. It can more easily be dispensed with for the strategic discussions than it can for overcoming the initial hurdle of revolutionary work, that is, to penetrate the apathy and the resignation that flow from centuries of powerlessness. In this sense, a film such as THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY will fulfill its revolutionary purpose to the extent that it encourages peasants to take their first step—with eyes open to the dangers, but above all in the conviction that society leaves them no other recourse.

In every respect, the full impact of this film presupposes the social viewing situation for which it was intended. The principal, enemy (imperialism) has its principal challenger, which is not the atomized consumer of exotic experiences, but rather the peasant collective symbolized by the village of Rajchi. It is this collective which has lived the injustices shown and which therefore recognizes that the depictions are not exaggerated. It is this collective which, hampered by isolation and illiteracy, can accept an elementary discourse on imperialism as new insight rather than as stale propaganda.

As the peasant audience responds to both the dramatization and the “lesson,” the already present collective consciousness of that audience will reinforce the film’s call to action by multiplying the film’s impact upon each individual consciousness. At the same time, as a cohesive audience is subjected to an unusual stimulus, the film inevitably generates discussion. What might be viewed as omissions, then, if we were to consider the film in isolation, will be amply filled in the wake of its actual projection. The dynamic by which this is accomplished will be a direct continuation of the social process through which the film was made.

This social or collective dimension, both in the creation of a film and in its reception, is what is characteristically blocked at both ends by the capitalist marketplace and consequently ignored in bourgeois criticism. And yet it is precisely the dimension that we need to build upon here, even though our communities might be more elusive than those of the Andes. We need to do this if we are ever to achieve a film culture which can truly educate its audience rather than merely reinforcing a habit of passive—even when shattering—consumption.

In this respect, we have much to learn from the Latin American film art represented by Sanjinés. And if two recent writers are justified in referring to a growing “Latin Americanization of the United States,”(4) then there may be more of a potential public for such work than we might have suspected.


1. See the interview with its director, Jorge Sanjinés, Cahiers du cinema, No. 253 (Oct-Nov., 1974).

2. For the historical episode on which the plot of THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY was based, see Hector Bejar, Peru 1965: Notes on a Guerrilla Experience (Monthly Review Press, 1970), pp. 93-101.

3. Regis Debray, Che’s Guerrilla War (Penguin Books, 1975).

4. A chapter title in R. Barnet and H. Muller, Global Reach: The Poser of the Multinational Corporations (Simon and Schuster, 1974).