Warmi: the first Peruvian
women-led film collective

by Isabel Seguí

Warmi Cine y Video, the first group of Peruvian women filmmakers, was founded in Lima in 1989. They released their last work in 1998. The 1990s were an agitated period in Peru. The totalitarian drift of the state, under a de facto dictatorship headed by Alberto Fujimori, created an asphyxiating atmosphere. Political agendas focused on the bloody internal armed conflict (1980-2000).[1] [open endnotes in new window] In that troubled context —without ignoring it but determined to highlight what did not make the headlines— this collective, led by María Barea, managed to make a series of films that constituted a new kind of discourse in Peru due to their ability to mettre-en-scène the lives of unacknowledged lower class women.

Warmi’s films give voice to slum settlers, Indigenous domestic workers and girl gang members and emphasize their subjects’ political practice and subjectivity. Other Peruvian filmmakers have worked with oppressed populations in collaborative cinematic processes (i.e., the Cusco School, Nora de Izcue, Federico García and Pilar Roca, or the Chaski group). However, Warmi’s focal programmatic goal was to highlight women and girls’ agency. Even now, the contribution of the Warmi collective to Peruvian cinema has not been properly historicized; indeed, it has been silenced. Film historians in Peru have a certain contempt with which they have treated María Barea —and other crucial female figures, such as Marianne Eyde—in a way that speaks to the historical monopolization of the cultural sphere in Peru by privileged westernized men.

A masculine bias to the construction of the historical narrative is not surprising, but it is harmful. These women filmmakers delivered timely contributions to national social process as they developed collaborative alliances with working-class organizations and disenfranchised subjects. They employed resourcefulness and ingenuity while receiving very little institutional or financial support, only later to be systematically neglected by the gatekeepers of film scholarship and film criticism.[2]

A verb in Spanish describes perfectly this kind of neglect: ningunear. It literally means to make nobody (of somebody). The Cambridge dictionary translates it as “to look down on, to belittle.”[3] The Warmi group, and so many other women in Peruvian film history, have systematically been "made nobody," erased, and dismissed from the official accounts. My article, devoted to Warmi, has a simple goal: to start historicizing the collective and stop the ninguneo.[4]

In fact, mine is not an individual initiative. In recent years, several film scholars have been contributing to the subversion of the patriarchal narratives of Peruvian cinema history. They are colleagues, members of RAMA (Latin American Women’s Audiovisual Research Network) such as Gabriela Yepes, Lorena Best, Sara Lucía Guerrero, Marina Tedesco, Sarah Barrow and Carla Rabelo, and others, like Mónica Delgado and Fabiola Reyna. Feminist film histories across Latin America are collective endeavors that seek to change hierarchical academic practices and transform colonial institutions of knowledge creation.

Framing Warmi using Third Cinema theory
and María Lugones’ feminist pespective

Canon formation, awards systems, the festival circuit, and other often-unquestioned mechanisms propped up by film scholars, film critics, and the industry contribute to a narrow vision that gives pre-eminence to two types of value: aesthetic and commercial. Nevertheless, a methodological focus on film as an object reduces the scope of its political significance. All of the above aspects of cinema, in fact, contradict the essential principles of Latin American political cinema, and this led Third Cinema theoreticians and practitioners to propose a schema that inverted the priorities.[5] Consequently, many Latin American filmmakers accepted a different goal, insisting that in their work ‘use value’ was crucial (Burton 1997, 180). Julio García Espinosa, in 1969, in his groundbreaking manifesto “For an Imperfect Cinema” affirms a new goal for filmmaking:

“Imperfect cinema is no longer interested in quality or technique (…) is no longer interested in (…) 'good taste.' (…)  The only thing it is interested in is how an artist responds to the following question: What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the 'cultured' elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work? The filmmaker who subscribes to this new poetics should not have self-realization as his [their] object.” (García Espinosa 1997, 82)

Warmi practiced Third Cinema by questioning the forms and structures of both first and second cinemas. From the outset, they challenged technical magnificence and refused to accept the external impositions of a seemingly perfect cinematic language. Moreover, they ignored fetishism in the cult of the auteur’s personality. Barea, the director of Warmi’s films, did not have self-realization as a goal. Furthermore, if Barea had been a formal perfectionist, she probably would never have dared to make films because she lacked the technical background and training in European traditions—two aspects that, from a colonial approach to cinema, give legitimacy to a filmmaker.

Theories of Third Cinema shifting attention to ‘use value’ allows us to see film’s political work far better than a primary focus on aesthetics or representation. When accomplished women producers and disseminators (such as María Barea) become directors, their films are made with an eye to communicative effectiveness. Barea’s priority was to represent the human experience of the subjects of her films and to create of politically useful movies to be employed as consciousness-raising and popular-education tools, in the Freirean sense. Although an aesthetically bold style may be absent in Warmi’s films, they are thematically adventurous and efficient. The films fulfilled different functions, such as increasing poor women’s self-esteem, raising their social awareness and fostering their agendas. Warmi’s cinematic practice is exemplary in that if offfers a sympathetic modality for a cinematic practice where care and community building are at the core.

In their practice, few women making Latin American social cinema were publicists. They rarely devoted themselves to reflecting publicly about how their cinematographic practice challenged a Western paradigm. Some like Beatriz Palacios, Marta Rodríguez, and the collectives Cine Mujer in Mexico and Colombia did do some of this, although they rarely gathered the attention of critics and scholars. Those, such as Barea, who did not theorize their approach and did not deliver highly aestheticized products, have been even more ignored—regardless of the remarkable political processes behind their work and the precious resulting films. Meanwhile, male directors like Julio García Espinosa, Fernando “Pino” Solanas, and Jorge Sanjinés wisely both made films and explained the theory behind what they considered political cinema. They knew they were making films for the people while using avant-garde aesthetics and also writing theory to feed the intellectual sphere (Tedesco 2019, 15-16).

Barea was not a public intellectual. Moreover, by often being one of the few women of on a film crew, she was frequently expelled from the artistic decision-making core group (who share techie interests and cinephilic discussions). These well-known practices of exclusion are why, in the neighboring country, Bolivia, Jorge Sanjinés and Beatriz Palacios (the driving forces behind the Ukamau group from 1974 to 2003) staked a claim for a decolonized film criticism. And that is why Palacios spent her entire life collecting the testimonies of subaltern spectators, many of them Indigenous women, to gather convincing arguments to justify the meaning of work made side by side and in collaboration with the voiceless. A director making political cinema might have reason to remain distanced from the gatekeepers of taste (Seguí 2021, 81-83).

In fact, the only evident influence that Barea recognizes by a filmmaker is Sanjinés. However, she never refers to those Sanjinés-style linguistic innovations that mesmerize filmmakers, scholars, and critics. She recalls that during her work experience with him she learned how he approached the Indigenous peasants who were the subjects and protagonists of the film The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, 1974). She was fascinated by his respect towards them and how he earned the trust that allowed them all to create a meaningful and useful film together.

Hence, inspired by Sanjinés but soon beating the teacher, Barea directed emancipatory films using a participatory methodology. The work method was collaborative not only due to her partnership with the protagonists but also in how she managed the horizontal workflow of each project. She fostered distributed creativity effectively and in a more organic way than she had seen in the Ukamau group. Barea listened to the crew, learned from them, and considered their professional opinion. Her approach to collaborative work and collective filmmaking was not abstract but ethical and practical.

In that regard, Barea’s approach is similar to that of philosopher and activist María Lugones, who talked about, wrote and practiced a feminist ethos based on friendship that she named Pluralist Friendship:

“I find friendship interesting in the building of a feminist ethos because I am interested in bonding among women across differences. Friendship is a kind of practical love that commits one to perceptual changes in the knowledge of other persons. The commitment is there because understanding the other is central to the possibility of loving the other person practically. Practical love is an emotion that involves a commitment to make decisions or act in ways that take the well-being of the other person into account. Because I think a commitment to perceptual changes is central to the possibility of bonding across differences and the commitment is part of friendship, I think that friendship is a good concept to start the radical theoretical and practical reconstruction of the relations among women” (Lugones 1995, 141).

Warmi’s politics and practices were a materialization of Lugones’ ideal. For example, in Women of El Planeta (Mujeres de El Planeta, 1981), the two pillars of the project were, first, working in films with migrant rural women, the settlers of Lima’s sandbank slums; and second, bringing together a group of dear friends, family and collaborators to work on her films/projects. Both strands were imbued with this kind of Lugonian model. The members of Warmi sought to establish bonds that would allow them to “generate the radical reconstruction of relations” among themselves as a group of filmmakers and also between all of them and the women portrayed in their films. Some trustworthy men, such as the cinematographers Jorge Vignati and César Pérez, and the cultural activist Mark Willens, also shared the safe space of Warmi. These were not women’s only spaces, but they were women-led, and this option was based on Barea’s previous work experiences, some of which were traumatic.