Nosotras, las otras:
We, the other women
translated by Luke Stobart
In looking at Afro and indigenous cinema in Colombia it is important to consider feminist and community initiatives in Abya Yala where two women’s audio-visual collectives, Ka + Jana Uai (The Voice of Our Image) and Renacer y Memoria (Rebirth and Memory), aim to film their territory and continent from the point of view of women in the periphery. To do this, they have created audio-visual schools with collective filmmaking and distribution and innovative pegagogical practice. The groups have their audiences in mind as their priority. They seek to raise awareness that reality does not change by itself, and that they are approriating media production tools in order to create stories that establish emancipatory paradigms. They want their audio-visual works to promote hope and liberation, to strengthen their identities and to bear profound meaning: that is, women’s iron will to defend their right to communication in a country that frequently neglects them and makes them invisible.
Published in 2017, an official document summarizing Public Policy for Colombian Indigenous Peoples’ Own Communication (PPCPI) responds to a need that had been expressed by indigenous peoples since 2010. [open endnotes in new window] This need is to exercise their fundamental right to have their own communication tools in order to educate, inform, and make their struggles visible. Moreover, the same initiative has opened the way for other rural communities—people of African descent and peasant farmers—and working-class urban groups to access public funding. It also has led to the setting up of dozens of small groups that make media and organize screenings and discussions. Such groups initiate processes of audio-visual training, filmmaking and screening in what are known as the “red zones,” particularly in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Caribbean region), the Amazon region, and the Colombian Andes.
Here I am foucusing on the work of two community groups: the School of Indigenous Communication Ka + Jana Uai, led by Amazon women of the Murui-Muinane people and founded in 2015; and the Escuela Renacer y Memoria (Rebirth and Memory School), a project led by Black women from south-western Colombia, and founded in 2016. Through analysing issues related to their production processes, representation of women, and handling of violence, I want to reflect on the following larger questions:
- How can community groups explore and affirm their identity by means of their own processes of audio-visual creation?
- In which ways can they use audio-visual language a mechanism of denunciation and resistance against armed pressures to leave their territory?
- What ways of representing women does their work suggest?
- What narrative forms adapted to their technological capacities and societies have they developed?
On the one hand, I want to emphasize how these practices, representations, and distribution and screening processes differ from those of commercial television and movie-making. On the other, I locate the cinema made by these groups as socially creating spaces in which the community is permanently listened to.
My observations spring from my experience in these geographical areas, where I work professionally. Specifically, from 2008 to 2018, I carried out training workshops in audio-visual production in communities in the Cauca, Sierra Nevada de Santa María, Nariño and Putumayo provinces. During those years, using a community-based, people’s education methodology, I promoted setting up film clubs and creating or encouraging local screening circuits. As these experiences allowed me to participate in such community initiatives, I also became acquainted with other groups’ audio-visual productions and inquired into their creative film-making processes. During this endeavour, I started asking myself specifically about the role of women in the creation of community film schools. This article has arisen from that exploration and a series of interviews I recorded in 2019 and 2020 with the women founders of these schools, members of these communities, and the audiences for such films. I should clarify that with the groups I discuss in this article, I only have a relationship of exchanging experiences and research and not of teaching in their communities.
All of the women that participated in these recordings are active members or founders of the mentioned schools. However, for the purposes of analysis I will focus on the accounts of two women—Nelly Kuiru and Laura Valencia / “Nuwanda.” Kuiru is the creator and founder of Ka + Jana Uai. For the last two decades, she has been a driving force behind the PPCPI. Nationally, she was the first woman to hold political office in the Organisation for Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), which is part of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC). Nuwanda grew up in Buenos Aires and lives in Cauca (Colombia), a territory characterised as being a point of transit for legal armed groups—the army and police—and illegal ones. She is part of the team that founded Renacer y Memoria—a collective she joined after training as a sociologist at the Universidad del Valle.
Ka + Jana Unai—decolonising the gaze
For almost 15 years, Ka+ Jana Uai (The Voice of Our Image) insisted that the indigenous authorities of Colombia’s Amazonia should have their own communication tools. Finally, in 2015, the first Ka+ Jana Uai travelling school was formed, founded by Nelly Kuiru. Its creation inaugurated the activation of an indigenous public policy of communication, mainly because it put pressure on cultural and audio-visual funds and the public media system to give specific slots, grants and opportunities to indigenous peoples. Significantly, it is not a school recognised within the commercial sphere, despite some of its productions having won awards or shortlisted in film festivals or having achieved visibility by earning a slot on national television or within the Public Media System. At first, the school’s curriculum centred on teaching the technical aspects of radio and audio-visual creation. Yet quickly Ka+ Jana Uai threw itself into discourse analysis and from there made a link to political communication and appropriated a philosopy of self-communication and learning in action. Ka+ Jana Uai is not just a technical school for audio-visual training but a political wager that uses audio-visual communication as the main form of action.
A principal objective of this school is to question the representation of women in national film productions and talk about feminisms within Amazonian women’s circumstances. The school has two lines of work: gender violence and sexual violence. These topics recur in the commercial films, TV series and soap operas to which people in the region have permanent access. The first project on gender violence focuses on a mixed-gender meeting which, three times a year, brings together young people from the ages of seven to 23 from the whole of “macro-Amazonia” and from the Murui-Muinane, Huitoto, Ticuna and Bora peoples. The second kind of community education was created in conjunction with the Fundación Numaira (Numaira Foundation) in 2016 and involves women of all ages. The two axes use the same methodology: show concrete examples of sexual violence from commercial series, films and soap operas, and then de-naturalise (de-construct) scenes of sexual violence. As an example, these groups use scenes from the most commercially successful film at the Colombian box office, El paseo (Trompetero 2010), and all of its sequels to discuss different kinds of sexual harassment and abuse. Attendees learn to see how both kinds of violence have become naturalised by having been introduced into the comedy genre.
Reborn: sung reality
In 2016, the Escuela Renacer y Memoria (Rebirth and Memory School) was created. This group uses an audio-visual process set up by the Asociación de Mujeres Afrodescendientes del Norte del Cauca (Association of Women of African Descent from the Northern Cauca, ASOM). The association, after the conference ‘Women: Peace Builders,’ highlights the importance of community communication for defending human rights. It centres on audio-visual production with the aim of drawing attention to the community’s women leaders, their organisational processes, and group’s project of recognising and rebuilding shared memory. The school was created by eight Black women around the municipality of Buenos Aires—to the north of the Cauca province in southern Colombia. They have taken responsibility for looking for specific resources for productions, promoting and organising training spaces, and seeking distribution and screenings in both community and commercial festivals. Furthermore, they have encouraged creating meeting places for the land’s Afro community and for remembering the victims of Colombian domestic political and social conflict. With the school, they have sought to develop their own communication resources, to which they apply ethnic, community and gender perspectives. Some of the organisation’s members have been trained in audio-visual techniques, thanks to tutoring by Mujeres al Borde (Women on the Edge), but most have gained their practical knowledg from making short films.
In this group’s self-development process, other knowledge is acquired that is not directly related to audio-visual technique but which is relevant for preserving historical memory. Standing out in this regard are investigations into women-focused ancestral knowledge and introducing spaces for the spoken word, as well as setting up weaving circles, singing, dancing, music groups, and education in midwifery. This mixture of learning other cultural knowledge, alongside learning audio-visual, radio and publishing techniques, seeks to have an impact on the distribution of members’ communicational pieces in festival and community-event networks nationally and internationally. The effect on the community itself is notable and members have been able to participate in well-established and recognised national festivals (Cartagena de Indias International Film Festival, Bogotá International Documentary Film Festival, Santa Fé de Antioquia Film Festival, and others). This is despite the group’s operating in the margins and without active participation in film funds. Nor do they get to be included in the filmmaking-team directories officially promoted by the Ministry of Culture through its page that maps out the audio-visual ecosystem in Colombia.
These schools were created and are led by women who, following a principle of learning by doing, inquire into the identity forged by the founding myth of the three rural cultural groups in Colombia: those of African descent, indigenous people, and peasant farmers. Political education is fundamental to the schools and performed through film analysis, which consists of discussing opinions on camera shots, use of music and dialogue, and other elements making up audio-visual language. There is also discussion about the role of women in film—in front of and behind the camera. The women participating tend towards orality (using the spoken rather than written word to communicate) and listening in order to question the naturalisation of gender violence; and they then use on a daily basis what they learn about film language to understand how the media have promoted a stereotype of rural women in Colombia.
In short, these collectives promote being aware of the repercussion images have in social construction. The technical and the political intertwine as they analyze issues such as the porn industry, misogyny, racism, whitewashing, and the stylisation of bodies and faces. Thanks to such discussions in their communities, doors have been opened to allow cis, transgender, lesbian and gay women and men to have a safe space to talk and learn about the colonial legacy and its link with race, class and sexuality. All of the participants also take on multiple roles: they sing, direct or write, and they rotate logistic responsibilities in the filmmaking (producing, directing, camerawork, art design, costume, acting, etc.).
The two schools assert that acquiring knowledge carries with it a historical responsibility. Consequently, they advance performing alternative processes to modify the audio-visual language developed in the Global North. In the words of Nuwanda,
“we communities in the Global South learned it as if it were the only option … we want the power to turn it upside down, appropriate it and use it among ourselves [in the community].”
Thus, they empahsize the importance of people from the territory themselves telling or doing stories from their personal experience and perspective. The two groups also link other arts to the audio-visual, such as the spoken word, the copla and other music, because, as Nuwanda suggests,
“you grow up thinking that we are a diverse people but … there is a very big difference between an outsider doing a film here than when people who live in the territory do so.”
These schools’ technical-political training stage also is diverse as it responds to the actual needs of production. Ka+ Jana Uai devotes nearly a month for such training, alternating places of learning in order to expand the possibility of leaders accessing media making, so that the leaders then afterwards film in their communities. In order to avoid culturally-learned exoticisation, self-indigenisation and folklorisation of their ways of life in their stories, various situations are analysed during the learning phase such as:
- Not doing the ritual without being in the right time of the year;
- Not choosing issues for the market and not exploring local knowledge;
- Not being at the mercy of the timescales imposed by the film industry;
- Avoid falling into the racist and sexist vortex of the industry when it distorts the self-recognition carried out by indigenous women; and
- Avoid wearing attire such as necklaces and tiger fangs, feather crowns, and other ornaments which only the elderly use at the end of their training process and after a long and gruelling spiritual career (meaning aged 70 or 80 years).
In terms of this last point, as Nelly Kuiru suggests,
“now anyone uses [spiritual clothing, rituals…] and talks [about their meaning…] without having lived it. If they are dressed with feathers or naked, they are interviewed or photographed. We have a duty to end that.”