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Bolivian Cinema

By Ricardo Segreda

The evolution of Bolivia's film industry is virtually inseparable from this country's political history. Indeed, shortly after the turn of the century, when the moving picture camera arrived, this Andean nation's first films, directed by a Luís G. Castillo, consisted mostly of mini-documentaries about political leaders and Bolivia's congress, along with recordings of daily life in La Paz. Castillo is not only considered Bolivia's first filmmaker, but is credited with starting this country's first film production company.

The first official full-length feature film was made in 1925, a melodrama named "Corazon Aymara," or "Aymara Heart," in reference to its all-indigenous characters. The tragic narrative concerns a young Aymara who is sexually harassed by her father-in-law, and vilified by her mother-in-law. She is eventually executed for suspicion of adultery.

Shortly thereafter, a scandal ensued with the release of Bolivia's second feature, "The Prophecy of the Lake," because its subject matter involved an affair between a poor Aymara and the Caucasian wife of a ranch owner, a too-volatile a theme for the very racist white ruling class. The film was immediately banned and all copies ordered destroyed.

The film's director, José María Velasco Maidana, soldiered on and continued to make feature films, as did Castillo, and in 1930 the former premiered the most expensive Bolivian film made up to that time, an epic about the Spanish conquest entitled "Warawara," meaning "star" in Aymara, and which, like "The Prophecy of the Lake," focussed on interracial relationships, only this time between between a Spanish knight and an Aymara princess. A sexist and racist double-standard regarding gender in a mixed race love story precluded any controversy this time around. The film, however, being silent, could not compete with the new "talkie" phenomenon, and a flood of Hollywood, European, Argentine, and Mexican films stalled the nascent Bolivian film industry.

Feature film production came to a virtual halt for the next twenty years, with the exception of a 1938 production about Bolivia's Chaco war. However, the government continued to sponsor the production of educational documentaries, which introduced a major new talent in Bolivian film: Jorge Ruiz, who would eventually be regarded as the "father of indigenous Andean cinema," and deemed by eminent film historian John Grierson as one of the six most important documentary filmmakers in the world.

Along with fellow cineaste Agosto Roca, and with backing from an American, Kenneth Wasson, they formed Bolivia Films, and made the first sound and color Bolivian films. Thematically, their work, both documentary and narrative, focussed on the culture, struggles and hardships of Bolivia's indigenous. Their film, "Vuelve Sebastiana," even made a point of highlighting the distinction between Aymara and Chipaya to world audience accustomed to presuming all of South America's indigenous as a monolithic whole. Later in his life the American Smithsonian Institute awarded him the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to film, an honor shared by only three other recipients: Robert Redford, Stephen Spielberg, and George Lucas.

In 1952, when the leftist Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) assumed power, the Bolivian Film Institute was established both to promote a national cinema and to propagandize the ideology of the new political leaders.

A major filmmaker to emerge under these auspices was Jorge Sanjines, who like Ruiz, brought a focus to the problems of poverty and racism in Bolivia. His 1966 feature, "Ukamau," filmed at Lake Titicaca, won the Young Director and Critics Award at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival. A subsequent film, "Blood of the Condor," resulted in the expulsion of the Peace Corps from Bolivia over its depiction of Corps volunteers performing sterilizations on indigenous women. The sterilization charge was derived from a rumor, but the film was a popular success, and it afforded the new military government an opportunity to curb the politically progressive influence of the Corps on indigenous society.

However, Sanjines' subsequent film, "The Courage of the Pueblo," based on a military massacre of a union-affiliated mining community in 1967, with survivors recreating their trauma, was banned by the government (though the film was clandestinely shown) and Sanjines was sent into exile for several years. Nonetheless, the late sixties and early seventies is considered a high water mark in Bolivian cinema, with such output as Ruiz' "Mina Alaska," and "Volver," among other films.

Shortly thereafter, though, the political and economic climate became violent and unstable, and few films were made. However, in 1977, Antonio Eguino premiered, "Chuquiago," a  feature integrating four different stories about Bolivians from differing walks of life. Made on a budget of $80,000, the film broke box office records for attendance in Bolivia, superseding both "The Godfather" and "Jaws." However, due to the very low price of tickets, the film barely recouped its cost, and its popularity did not insulate its creators from peril; the screenwriter, a Jesuit priest, was subsequently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a paramilitary group.

Jose Sanjines returned to Bolivia at the end of the decade, and filmmaking continued apace, if sporadically, throughout the 1980's. New filmmakers, such as Juan Miranda and the Italian-born Paolo Agazzi, emerged. In 1991, Bolivia instituted a new film law subsidizing local filmmaking, and in 1995, "A Question of Faith," a comedy by Marcos Loayza with spiritual and social overtones, proved to be a success with audiences and with international film festivals.

In his seventies, Sanjines is still active, while Ruiz continued working as a cinematographer until 1998. In the last decade, a new generation of writer-directors, such as Juan Carlos Valdivia, with his dark comedy, "American Visa," have continued to garner respect and admiration for Bolivian filmmakers creating worthy films in the face of tumultuous challenges.

18 Nov 2008

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