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Peruvian Cinema: From Crisis To Opportunity

By Ricardo Segreda

According to scholar Ricardo Bedoya, "the history of cinema in Peru", like the history of the country, “has always been one of crisis". That certainly was no more evident than in the extended rough period after WWII, when Peru, like all of Latin America, was in the crossfire, literal and otherwise, of Cold War tensions between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. From the 40s up to the 90s, conflicts arose -- between the Left and the Right, between urban and rural Peruvians, between populist and elitist sensibilities -- as to how to create and define a national film culture and industry.

By contrast, the early days of movies in Peru, which began at the end of the 19th century, were relatively pacific, and the arrival of this novelty and art form even cultivated a spirit of optimism, particularly in Lima. Its' mere presence in Peru, much like the arrival of the Internet a century later, made many feel that the country was joining the rest of the modern, industrialized world. To that end, President of the Republic Nicolás de Piérola and subsequent Peruvian leaders capitalized on the public relations potential of the new medium by sponsoring nationalistic newsreels showcasing state ceremonies, civic celebrations, religious holidays, as well as anything that highlighted Lima's growth as a modern city, all to inspire patriotism (and loyalty) at home and admiration abroad.

However, the emphasis on the cities, their growth, and their Caucasian citizens was at the expense of much of the rest of Peru and its indigenous and rural population, an oversight in both politics and publicity would establish tensions in the nascent film industry that continue to the present.

The first decade of the 20th century featured the development, not just of Peruvian exhibitors and distributors, but studios that produced the country's first feature films, "Negocio al Agua" (Water Business), and "Del Manicomio al Matrimonio" (From the Madhouse to Matrimony), both now considered "lost". 1922 saw the premiere of "Camino de la Venganza" (The Road to Vengeance), the first Peruvian movie to broach the tensions between rural and urban Peru, in the context of a story about an innocent female peasant's loss of innocence in the city. A historical film about the 19th century Pacific War with Chile was censored by the government out of diplomatic concerns. One of Peru's most successful films in this period was "La Perricholi", about the legendary 18th century Peruvian actress.

For a brief period in the early 1930s an idealistic enterprise known as Patria Films not only continued to make movies, but established the School of Mobile Cinema, with the goal of taking their films out into the Peruvian countryside and, through the use of film, educate the populace and integrate them into the urban push for modernization. However, in Peru, as in so many other countries, competition from Hollywood and the more established (and state-subsidized) film industries of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil made it difficult to sustain local production, particularly after the arrival of the talkies. A few more films were made in the 1940s, often with Mexican support, and in the 1950s, Peru only produces one fictional full-length feature, though newsreels and documentaries continued apace.

The birth of Peru's modern, and more artistically and politically ambitious, cinema begins in the 1960s, coinciding with the cultural and political climate of the decade. As indigenous and rural communities in Peru began to reclaim pride in their identity and traditions, the city of Cusco not only formed its own Cinema Club, but ventures into filmmaking with such Quechua-language features as "Kukuli", from 1962, and "Jarawi", from 1966. At the same time Armando Robles Godoy (who was born and spent part of his youth in New York City), strongly influenced by the European art film, emerged as Peru's first international "auteur". His 1966 film, "No Stars in the Jungle" won the Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, while his subsequent films also earn international recognition, including a Golden Globe nomination.

In 1972, the populist military president, Juan Velasco Alvarado, instituted a national Film Law in an attempt to generate a local movie industry, a major provision of which was the financing and mandatory presentation of local short films in theaters along with the more popular commercial attractions. This proved to be a mixed blessing for aspiring filmmakers, in that it gave many an opportunity to hone their craft, but at the same time, they had to work under restrictions of censorship. It also proved frustrating for local exhibitors, because audiences soon grew tired of the films, which were often mediocre both technically and artistically. However, the 1970s also saw the emergence of another major filmmaker, Francisco J. Lombardi, who like Godoy, achieved international recognition, and has a maintained a critically and commercially successful career up to the present.

The 1982 film, "Gregorio", made by an artistic collective known as Grupo Chaski, and dealing with the theme of child labor, was well-received by the public and the press, but during the next two decades filmmaking in Peru suffered a setback with the rise of left-wing terrorism, and President Alberto Fujimori's reprisals, as well as his "free market" philosophy as applied to the local film industry, in which state subsidy for artists were radically diminished. And as with Alvarado, filmmakers had to cope with state approval of themes and subjects.

By the end of the 1990s, though terrorism was in retreat, that Peru's film industry, overall, was declining as fewer and fewer films were being made, much less seen. However, the new millennium proved to be an unanticipated renaissance for Peruvian film, beginning with the "Magic Realism" breakthrough of "Madeinusa", directed by Claudia Llosa, niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, and strongly influenced by the Chilean director, Alexander Jodoworsky. Her next film, "La Teta Asustada" was nominated for an Academy Award.

"Días de Santiago", a working-class drama by Josué Méndez (who was personally mentored by British film veteran, Michael Apted) proved to be another success, while Javier Fuentes-León broke new ground with "Undertow", which broached the sensitive issue of closeted homosexuality in a fishing community along Peru's coast. The continued growth of Peru's economy, along with the steady evolution of recording technology and editing software has democratized the filmmaking process, making it easier for more aspiring writers and directors to realize their own ambitions, and bodes well for Peru's cinematic future.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Yma Sumac - The Pop Life of an Andean Princess, Art , Music in Peru, Arequipa’s Phantoms, Literature In Peru, Peruvian Culture, Museums in Peru and Peru Dance and Theatre.

09 Aug 2012

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