Guarani in Film

Movies in Paraguayan Guarani, about and with Guaranis

By Damián Cabrera 

A contemporary film featuring the Guarani: Paz Encina. Hamaca Paraguaya. 2006. Photo by Christian  Núñez, courtesy of Damián Cabrera.

The first film spoken in Guarani I ever saw was from the United States. It was the movie Jesus (1979), co-directed by Peter Skyes and John Krish, dubbed into Guarani and customarily broadcast on television during Holy Week in Paraguay. My generation had not grown up seeing ourselves on the screen. With films like Hamaca Paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, 2006) by Paz Encina or 7 cajas (7 Boxes, 2012) by Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori respectively, films in Guarani are now achieving international projection as well as local popularity. Today we Paraguayans can see ourselves on the screen and listen to ourselves— in our own languages. 

In Paraguay, speaking Guarani is charged with ambiguity: it evokes both fondness and contempt. In Spanish slang, the word guarango—the contemptuous nickname for those who speak Guarani—means “rude, vulgar.” It’s as if the use of the language were somehow a mark of vulgarity. However, at the same time, others celebrate “the sweet Guarani language” as the most important legacy of the Guarani culture to Paraguayan society. An indigenous language, from the linguistic family Tupí-Guaraní, Guarani is today spoken in Paraguay by the largely non-indigenous population. 

“The history of Paraguay is the history of the Guarani language,” says the anthropologist Bartolomeu Melià in his book Mundo Guaraní (Guarani World, 2011). The history of Paraguay is also one of prohibition of this language and the assumed exclusion that came from speaking it.  But it is the history of persistence. 

In an emerging and increasingly prolific scene in Paraguayan film, Paraguayan Guarani is being heard at the international level, making visible its history. But does speaking Guarani mean being Guarani? Perhaps the new cinematic movement gives us the opportunity to reflect on these questions, both in terms of the status of the language and of the various types of belonging associated with Guarani: the indigenous world, the Paraguayan peasant and the urban dweller. 

GUARANI IN FILM ALSO HAS ITS HISTORY, AND NOT SUCH A RECENT ONE.

“The first films in Guarani were silent,” observed actor and writer Manuel Cuenca, author of Historia del Audiovisual en Paraguay (A History of the Audiovisual in Paraguay) (2009), in which he details the country’s film production. Since the beginning of the 20th century, 35-millimeter movies—silent, in black and white—have depicted Paraguay’s indigenous and peasant communities, with protagonists who sing or speak in Guarani. Codicia (1954), by Argentine director Catrano Catrani, was the first spoken fiction film to incorporate dialogues in Guarani. Basing his work on the Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, who also wrote his own adapted screenplays, Armando Bó produced La sed (1961) and El trueno entre las hojas (1975); in which, in addition to dialogues, one can also hear a song in Guarani, “Adiós Lucerito Alba” by Eladio Martínez. (Isabel Sarli’s nude scenes in this film made her famous, and she appeared again in India (1961) and La burrerita de Ypacaraí (1962), by Bó.) La sangre y la semilla (1959) was the first Paraguayan-Argentine co-production. Palestinian director Dominique Dubosc filmed his first works in Paraguay at the end of the 60s. Capturing the voices of his protagonists with a poetic tone, he depicts the life of a Paraguayan peasant family and that of the Santa Isabel lepers’ colony respectively in Cuarahy Ohechá (Le soleil l’a vu) (1968) and Manojhara (1969). 

Although several films are about Guarani or include them in the narrative, many have used other indigenous groups or even non-indigenous actors to represent them. In his films that reference the Guaranis, Bó used Paraguay’s Maká tribe, which in reality form part of the Mataco linguistic group. In the first scenes of India, the lyrics of a song  announce “india Guarani…,” with the Argentine actress Isabel Sarli depicted as an indigenous woman; paradoxically, it is not difficult to find in schoolbooks photographs of the indigenous Maká group with captions indicating that they are Guarani. 

Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons were the principal actors in a story based on the original Jesuit missions in Paraguay, The Mission (1986), directed by Roland Joffe and with music by Italian composer Ennio Morricone. In spite of my efforts, I could not recognize the “guarani” spoken by the indigenous actors in the movie and not even the words uttered by Irons. The Mission was not filmed in Paraguay: the scenes supposedly taking place in Asunción were filmed in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia; one of the film locations was at Iguaçu Falls in Brazil; the indigenous people are not Guarani; for the most part, they are indigenous Waunanas from the Colombian Pacific region of Chocó. But the gap is not as great as it seems: an Argentine indigenous leader, Asunción Ontiveros, plays a Guarani chieftain; in the accompanying explanation of the making of the film, entitled Omnibus: The Mission, Ontiveros spells out the common problems shared by the Waunanas and the Guarani, and indeed all the indigenous peoples of the Americas: the land. 

Although all fall under the umbrella of Guarani, there is actually more than one Guarani language; and although some of these languages are called something else, they are as Guarani as the others, identical in spite of their differences. In Hans Staden (1999) by Luis Alberto Pereira, the Tupinambá indigenous people are played by non-indigenous actors. Based on Staden’s stories and spoken in classic Tupí (of the Tupí-Guarani linguistic family), the film has realist pretensions: the director insists on a type of neutral stance devoid of interpretation (unlike other films that examine the same theme), but it is based on a previous text, a testimonial discourse saturated with interpretation; thus, the representation of the indigenous people—more than the story itself—reminds us of the blackface tradition in U.S. film at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Aren’t there any Guarani actors? Yes, there are: one can see them in Terra Vermelha (Birdwatchers, 2009) by Marcos Bechis. This is the drama of the Guaraní-Kaiowa (known as Pãi Tavyterã in Paraguay) on the border of Paraguay and Brazil. They play themselves in their own language to show the threat agro-business poses for their way of life, with suicide by young people becoming an increasing social trauma. The drama portrayed in the narrative turns out to be real: indigenous leader Ambrósio Vilhalva (Chief Nádio in the film) acts out his death, and less than a year later, he was assassinated in real life.

Indigenous people are represented by others or exposed to the gaze of others. But perhaps this reality will soon change. With a language that belongs to the same linguistic family as that of the Guarani, the Aché have been shooting films. Norma Tapari and Ricardo Mbekrorongi made the documentaries Nondjewaregi/Costumbres antiguas (2012) and Tõ Mumbu (2012), respectively, in which they gathered oral histories from their grandparents, in the context of the djawu/Aché Word project, which seeks to rescue Aché culture through literary production, photography and audiovisual documentation. 

THE GUARANI IN CONTEMPORARY PARAGUAYAN FILM

Is this my voice? It’s like hearing oneself for the first time in a recording, to see oneself finally reflected on the screen. Hamaca Paraguaya is the first Paraguayan film I’ve seen. The experience was extraordinary, and so was the film. Journeying through history, it presents an image of time: the idea of a flickering, vacillating waiting/hope (which in Spanish happens to be the same word: esperar) that goes back and forth but always stays in the same place, despite the instability. The circular dialogues are inscribed in a scene equally structured in a circular fashion. In Hamaca, there is a desire to represent Paraguayan time, which perhaps can be imagined as a crossroads with another temporal memory, that of oguatáva (caminante/walker). Guaraní is present in the jeroky ñembo’e, which is at the same time a prayer and a dance, equally circular.  

Paraguay experienced a rough period following the Curuguaty massacre on June 15, 2012, during a police raid on homeless peasants; the confrontation took 17 lives, and spurred a congressional coup, disguised as a political trial, that resulted in the impeachment and removal from office of then President Fernando Lugo. For some viewers, watching 7 cajas, which treats this period, is a cathartic experience. For several months, movie theaters were full. When I went, the social phenomenon spoke (literally) as loudly as the movie itself. Spectators were noisy, laughing at the top of their lungs and applauding; the theater was filled with the excitement of self-recognition. 

Beyond the story, its portrayed and imagined universe and its use of language, 7 cajas can be understood as a metaphor. It’s not only a matter of showing the only mechanisms the poor can resort to in order to circulate their own images in the overloaded market of images. A scene of emergencies also reveals something about the conditions in which the Paraguayan filmmaker operates: the character Victor could be just another filmmaker looking for resources to produce images and put on the screen his stories, and in that very process, become someone. 

These two Guarani films are the best known on the international level, but they are not the only ones. And there are more on the way. 

In 2002, Galia Giménez premiered María Escobar, based on a song in Guarani by the same name, very popular at that time among all social classes. The short subjects Karai Norte (Man of the North, 2009) by Marcelo Martinessi and Ahendu Nde Sakupái  (I hear your scream, 2008) by Pablo Lamar are two masterpieces of Paraguayan film. The recently premiered Latas vacías (Empty Cans, 2014) by Hérib Godoy and Costa dulce (2013) by Enrique Collar take up the theme of pláta-yvyguy (treasures buried during the 19th-century war, a subject that has fired the Paraguayan imagination through prolific works of art); both films are spoken in peasant Guarani, and the action takes place outside Asunción, with regional actors who have not attended traditional acting school, thus providing a fresh voice to new Paraguayan film. Meanwhile, Luna de cigarras (Cicadas’ Moon, 2014) by Jorge Díaz de Bedoya, in which Guarani is shown along in the border zone, along with Spanish and Portuguese, has been nominated for Spain’s Goya Awards. 

                                      Enrique Collar. Costa Dulce. 2013. (Fotograma)

In the documentary realm, Guarani has flourished in an extensive list that ranges from the patrimony of the silent era to acclaimed pieces that register peasant and indigenous voices such as Tierra roja (Red Land, 2006) and Frankfurt (2008) by Ramiro Gómez; or Fuera de campo (2014) by Hugo Giménez. In Yvyperõme (2013) by Miguel Armoa, the declarations of a Guarani shaman, proclaiming that “before we were the wizards of the woods; now we are the wizards of soybeans,” testifies to the traumatic and transformative times Paraguay is experiencing. 

Stigma and prohibitions on Guarani had threatened its existence, and the transmission from one generation to another was seen as difficult.  Wouldn’t the fact that the mainstream media talk and write in Spanish, rather than Guarani—despite the fact that the majority of Paraguayans speak Guarani or are to a certain degree bilingual—have something to do with that? 

In 2015, the film Guaraní, by Argentine director Luis Zorraquín, will have its premiere. Not only is it spoken almost entirely in Guarani; the movie itself is about the Guarani language. The film and the journalistic treatment of the subject to date can serve to explore the ambivalence surrounding Guarani today: the variations of Guarani of the Guarani indigenous people and the Guarani of the Paraguayans. John Hopewell suggests in the magazine Variety that the film is about questions and identity in a narrative featuring “a traditionalist Guarani fisherman, and his grand-daughter.” A Spanish News Agency EFE dispatch published in Paraguay’s ABC Color de Paraguay confirms that the film is about “a story of the uprooting and survival of the Guarani indigenous culture.” Both reviews are mistaken: the film is the story of a Paraguayan and his finding strength in the language in a bet on the future. 

                                        Luis  Zorraquín. Guaraní. 2015. (Fotograma). 

But what does all this lack of clarity mean? The word guarani signifies a lot: it is the name of a language and the name for a culture; sometimes it is used as an ethnic nickname for Paraguayans; it’s the name of stores, diet teas and sports clubs. 

The persistence of Guarani in a society that is more western than indigenous is also ambivalent: the secondary language of Paraguay, its hegemony seems inconsistent in a country that vehemently rejects all that is indigenous. But the “discourtesy” of its resistance is felt more strongly all the time, overcoming the silence also of the big screen, where Guarani is spoken louder and louder. Every single time, louder and louder.

Damián Cabrera is a Paraguayan writer. He is a Master’s candidate in Cultural Studies at the University of São Paulo. A participant in the seminar of Critical Cultural Space/Critique (Paraguay), he is a member of the collective Ura Editions and the Network Conceptualismos del Sur. He is the author of the novel Xiru (2012), for which he won the Roque Gaona Prize the same year. He can be reached at guyrapu@gmail.com 

Note: Titles are translated into English only when a formal English title exists.