Crash Course on Bolivian Cinema

cinema
A poster collage at the Cinemateca. Photo by Antonio Suarez

“Going beyond Sanjinés”

By Mauricio Souza Crespo

The most frequently asked question about Bolivian cinema outside the country is probably this: “Bolivian cinema? Huhh?” And, usually, the quick and somewhat angry response to this perplexity is simple: yes, there is such a thing as a ‘Bolivian cinema.’ No, we have never had—and certainly not now—a ‘film industry’ (this is the case with most Latin American countries save the big ones: Mexico, Brazil, maybe Argentina). And yes, our cinema is small, only capable of producing a few movies a year, made in almost impossible conditions. Filming a movie in Bolivia, the critic Pedro Susz wrote some years ago, is equivalent to try to build the Concorde airplane in a car garage. But despite all these difficulties, we have produced several classics of Latin American cinema. Against all odds, Bolivian cinema exists, and it is alive and well. It even has a history.

A History of Bolivian Cinema in a Nutshell

If we were to offer a historical outline of Bolivian cinema, we would need to mention three names: José Velasco Maidana, Jorge Ruiz and Jorge Sanjinés.

Velasco Maidana (1900-1989), who was also an important musician, directed some of the classics of Bolivian cinema silent era: among them, Wara Wara (1930). Until recently, our knowledge of this movie was vague, as it is the case with most Latin America silent films. (If, as it is often claimed, more than 70% of all silent films have been lost to the world, in Latin America that percentage is probably higher.) In 1989, the nitrate negatives of Wara Wara were discovered in an old trunk. After a long process of restoration and reconstruction, in 2010, seventy years later, we were able to see—almost for the first time—this central piece of our film history.

Jorge Ruiz (1924) is, above all, a documentary film director. In his time, John Grierson called him “one of the six most significant documentary filmmakers in the world.” With a work life spanning four decades, Ruiz completed more than 20 films and received many awards, but a critical consensus considers Vuelve Sebastiana (1953) his major achievement.

By some distance, the dominant figure in Bolivian cinema is Jorge Sanjinés (1937). His overpowering influence (through both his films and numerous essays and articles) is indirectly felt even today. For some time, every new Bolivian film was read as an attempt to “go beyond Sanjinés.” Political in nature, his oeuvre includes at least four classics of Latin American cinema: Ukamau (And So It Is, 1966), Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor, 1969), El coraje del pueblo (The Courage of the People, 1971) and La nación clandestina (The Clandestine Nation, 1989). (Sanjinés is still active: he is now shooting a long-awaited new movie, Bolivia insurgente).

Origins of Bolivian Contemporary Cinema

In the second part of the 70s, when the country was still painfully exiting the military dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), filmmakers were said to confront a somewhat false choice. On the one hand, there were those who wanted to continue making films—such as those by Sanjinés—not only openly political in terms of content, but also in search of finding a new film language, different forms of production, and alternative channels of distribution. On the other hand, a group of filmmakers—many of them formerly part of Sanjinés’ group—proposed a more lighthearted social realism, descriptive in nature, that reproduced—with some degree of originality—the forms of a classic narrative (commercial) style. This second option, called at the time “Possible Cinema,” produced movies that, beyond their merits (which are not few), would prove themselves fatefully influential in the next two decades. We should mention two films: Chuquiago (1977) by Antonio Eguino and Mi socio (My Friend, 1982) by Paolo Agazzi. Eguino’s film constructs a social portrait of the city of La Paz (‘Chuquiago’ is the name of the city in Aymara, the indigenous language spoken by a considerable percentage of its population) with an urban focus that already signals its distance from Sanjinés’ work, which has been concentrated in rural indigenous populations. Agazzi, in his bittersweet road movie Mi socio, tries to do the same: he describes not a city this time but the different regions of the national territory (Bolivia, the sociologist René Zavaleta Mercado used to say, is a nation where “every valley is a separate country.”) In both the case of Chuquiago and Mi socio, we could talk of a risky flirting with various stereotypes (of classes, of regions of the country), but they are, at the end, movies that generally avoid this pitfall and provide a useful model for future generations.

“Going beyond Sanjinés”

If our contemporary cinema could be described as an attempt to go beyond Sanjinés’ films, in 1989 we saw a first step in that direction: with his La nación clandestina, Sanjinés himself seemed to be going “beyond Sanjinés.” Arguably the contemporary classic of Bolivian cinema, La nación clandestina transforms the well-known “politicization of culture” of movies such as Yawar Mallku into a more nuanced “culturalization of politics.” Its deliberate, morosely self-conscious use of certain film language tools is also characteristic of Sanjinés’ work: in this case, a series of beautifully planned sequence-shots create a sense of temporal and spatial complexity.

Meanwhile and in the following years, many Bolivian films returned, with some luck, to the paths opened by Eguino and Agazzi: their exploration of social realism, allegorical in spirit, along with an experimentation with genres, proved irresistible (for example, in 1995 Marcos Loayza would try his hand with an endearing road movie, Cuestión de fe, and, in 2005, his El corazón de Jesús could be deemed a variation of Chuquiago).

The Last Two Decades

In the last two decades, Bolivian cinema has been marked by transformations by outside factors. First, a considerable number of young Bolivian filmmakers received formal training in Cuba, the United States and elsewhere. This group is responsible for a modest but significant professionalization of our “industry.” The second outside influence was the arrival of digital formats and computer-based editing. These changes explain, among other things, a sudden increase in our production numbers: in 2010, for example, we exceeded a dozen feature-length movies (our historical average had been one or two movies a year).

Very recent Bolivian films could be grouped in three main categories. First, in variations of a classic social realism mode, films that try a direct denunciation or description of social problems (immigration to the First World, drug trafficking, corruption, class violence). Second, films that demonstrate a desire to explore genres and commercial formulas: comedies, more road movies, action movies, even—last year—a “gore movie.” And, finally, there is an emergence of films strongly marked by the voice and style of the director, what in the 60s was called “auteur cinema” or author’s cinema. Maybe all these tendencies, thematically speaking, have forced that long-awaited move “beyond Sanjinés.” Not in one crucial point, however: Bolivian cinema continues to be, right now, highly political, although not in the same manner as its predecessors.

Political in a different way, more numerous and varied, this recent cinema is also quite uneven in quality. Genre cinema has produced mostly misses and few hits; social realism has been alarmingly bland and commonplace in its ‘social readings’ (and particularly blind to our current “revolutionary process of change”). “Auteur cinema” has only a few, though significant, achievements. In general, we could say that recent bad Bolivian movies have the same problem that bad Hollywood movies have: no matter the amount of money you spend, a lousy script is a lousy script.

Bolivian Cinema Right Now

A detailed overview of the last decade of Bolivian cinema would be impossible here (or irresponsible). We can, however, attempt a quick snapshot of the last two years, commenting on three movies that are not only well-worth seeing in their own right, but also representative and, to a degree, emblematic. To wit: Zona Sur ( Southern District) by Juan Carlos Valdivia,Rojo Amarillo Verde (Red Yellow Green), by Boulocq, Bastani and Bellot and Inalmama by Eduardo López.

Zona Sur (2009) is, to date, Valdivia’s best movie. Less concerned with narrative construction than in his previous movies such as Jonás y la ballena rosada (Jonah and the Pink Whale) and American Visa, Valdivia constructs Zona Surfrom a series of observations or self-sufficient scenes that patiently complete a family and class portrait. The title of the movie already suggests that this portrait is organized by an old claustrophobic metaphor: rich people are depicted as trapped in a “zone of the city,” or, more precisely, in a house. As the film is allegorical in principle (and heavy-handed at that), it is no surprise that the movie ends up proposing a space (a house) as its main character: a high-class slum, cluttered with consumer fetishes, as if memory were a collection of souvenirs inventoried by a camera that slowly circles them.

Rojo Amarillo Verde (2009), directed by three up-and-coming young directors (Boulocq, Bastani and Bellot), is a trilogy of medium-length films gathered under the pretext of the colors of the Bolivian flag. Although varied in styles and themes, it displays a common aesthetic: an inclination for narrative ellipsis and indirection, the frequent use of excruciating very long long-takes, an expressive use of photography. It is also true that at least one common theme crosses the three stories: lonely women, somewhat pushed aside by the world, experience interrupted or arrested relations with their (departed) children. Is there an “author’s style” in this collective project, one that would give us permission to talk of a generational sensibility? Maybe. It is a film that, contrary to a long tradition in Bolivian cinema, prefers a deliberate opaqueness, a reticent approach to storytelling that is, at the same time, quite eloquent.

López continues and enriches a tradition that has been inexplicably neglected in recent Bolivian cinema: the documentary. Like many contemporary world documentary films, his Inalmama (2010) aspires to a certain free style: López himself defines his movie as “a political, visual and musical essay about the coca leaf and cocaine in Bolivia.” This description aptly characterizes how his film works: diverse threads and tones weave, in a non-linear logic, a complex understanding of the place that coca leaves have in Bolivian culture (a place vaguely sacred and crudely profane).

Some Final Maybes

Making a movie in Bolivia may no longer be the impossible adventure it was considered to be some years ago. Maybe to make a movie in Bolivia is not equivalent anymore to building an airplane in a car garage. But as the recent unevenness of Bolivian cinema suggests, maybe its future depends on some more modest measures. Let’s name one: go back to the desk, sit down, and start writing and rewriting stories that are worthwhile to tell.

Mauricio Souza Crespo is film critic for the newspaper Página Siete and the biweekly Nueva Crónica. He teaches literature and film and is the managing editor of the publishing house Plural Editores.