Elizabeth Weatherford is the founding director of the NMAI’s Film and Video Center at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York.
Amalia Cordova, manager of the Film and Video Center’s Latin American Program, is currently completing work for her PhD in Cinema Studies at New York University.
The rise of indigenous media in Latin America has taken persistence and struggle, the work of strong proponents of filmmaking to tell indigenous stories and explore what issues face Native communities. The focus of the work may be on issues of land and human rights, on environmental preservation, on nurturing and preserving language and cultural practices, or on telling narrative stories.
Starting about 20 years ago, especially strongly in Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico, indigenous media making has become a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century. The projects, constructed in a deeply collaborative way, serve the sense of community cohesion. The participants often see themselves as working on political and social initiatives that will transform relations between themselves as indigenous people and the dominant societies in which they live.
The first projects introduced technologies that could enable more and more community people to have access to using media. With increased availability and improvement of accessible tools—small format film, video cameras, digital cameras, and now high definition cameras and the Internet–it is possible for indigenous producers to creatively express in an unprecedented way their own issues, interests, history and entertaining stories. The Spanish word most used for “media maker” is “communicador,” communicator. The connotation is rich, not only evoking communications technologies, but also placing media makers squarely amongst good storytellers and good networkers.
Numerous recent projects demonstrate the range of indigenous media’s accomplishments in Latin America:
• The premiere of the first 35mm film by an indigenous director in Latin America. Pedro Daniel López (Tzotzil) produces The Little Seed in the Pavement (La Pequeña Semilla en el Asfalto), a documentary about the movement of Mayan youth in Chiapas, Mexico, from their rural villages to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas.
• The first regular publication on indigenous film and media. In Chile, the online and print Mapuche newspaper, Azkintuwe, (http://www.azkintuwe.org/) has launched an ongoing supplement to focus on film and video and reflect on representations in the media of indigenous groups in Chile. It is called Yekintun which means “to turn the gaze to something that comes to your attention,” in the Mapuche language, Mapudungun.
• The most recent indigenous production team. Brazil’s Video nas Aldeias/Video in the Villages has recently supported emerging Guarani-Mbaya filmmakers in Rio Grande do Sul, who are exploring the extraordinary story of their people’s attempt to survive in an area that has untrammeled lumbering and soy bean plantations.
• A major 2009 festival award. Corumbiara, a feature documentary by Vincent Carelli, the founding director of Video nas Aldeias, gains the top feature film prize at the Gramado Film Festival, Brazil’s largest and most prestigious film festival, which rarely awards this prize to documentaries. Detailed footage he filmed in the 1980s now tells the history of a genocide of an isolated native group in Roraima, Brazil’s northernmost state, and of the two Indians who survived, a history denied in Brazil for decades.
• Unique festivals return in 2010. The International Indigenous Peoples’ Film and Video Festival, a biennial festival run entirely by indigenous organizations, was held in Ecuador in October 2010. The Anaconda Festival returns in 2011. This innovative event, started in 2000, circulates films to indigenous communities located in the rainforest lowlands of seven countries, and awards its prizes based on votes taken from these communities audiences. Both festivals coordination is headquarter with Bolivia’s lively indigenous media training organization, CEFREC.
• A first narrative feature from Bolivia. Ivan Sanjines, CEFREC’s founding director, and an entire indigenous production company release El grito de la selva (The Cry of the Forest). It explores the impact on a community in the Bolivian rain forest of multinational lumbering operations, and the community organizing that leads to the people’s resistance. These include unexpected scenes in which the local actors move from fiction to reality, confronting the actual company that during the filming is laying waste to the forest close to them.
• The first indigenous film from Panama. The first Kuna film, a narrative feature, has been produced by a collective comprised of young Kuna filmmakers and actors and their mentors. Burwa Dii Ebo (The Wind and the Water) explores the beauty of traditional life still possible on the San Blas Islands, or Kuna Yala, the traditional territory, and the challenges coming from urban society—the impact of indigenous emigration to Panama City and the ambitions of developers to build a luxurious tourist haven on the pristine islands.
The indigenous media movement commenced in Latin America in the late 1980s in several places, guided by activists who wanted to spread the power that creating your own image and telling your own stories can produce. Primary movers were the Video nas Aldeias (Video in the Villages) project in Brazil, the Transfer of Media process in Mexico, Chiapas Media Project in Mexico, and indigenous training organization CEFREC(Centro de Formación y Realización Cinematográfica) in Bolivia.
These projects, started as training initiatives, have become media collaboratives. The mentors have joined as partners with the community producers whose skills they have nurtured. The collaboratives then develop other possibilities: supporting what becomes on-going production and postproduction, distribution of the works, and organizing and running indigenous media offices and projects. They collectively develop a continuum of professional opportunities, sometimes focused on local communities, sometimes on expanding the horizons of viewers who did not previously know these communicators and their works.
A key characteristic of the work of Video in the Villages is that it supports media in villages that are geographically remote throughout Brazil, and even arranges for these media makers to be a “community” by bringing them from their home locales to meet with each other annually. The organization continues to provide media training to new communities, but it also has developed a strong professional group of indigenous producers. It has conducted training in more than 30 communities, and provides production support and international distribution of the works produced. Filmmakers who have recently screened their work in the United States include Divino Tserewahu (Xavante), Zezinho Yube (Hunikui), and Kumare Txicao (Ikpeng).
Today more than a dozen independent indigenous media organizations exist in Mexico, in addition to the four regional Centers of Indigenous Video (CVI) in Michoacán, Yucatán, Oaxaca, and Sonora. The movement began with an official process in 1989 to transfer the capacities of a national anthropological film project into the hands of indigenous media makers (Transferencia de Medios Audiovisuales a Organizaciones y Comunidades Indigenas). This resulted in the founding in 1994 of the first Center of Indigenous Video in Oaxaca, led by an activist in the “transferencia,” Guillermo Monteforte. This center served as an exemplary learning space for video production skills, and its initial participants include Juan José García (Zapotec), Emigdio Julián (Mixtec), Crisanto Manzano (Zapotec) and María Santiago (Zapotec). Five years later four of these media makers decided to “go independent,” together creating the production company Ojo de Agua Comunicacion to produce work independent of government funding.
In 1989 the Chiapas Media Project/Promedios de Comunicación Comunitaria began to provide members of the autonomous Zapatista communities with access to media tools. It now also produces and distributes community-based documentaries about conditions facing indigenous Mexicans in Guerrero and in the states along the Mexico/US border. Since 1994 the Proyecto Videoastas Indigenas de la Frontera Sur (Indigenous Videomakers of the Southern Border), headed by Axel Kohler, Xochitl Leyva and Pedro Daniel López, has provided training for young media makers from Mayan communities throughout Chiapas—highlands, valleys and the Lacandon forest.
Since the founding in early 1996 of a CVI in Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan, the city has become a hotbed of independent Purhepecha film activities, including the work of Pavel Rodríguez and Raúl Máximo Cortés, who are producing dramatic reenactments of Purhepecha history with a uniquely Purhepecha aesthetic. When the Morelia International Film Festival (styled after the US’s Sundance Film Festival) began six years ago, it included a large section of regional indigenous work as well as sponsored an annual colloquium to discuss with international Native filmmakers the state of indigenous media today. The 2009 festival premiered The Little Seed in the Asphalt and presented a retrospective of Purhepecha independent Dante Cerano’s works, crafted by his humorous and adventurous documentary style, such as Dia 2 (Day 2), observing all the traditional social obligations being performed by a bride and groom the day after their wedding. The CVI in Morelia has just presented its 5th annual Indigenous Video Festival.
Bolivia is the first and only country in the Americas to have a national indigenous media plan. In 1989 Bolivian filmmaker Ivan Sanjinés launched CEFREC to train indigenous communicators. By 1996 these indigenous media makers had formed their own council, CAIB (Bolivian Indigenous-Aboriginal Audiovisual Council), and worked indefatigably to develop a policy, the Sistema Nacional de Comunicación Indigena Originaria Campesina Intercultural. A generation of filmmakers from different regions and communities are making documentaries on the indigenous resurgence on Bolivia’s national stage. Unique in Latin America has been Bolivia’s fresh development of the genre of fiction and docudrama, working with both professional and community actors to tell community stories and traditional tales. The actor and director Reynaldo Yujra (Aymara), Patricio Luna (Aymara), and Marcelina Cárdenas (Quechua) are among those who have shown their works in the United States, and most recently, in a European tour launched in Spain, whose national and Basque cultural organizations have offered much support to the Bolivian media community.
In other countries—Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Venezuela–indigenous media is being developed by individual community producers or indigenous social organizations, often fueled by the necessity to get the indigenous news out to the national community, and to express concerns facing many remote communities about exploitation of nearby resources and being left out of the national discourse on development that so profoundly affects their communities. Among leading indigenous directors in this region are director Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche) in Chile, who currently heads the Latin American Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Film and Communication (CLACPI), pioneer director and film instructor Alberto Muenala (Kichwa) who has worked in Ecuador since the early nineties, photographer, filmmaker and curator David Hernández-Palmar (Wayuu) who works bi-nationally in Venezuela and Colombia, and the dedicated team of the Communication Network of the Northern Councils of Cauca (ACIN) in southern Colombia.
THE POWER OF FESTIVALS
The widely various initiatives in each country, and the numerous individual groups, become a cohesive social, political and cultural community, even if temporarily, in the gatherings provided by film festivals and regional and international meetings focused on the role and possibilities of media. Key among these is the Festival Internacional de Cine y Video de los Pueblos Indigenas, organized biennially by CLACPI (Latin American Council of Indigenous Peoples’ Film and Communication) to show about 100 works from Latin America and other countries. Founded by a group of committed filmmakers and visual anthropologists, the festival since 1994 has been run exclusively by indigenous organizations. There have been festivals have been produced on a rotating basis in different countries including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Venezuela, with the next festival to be held in Colombia in 2012.
And where can these works be seen? Since 1990 the National Museum of the American Indian’s Film and Video Center has developed a strong Latin American Program. In the NMAI’s biennial Native American Film + Video Festival (most recently in 2011) the Program screens about 40 new indigenous Latin American works, most of them US premieres. The FVC maintains an on-site study collection. The festival brings almost all the producers to the US to join in a hemispheric gathering of native filmmakers that can share concerns and network. The Latin American Program develops media tours to bring the media makers from different regions and their works to US audiences, and has already showcased works from Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil as well as organizing a tour of US native media in Mexico. To be a connector for the hemisphere’s Native media makers and the public, it produces the only Internet site dedicated to Native film, video, radio, youth media, and film festivals ((www.NativeNetworks.si.edu (English)/RedesIndigenas.si.edu (español).
Other venues north of Mexico where indigenous Latin American productions screen include Cine las Americas Film Festival in Austin, Texas; First Peoples’ Festival/Presence Autocthone in Montreal; Weeneebeg Film Festival in Moose Factory, Ontario; imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto and Sundance Film Festival. Screening sites also include the many transnational Latin American indigenous and migrant´s community centers in the US and Canada where video screenings in local settings become lively encounters with places now far away.