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Grupo Ukamau

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2014

Blood of the Condor

Blood of the Condor

This is a film collective based in Bolivia and unfortunately their work is very difficult to see in the UK. It was formed in 1968 and included Jorge Sanjinés, director: Osca Soria, scriptwriter: Antonio Eguino, cinematographer: and Ricardo Rada, producer.  Bolivia is a land-locked country in the central Andes, named after the great Liberator Simon Bolivar. The population is divided between Quechua and Aymara Indians, mestizos [of mixed European and Indian descent] and a small elite of European descent. Soon after the Spanish conquest silver was discovered. Mining became and has remained the most important economic activity, though natural gas has joined this in recent decades. As is the case elsewhere in Latin America the modern period has alternated between military coups [apparently 189 by 1980] and ‘democratic’ government,

The Grupo Ukamau took their name from a film made for the Bolivian Film Institute. It dramatised the exploitation of the indigenous Aymara Indians through the tale of revenge by an Indian on a mestizo [a petit bourgeois] who raped his wife. The final confrontation takes place on the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau. Whilst this involves just the two men [shades of Greed, 1923] it quite clearly involves class and ethnic conflicts. It was certainly seen as critical by the then military government who dismissed the group members who then developed independent film production.

In 1969 the group made what is probably their most famous film, Blood of the Condor (Yalwar Mallku). Filmed in black and white it recounted actual events when members of the US ‘Progress Corps’ [‘gringos’, also known as the Peace Corp] were secretly sterilising Quechua women under the guise of medical aid. The film was initially banned but aroused great interest and in 1971 the Peace Corp was expelled from Bolivia. The film also attracted international attention and was seen as part of the New Latin American Cinema emerging across the continent. Whilst the film was made with the help of the Indian villagers who appear in the film, its form is recognisably similar to western art films. There is a complex use of flashbacks and overall the film fits into the melodrama of protest mould. One obvious influence is Soviet Montage, and the final freeze frame of the film with upraised rifles appears to homage October 1927. Both this film, Ukamau and later films make use of the quena or Indian wooden flutes.

The Grupo members became critical of their own approach and the form of their next major feature, Courage of the People (El coraje del pueblo, 1971), was different. The film dramatised the massacre of striking miners in 1967. Witnesses to these events provided the substance of the film and appeared in it. The Grupo members took care to discuss both the form and content of the film with this community as it was made. Noticeably the film eschews the use of flashbacks [which some Indians found confusing] and of close-ups, tending to the long take. The witnesses provide multiple narration of the events: and the form of the film is elliptical and still complex. The focus shifts from the individual protagonist familiar in dominant cinema to ‘the solidarity of the group’.

A period of exile split the group and two further features were made outside Bolivia by Rada and Sanjinés. The Principal Enemy (El enemigo principal, Peru/Bolivia 1973) describes events in Peru in 1963 when an Indian community struggled for justice. The film includes the recollections of a community leader setting out the long struggle of the community from the time of the Spanish invasion onwards.  Get out of Here! (Fuera de Aqui, Bolivia/Ecuador 197) recounts a struggle by Andean Indians to protect their land from a multi-national corporation. In a parallel with Blood of the Condor a US religious sect is part of the process of expropriation.

Title

Two more films were then made in Bolivia and in colour. Banners of the Dawn (Banderas del amanecer, Bolivia 1983) is a documentary tracing democratic struggles against dictatorship between 1978 and 1983. And there is what appears to be the last film by Ukamau to get a substantial release in Europe, The Clandestine Nation (La nación clandestina, Bolivia 1989 with funding from the UK/C4, Spain, Germany and Japan). The film recounts the journey, physical and mental, of an Indian representative who is corrupted by dealings with a US food programme. His journey is one of repentance and expiation, but it is also an exploration of the community values and rituals. Sanjinés, and his cinematographer César Pérez, adhere to the practice of long takes or sequence shots, emphasising the community and the landscape in which it lives. The film does return to the use of flashbacks, but these are integrated into the contemporary as the camera ‘pans’ rather than cuts from past to present. This is effectively a type of complex montage similar to that seen at work in Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946).

Ukamau have made further films since then [Para recibir el canto de los pájaros (1995), released in Bolivia and Germany; Los hijos del último jardín (2004), released in Bolivia and Japan] but they do not appear to have circulated Europe. The most recent film Insurgents (2012) has only enjoyed releases in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico.

Apart from the film work Sanjinés and the Ukamau Group have produced agitational and theoretical material. The major work is a set of Manifestos, ‘Theory & Practice Of A Cinema With the People’.  The carefully worded title is important. One of the developing emphases in Ukamau’s work is giving cinematic voice to the subjects, transforming them from the objects of dominant cinema. In Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema:

A film about the people made by an author is not the same as a film made by the people through an author. As the interpreter and translator of the people, such an author becomes their vehicle. When the relations of creation change, so does content and, in a parallel process, form.“

The point is illustrated by comparisons drawn between Blood of the Condor and The Principal Enemy.

When we filmed Blood of the Condor with the peasants of the remote Kaata community, we certainly intended that the film should be a political contribu­tion, denouncing the gringos and presenting a picture of Bolivian social reality. But our fundamental objective was to explore our own aptitudes. We cannot deny this, lust as we cannot deny that our relations with the peasant actors were at that time still vertical. We still chose shots according to our own personal taste, without taking into account their communicability or cultural overtones. The script had to be learned by heart and repeated exactly. In certain scenes we put the emphasis entirely on sound, without paying attention to the needs of the spectators, for whom we claimed we were making the film. They needed images, and complained later when the film was shown to them. …

During the filming of Courage of the People, many scenes were worked out on the actual sites of the historical events we were reconstructing, through discussion with those who had taken part in them and who had a good deal more right than us to decide how things should be done. Furthermore, these protagon­ists interpreted the events with a force and conviction which professional actors would have found difficult. These compañeros not only wanted to convey their experiences with the same intensity with which they had lived them, but also fully understood the political objectives of the film, which made their participation in it an act of militancy. They were perfectly clear about the usefulness of the film as a means of declaring throughout the country the truth of what had hap­pened. So they decided to make use of it as they would a weapon. We, the members of the crew, became instruments of the people’s struggle, as they expressed themselves through us!

This is notable both in the visual and aural style of the film.

Our decision to use long single shots in our recent films was determined by the content itself. We had to film in such a way as to produce involvement and participation by the spectator. It would have been no use in The Principal Enemy, for example, to have jumped sharply into close-ups of the murderer as he is being tried by the people in the square, because the surprise which the sudden introduction of a close-up always causes would have undercut the development of the sequence as a whole, whose power comes from within the fact of collective participation in the trial and the participation by the audience of the film which that evokes. The camera movements do no more than mediate the point of view and dramatic needs of the spectator, so that s/he may become a participant. Sometimes the single shot itself includes close-ups, but these never get closer to the subject than would be possible in reality. Sometimes the field of vision is widened between people and heads so that by getting closer we can see and hear the prosecutor. But to have intercut a tight close-up would have been brutally to interpose the director’s point of view, imposing mean­ings which should arise from the events themselves. But a close-up which is arrived at from amongst the other people present, as it were, and together with them, carries a different meaning and expresses an attitude more consistent with what is taking place within the frame, and within the substance of the film itself.

Distribution and exhibition were equally seen as essential aspects of film work.

In Bolivia, before the appalling eruption of fascism there, the Ukamau Group’s films were being given intensive distribution. Blood of the Condor was seen by nearly 250,000 people! We were not content to leave this distribution solely to the conventional commercial circuits, and took the film to the countryside together with projection equipment and a generator to allow the film to be shown in villages where there is no electricity.

The article also refers to similar practices by other groups of filmmakers in Argentina, Chile [before the coup], and Ecuador. The Manifesto clearly falls within the wider ambit of the New Latin American Cinema that arose in the 1960s. One can see crossovers between this statement and analysis and other works like ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ and ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’.

The prime focus of Ukamau is the Andean Indian communities who are the subjects of their films. But their work also offers an important example for other filmmakers. I went back and revisited their work after critically viewing two Palestinian films.

Five Broken Cameras is a record of a village under occupation by Israel as it constructs the ‘separation wall’. The filmmaker and major protagonist in the film, Emad Burnat, was assisted in producing the film by Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. What emerges is the voice of this Palestinian farmer: given voice in part through the cinematic skills of the Israeli filmmaker. The film’s power resides mainly presenting this voice and this experience. The major weakness in the film is a lack of an analytical overview: something that I have noted in a number of documentaries set in Palestine. The work of Ukamau offers an example of both giving voice but also drawing out the actual overall social relations at work.

The second film is Apples of Golan. This is a documentary made by two Irish filmmakers in an area occupied by Israel along the Golan Heights, bordering Syria. This film is also very effective but a major weakness is a rather confused presentation of the politics of the people. Whilst the local population oppose the Israeli occupation there is also a strong sense of support for President Assad in Syria, who is seen as a protector. The filmmakers obviously found this a problematic aspect. And the film does not really present a clear sense of the community’s take on this. In fact, in a Q&A, it transpired that the editing took place in Dublin and that the ‘form of the film’ emerged in this process. This is the opposite of the methodology developed by Ukamau and would seem to explain the lack of clarity.

Theory & Practice appeared in Spanish in Siglo XXI Editores in 1979. A translation into English by Richard Schaaf was published in the USA by Curbstone Press in 1989. In 1983 a translation by Malcom Coad of Problems of Form and Content appeared in a BFI Publication for Channel 4, Twenty-five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan.

The Workers Film Association Media & Cultural Centre in Manchester had Ukamau films in its catalogue, so it is worth checking with them.

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