The conquest of the Americas did not end with the defeat of the Aztecs and Incas, it was only the initiation of a procession of protests, strikes, and uprisings between the indigenous peoples and colonizers, immigrant workers and landowners, slaves and masters, mass movements and dictatorships. The films that retell these struggles portray a dramatic history fixed in flux.
The ability for South American artists to capture such struggles changes with the regimes–if one favorable to the people manages to obtain power, the heroism and atrocities of previous generations may finally be told. Argentinian director Hector Olivera is a case in point, his sometimes satirical but always deadly serious work focuses on the individuals who struggle through dark times of political violence. In 1973 he made a REBELLION IN PATAGONIA, a film telling the story of a Patagonian wool farmer’s strike in the 1920’s, based on a previously banned book by the anarchist writer Osvaldo Bayer. When the dictatorship returned the book and its adaptation were once again banned. With a renewal of democracy in the 1980’s Olivera was free to make political work again, telling the story of the dictatorship’s torture and execution of student activists in NIGHT OF THE PENCILS.
With a majority indigenous population, many of whom continue to live a largely traditional lifestyle, landlocked Bolivia historically lagged behind the economic advances of its neighbors. In the 20th century, the State’s solution to lagging modernization occasionally relied on neo-eugenics, and Jorge Sanjines’s BLOOD OF THE CONDOR tells of an uprising of an indigenous village against North American “Progress Corp” volunteers who they believe sterilized women without their consent.
Together with the indigenous at the lowest rung of the caste system was the African slave, who, likewise, had a long history of struggle against their masters. The Maroon culture developed independently in Brazil with the Quilombos, the Black Seminoles in Floria, and Palenques in Colombia and Cuba. In the Cuban film MALUALA, a village of runaway slaves is depicted in colorful detail, both in terms of their music, traditions, and fashion, and their lifestyle of constant resistance to renewed subjugation.
REBELLION IN PATAGONIA
(aka LA PATAGONIA REBELDE)
Dir. Hector Olivera, 1974.
Argentina. 110 minutes.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 1 – 7:30PM
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7 – 7:30PM
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23 – 7:30PM
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 – 10PM
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26 – 10PM
Oswaldo Bayer’s historical novel Patagonia Rebelde, about an anarcho-syndicalist labor union’s insurrectionary uprising against the Argentinian elite in the 1920s, was banned and publicly burned in the 70’s before becoming a bestseller and feature film. The story begins with a hotel workers’ strike so successful one forgets why the working class would ever lose given its objective strength. But as the victorious anarchists sing their anthem, a group of Chilean laborers, immigrants among immigrants, sit quietly in the back of the labor hall. Although they have been elevated to equals by the principal of international solidarity, their silence foreshadows the bloodshed to come.
For decades, Argentinian politics swung between the Nationalist populism of Juan Peron and a series of military coups, eventually centrally coordinated under Operation Condor, aimed at suppressing the socialist elements that made him so widely popular.
In 1970 Bayer’s book was banned and publicly burned, but with Peron’s return in 1973, the leftist Jorge Cepernic was elected governor of the Patagonian state of Santa Cruz. He worked with Bayer and director Hector Olivera to create an epic film version of Patagonia Rebelde, featuring large scale protest and battle sequences. In 1976 the military seized power once again, ushering in a brutal 7 year dictatorship in which the film was banned, Bayer, Olivera, and several of the film’s actors were blacklisted, and Cepernic was imprisoned. In jail, he asked his warden if he deserved such cruel treatment simply for being a member of a Left-of-center party. “ No, you’re not a prisoner because of your affiliation,” the warden reportedly said. “You’re a prisoner because you allowed Rebellion in Patagonia to be filmed.”
THE NIGHT OF THE PENCILS
(aka EL NOCHE DE LOS LAPICES)
Dir. Hector Olivera, 1986.
Argentina. 105 minutes.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7 – 10PM
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21 – 7:30PM
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 24 – 5PM
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29- 7:30PM
The repression of Operation Condor was centrally organized by military commanders of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Broliva, and Brazil, aiming to finally wipe out any traces of marxist or revolutionary thought. Argentina saw the highest numbers of disappeared and executed leftists, between 15-30,000. When democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, Olivera was free to make films about the State terror he witnessed. El Noche de los Lapices depicts the organization of a student strike against increased bus fares in La Plata. Only a few months into the dictatorship, some of these students were kidnapped, raped, tortured, starved, and killed.
Beginning with an seemingly innocent protest against the increase of bus fares in La Plata, a student march is attacked by police. In the night, several of the organizers are rounded up by men posing as police and taken to a dungeon. Used as test subjects for torture, the fate of the students would mirror tens of thousands of others in the coming years. A cultural element in the process for “justice and reconciliation,” which included the imprisonment of some of the students’ torturers in 1985, Olivera used the testimony of one of the few survivors for his adaptation.
BLOOD OF THE CONDOR
(aka YAWAR MALLKU)
Dir. Jorge Sanjines, 1969.
Bolivia. 70 minutes.
In Quechua, English, and Spanish with English subtitles.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 8 – 10PM
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 – 7:30PM
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28 – 10PM
Ignacio, the tragic hero of Jorge Sajines’s first film, was a perfect stand-in for the utterly impotent situation Bolivia’s indigenous population faced in the 1960’s. When his wife’s third consercutive pregnancy terminates, he is driven into a rage, and she is the target. A series of flashbacks and flashforwards shows more violence in every direction. We soon find out the reason for all of it is the sketchy, but outwardly well-meaning American aid workers who recently appeared in the village.
Inspired by anti-Imperialist Marxism and new wave European cinema, this was the first feature of Sanjines, who would become one of Bolivia’s most awarded directors and a central figure in Latin America’s “Third Cinema” movement. The heavy-handed villainy of the Progress Corps gringos and the obedient facilitation of their schemes against the indigenous population by Bolivian authorities represents a political cosmology that radiates through the history of post-Colonial South America.
Sanjines worked with native actors and audiences alike, designing the film to be watched in indigenous communities that were not yet familiar with cinema. The results were mixed, as many did not understand narrative motifs such as the flashback sequences. Overall, the film was influential enough that repelling Peace Corps volunteers became a cause of cultural autonomism, and they were expelled altogether in 1971. Although it’s unlikely the Peace Corps was running a sterilization program, the history of condescension, instrumentalisation, and exploitation of indigenous people made the allegations ring true. Their very presence, along with the self-congratulatory Western doctor character, were symptomatic of an all-pervasive imperialist influence, alluded to by use of rock music and the culturally assimilated but still helplessly subservient Sixto, ensuring repressive hierarchies, and the violence inherent within them, remain firmly in place at every level.
Dir. Sergio Giral, 1979.
Cuba. 95 minutes.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5 – 7:30PM
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14 – 10PM
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20 – 10PM
With several historical films reflecting on the experience of slavery in Cuba, Sergio Giral is perhaps Cuba’s best known Afro-Cuban director. In Maluala, he takes up the subject of Cuba’s Palenques, a network of about 30 communities hidden in Cuba’s Eastern coast mountains comprised of runaway slaves with different ethnic origins, but a common cultural rejection of the bondage that brought them across the Atlantic.
Among these was Maluala, whose chief, Gallo, present a petition to be left alone by the Colonial government. The counteroffer is for the habitants of the Palenques to turn themselves in before being formally freed, a proposition three other chiefs accept, but Gallo refuses in a conflict reminiscent of Gillo Pontecorvo’s divide-and-conquer epic BURN!, only from the colonized’s perspective.