19 June 2013

An Ethnobiographical Film by Jorge Preloran

Jorge Preloran (1933-2009) was an Argentinian-American filmmaker who developed a unique style of ethnobiographical documentary film during the 1960s. One of his most well known works in this genre is Hermogenes Cayo, the Spanish language version of which he made in 1969. A year later, Preloran collaborated with American Anthropologist Robert Gardner to produce an English language version of the film under the title Imaginero. In this film we have the sensitive and human portrayal of a folk artist living on the puna of Northwestern Argentina. The subject of the film, Hermogenes Cayo, is a self made man with a deep dedication to both folk Catholicism and the plastic arts. His creativity and ingenuity reveal a self confidence rarely found in descriptions of Andean lifeways.

The film allows Hermogenes to narrate in his own language, Spanish, some twenty years of his life. Though impoverished, he seems more than satisfied with his lot. His accomplishments are impressive. He produces paintings, altars, and images, and even designs and builds a chapel. When faced with the complexities of a broken harmonium, an instrument he has never seen before, he first rebuilds it without guidance and then proceeds to fashion one for himself from memory. As explanation as to how he accomplishes all this, he states simply that "these things are not of a different world; they were made by men just like me ... All you have to do is be determined and by thinking, thinking ... you can invent machines."

The film picks up the thread of Hermogenes' life at middle age and then, in flash backs, takes him to Buenos Aires. There, in 1946, he participated in the "Raid of Peace" as one of 175 peasants from the puna demanding restoration of ancestral lands that for centuries had belonged to the Church. As participant in the "Raid," he walked 1500 miles over several months time. The trip opened entirely new worlds to him. While in Buenos Aires, he visited nearby Lujan, the great Argentine center of religious pilgrimage. There he encountered forms that were to inspire him throughout the rest of his life.

On returning to the puna, Hermogenes took a woman. After living with her for over ten years, he one day was removed from a religious procession by a German missionary priest who objected to his "living in sin." Instead of turning against religion, Hermogenes reasoned that a man as religious as himself needed order in his life, and so he arranged a formal wedding. The film chronicles the wedding preparations and the ceremony. Since the wedding took place on February 2, the feast of Our Lady of Copacabana, its documentation simultaneously shows the blessing of household saints and Andean dance groups such as the wacawacas. Hermogenes's marriage, unfortunately, did not last long. Approximately one year after the ceremony he died of pneumonia. At death, he was sixty years old.

Hermogenes Cayo's life style was that of Andean, rather than Argentinian man, in cultural terms far more closely related to Bolivia than to Buenos Aires. In colonial days the section of northwestern Argentina shown in the film was part of Alto Peru. Race, economic base, religion, and even dress remain today an integral part of a cultural tradition that stretches from the Peruvian altiplano south. Filmmaker Preloran concentrates on the religious aspect of this tradition and, in particular, on its static qualities. He sees it as totally Spanish, rather than as the synthetic hybrid uncovered by anthropologists. In his words: "what happened was that the Jesuits came into that area with the Conquistadores in the 16th century and displaced native religion. And then it was frozen ... absolutely frozen. And the religion has not changed in 400 years. So today, you still have processions, the cult of images, the other religious festivities of that time, which of course have changed even in Spain; but there they remained exactly the same."

By focusing on one man through a lengthy period of his life, and by allowing that man himself to narrate the film, Preloran has produced the most believable portrait yet of Andean man. His excellent photography and careful editing keep the audience spell-bound. Colors, music, deliberateness, and long silences all ring as authentic for anyone who knows central Andean plateaus. The fact that this is a truly superb film, however, does not preclude flaws - particularly as seen from the point of view of the anthropologist. First of all, in dubbing English translation into Cayo's narrative, much becomes lost. There are spots where it is difficult to understand what is said in either language. Second, the matter of techniques and media used by the artist is very poorly presented. Students of folk art will be greatly disappointed, for they will learn nothing about the paints the artist employs, the canvases (or boards?) on which he paints, or the steps he takes to come up with a finished product. Nor will they have adequate information on the volume of works the artist produced. Most serious of all, however, is the fact that the film presents Hermogenes Cayo largely outside his social context. Even though Preloran assures us that his subject is extroverted and self confident, there seems to be consider- able evidence that he is marginal, and even borders on being a recluse. Hermogenes speaks of a friend, Ambrosio, but we learn nothing of the man. He refuses to participate in carnival, and in fact calls it the work of the devil. Yet anyone with any acquaintance of Andean culture knows that, as a rite of intensification, carnival is one of the most important events of each year. From his Lujan experience onward, Hermogenes considers himself a slave of the blessed virgin, and dedicates all his spare time and efforts to religion. While such intense religiosity is often found among folk peoples of the Andes, it is the exception rather than the rule. One explanation for such unusual orientation may lie in the fact that neither Hermogenes nor his wife knew their fathers. They seem to have been social isolates from birth. His role as religious chanter and image maker seems to have done little to break down his isolation. At his death only three mourners gathered. This, in a culture in which deep bilateral kin ties are the norm, seems unusual to say the least. Not even the fact that families in the area live from three to four miles apart adequately explains the event.

In all fairness to Jorge Preloran, however, it must be said that he never intended to present ethnography. He was working on several documentaries on the cultures of northwestern Argentina. While filming the feast of Our Lady of the Assumption in Casabindo, a hamlet lost in the 12,000 foot high desert that borders on Bolivia and Chile, he was told, by a school teacher, of a Colla artist who would make an interesting subject. For six months Preloran periodically visited Hermogenes, getting to know him as a person. The longer he knew the man, the more his admiration grew. He set up a tape recorder and let Hermogenes talk. From these conversations the idea of a film gradually took shape.

In February, 1966, shooting began with the documentation of Hermogenes's wedding. From then on, Preloran filmed off-and-on for over a year. He was still preparing documentaries in the area and would visit Hermogenes whenever he had time. On returning one day to take additional footage, he was shocked to find that his subject had died. Until that time, Preloran had felt no urgency in his endeavor, nor had he seriously thought of how he was going to make a film out of the footage. By listening anew to Hermogenes's taped narrative, and imposing a heavy editorial hand, Preloran gradually worked his disjointed sequences into a film. In doing so, he tried to keep uppermost the portrait of a living man. He succeeded superbly. In the end, Hermogenes Cayo emerged as a Renaissance type, not only in art style and religious perception, but in wide ranging curiosity and competence. His life, combining constant deprivation with an equally constant search for perfection, speaks in a universal way to the human condition.

Preloran's work brings a challenging dimension to the world of ethnographic films. He criticizes most such endeavors on the grounds that they concentrate overmuch on material culture. He argues that such films should rather present the dramatic flow of natural events, with the unabashed purpose of making an emotional impact. His approach is being amazingly well received. The Argentine National Fund for the Arts was forced to expand an originally planned single showing to six, and Film Comment recently published a nine page interview on his work.

Imaginero gives the most sensitive portrayal of an Andean man yet to be produced by the film medium. Its subject is presented with respect, sensitivity, and a refreshing absence of patronization. As a work of art, and even as ethnography, it is a must for any library which attempts to collect materials on either Latin America or folk art.

[This is a slightly edited version of a film review by William E. Carter that was originally published in American Anthropologist, Vol. 73, No. 6 (December 1971), pp. 1473-75. Further information about the films of Jorge Preloran is available in Louis Werner's essay 'Cineaste of the Human Angle.' Documentary Educational Resources has a filmmaker profile of Jorge Preloran, and has announced its upcoming release of several Preloran films on DVD.]

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