06 October 2010

An Exhibition of 1980s Latin American Video

Oliver Stone's 1986 film Salvador might remind some viewers of just how often the reading of Latin American experience in North America has to slog its way through the troubled characterizations of self and other alive in the minds of many North Americans, of whatever political stripe. Stone's leading men traverse a dark night of the soul in El Salvador, using the political circumstances of that country to determine just who they are and who they are not. However favorable or controversial the film's political take on El Salvador might be to the viewer, the film remains in its essence a feverish meditation on the state of mind among some North American white males - presumably a marketable way to introduce the consequences of U.S. interventions in the the Third World to the public at large. A pragmatic approach to U.S. media politics might suggest that those of us interested in justice in Central and Latin America should be pleased at Hollywoodish renderings of situations south of the Rio Grande that cast any favorable light on combatants swathed in the the U.S. government's red paintbrush. The other hand suggests that such renderings are a surreal usage of complex, succinct political realities - like the circumstances of the rape and murder of Jean Donovan and three other American nuns in El Salvador in 1980 or Charles Horman's demise as portrayed in the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing - to heighten the horrors experienced by U.S. expatriates. The assumption is that we won't understand it or be interested unless it happens to our anti-heroes.

Various individuals and distribution groups have ignored that assumption in favor of a lively engagement with cross-cultural exchange of film and video productions, among them, El Salvador Media Project, Icarus Films, Cinema Guild, and X-Change TV. The appearance of the eight-hour video program Democracy in Communication: Popular Video and Film in Latin America marks a further effort to broaden the representation of Latin America to English speaking audiences. There is obvious value to this in the fact this exhibition consisted largely of the work of a wide variety of independent Latin American producers representing their own countries to themselves. Videomaker Karen Ranucci compiled over 30 tapes from nine different countries during a year spent working as a freelance videographer-journalist in Latin America. The result is an absorbing mixed bag of fiction, documentary, and music video and film that parlays obvious overall value into diverse detail. There's something here for everybody, whether you are concerned wit the state of war in El Salvador or the state of experimental filmmaking in Mexico. Or the state's sense of humor in Nicaragua.

Ranucci unearthed these works in roughly two-week stints spent tracking down any producers she could find in each country. In strictly academic terms, this suggests that a thorough country-by-country representation of popular video and film is not this exhibition's strong point. Since the majority of the tapes have been edited by Ranucci for easier North American distribution (this might account for plot confusion in several), we are not seeing much of this work as it emerged fully conceived from the hands of its producers.

Democracy in Communication is governed instead by a concern for expanding alternative channels of communications distribution in North America. The exhibit remains flexible to whatever venues might show it, be that full or partial viewings at festivals, universities, galleries, libraries, solidarity groups, public access television, or even, in one instance, such institutions as Bell Laboratories. As such, the tapes provide a broad exploratory look into the arena of Latin American productions, in the interests of creating avenues and demand for a great deal more.

The project of attaining democracy in communication is not as simple as fighting the equal time in North America for Latin American producers. For the most part, these programs are selected from efforts within each country to create alternative media space. That means one thing Nicaragua, there no independent video was produced before the overthrow of Somoza in 1979 and where media becomes very much a part of a state in the process of creating itself. It means quite another in El Salvador, where independent production existed entirely within the exigencies of low intensity conflict and guerrilla war. In Brazil and Mexico, both with huge television broadcast corporations heavily engaged in export, independent producers must contend in the margins of markets dominated by forces represented by a sales rep in the international marketing arm of Mexico's TV conglomerate Televisa, one of whom was quoted by Variety magazine as saying: "The public is tired of seeing stories about poor people leading miserable lives."

There is not enough information, however, within the scope of the exhibition for the uninitiated viewer to draw a definitive picture of each country's television broadcast situation. The vitality of individual productions and the juxtaposition of those productions country by country instead introduces a range of issues alive in the minds of those Latin Americans not firmly situated inside the marketing profile. What does the collection include? Small-format community video and organizing tapes from Mexico, Brazil, and Chile. Fiction and documentary film from Peru. Music video from Panama and Peru. Satirical newscasts from Brazil, the BBC picturing Chile, a fascinating video standoff between the government and the guerrillas in El Salvador, television game shows in Nicaragua, and more, although at the time of its initial distribution titles from Bolivia and Uruguay were unsubtitled.

A five-minute cross section of one afternoon of Mexican TV introduced both that country and the premise that U.S. values and multinational commerce dominate much of Latin TV of the day. From popular American 1980s dramas like Magnum PI to commercials for Superlock pantyhose and Mr Clean to Lionel Richie singing "we made our choice" for Pepsi to scenes from ubiquitous Mexican telenovelas exhibiting the vaseline-teeth look of love, viewers may deduce the premise, or the mountain, against which the entire rest of the exhibition makes its assault.

That's a reasonable enough entry and it reasonably disappears into tapes and films that make the world their business according to the interests of the communities and individuals from which they are created. My particular favorites from Mexico are Amas de Casa (Housewives) and Nuestro Tequio (Our Tequio) which were made, respectively, in an urban barrio and in a Zapotec community in the state Oaxaca. Amas features housewives banding together in a union to fight an eviction notice by literally driving the server out into the street to the accompaniment of fireworks set off from the roofs by young boys. The tape was produced by women filmmakers as part of an organizing effort to help neighborhood women combat real evictions. This staged eviction suggests all the awkwardness and enthusiasm of people making use of video to work out their battle plans.

Nuestro Tequio was made by Zapotecas whose purpose is to document their own culture and institutions. The "tequio" is an all day community event where hundreds of people from all over the region gather to perform some community service, in this case restoring the roof of their city hall building. This plot is simple: the roof needs fixing, the roof gets fixed by hundreds of men marching tins of cement up stairs to the flourishing strains of what I only know how to describe as something like "oompah" music. It's a grand 10-minute representation of how the infrastructures of community can be cared for by its inhabitants with their own money and their own time. It's of interest to note that the videomakers raise money for their productions by working as migrant farm laborers in the U.S.

The explicit use of video for local organizing reappears in two tapes from Chile and Brazil. Blanca Azucena (White Lily) takes place in a village in southern Chile. It documents the process by which a group of 10 villagers become popular educators - teaching reading and crafts to local residents. The solid merits of this tape might be encapsulated in the manner in which all 10 educators squeeze onto and around a couch to watch themselves on TV while we watch them move through the various stages of shyness and delight that recognition of a job well done brings. Resistance to self-motivated community education is a matter of fact in Chile. By working out scenarios in video to deal with government and familial resistance, the educators create a model, as do the women in Amas, to apply to real life situations. Blanca Azucena goes a good bit further in documenting how the protagonists feel about their work. They watch themselves at work and see themselves as others see them. Says one, "We all managed to show something of ourselves. For me it was like seeing a poem."

Beijo Ardente (Overdose) was made by an independent video collective in Brazil in support of a group of artists in the city of Porto Alegre attempting create a cultural center by reconverting an old gas plant. The script goes for the jugular by representing politicians and industrialists in the body of a sleazy vampire with vague European origins who spends much of his time cowering in the bowels of the gas plant watching television while his skinhead assistant searches the environs for food, of course, female food. The vampire's rocky demise has more to do with vampire folklore updated to local humor than it does with the triumph of artists over industrialists, which makes this tape both amusing and somewhat predictable.

Brazil's other offerings include hilarious tapes of caricatured TV correspondent Ernesto Varela who takes his crew to watch the induction of a new director in the Xingu Indian National Park. Says Varela, "The Indians are very happy, dancing and singing. It's amazing the number of journalists here tonight," thus initiating numerous visual and verbal jokes regarding TV journalism's Cliff Notes approach to indigenous culture. Sound On/Vision On, a collage of predominantly Afro-Brazilian sounds and images, presents exactly that at some length with only slight and unenlightening commentary on the danger economic development projects are posing to indigenous culture. The opposition of the two styles, one cannily dismembering rote journalism and the other giving itself over to the visual and audio richness of its subjects, represents what is both provoking and rewarding about the exhibition in general. The geographical, political, and aesthetic territories covered are vast. Any one of these tapes suggests many more questions than can or will be answered neatly within the exhibition and its accompanying brochure.

In this light, a program like Chile's Forbidden Dream, a co-production of the BBC and the Chilean theater company ICTUS, satisfies the itch for overview while diminishing the spontaneity apparent in the variegated Brazilian tapes, or even in the above mentioned Chilean Blanca Azucena. A thorough recognition of the ravages wrought by the Pinochet government is laid out by an English narrator. This provides the context for excerpts of the ICTUS group's performances and tapes, many of which echo the theme that years of dictatorship have shrouded the imaginations of Chileans who have lost the ability to dream of, and therefore secure, a just society. That's a conceivable idea, complete unto itself. And particularly so for international audiences who might crave a metaphor they can lay their hands on. But the tape's focus on ICTUS as an artists' group representing the moral and political dilemmas of Chile leans to the precious. There are revealing moments toward the end of the tape when ICTUS directors muse over the fact that military censors still allow them to operate. "We are not significant," says one, and though this talented group's efforts to prove that art can conquer fear in Chile are spirited and relentless, the dominant metaphor of the forbidden dream framed in BBC style lends the tape a reductive quality.

By contrast, and in very different political circumstances, the tapes from El Salvador introduce in steely tones the dynamic propaganda war waged between the military and the guerrillas. Atlacatl is a short publicity tape made by the military and broadcast over state-controlled television. Atlacatl is both a legendary warrior Indian and the name of a special forces battalion trained by the United States as part of an intensified effort to shape up what in the early eighties was a slipshod fighting force.The opening shot backs away from an oversized statue of Atlacatl, "the pride of our race that has never been defeated," to reveal the battalion standing in the dark drinking in the words of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, who delivers his benediction swathed in the imposing shadow of the statue directly behind him. Monterrosa's face is broadly lit against the surrounding darkness in an apparent effort to further the demigod status of this man and his charges. The tape consists mostly of his speech and a pan on the faces of the intense, raring-to-go soldiery.

The reliance on a legendary figure pulled from a long-decimated indigenous population to promote the idea of single-minded, patriotic, deadly force plays off interestingly against the excerpt from Tiempo de Audacia (Time of Daring), a video and film production from the guerrilla communications system. This is something like pitting John Waynes against how people really talk. The clips opens on army soldiers jogging down a city street chanting, "If I catch you/I will kill you/Your blood I will drink/Your flesh I will eat." The excerpt goes on to detail in haunting visuals and edits the extensive domination of military training by the U.S. It opposes that to images of popular support for the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional shot in villages where the guerrillas have established themselves. I have discussed this work in some detail in an earlier article, "Freedom of Information Acts: Radio Venceremos Film Collective" (The Independent, April 2005). Suffice to say here that the clearly partisan approach by both sides allows us to glimpse the war in El Salvador squarely inside the arguments of those fighting it.

The third tape in this section, Los Refugiados (The Refugees), was made by North Americans and is a pragmatic exception to the rule of Latin American producers in this exhibition. It is based on extensive interviews with Salvadoran refugees and North American religious and legal workers in Long Island, New York, and works well within the tradition of talking heads-style documentary. In the context of Atlacatl and Tiempo de Audicia, it provides compelling and politically astute testimony from Salvadorans whose uncertain status as refugees in the U.S. fleshes out the nature of the war in a way that, say, Oliver Stone's there's-bad-guys-on-both-sides thesis in Salvador fails to do.

Propaganda is of course one of those dragons whose fire no objective North American observer wants to be caught breathing. But propaganda comes in all styles, from all countries, and it promotes both the best and the worst of causes depending on where the viewer makes a stand. A fundamental premise that should not be missed in this exhibition, and in subsequent efforts to distribute Latin American videos, is that the nature of particular struggles can be understood and judged through the efforts of interested parties. For instance, we understand something about the nature of U.S. involvement in Central America by hearing Ronald Reagan's early characterization of Oliver North as a hero.

We understand something about the differing political climate within Central America by going from El Salvador to Nicaragua. Nicaraguan television is produced under a variety of auspices, from state television to independent workshops. The best selections show a rambunctious, if less technically fine, approach to shortages and political aggression from the north. One of these, Que Pasa con el Papel Higencio? (What Happened to the Toilet Paper?), was produced by the agrarian reform ministry and details highly uninhibited public criticism of the government's approach to this particularly affecting shortage. Another, La Virgen Que Suda (The Sweating Virgin), was produced by the government television system, Sandinista TV. It is based on an incident much trumpeted by the now closed U.S.-backed newspaper La Prensa in which a statue of the Virgin Mary was frozen in a bath in order that she might later appear to be sweating her displeasure at the Sandinistas. It features a rubber-masked Uncle Sam riding his horse south of the border to the strains of "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Sam speaks a hilarious Yankee Spanish ("Que pasa in Nick-er-ah-gwa?") and exhorts the sultry Ms. La Prensa to do something to ruffle the Sandinistas' relationship with the church. Everybody hams it up in a drama that shows some local people succumbing to greed and deceit while others, in the true spirit of the revolution, uncover the plot and turn them in. The mix of ribald hilarity with state righteousness won't do much to clarify limping debates here about government censorship in Nicaragua. What will clarify that debate is implicit in the video - the cessation of U.S. military interventions in Nicaragua.

The ravages of the contra war are made explicit in an independent workshop production of stand-up testimonies by people directly affected. Such testimony is essential to any representation of Nicaragua, but this tape suffers in translation from an excess of rhetoric about the need to consolidate the revolution. An entirely different approach to war and oppression comes in the form of a music video from Peru about the disappearances of India peasants in the state of Ayacucho. The song is "Desaparecidos" by Ruben Blades, an extraordinary lyrical rendering of verses about persons in search of their loved ones. The video literally applies the lyrics to testimonies given by Indians whose family members have disappeared under violent circumstances. The combination of art and document is seamless. No so for the producer, who after the appearance of this video lost his job with Peruvian TV for unauthorized use of file tapes.

According to the exhibition notes, independent video production in Peru barely exists. The two 16mm films included present a more studied approach to Peruvian concerns than much of the video. Both are produced under the auspices of Grupo Chaski, a collective of over 35 filmmakers. Gregorio is a feature length fiction about a young Indian boy whose family must migrate to Lima in search of work. The accompanying tragedy of the father's death and Gregorio's gradual evolution into one of a throng of Lima's street kids rings a familiar bell regarding what urban migration does to disenfranchise traditional culture. The strength of this film lies in the determined attention it pays to the look and feel of transience as expressed by the main character.

Miss Universe in Peru plays off the simultaneous occurrence of the Miss Universe Contest and a National Conference of Peasant Women in Lima. A number of themes throughout the exhibition surface in this film, which variously interviews peasant women and contestants and plays those interviews against official television statements trumpeting the benefits the contest portends for Peruvian tourism. "It is evidently a commercial enterprise," says the contestant from Chile. "We are here in a congress and want to move forward. Maybe we aren't beautiful, but these women exhibit themselves like animals," says a peasant woman from the conference. "They carry the message of peace," says a representative of the contest, after she has just finished telling a story about Miss Argentina teaching Spanish to Miss Great Britain. All this is interspersed with television spots promoting the good life for blond women, exploiting Inca heritage as a tourist commodity, and showing contestants rehearsing their routines (among them a Miss Transkei) preparatory to an even that will be attended by all the bigwigs in Lima, including the U.S. ambassador. The careful orchestration between an international television presence, the marketing of women, and the defiance exhibited by indigenous women of Peru deconstructs the meaning of Miss Universe in a way not unlike the full effects of this exhibition.

Democracy in Communication opens doors into the diversity of Latin American productions made in the early 1980s. Its limits as an anthology lie to some extent in the scarcity of accompanying information, concerning both country-by-country political circumstances and the complicated world of communications in North/South relations. The collection's great merits reside in the pioneering effort to create the groundwork for a richly detailed map of popular video and film in Latin America that contributes to a world viewed through the dynamic particulars of the people who inhabit it. In doing so, it rightly presumes upon the intelligence of North American and global audiences alike to take note of what they see.

[This is a slightly edited version of an article by Jane Creighton that was originally published under the title "The Other Americas: Popular Video and Film in Latin America" in the film and video monthly The Independent, Vol. 10, No. 5, June 1987, pp. 18-21. At the time of its writing, Creighton was coordinating a series of readings for the "War and Memory Project" of the Washington Project for the Arts. The article refers to an exhibition of Latin American film and video held in the mid 1980s. A followup festival with some of the same material was organized by Karen Ranucci in 1992. A selection of award winning programs from the latter collection is available on DVD (with online previewing) from Deep Dish TV. For more information about Latin American film and video, readers may find useful the book A Guide to Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Made Film and Video by Karen Ranucci and Julie Feldman (The Scarecrow Press, 1998).]

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