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By Alexander Provan

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA, 29 November 2006—An Aymara shaman doles out coca leaves to campesinos , exhorts them to participate in the re-founding of the Bolivian state, then calmly strides back into the lake from which he emerged. A whimsical animation depicting the creation of man and woman by Pachamama (Mother Earth) plays over an artfully abstracted scene of a ritual offering in an indigenous village. Finally, interviews with social movement leaders interwoven with footage of uprisings in 2000 and 2003 document the defeat of multinationals attempting to privatize the country’s water supply and the expulsion of a President bowing to IMF demands that he increase taxes on the country’s poor.

In Bolivia, the revolution is taking pains to be televised. The above film, ¿Ahora de Quien Es La Verdad? (Now Whose Is the Truth?), is a 2006 production of the La Paz-based Cinematography Education and Production Center (CEFREC), which has been providing resources and training for indigenous communities in Bolivia to make their own films since 1986. Members of those communities are the foundation of leftist social movements that overthrew the government in 2003 and made Evo Morales Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005. (CEFREC has no formal ties to Morales or his Movement Toward Socialism party.)

Though sixty percent of the population here counts itself as indigenous—mostly Aymara, Quechua and Guarani—soap operas, billboards, magazines and popular films are uniformly blanched, rarely showing indigenous people outside the realm of protest and poverty. If popular media offer ideal social images, the Bolivian model is assimilation (and exclusion for those who refuse it).

Iván Sanjinés, the forty-year-old son of Bolivia’s most prominent director, Jorge Sanjinés, founded CEFREC to provide the country’s historically oppressed indigenous groups the means to tell their own stories and "manage their own images." Films like ¿Ahora de Quien Es La Verdad? aim to counteract the hegemony of imposed Western visual discourses without asserting a vision of a singular indigenous alternative to replace it.

If anything, CEFREC productions are visually and thematically multifarious, an achievement that reflects the group’s filmmaking practice: thirty members work with indigenous communities in order to create work tailored specifically to their needs, addressing the issues confronting them. The result is an anomalous amalgamation of autoethnography, documentary, myth, narrative and landscape. There is no director or production hierarchy, a gesture meant to mirror the traditional organization of Bolivia’s indigenous communities and to combat the idea, propagated by early ethnographic work and current popular media, that indigenous people within a certain area are more or less the same.

In fact, communication between Latin and Central America’s diverse indigenous populations, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, only began in earnest following the landmark Quito conference in 1990. That meeting of hundreds of delegates from twenty countries called for collaboration between indigenous groups to establish self-determination and social equality 500 years after "the invasion of our peoples by European empires." As the success of CEFREC has mirrored a left turn in Bolivia, the rise of indigenous concerns from the back burner to the fore of national politics across the Americas has been reflected (and stoked) by the emergence of similar groups, from Chirapaq in Peru to Chiapas Media Project in Mexico to One Sky Productions, which supports indigenous filmmakers in Ecuador,

In the United States and Canada, decades-old film production movements in Native American and Inuit communities have exploded into the mainstream with acclaimed films like Smoke Signals (1998) and The Fast Runner (2001). Smithsonian’s Native Networks project has spearheaded the effort to hold film festivals dedicated to the work of indigenous filmmakers, which have facilitated dialogue among and between historically isolated populations. Sanjinés maintains that CEFREC productions are primarily for communication between indigenous groups scattered across the Americas—CEFREC now produces about twenty films each year in Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador—but a recent tour through four major Bolivian cities, which included narratives approaching feature length, hints at a broader target audience.

Renacer (To Be Reborn), the narrative feature, follows a ranch-hand named Roberto as he struggles to survive after being callously fired by his racist boss when a horse-riding accident leaves him temporarily disabled. Other recent productions include documentaries on a community-run radio station in the tumultuous coca-growing region of Chapare; the history of the indigenous rights movement in the Andean countries; and the devastation of indigenous lands by foreign gas and mining corporations.

Since the 1980s, Sanjinés has recognized that issues surrounding the status of Bolivia’s indigenous population had to be communicated visually. For most of Bolivia’s modern history, Sanjinés asserts, "Nobody saw or heard indigenous people in the media, except for a few rural radio stations." In Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, the digital divide is still more about access to traditional media like television and radio than internet; video has proved to be a powerful tool in bridging that divide and drawing attention to, if not yet mending, the social chasm which underlies it. "The more these issues are put out in the open," Sanjinés hopes, "and the more powerfully they are addressed, the closer we come to finding solutions for these problems, which are the same for all Bolivians."

Alexander Provan is a writer living in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  He has contributed to the Associated Press from Latin America.

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