Igniting Reel Change

photo: James Stairs and Delphine Denoiseux

By  December 1, 2011

Native Bolivian communities fight for social change with the help of Quebec filmmakers.

The corner room on the third floor of the Residencial Sucreis very different from the other rooms in this hotel in downtown Copacabana, Bolivia.

Beds and furniture have been removed and a pile of mattresses lines one wall. The windows are closed and the drapes are pulled, preventing light and noise from the cobblestone streets below from disturbing the 11 people packed inside. The room glows with the light emitted by four large computer monitors. Small groups huddle around work stations in each of the four corners of the room, pointing at the screens in deep discussion.

Tonight marks the end of a two-week post-production marathon, during which the groups have worked long hours editing film footage into four short documentaries. Floating between the stations is Montreal documentary filmmaker Frédéric Julien. For the past six months, Julien, 32, and his partner, Belgian journalist Delphine Denoiseux, 26, have been travelling across Bolivia on behalf of Oxfam-Quebec. They’ve been training and mentoring young aboriginal filmmakers as part of a media project designed to help stimulate a new national dialogue and identity for one of South America’s poorest nations.

As he makes his way around the room, it is clear that Julien, who has been making documentaries professionally for six years, is exhausted. His beard has grown out, his eyes are red and he is fighting a stomach virus. Nonetheless, he is proud of the work the Copacabana group has done and he's eager to show it off.

There is a documentary about migrant workers abandoning a small rural community for the city and another on the loss of traditional art forms in an increasingly globalized world. A third film investigates gender violence in Copacabana, while another follows fisherman working on a polluted lake with dwindling fish stocks.

The films will soon be seen across Bolivia on a burgeoning network of community media, and around the world via the film festival circuit.

Each of the works, Julien explains, is designed to tackle a serious issue facing this community of 6,000 people, which sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, high on the Bolivian altiplano.

The project is also part of a larger effort to address the traditional inequality faced by Bolivia’s majority aboriginal population. Each of the participants in the project, he adds, is being taught skills that will allow them to eventually contribute to the development of a national indigenous media network in Bolivia.

The work has attracted attention from the international development community. With attention came offers of assistance. For the people working on the third floor of the Residencial Sucre, expertise, moral and financial support came from an unlikely place, thousands of kilometres away.

Northern Quebec.

Franklin Gutiérrez Zarate, a Bolivian teacher and documentary producer with the non-governmental organizationCentro de Formación y Realización Cinematográfica(CEFREC) or the Centre for Cinema and Film Making, laughs as he explains the connection between Bolivia and Quebec that ultimately brought Julien and Denoiseux to Copacabana.

“It was just by chance that we ran across these crazy people in Quebec trying to do the same things we were trying to do here,” he says, leaning back in his chair in the makeshift studio, pushing his baseball cap up his forehead.

The “crazy people,” he alludes to are a small group of Canadian artists called Wapikoni Mobile. As part of a social filmmaking project, they have gained an international reputation for their innovative and creative approach to community development.

For seven years, Wapikoni Mobile has toured Quebec’s Northern native communities, putting video cameras into the hands of aboriginal Canadians and encouraging them to tell their stories. Since its launch, the organization has produced upwards of 450 films, 360 music pieces and won 44 national and international awards.

The group’s approach is simple. Professional documentary makers, accompanied by social workers, tour Northern Quebec communities with trailers and RVs converted into production studios. At each stop, the teams spend several weeks at a time encouraging aboriginal Canadians to tackle social issues head-on by using cameras to document their lives.

The projects are produced in several aboriginal languages, as well as in English and French. They are distributed throughout the region and abroad to promote Canadian indigenous talent and culture and inform others about the challenges faced by Canada’s native communities.

According to Gutiérrez, the Wapikoni Mobile approach resonated with CEFREC, as they worked on filmmaking programmes with an aboriginal community in Bolivia trying to overcome a volatile history.

For much of its history, Bolivia’s large indigenous population, made up of almost 40 ethnic Amerindian groups and comprising almost 60 percent of the population, was denied the rights given to the minority ruling class. As a group, Bolivian aboriginals were either chronically poor labourers working in the mining sector or subsistence farmers.

However, in the 1980s, the indigenous rights movement mobilized radically to reshape Bolivia’s political landscape. Street marches and social protest soon created an unstoppable movement that forced the ruling political class to address the demands of native Bolivians.

Throughout the period of change, Gutiérrez was advising a small group of aboriginal filmmakers who were working to produce stories that articulated the emerging voice and self-image of native Bolivians.

“We came to see that we had to destroy the house that was Bolivia and rebuild it from its foundations,” Gutiérrez explains. “We also saw video as an ideal medium to promote the creation of an equal society.”

Images of native Bolivians in the largely private national media at the time, he explains, were simplistic and “folkloric.” “When we saw aboriginal Bolivians on television, if they were from the [mountainous altiplanoregion], they were tending their llamas on a hill,” he recalls. “If they were from the lowlands they were savages with poisoned arrows. We weren’t seen as humans with emotions and the ability to contribute to the country.”

As the indigenous rights movement gained momentum, CEFREC set about to help redefine how Bolivians saw themselves. “Our projects were designed to re-enforce indigenous self esteem because [throughout our history] the aboriginal identity had a negative connotation.”

In 2005, after 180 years of struggle for recognition and equality, Bolivia elected its first aboriginal president: Evo Morales, an ethnic Aymara (one of Bolivia’s largest indigenous groups) and coca farmer. Four years later, the country ratified a new constitution that reversed much of the traditional inequality imposed on Bolivian aboriginals and affirmed their equal status under the law.

The ratification of the 2009 constitution marked the turning point in CEFREC’s mandate. With indigenous identity no longer something to be ashamed of, and now protected by law, the filmmakers turned their focus towards social problems in communities across the nation. They launched a new programme that identified future aboriginal leaders and began training them to make films—this became the foundation for the current project in Copacabana.

Oxfam-Quebec, which already had a substantial presence in the country, offered to lend a hand, with the help of the Canadian International Development Agency. Oxfam-Quebec, which works in several countries around the world, funding everything from disaster relief to gender equality projects, saw the Bolivian film project as an ideal fit with their mandate and expertise.

They also saw a natural, virtually perfect, fit with the enterprising group of filmmakers at Wapikoni Mobile. Julien and Denoiseux were chosen to act as mentors for the project in Bolivia. Julien had experience writing and travelling in Latin America, including a period making films with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, and had spent two years in Quebec working with Wapikoni Mobile. Denoiseux brought a wealth of experience in video production and basic journalistic practices to the table. Soon the duo was on a plane, on their way to work with teams of young Bolivian videographers.

For the past six months, 18 young aboriginals from Copacabana have been working with the two mentors at the Residencial Sucre, developing and creating documentary films exploring aspects of their lives and the issues facing their communities.

As a mentor, Julien says, his role is to allow the filmmakers to choose their own subjects and then help them overcome the difficulties of expressing their ideas. He and Denoiseux areavailable for support at every stage of the process—from start to finish.

But the programme isn't just about producing these particular documentary films, Denoiseux explains. After the course is finished, 32 indigenous participants will have the skills to help develop local and national media organizations. Copacabana, for example, currently has an indigenous radio station,Radio Copacabana, which is part of a larger national aboriginal network. There are plans to add a community television channel to the network in the near future.

This aspect of the project represents a major victory in a decades-long battle for visibility and equality.

Rosa Jalja, a short woman in her 50s, stands outside the studios of Radio Copacabana. Fighting back tears, she explains the struggle indigenous Bolivians underwent to have their voices heard on the national broadcast grid.

Born in the rural Manco Kapac province, Jalja moved to La Paz at the age of 14. She soon discovered her calling as a radio reporter and, over the years, has worked for several media outlets, focusing on education reporting. But, she recalls, it wasn’t an easy profession.

“At that time, native communities and particularly aboriginal women were absolutely discriminated against,” she explains. “There was almost no space on the schedule for women’s voices.” The radio programmes she worked on were only aired outside popular listening hours, which were reserved for Spanish-language programming. People looking to hear indigenous news had to listen at 5 a.m.; almost no one, she adds, reported on the ongoing mass discrimination against Bolivian aboriginals.

Despite the challenges, Jalja and a small group of indigenous journalists persevered and spent decades pushing for the establishment of an aboriginal communication network. Today, she is a leader with the national indigenous council and is a representative for the native community as Bolivia develops a new set of national broadcast regulations.

The fact that young aboriginal women have the opportunity to make films of importance affects her deeply, she admits.

“Now that we have arrived, I am happy,” she says. “But there is still so much work to do and we still face huge challenges. We have to keep training.”

Standing in central Copacabana and squinting into the afternoon sun, Sandra Chuquimia talks about the film she has just completed, looking at the issue of economic migration. At 18, she is too young to have experienced Jalja’s struggles, but her passion for the project rivals that of her older colleague.

Her parents were migrant workers who left the small rural village of Chachapoya for the major urban centre of La Paz. At the age of 11, she returned to the village.

When she was growing up, she explains, there were 120 families in her village. When she shot her film there, less than 30 families in the area remained—everyone else had left to look for work.

“I decided to make this film to show people how this issue affects my community,” she says. Her goal, she adds, is to spur discussion and find solutions for people living in rural communities.

Back on the third floor studio of the Residencial Sucre, eight of the filmmakers are putting the final touches on their projects. As the night progresses, the group discusses potential titles for the films.

The ideas spill forward and the younger ones laugh as possible titles spin in different directions. The older participants maintain their focus and determinedly throw out idea after idea. Two of the films quickly find names; a third has options but the creators cannot reach a consensus. The name of the fourth, a documentary on domestic violence in Copacabana, remains elusive.

Having hit a wall, the group breaks up and heads back to their work stations. Julien remains, staring quietly at an edit of the unnamed film.

It’s nearing 10 p.m. when a laugh comes from the back corner of the room.

“What about this?” he asks, pointing to a word on the monitor:


“It’s the longest word in the Aymara language,” he explains. “It means ‘let’s dialogue,’” he says, eyes still red from staring at the screen.

“I think it says something.”

Produced with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

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Published in Volunteer Abroad
James Stairs

James is a multimedia journalist originally from Montreal, Canada. Over the past several years he has written, filmed, photographed and recorded from the heart of major events across four continents. James has reported from several major international conflicts, humanitarian crises and national elections in countries including South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Bolivia and from several points across Europe and North America.

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