Yawar Mallku: Cinema for Society

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This week, I will be watching three films from Bolivia, a country that I have rarely studied in my Latin American history classes. Specifically, these films will be looking at Indigenous uprisings and Anti-Americanism within the country. I hope I can do more research into this country that has a rich history of indigenous pride and syndicalism that is not talked about.


Yawar Mallku or Blood of the Condor (1969) tells the story of a rural Indigenous community whose women struggle with infertility. While searching for the reason why, a couple of indigenous men are murdered and one of them, Ignacio, barely survives. He is taken to the city hospital by his wife where they meet with her brother, Sixto, and they are told they need to buy blood for a blood transfusion. During their search for blood, Sixto is told that the infertility was caused by the Peace Corps forcibly sterilizing women. By the end, Ignacio dies but the hope for an armed indigenous struggle still lives on.

The Bolivian National Revolution

Yawar Mallku was made at a pivotal moment in Bolivian history that can only be understood by looking back towards the 1952 Revolution. By the 1950s, Bolivia was a predominantly rural society with a growing urban population, though there were still many remnants of the colonial past. Haciendas were common and most landowners did not even live on their land. There was little new investment in mining since the 30s so there were fewer profits.

Victor Paz Estenssoro

So in 1952 when the MNR party came to power, there was very little opposition. During the party’s rule, they toed the line between radical and moderate change. The president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, established universal suffrage, purged the military, set up a national labor federation, and after violent confrontations with landowners, enacted agrarian reform. But after Paz Estenssoro started to lose the support of the middle class, a quasi-fascist party, FSB, began to gain popularity and inflation began to rise. In order to retain control, Paz Estenssoro enlisted US help. At the time, the US was worried about communism in Guatemala and Guyana so they were happy to include Bolivia as an ally against this. They sent $100 million dollars in aid and in return, Bolivia followed the strict rules of the US Stabilization Plan of 1956, and Paz Estenssoro grew more right-wing.

By 1964, he was thrown out in a coup (the first of many) and General Barrientos, a Quechua-speaking, anti-union man, was elected. US relations continued as normal until 1967, when the famous revolutionary, Che Guevara, was killed in the Bolivian forest. For many Latin Americans, he was a symbol of freedom so his murder ignited intense Anti-Americanism that had not existed before.

Jorge Sanjinés

Sanjinés is probably the most prolific director to come out of Bolivia and his importance is not just limited to the cinema. He was born in 1936 and studied film and philosophy at Universidad Catolica de Chile. There, he learned about Italian Neorealism which would become a huge influence on his films as, like director Luchino Visconti, he would employ real people instead of actors. His Marxist views are also integral to his films. For Sanjinés, cinema for its own sake was unimportant. He had to make cinema for society. His most famous film, Yawar Mallku, is a test of this. After hearing from a friend who claimed to have witnessed Peace Corps volunteers sterilizing indigenous women, he knew he had to do something. This film begs the question: can cinema affect real societal change?

Jorge Sanjinés

The Peace Corps in Bolivia

The First Peace Corp Volunteers in Bolivia (1962)

Though this story of forced sterilization has not been confirmed, Sanjinés was ready to believe it because by then, the Peace Corps was overstaying their welcome. Bolivia was one of the first countries to receive the Peace Corps in the 1960s back when it was an experimental group that allowed Americans to feel good about their foreign policy. Their relationship with Bolivians was healthy until Che’s death when their family planning ideas began to be questioned. The Peace Corps believed that limiting population growth with contraception was important, but Bolivians felt that their population was actually in need of growth. Rather than sell contraceptives as a tool for freedom, they linked it with eugenic ideas. The Bolivian left felt that contraception was a form of genocide and made allegations that the Peace Corps was infiltrated by CIA spies.

Anti-Americanism in Yawar Mallku

Sanjinés’ portrayal of the American volunteers is certainly not flattering. The film opens with two quotes. The first is an instruction from Martin Bormann on the occupation of Ukraine in which he states that the people are inferior. They should let them starve and receive abortions and slowly die off. The next quote is from American scientist James Donner in which he equates the starving people of the developing world to animals and declares they will soon die off.

Yawar Mallku

The first Americans that appear on screen are Peace Corps volunteers who are stylish, white, and vapid. Most Peace Corps volunteers received little training so Sanjinés portrayed them as knowing very little about the world they were entering. They only know a world that exists with capitalist exploitation. When an indigenous woman carrying eggs passes them, they ask to buy them. She gives them some but then they reiterate that they want to buy all the eggs.

When she refuses, they are shocked and inquire a few more times. How can something that this woman has not be for sale? They can only see themselves helping through the economic exploitation of all her resources. These Peace Corps volunteers may pass themselves off as counterculture reformers, but they see the world the same way their parents did.

The Decolonization of Sixto

Yawar Mallku

One could argue that Ignacio or his wife is the main character of the film but I believe it is Sixto. It is his journey that really puts the film together. Sanjinés’ use of flashback and constant intercutting between the past and the present is used to show that Sixto is not separated from the indigenous community and his struggles are interwoven with theirs. He is introduced on-screen donned in western clothes when a couple of White Bolivians call him an indio. He responds by saying he is not an indio. Indios that live in the city and wear traditional clothes sell their identity and sacred items as knicknacks in overcrowded markets. Sixto did not want to be like them. But by the end, Sixto is less ashamed of his past and more ashamed of the elite that have all the ability to help Ignacio but not the will. Searching up and down the city, he has seen the depravity of the elite and it is so much more disgusting then the so-called backward indigenous population.

Sanjinés’ Success

Yawar Mallku

The last image of the film is shot on indigenous land with indigenous music playing in the background. It shows arms raising rifles in the air ready for an armed indigenous struggle. Though their past is tragic, they will soon prevail. The movie became a huge hit in Bolivia and across the world. On the day it was supposed to premiere, the theater canceled and a riot so large broke out that they had to show it. Not only that, but two years later, President Torres kicked out the Peace Corps. Sanjinés proved that you really could make cinema for society by telling real stories with powerful editing and a harsh but unflinching lens.

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