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Told through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, La Nación Clandestina (1989) by Jorge Sanjinés tells the story of an Aymara man, Sebastian, who returns to his village in order to perform his final death dance. His tumultuous life is revealed as he journeys home. After being an alcoholic, military man, and corrupt indigenous leader, he returns home and dies, finally decolonized.
A Coup Within a Coup: Bolivian Politics from 1971-1989
La Nación Clandestina serves as a product of its time. When this film was released in 1989, there was an extremely interesting mix of positive and negative hopes for the country. In the previous 20 years, the country had been plagued by coup after coup. President Torres was overthrown by General Banzer in what would become the bloodiest coup since 1952. He held a lot of anti-democratic values and decided to align Bolivia more with the Brazilian politics of the day. After a failed attempt to create a national political party, he couped himself (didn’t know you could do that), established an all-military non-party government base and exiled former President Paz Estenssoro. By 1978, he was forced out and a string of interim presidents replaced him. By the 1980s, Bolivia was entering a new and terrible economic depression, but the same names kept popping up in elections like Paz Estenssoro, Siles Zuazo, and Banzer.
Tyrannical and short-lived leaders like Guevara Arce and Meza (who was aided by the infamous Nazi, Klaus Barbie) killed many during their reign. By 1985, Paz Estenssoro was back in office again, but this time much more interested in economic liberalism than economic nationalism. He also relied much heavier on US aid in order to pay off foreign debts. But something about the 1989 elections seemed different to Bolivians. Many more young politicians were coming to the fore and change was afoot. The winner of that election, Jaime Paz Zamora, would go on to strengthen democratic institutions and briefly jail General Meza. Also, the Movimiento Tupac Katari, named after the famed indigenous revolutionary, was a pro-union and pro-indigenous party that was gaining traction and would lay the foundation for someone like Evo Morales.
Indigenous Thought in Cinema
As politics in Bolivia started to shift toward the indigenous population, so too did Sanijinés’ cinema. His films have often been marked by their overt Marxist ideology, but this film puts those western philosophies on the backburner in exchange for a closer examination of Andean philosophies. These philosophies actually end up informing the structure of his film. The film is based on the idea of “naupaj mapuni” which translates to “looking into the past and the future at one and the same time”. We first meet Sebastian when he has started his journey home so the film constantly flashes back to his past and the progress of his journey. The past converges with the future to give us a better understanding of the present and creates a more radical film structure.
Morally, the film is also embedded with the core Andean values of reciprocity and solidarity. As Sanjinés later described, “In Andean culture, the preeminence of group interests—the collectivist tradition, the practices of solidarity, the view of the whole, of integration and participation—together constitute, in their ideological signifiers and in their daily practice… It seemed fundamental to us to propose a narrative technique fitting the Andean worldview… Little by little, it became clear to us that the camera should move without interruption and motivated by the internal dynamic of the scene. Only then could we achieve its imperceptibility and the integration of the space.”
Criticism of Criollo Elite
While the focus of the film is on indigenous stories, Sanjinés does take the time to criticize so-called leftists who take advantage of indigenous movements for their own benefit. On his journey home, Sebastian encounters a young white university student and dissident. The man asks Sebastian for his poncho and hat but he won’t give them to him. He continues to ask Sebastian and other indigenous people for their clothes, but they don’t give them to him. He clarifies that he is on their side and he fights for their rights but when they continue to deny him their own clothes, he storms off and calls them indios de mierda. Sanjinés is clearly very wary of the activists who don’t understand the culture and history of the Aymara people but act as their mediator or savior. This has happened throughout Bolivia’s history and just because an indigenous party is gaining steam does not mean that this past ill can be easily forgotten.
Is it a Death or a Rebirth?
The perspective of the film can be endlessly rehashed. Is this a story about Sebastian’s death and the death of indigenous culture or is this a rebirth through Sebastian’s sacrificial death? For the first argument, Sebastian’s decolonization can only come with his death. The alienation that occurred while he was working in the city made it so he could not return to the community as an active member. His death was even predicted by his first job in the city as a coffin maker. He lived to die. On the other hand, Sebastian performs his death dance for the entire community, some of whom have never seen that ceremony. They were able to experience an almost forgotten part of their culture and in some ways revive it. Was this just momentary? Is this dance as well as the growing indigenous nationalist movement just a death rattle for the Aymara people? Luckily, history has proven that this was not the case, but they would have to wait a few years longer for an indigenous leader that put indigenous issues at the forefront.