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A scene from Insurgentes
A scene from Insurgentes
Frédéric Faux

LA PAZ - Indigenous people armed with slings and wearing traditional ch'ullu headgear surround President Evo Morales. Soldiers pivot a cannon. A sergeant comes to present arms…

If the scene wasn't taking place on a red carpet in front of La Paz"s biggest mall, it would have been easy to mistake Bolivia for a country at war. But no, this is just an election campaign.

We are at the premiere of Insurgentes (The Insurgents), an activist film that follows two centuries of popular uprisings in Bolivia -- which Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, attended. After the screening, amid the costumed actors, he praised the work of art, which "reflects the struggles and sacrifices of our indigenous heroes." He himself is one of them, appearing twice on screen.

The presence of the president/actor isn't the only singularity of the docu-fiction. Insurgentes, which is financed by the government, is the largest Bolivian production ever made. The army lent troops for epic scenes with 400 extras. Jorge Sanjines, the country's most famous director, got down to the job with a clear political objective: "This movie reveals the part of Bolivian memory that was denied for 220 years, these heroes who disappeared from collective memories because they valued Indians. We selected characters, circumstances and moments that lit the way of change that we are now living today."

An ode to Bolivian history

Using these dramatized recreations, in which not a feather nor a cufflink is missing, Jorge Sanjines tells the stories of the siege of La Paz by Tupac Katari, the leader of Bolivia’s first indigenous rebellion against the Spanish Empire; the little-known Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay and the 1946 assassination of President Villarroel, who wanted to free Indians from slavery and ended up hung from a lamp-post. The magnificent Bolivian landscapes serve as backdrops, to the audience’s visible delight.

Sanjines's political message -- his voice tirelessly comments the action-- is more perplexing. Insurgentes is a "cinematographic hagiography," writes the daily newspaper La Razon. "Who could deny the exclusion that indigenous people have suffered? No one. But that is not enough to justify a Manichean discourse where all white people are incarnations of evil that live in luxury and all Indians are angels."

In a country as divided as Bolivia, which is governed by the continent's first indigenous president since 2006 -- Indians are a majority but whites hold all the economic power -- Insurgentes is not an innocent film. "It doesn't say anything about the violence of Indians who, for some, called to exterminate the white people," says journalist Javier Badani. "Ramiro Condarco, a historian, has well documented the period of terror on the altiplano, during which land owners were assassinated or thrown out of their homes.”

From rebel to propagandist

Jorge Sanjines doesn’t deny his leftist agenda. He is considered as one of Latin America’s greatest directors since the 1960s, and has made many films and documentaries whose titles alone are a reminder of his activism: The Courage of the People, which reenacts the massacre of miners by the Bolivian government or The Blood of the Condor, about the covert sterilization of Indian women by a Peace Corps clinic, are some examples. These stories were filmed under difficult conditions; not only did he have extremely limited resources, his films were banned by the right-wing regime, who forced him into years of exile.

"Our films were secretly distributed to workers and peasants," says Sanjines. "We were doing political films, with the goal of denouncing injustices. The radio and newspapers couldn’t talk about what was happening in the country, because we were under a dictatorship."

Today, everything has changed. Wine, cocktail snacks and a bevy of ministers: nothing was missing at the premiere of Insurgentes. Has Sanjines the militant rebel become the government’s official filmmaker? The movie's producer, Victoria Guerrero, doesn't think so: "He's remained very critical of the political change initiated in 2006. Besides, in the first scenario readings, President Evo Morales had a much bigger presence in the movie. Now, as you've seen, it's not the case anymore."

Evo Morales only appears furtively before the end credits -- but the scene is enlightening. It is set in 2006, the day of his inauguration. At the La Paz golf club, wealthy white people are in front of the television drinking cocktails, watching the new president with dismay as he announces the end of their world… The waiters, all Indians, have brazen smiles on their faces. There’s not doubt Insurgentes is here to write Bolivian history but also to prepare the next presidential elections and Evo Morales' reelection in 2014.

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