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Juan Francisco Salazar

1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the Americas and a renewed wave of Indigenous peoples rising up across the continent, mobilized by social unrest amidst a new age of neoliberal globalization.

For these past 25 years, Indigenous social movements in Latin America have been at the forefront of struggles around cultural difference, the right to self-representation and self-determination, as well as calls for a plurality of ways of belonging and being. Video media, the internet, and radio have been powerful devices to document these local and regional struggles, representing the unprecedented political conflicts of cultural identity taking place across the region.

Consequently, the numbers of Indigenous media-makers and collectives have grown exponentially, creating a multiplicity of interrelated perspectives and voices. In the case of video, Indigenous media in Latin America has become a survival and fighting strategy in the creation and recreation of Indigenous imaginaries, a strong metaphor of Indigenous resistance, and a means by which Indigenous organizations and communities articulate new claims on the national political stage. For many cultural activists, Indigenous media is an ideology, a self-consciously resignified political attitude. This position is vital to questions about Indigenous self-determination and as a proposal for cultural seduction to create new forms of intercultural dialogue. Most important, it is an integral practice of “cosmoexperience”—of being together according to Indigenous cosmologies.

The term “Indigenous media” itself invokes a series of social relations that lie beyond a television program, a YouTube video, or any other product of information and communication. It demands the consideration of a formal socio-technical assemblage of technologies, resources, social organizations, legal frameworks and bureaucracies, and cultural principles, into a representational and performative form embodied in processes that extend beyond the completed product.

Taking this into account it is possible to observe how Indigenous media in Latin America has often followed its own production and circulation processes. Today it inhabits a wide range of platforms, including film festivals, international meetings on Indigenous rights, academic conferences, local community meetings, and television broadcasts. It constitutes a system of social relations aimed at reaffirming communal solidarities and experimenting with relevant forms of storytelling, where local conjunctures are increasingly strengthened through cross-cultural collaborations.

In most cases, the endeavor to make cultural practices noticeable becomes a process of strategic reversal in which the media makers are able to challenge long-standing stereotypes and create novel forms of healing historical disruptions in traditional knowledge and social memory. Frequently harassed by the state police and corporate vigilantes, Indigenous media producers use the cameras as instruments to confront the vested interests of states and powerful transnational corporations (including logging, mining or hydroelectric companies) to seek justice and sometimes save lives.

Indigenous video production in Latin America continues to position itself as a distinct field of cultural production—a signifying practice separate from national of Indigenous film and video production is through the longstanding work of CLACPI, the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación de los Pueblos Indígenas (Latin American Council of Film and Communication of Indigenous Peoples). CLACPI has created a discursive and strategic space for Indigenous media producers and films in Latin America, establishing new opportunities for participation within national media discourses. To date, CLACPI has organized 12 Indigenous film festivals and communication meetings, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in Chile and Argentina in late 2015 with a festival held in the Wallmapu, the name used to refer to the Mapuche nation and territory in Southern Chile. The origins of CLACPI date back to 1985 through initiatives that were driven primarily by engaged anthropologists and non-Indigenous cultural and media activists advocating for ways to strengthen the training, development production, and exposure of Indigenous film and video by, about, and for Indigenous peoples. According to Venezuelan scholar Beatriz Bermúdez, the idea for a first festival emerged from Alejandro Camino, a Peruvian anthropologist who was then well known as an environmentalist and political activist. During this festival in Mexico in 1985, Claudia Menezes, a Brazilian anthropologist and then director of the Indian Museum do Rio de Janeiro, proposed the formation of a platform to give continuity to the experience of the first festival. CLACPI emerged to gather the scattered audio-visual efforts in Latin America, with the aim of channeling the growing demands for more valid, vetted means of communication among and emanating from and for Indigenous communities.

It’s important to contextualize the setting at the time of CLACPI’s creation. Latin America was scarred by severe economic crises sweeping a region already disturbed by political nationalism, right-wing military dictatorships, social inequality, and decades of cultural paternalism and misleading public policies towards Indigenous communities. Only in the early 1990s were Indigenous peoples constitutionally recognized in some Latin American countries, prompted by the International Labor Orgnaisation (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989, often known as Convention 169.

In this context, the second festival was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, coinciding with the public presentation of two groundbreaking processes of Indigenous video production founded some years earlier. One was a project with Kayapó people in the Brazilian Amazon, Mekaron Opoi D’joi (The One Who Creates Images), initiated by Brazilian photographer and filmmaker Monica Frota with the collaboration of U.S. anthropologist Terence Turner. The other was the ongoing project Video Nas Aldeias (VNA) or Video in the Villages, headed by photographer Vincent Carelli and originating at the Centro de Trabalh Indigenista (CTI), a Sao Paulo-based non-Indigenous NGO that Carelli helped to create after he left the state-affiliated Fundação Nacional do Indio (FUNAI).

In 1989, in parallel to the organization of the third CLACPI festival in Venezuela, another exemplary occurrence took place when the Mexican Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI) implemented a historic Indigenous media training program called the Transferencia de Medios Audiovisuales a Organizaciones y Comunidades Indígenas (Transference of Audiovisual Media to Indigenous Communities and Organizations). As part of this project, state-sponsored video centers, Centros de Video Indígena (CVIs), were established in four states. These video centers were still coordinating much of Indigenous video production in Mexico twenty years later, but their influence and omnipresence has decreased in recent years, giving way to Indigenous-owned or coordinated video centers like Ojo de Agua Comunicación in Oaxaca. The CVIs are nonetheless a good example of the complex entanglement of Indigenous video and national politics across the region.

Despite the good intentions of the first three CLACPI festivals, Indigenous organizations were still often outsiders in the process of producing media with their own voices and perspectives. This tendency continued well into the early 1990s, at similar festivals held in Brazil (1987), Venezuela (1989), and Peru (1992).

By 1992, a rupture between anthropologists and Indigenous media activists was inevitable. Responding to generations of invading ethnographic, documentary, and commercial film crews, Indigenous communities began to generate their own narratives and images of themselves. This period also included a heightened debate amongst Indigenous organizations about the processes for appropriating communication and media infrastructures, and defining an Indigenous approach to media-making. In Mexico for instance several Indigenous video-makers began forming the independently run Organización Mexicana de Videastas Indígenas (OMVIAC) in an effort to create a national organization of Indigenous communicators. It eventually dispersed, leaving video makers to work with independent Indigenous media production centers or with the Centros de Video Indigena.

After 1992 Indigenous organizations began taking leadership of the network and the associated events. In Ecuador Indigenous organizations formed a parallel network, the Abya Yala Network, and began organizing the Indigenous Abya Yala video festivals. Ecuador´s federation of Indigenous Nations, Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE), played a fundamental role in this process, organizing four Abya Yala video festivals and launching the Quito Declaration of 1994, a foundational document which asserted the right of Indigenous peoples to the creation and recreation of their own image.

In his account of the emergence of Indigenous video in Bolivia in the late 1990s, Bolivian communicator and filmmaker Iván Sanjinés noted that:

Queríamos romper con las miradas que se habían estado dando desde la antropología donde hay investigadores que llegan y ven una realidad, en el caso del cine se entregan cámaras, y se pone atención a cómo mira tal individuo o pueblo, cómo graba con la cámara, etc. pero al final tratado como un objeto, no como un sujeto y mucha veces no se piensa en como responder a requerimientos concretos desde una visión de procesos.

We wanted to break away from the anthropological gaze in which researchers arrive and find a reality, and in some cases bring cameras, and pay attention to how an individual or a group sees the world, or how people use the camera, etc. But ultimately people were treated as objects, not subjects, and many times were not thinking about how to respond to specific requirements demanded by perspectives focused on processes.

The fifth festival in Bolivia was launched along with a long-term strategy for building a national plan for Indigenous media training, including international and regional workshops. This marked the beginnings of what many consider to be a sustainable model of Indigenous media production: the Plan Nacional Indígena de Comunicación Audiovisual (PNICA or National Indigenous Communication Plan) in Bolivia and the formation of the Coordinadora Audiovisual Indígena-Originaria de Bolivia (CAIB or the Bolivian Indigenous-Aboriginal Audiovisual Council). The PNICA was implemented following a nationwide consultation, becoming an extensive nationwide production initiative to support Indigenous self-representation.

This was also the case in Chile, where Mapuche media groups organized the festivals of 2004 and 2015, leading to the establishment of important grassroots initiatives and a permanent film festival.

In the last decade or so, CLACPI has become a space of intercultural encounter between Indigenous and non-Indigenous media producers and cultural activists, and a new wave of environmental films have also become prominent. If the films of the 1990s were ostensibly documentaries about cultural survival, cultural recognition, and defense of ancestral territories, it’s now possible to observe experimentation with genres and the presentation of Indigenous perspectives on ecological devastation and environmental injustices. A few examples are the philosophy of Buen Vivir (Good Living) and parallel Indigenous ancestral notions of sumak kawsay in Quechua, and suma qaman in Aymara, the two most widely spoken Indigenous languages in the Andes region of Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia.

Several recent films are indicating that those processes of ethnic identity politics that marked the 1990s are giving way to a new phase strongly marked by new Indigenous leaderships, decolonization, and a concern with environmental justice, ecological destruction, and Indigenous cosmologies. Several productions continue to focus on ongoing discontent and political action to resist what Mike Davies once termed ‘the brutal tectonics of neoliberal organization’ which affects Indigenous peoples in profound ways. Hence, adding to the pursuit of cultural recognition, self-determination and the reclaiming or defense of territory, another more complex struggle has come to the fore: resistance movements against social inequality and exploitative forms of resource extraction (neo-extractivism), which in almost every single case threatens the land rights and well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Across Abya Yala, the name often used to refer to the Americas, such movements are pushing to convey new ways of linking nature and culture, a politics of care and caring, and a way for decolonizing the Anthropocene, making brutally clear how climate change affects Indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands.

The future is not closed and tamed. It is an open, disputed field of operations. Indigenous media productions will continue to provide fresh perspectives to envision how other worlds are not only possible, but urgently needed.

Juan Francisco Salazar is an anthropologist and filmmaker best known for his work and contribution to studies of Indigenous media practices in Chile and Latin America.