We are going to edit a film
When I first started looking through the video archive which Juan Javier had brought back from his many expeditions to the Lambayequehighlands, my immediate reaction was that these videos had not been made with a film in mind. Instead, they struck me as essentially an ethnographic research tool -- a means for him to capture data that he would need, and which he might otherwise miss out on, or forget. They
seemed highly focused on providing information, and not so much on capturing a moment, a gesture, an atmosphere, a relationship. The way the camera could be turned off and on abruptly with no concern for
establishing place or time, the way it was often placed on the first available surface, to keep half an eye on the scene, while Javier went closer to his informant to record his or her answers in more detail with his voice recorder, the way that every piece of video was dense with discourse or with codified action, while all the empty moments that make up the larger (and often the more interesting) part of life were omitted, cast off -- all this made me think that it would be very difficult to work with this material in the way that I was used to working.
My usual approach to editing documentary film is to proceed by subtracting from the raw footage as much information as is possible, until I reach a point where what remains is balanced nicely on the edge
between meaning and not-meaning. But in these videos, there was so little space given to anything that was not meaningful, that it seemed almost impossible to create from them films which invited the viewer
to imagine their own meanings, rather than just receive, and submit to, those of the anthropologist and/or his Cañarense interlocutors. Their
obvious richness and clarity as a source for ethnography was achieved at the expense of the opacity of intentions and confusion of motives on
which my own work as a filmmaker depends.
I am used to working with material which - whether I have generated it myself or not - puts the relationship between the filmmaker and the other people present directly into play, and which does so in particular
through attention to those moments that seem the most banal or insignificant -- those moments when the way in which “nothing” happens suggests, more strongly than words or obviously meaningful events
can, a certain unique texture to a shared world. I knew that Javier’s relationship to the people of these villages had been rich, varied and often quite intense, from the many stories he had told me. But as I worked through his archive, this almost undiluted emphasis on the ethnographically useful in his choices of what to film and when to start and stop the camera rose up almost like a wall, blocking my obvious sightlines, both
to the ethnographer as co-creator of the world he moved through, and to the everyday matrix of life in these villages in its lived concreteness.
It was only when I came on the videos Javier had made during a series of recording sessions of local songs and music he had organised that I suddenly felt the ethnographer’s archive open up to the filmmaker’s
eye. Here was a radically different situation. Where in the other videos,the human relationship always seemed constrained or marginalised by the focus on cultural facts, which encompassed principally speech
and a relatively small range of densely codified practices (song, music, ritual), here the primary relationship constituting the situation was not one that Javier had shaped, even if it was he who had chosen it. Here, it was what happened between the people of the villages of Cañaris and Incahuasi on the one hand, and the recording engineers who were
visiting from Lima on the other, that was crucial. Once the informalrecording studio had been set up (in a school classroom, or on the premises of a local radio station ), Javier’s role was effectively reduced
to that of an intermediary, a facilitator, and a marginal one at that. Instead of recording and questioning people about their own rituals, he had become the cause of their confrontation with a much stranger and
much more rigid ritual than any they enacted in their normal lives: that of the hi-fidelity recording engineer, with his inexplicable instruments, his incomprehensible instructions, and his maniacal search for an impossible, even ludicrous perfection, summed up here in the single, utopian
By being decentered, Javier’s camera ceased to be the instrument of his own scientific research, and became instead a witness to a bizarre series of mutual misunderstandings which he had himself helped to set
in motion. And since the greater part of the recording sesssions were taken up with the search for an elusive studio-like silence in a village full of inquisitive children, rambunctious animals, and unpredictable
motor traffic, much of what was filmed was, by default, the act of waiting. Waiting for the conditions to be right, for the engineer to give an initially incomprehensible sign, waiting for that sign to be understood and acted on, waiting to perform alone and sober for the microphone and its technological eternity an action that would otherwise only be
done among friends, in the comfort of someone’s home, surrounded by the warm buzz of conversation and laughter which rarely make a pause,
accompanied by dancing, and pursued through the haze (mellow or vivid) of the special kind of drunkenness produced by the constant flow
of locally-distilled alcohol from small plastic water bottles.
In these videos, something different emerged. Awkwardly observing this scene, largely unable to intervene to change it or to soften the blow, forced to wait like the villagers for the engineer’s inscrutable
decisions, to tolerate these brusque invasions of a space he had himself helped to define, Javier and his camera were no longer trapped in a dyadic confrontation between the ethnographer and his “informant”, but instead found themselves displaced to one apex of a triangle. And where his feelings might pull him to defend, if not identify with, the villagers in the face of the apparent absurdity, even indignity of this process, his actual practice as he filmed these sessions - and his instrument, the camcorder - despite their relative technological modesty, place him clearly on the same side as the recording engineers. As an
anthropologist, he too was committed to trying to “capture” something, even if that meant, in the process, distorting it, uprooting it, even
perhaps destroying it...
When I discovered these videos - a couple of hours embedded in the middle of an archive of more than a hundred hours in total - I suddenly knew that it was possible to make something out of this footage. That
inside the ethnographic record, a cinematographic adventure was embedded. For in these videos, the processes of meaning typical both of ethnographic research, and of filming itself, are reconfigured. Instead of being simply a material notation of words and gestures which might otherwise be lost to the ethnographer’s other recording devices, and which are in any case destined to be reexpressed through the discourse of “scientific” writing, the act of filming here becomes the concrete registration of three, very different, but equally acute forms of tension:
— that of the recording engineer whose professional pride is at stake, and who has a very difficult job to do, in far from ideal circumstances, and in a very limited space of time;
— that of the villagers who pass before the engineer’s microphone, who have to reproduce a song or a dance or a musical air for an invisible audience, as if it was something that existed in itself, independent of
the context of its performance;
— and that of the ethnographer who wants the results of the recordings, both for his research, and as a witness to the beauty of these songs and music which he has felt, but who maybe wishes he could have the end without the means - without having to impose this alien process on these people to whom he feels responsible, and whom, in several cases, he now considers friends.
As a result, these videos condense a complexity of feelings and relationships between the ethnographer/filmmaker and the people
whose culture he wants to study and “preserve” in a way that I have rarely seen. And they do so through means that are almost entirely non-verbal. While words do play a role in the absurdist comedy that
is enacted here, most of the work is done, not by the outsiders who are moving around and talking, but by the villagers themselves, even as they are imprisoned in these fragments of extreme immobility and silence. Through these multiple demands -- for silence, for them not to move, for them to keep a constant distance from the microphone, for them not to make noises with their legs or hands -- the forces in play
here conspire to reproduce something like the conditions that obtainedin the early years of still portrait photography, when very long exposure
times would oblige sitters to hold the same pose for an unnaturally long period without moving, thus turning the simplest of expressions and gestures into a complex, demanding and highly rhetorical performance.
The ways in which the musicians and singers of Cañaris and Incahuasi accept, assume and reinvent this constraint in between takes, speaks to a world of attitudes, intentions and practices, which have nothing to do with producing quality audio recordings, and which we can hardly begin to imagine, but which perhaps do have something to do with some of the words these poses might make resonate for us: dignity, patience, resistance.
— * —
Starting from these videos, then, which became the film We are going to record, I was able to work my way back into the other material which had seemed to me at first too straightforwardly “informational” to be
interesting. Viewing it again, through the glass provided by this first film, I was able to locate in it something of the same sensations and values I had found in the performances the people of Cañaris and Incahuasi gave of themselves, as well as of their music, in the recording session footage -- and also something of the video maker’s silent solidarity with them, that I now saw as underlying Juan Javier’s ethnographic restraint. I was helped in this also by Juan Javier’s constant, and supportive, presence in my editing room in Belgium, where he often showed a more dispassionate and more critical relationship to the material he had filmed than I myself did!
From this starting point we were able to progress easily to the idea for Of guitars and men, as a film that would be the opposite of We are going to record, in its garrulousness, its bawdiness and lack of self-restraint
(and which would also allow us to hear some of the music that we had been deprived of in the earlier film, but this time, in something more like its natural context of drink, dance and sexual boasting). And
from here, it was not a far step to imagining the concept for Rituals, as a film which would take advantage of the lack of contextualisation in
the archive footage itself to construct a sort of ethnographic Groundhog Day, in which the annual ritual calendar of several villages could be condensed into a single, constantly repeated diurnal cycle, and in
which Christian myths, pre-Christian practices and modern forms of music and entertainment would coexist peacefully, though not necessarily
However, the other big discovery I made was when Juan Javier and I came to work on the two films that frame the installation, and in particular on the first of these, Cristobal and the mine, a story told in the first
person by a semi-fictional anthropologist. These films were intended to address the issue of how to represent the mine that did not yet exist, and so could not have been filmed while Juan Javier had been working
there. As we constructed a narrative that would make it possible to see the customs, rituals and practices that the other films document not simply as interesting or valuable in their own right, but also as on some level directly opposed to the kind of “development” that was
being foisted on the region against the will of many of its inhabitants, I realised that in We are going to record we had already created a microcosmic portrait of the collision between the people of the Lambayeque
highlands, and an alien, invasive, and (from their point of view) entirely unnecessary technology.
Arguably, ethnographers and sound recordists do less damage than open cast mines and industrial refineries that use poisonous chemicals to strip economically valuable minerals out of raw ore. And the growing
conflict that finally tipped the people of Cañaris and Incahuasi over into direct action obviously presents a far more radical and more brutal assault on their ways of life than anything which anthropology and its
adjuncts might do on their own.
Still, how far can we reasonably isolate one process from the other? After all, anthropology as a discipline was born alongside colonialism, and anthropologists have often - sometimes unwittingly, sometimes all
too willingly - served as ancillaries in the secular war between industrial society and the cultures and communities that stand in the way of its expansion. Not only that, but the minerals necessary to build the
microphones and laptop computers, and the video cameras, and the cars and airplanes that brought them all this far, all come from mines like the one that is being planned in Cañaris. Culture - our culture, the
culture of those of us who make such films, record such music, write such scholarly tomes, and conceive, organise and visit such installations - is not a random sequence of isolated artefacts. Despite and through
its diversity and multiplicity, its basic building blocks are always already a concatenation, an assemblage, and these assemblages implicate us, whether we will or not, in a thousand absent realities, including many
that we would doubtless rather deny or ignore.
Taken together, then, the videos that make up The Owners of the Land essay a new path through some of these assemblages, one that I hope may enable new relationships to appear, and new connections to be
made. I hope, in particular, that they can help us gauge the reserves of patience and tolerance which must have been exhausted to bring the people of these villages in northern Peru to the point of taking direct
action against the combined muscle of a small, but by their standards fabulously wealthy, international mining company, and the Peruvian state, along with its allies in the dominant media.
Above all, in their dramatisation of this conflict as a collision, not between “tradition” and “modernity”, but between meaningful, joyous and fleeting human interactions on the one hand, and on the other, the
sterile and mortifying reduction of such relationships to “products”, “objects”, “recordings”, “data”, “documents”, and “videos”, that can be commercialised to enthusiasts of world music and exotic cultures,
“conserved” in museums and archives with a view to some mythical immortality, or circulated for more high-minded forms of “exchange” through academic and artistic circuits, I hope that these videos can
help us understand more than simply what may be at stake in conflicts between local communities and extractive and other capital-intensive industries, in South America, and elsewhere. For the problem is not just that “traditional” ways of life (whatever they may be) are being lost to “development”. The problem is that we ourselves (whoever we may be), to the extent that we allow ourselves to be reduced to mere spectators, may find ourselves losing the capacity (or the skill) to recognise and defend those forms of spontaneity, conviviality and self-reliance without which no way of life that we may inherit or invent, however ancient, or however recent, will be worth the candle.
Peter Snowdon, Brussels, 27 September 2013