‘‘The Devil Looks Like a Mounted Policeman’’: “Nuestra Voz de Tierra, Memoria y Futuro,” and the Cinema of Marta Rodríguez
A wide shot of a mountainside cloaked in mist shows a masked figure, carrying a briefcase, scrambling across the rocky terrain. The figure is the devil and appears in the guise of overseer, landowner, and policeman. These extraordinary, experimental montages — part ethnography, part myth, part epic ballad, part Latin American Western — are at the heart of Colombian filmmaker Marta Rodríguez’s 1981 revolutionary masterpiece, Nuestra Voz de Tierra, Memoria y Futuro (Our Voice of the Land, Memory and Future). Co-directed by her husband Jorge Silva, and with the participation of the indigenous farmers of the Coconuco, Nuestra Voz recently screened at the Berlinale Forum, digitally restored by Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art.
Set in the rural, mountainous department of Cauca, Nuestra Voz is an atmospheric, vivid document of an indigenous community’s struggle to recover their land, and in the process, recover and shape their past and history. Built on the juxtaposition of the real and the staged, the factual and the remembered, Nuestra Voz deals with an aesthetics of resistance grounded in, and guided by, Rodríguez and Silva’s position as accomplice rather than appropriator of the communities they collaborated with.
Born in 1933 in Bogotá, Colombia, Marta Rodríguez began making films in the early 1970s, when Colombia was amid a carefully staged bi-partisan pact of alternations in government that brought an end to a brief military dictatorship in the early 1950s. It was a time of political turmoil, deepening violence, and movements of resistance.
Her filmography — more than a dozen features and a handful of shorts — is rooted in the radical politics and ethnographic practice that she explored as an undergraduate studying sociology in Bogotá with the socialist priest Camilo Torres, and filmmaking in Paris with Jean Rouch in the early ‘60s. Her choice of subjects speaks to a consistent interest in the oppression of farmers and indigenous peoples in Colombia, and their equally long resistance. “Chircales” (“Brickmakers,”1972) focused on the hardships of indentured labor through the eyes of a family of bricklayers on the outskirts of Bogotá; “Planas: Testimonios de un Etnocidio” (“Planes: Testimonies of an Ethnocide,” 1973) documents the aftermath of an indigenous massacre in Colombia’s eastern plains and “Campesinos” (“Farmers,” 1975) portrays the nascent worker and farmer struggles.
Traces of these earlier films, made in collaboration with Silva, pave the way for Nuestra Voz. “Chircales” and “Campesinos” were both heavily informed by Marxism and combine ethnographic filmmaking with a politically engaged alternative cinema. The austere beauty of natural landscapes permeates each of these films, as do small striking details amidst the oppression — the crisp white of a communion dress in “Chircales,” a priest blessing farm animals in “Campesinos.” But what Rodríguez probes more deeply in Nuestra Voz, more than any of her other films, is a hybrid form that purposely seeks to blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and to question the notion of authorship. This new form of representation — unthinkable without the critical participation of the indigenous Coconuco farmers — draws its relevance and power from the friction between the social and political realities of the time and an engagement with indigenous cosmogony and spirituality.
What could have been a conventional ethnographic survey of the daily lives and struggles of the Coconuco — farmers marching with their hoes raised in the air, a man sharpening his machete, women planting seeds with children on their backs — gives way to something altogether more formally ambitious, as Rodríguez condenses a thicket of juxtapositions, sensations, and symbols into the film’s more experimental sequences. Words and images recur — the spurs of the landowner evoking those of the conquistadors, details of animals intercut with the gestures of colonial monuments, religious iconography, the still photographs of men killed in the struggle, and hallucinatory evocations of the devil.
After Nuestra Voz, other collaborations followed: in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, with her son Lucas Silva on a series of films made about illicit coca and poppy crops and their effect on communities in Cauca; and then with Colombian filmmaker Fernando Restrepo on the displacement of Afro-Colombian communities by armed groups in the Chocó and Urabá regions. Almost 50 years after her first film, Rodríguez remains ceaselessly curious about communities that have long been overlooked by dominant Colombian society. At the Cartagena Film Festival this year, at the age of 85, she premiered La Sinfónica de los Andes (2018) — a tender portrait of an indigenous youth orchestra created to pay homage to the children killed in the armed conflict. Set once again in the Cauca region of Nuestra Voz, Sinfónica de los Andes explores documentary as a site of memory and represents a sort of corrective to the lack of coverage and dominant narratives from news media.
Sinfónica de los Andes also continues a political project Rodríguez began with Nuestra Voz. Both films focus on the political alternatives the indigenous communities provide moving forward into the future, instead of romantically operating within a salvage paradigm capturing a world on the wane. Nuestra Voz captured the beginning of a movement that continues right up to the present moment as, at the time of writing, indigenous communities block the Pan-American Highway in Cauca, still demanding for sovereignty, environmental justice, and human rights.
I spoke with Rodríguez at her home in Bogotá after she had arrived from Berlin, where the recently restored Nuestra Voz de la Tierra, Memoria y Futuro screened at the Berlinale Forum in the same room it had premiered in almost 40 years ago.
How did you come to make Nuestra Voz de Tierra, Memoria y Futuro? It seems like a very challenging project to undergo, and not just because of the location. How did it begin?
Back in 1970, a colleague suggested we visit the llanos, the plains to the east of Bogotá, because there had been a massacre of indigenous people, the Kuiba. Prejudices towards indigenous people still prevailed; they were ‘‘irrational’’ and therefore completely dehumanized. After the massacre, we got access to the trial, but the accused were absolved because in the llanos killing ‘‘indios’’ was normal. But it did open up Jorge’s eyes and mine to the reality of the indigenous people, that they were being exploited and killed across the country with very few people in positions of power taking note.
We’ve always been attracted to subjects or territories of conflict and injustice, so it felt like a natural progression to make a film on the indigenous cause. We settled on the Coconuco because the first land reclamations were happening there. As Jorge used to say, we were filming a political process from submission to organization. In the ‘60s and ‘70s in Colombia, the indigenous peoples realized that if they did not organize they would be exterminated, so the film quickly became focused on these land reclamations and the political, collective alternatives that these cultures provided moving forward into the future.
As you see in the film, the Coconuco first took back the Cavaló estate that belonged to the Church, then the Estrella farm, and finally Canaán, which was an estate located by the volcano of Puracé, in the highlands, and there was a lot of magic there, and fog. At night in the kitchens, people would tell stories and myths, in which the devil was always present.
In the opening sequence, we see a masked figure, the devil, moving through a breathtaking but inhospitable landscape. We see it again later in an astonishing montage in which the devil turns into a landowner and diabolical police officer. What is the origin of this figure?
The figure comes from the ‘‘myth of Huecada,’’ which I overhead in one of these kitchen gatherings. It comes from a long line of stories and myths where landowners or mine owners make pacts with the devil.
It’s the story of two men who are looking for their cows that have gone missing. They become lost and find a cattle ranch at a slope near a volcano, a desolate place where you couldn’t imagine anyone would live. An overseer appears and says he is the devil. Later, the devil appears in the guise of a policeman mounted on a horse, and of a landowner. He is always on a horse, wearing spurs like a conquistador. The devil became this composite of all those that have historically exploited the indigenous people. Hence the line, ‘‘the devil looks like a mounted policeman,’’ in the film. From the landowners and law enforcement of the time, to the conquistadores that haunted their ancestors, the devil is all of them. And we tried to reflect that syncretism in the film’s form, and the montage with all the different symbols.
The mask of the devil was made by Pedro Alcántara, an artist in Cali, whose work is a symbolic rethinking of the violence in our country. And the indigenous people also made a mask, because they had their own image of the devil.
Unlike with “Chircales,” here you seem to step between documentary film, ethnography, and something tending towards fiction. Did you use fiction to re-imagine social relationships, to suggest the potential for other, alternative realities?
It’s a difficult question that hinges on what is the best way to translate reality. When we showed our film “Campesinos” to the CRIC [The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, founded in 1971 to represent the interests of the indigenous people of the Cauca region] they didn’t see themselves reflected in it in the slightest. When they saw someone speak by themselves uninterrupted, like a traditional talking-head interview, they thought that person was crazy. They wanted to see who the person was talking to. They made it very clear that “Campesino”’s narrative viewpoint did not reflect their view of reality, and so early on in the filming of Nuestra Voz, they assigned us four advisors. Quite quickly we realized that they had a different concept of time and space, and we came to understand that imagination and myth was as much a part of their reality. So it became more and more infused with their storytelling and their myths, and the rhythm of their lived experience. It would have been a disservice to the film to not pay heed to their advice, and not include these recreated elements, which for them are very real. Jorge always said that Nuestra Voz was a real stroke of luck where ideology, politics, and the real world met with fantasy and magical thinking.
Was this mix of documentary and fiction inspired by Jean Rouch?
Perhaps. Between ‘63 and ‘65, I studied in France with Jean Rouch. It was a magical time and I remember him once saying, ‘‘In Latin America, there is nothing, so learn everything because you will have to do everything.’’ So I learnt camera, sound, editing, everything. In Colombia, there were no schools; there was nothing outside the television studios.
Glauber Rocha also had a big impact. He uses myth and magic a lot with hallucinatory mise-en-scène. He came to Colombia when some filmmakers were in jail and we met him.
But my biggest influence was a professor I had when I was studying sociology, Camilo Torres, a socialist priest who tried to reconcile Marxism with Catholicism. He taught us about amor eficaz, the compromise one has with different communities. He took me to the location of what ended up being my first film, “Los Chircales,” and really pushed me to use film as a means of exposing injustice and galvanizing revolt.
To what degree were the Coconuco involved in the filmmaking process of Nuestra Voz de la Tierra, Memoria y Futuro? How did you collaborate with them? Do you feel that the film is as much theirs as yours in terms of authorship?
The process was very collaborative. It was an exchange of knowledge and skills. We lived in Cauca on and off for five years. During the editing, I had a Steenbeck in the back room of my house in Bogotá, and the four advisors I mentioned would visit and we’d edit together. They wanted to supervise how they came across. Representation was very important for them, and authenticity, which in itself is a complicated concept.
During the post-production, los pájaros — the conservative militias — started killing representatives and community leaders, some of whom had appeared in the film. So very quickly it became a question of memory for the indigenous advisors, of safeguarding the memory of their leaders. They even asked us to cut a short film, which they called “La Voz de los Sobrevivientes” (“The Voice of the Survivors”) about Benjamin Dindicué, a Nasa indigenous leader that was murdered. They learnt quickly the power of image as evidence and its capacity to preserve parts of the past for future generations.
I’m curious about the film’s reception among the people living in the department of Cauca and in the indigenous reserves… did they get to see the film? What did they think?
When the film was finished, we did some wonderful screenings in Cauca with the Coconuco. Overall, they were very, very happy. They felt it was a film they could relate to, that honors the way they see the world. There were also moments when they were very sad seeing all the people they had lost. Again, there was a big concern about memory, about the power to keep those people alive. After the screenings, we left a copy with them and a projector so that they could show it in schools and community meetings. Predictably, the army thought it was left-wing propaganda and confiscated it.
The films are also very beautiful, quite pictorial. Do you feel that an interest in aesthetics ever compromises your ability to deal with the political?
I think they go hand in hand. Films are always political. Perhaps Jorge’s and mine were more explicitly so, but it was a time when one had to be. Jorge was a great photographer, and he felt that aesthetics could open up reflection. He used an Aaton ‘‘cat-on-the-shoulder’’ camera, popular at the time. The same one that Jean Rouch used. And he always had a great concern for landscape and atmosphere. The fog in Nuestra Voz was very important, like a character. People live in these remote hamlets and are surrounded by stories of ghosts that come at night, the wind that carries the devil. They really believed in the bad wind, the mal viento.
Many of your films reflect on inequality, violence, and suffering — Nuestra Voz included. Why are you drawn to tackling these difficult, complex subjects? Is conviction important for a filmmaker?
It was a question of denuncia — of denouncing. No one was making cinema at the time in Colombia, or very few people. And no one was showing the stories of people who had no voice, and no power, in mainstream society. We thought we had to put a light on them. And to let them speak, on their terms, about what affected them. Inequality, violence, and poverty affected them — it was a big part of their reality. But the films were also about politics. We were very interested in the process of political awakening that often accompanied the filmmaking process.
Thinking of similar artists working at the time — Luis Ospina, Carlos Mayolo and the Cali Milagro — would you say that your work was in part a reaction to poverty porn as well? To pornomiseria?
After “Chircales,” which really took a critical look at the poverty and precarity of the lives of the bricklayers, there was an influx of foreign film crews making films about poverty. It was the ‘70s, and they were these very affable films, completely devoid of politics, that became known as pornomiseria, or poverty porn. Our friends, Carlos Mayolo and Luis Ospina, made a film “Agarrando Pueblo” (“The Vampires of Poverty,” 1977) as a reaction to that. It was about a production crew hired by German television to make a film about poverty in Cali. They follow the crew, but in reality, it is all a fiction.
You’re associated with the New Latin American cinema and Third Cinema. How useful are these categories and to what degree are these movements or categories made up?
At the time, those movements were important, because they reminded us we weren’t alone. There was a whole group of Latin American filmmakers that were exploring, politically and aesthetically, the realities of their countries. Jorge Sanjinés in Bolivia, Glauber Rocha in Brazil, Fernando Birri in Argentina, a whole group that became known as the New Latin American Cinema, and that was comforting. Categories can be comforting because you know you are in good company. We always met up in the film festivals of Havana and Mérida. And then with the political repression and dictatorships of the ‘70s and ‘80s so many died: Raymundo Gleyzer, Jorge ‘‘El Tigre’’ Cedrón, Jorge Müller Silva. They were either killed or disappeared. For a while it felt like anyone who committed their camera to the cause of the revolution became a target. I’m 85 and I feel like I survived that movement.
Raymundo Gleyzer said, ‘‘I don’t believe in revolutionary cinema, I believe firmly in the revolution,’’ but after his “disappearance,” all that remains is his cinema.
We all believed that, but the revolution lost its way. In Colombia, at least, the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army] turned to kidnapping, drug dealing, often targeting the very people they said they represented. And since then, my films have been about those victims. My latest, Sinfónica de los Andes, focused on the children killed in the conflict, and the families left behind.
You’ve spent a lifetime committing the camera to the cause of insurrection, the oppression of campesinos and indigenous communities, and their resistance. Nuestra Voz feels so relevant today, almost 40 years later. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Why do you?
Perhaps because they are still killing human rights defenders and social leaders in Colombia, and land control is a very big issue here.
Yes, the violence has come back and the peace everyone hoped for is now very uncertain. This new government [President Iván Duque] is reversing so many things that we fought for and won. The question of land reform is a big one, an age-old one — who should control the land in Colombia? It’s a question we keep coming back to in our cinema because the country keeps coming back to it.
Finally, you’ve been called the grandmother of documentary film in Colombia, how do you feel about that title?
Some people call me ‘‘Grandmother,’’ and some call me ‘‘Mother,’’ it depends on the generation [laughs]. I like the title a lot! At the restoration screenings in Berlin, all these young people said that documentary in Colombia began with us, Jorge and I. But there were so many of us doing our bit!
A restoration of Nuestra Voz de Tierra, Memoria y Futuro screened at the 69th Berlinale in the Form section.
Top Image: El Diablo, character from the documentary Nuestra Voz de Tierra, Memoria y Futuro – Year: 1974 – 1982. Photography: Jorge Silva – Archivo fotográfico de la Fundación Cine Documental