Sovereignties, Activisms, and Audiovisual Spiritualities (Part 2)
Olowaili Green, David Hernández Palmar, Laura Huertas Millán, Nelly Kuiru, Pablo Mora, Mileidy Orozco Domicó, and Amado Villafaña
This is part 2 of the written version of a virtual conversation held in three sessions during the month of February 2022. For part 1, click here.
For the Spanish text of part 2, click here.
Galo Dugbis, or how to resist conventions
GALU DUGBIS: LA MEMORIA DE LAS ABUELAS (Olowaili Green, 2020).
This short film [Galo Dugbis, 2020] is part of the television series El Buen Vivir [2019–], a production of the National Commission for Indigenous Communication [CONCIP]. The episode it aired in had “Caring for Earth” as its theme. The commission gave us the freedom to create what we wanted. In my case, I wanted to do it about the mola [textile art] and about women, because most of the stories [in the series] were based on men.
I even thought about doing a story about a cacique [wiseman], but then I asked myself, Why do I have to tell a story about another man if we know that the ones who take care of the earth are us women, like my grandmothers and my aunts? I decided that I wanted to tell the story of weaving from the perspective of three generations: the grandmother, the daughter, and the granddaughter. Although the mola is not ancient, because it was made after the arrival of the Spaniards, the geometric figures and the symbolism come from the ancestral creation of the Gunadule people. The excerpt starts in black, but then we see a time-lapse of the stars. The Gunadule are children of the stars. A dreamworld woman came down to Earth, traveled through different layers of wisdom, and was able to see those geometric figures. The woman transmitted these symbols to all women, and they started to paint them on their skin. Of course, after the arrival of the Spaniards came the cloth and the needle, and the capes began to really take shape in cloth.
Returning to the theme of weaving as a metaphor, I say that it is not a metaphor as Pablo indicated, and I agree with Mile [Mileidy] and Laura that it goes further. It is part of the discourse that I have crafted—I do not produce films but audiovisual molas. Why do I say that I produce audiovisual molas? Because [the mola] is a textile composition, and every textile has a process. In this case, the molas are layered. The molas can have up to ten layers of fabric, and I see those layers as the stages of the audiovisual. After completing all the stages, the result is a textile composition, and I notice that each element is a creative part of a production team. A mola cannot be made without a needle, a mola cannot be made without thread . . . it really cannot be made without many small elements. The same occurs with an audiovisual production. I learned to weave molas, but I don’t really make them. Our culture has it that women are to weave the molas, and since I don’t do it, it concerned me to the point that I thought, OK, I don’t know how to weave molas into fabric, but I know how to make audiovisual molas, I know how to tell our stories with images. That is my idea.
In Galu Dugbis, the mola worn by the girl, the mola worn by the grandmother, and the mola worn by the mother all have a meaning. They weren’t made only for the shoot. Everything was thought out from the start. The molas that the three generations of women are weaving carry with them an important symbolism for our culture: circularity. As is often the case with Indigenous cultures, both weaving and thinking have a circular motion, they always end up where they began. And the basket in which they carry the materials from generation to generation is, let’s say, a basket of wisdom to be transmitted. But we don’t leave out men: the song in this short film was composed by a man. Really, these songs are only composed by Gunadule caciques because they know these stories well. Women do not sing these stories, but they do weave; they tell this story of the origin of the mola and the importance of caring for Earth through weaving.
Most of my films are also very intimate, because I only do them with my grandmother. I feel somewhat guilty for showing who my grandmother is in Colombia and in other countries. But my premise when telling or making these audiovisual productions comes from the law of origin. Why do I do it like this? Because that is how we Indigenous peoples think; because my parents have also instilled it in me. Additionally, as David said, the audiovisual production made me understand myself, recognize myself, value myself as a woman, as an Indigenous person, and as an Indigenous female filmmaker.
In my town it is very difficult for a woman to leave for the purpose of studying. There are still very few women who are professionals; we are only a total of four women from the Gunadule community here in Colombia. It is a different story for the Gunadule of Panama; they have more opportunities there. That is why I decided to focus my stories on a feminine perspective and to narrate from my point of view as a woman, to bring dignity to Indigenous women. As Mile says, I am also far from telling stories that are not very close to me. It is respect toward the Other. I can tell stories that I know and that I feel from my heart, but if the day comes when I must tell a story about another Indigenous group, I would do it, but only from that trust that Mile refers to with the Kamentzá brothers.
I want to highlight something about this work that, let’s not forget, was part of a television series. It is a good way to start talking about a term that hopefully does not lose its original meaning: decolonization. What do I mean by it? This is a television series that has some conventions, let’s put it that way. Television content programmers have a certain way of regarding narratives and controlling them, not through direct censorship, but always by insisting on what is valid and what is not valid for the medium. And among the things that were discussed in this series was an almost compelling pressure to write in three acts a dramatic structure and to report on events. The television series had to expose the Indigenous world by informing the audience about that world. And this is precisely what Olowaili did not do, and that is [her film’s] great merit, its great value: it is not an informative short film, in the sense that it does not convey data about culture, but rather it confronts us with a different lived experience and with other narrative forms. The film’s resolution consists of two or three songs, without anyone telling us what they are. I think that, on a micro level of decoloniality, there is a great resistance to programming’s impositions. Olowaili imposes a personal narrative on a system, the television industry, that generally prevents these personal narratives. And [her film] also allows us to experience through music, through singing, which is another way of opposing the television-driven information compulsion.
Mileidy Orozco Domicó
Yes, that’s really cool. When I saw the series, the Olo [Olowaili] segment did leave behind those characteristics derived from the formalities of television. And it reminds me of an anecdote about my first documentary, Mu Drua . I applied for a call to show it on the public channel Señal Colombia, and they replied, “No, you can’t.” Why? “Because it’s slow, the shots are long, there’s no clear common thread, and the runtime doesn’t fit either.” Then one is left with a “what?!” In a way, the Olo thing was a cool and replicable strategy that was also achieved in the next season of the series with the work Pishik (Agüita) , by Misak director Luis Tróchez. I think that venturing into that territory and staking resistance in it is a very valid challenge. Venturing into the television ecosystem like this, subtly so, as Olo and Luis Tróchez did, is quite good.
A different matter is if [one’s film] were destined for a YouTube channel, or something like that. But this is national public television, and, in fact, they are the ones who are accountable for generating content like this. We can acknowledge their efforts with funding opportunities they put out. However, there are still some parameters that they do not negotiate with Indigenous groups. It is impossible to access commercial television. Hopefully, someone from our towns can enter that universe in the near future. I really feel that we are in a stage of being born and reborn. There is still a gap between those of us who started—who are still here—and the newcomers. More little seeds are needed that catch one’s pace and increase the experience one has had and take it to other contexts and other ways of understanding the audiovisual in our towns.
David Hernández Palmar
In this matter of revaluing the metaphor, the Indigenous proposition, the “little seed” that Mileidy mentions, there is an issue that goes beyond the idea of systematizing experiences and goes through writing and quoting us, recognizing us in the trade, knowing who is doing what. Not everyone knows the cinematography of one or the other, so I think there is also a coresponsibility to make the works available.
It is said that the cinematographic documentary was born with Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North , but we have other Indigenous references for Inuit, such as [the films of] Zacharias Kunuk. His animated film [Angakusajaujuq:] The Shaman’s Apprentice  was shortlisted for the Oscars and is being proposed as a counternarrative to Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up . I find it very nice that an animated short film, directed in an Indigenous language, is the counterpart of a production that has all the privileges, all the funds, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep.
Laura Huertas Millán
In the frame of discourses and questions surrounding the hybridity between documentary, fiction, and docufiction, what is real and what is staged, there is something in Olowaili’s short that really catches my attention, and that is the porosity between planes in two dimensions and elements that pass into three dimensions, between the mola and what is being woven, which is seen, cinematographically, quite flat, then suddenly the bodies create volume. The molas are placed on the bodies, allowing them to transcend to another dimensionality. I feel that there is something with which many young people of this generation can identify—that those borders between documentary and fiction, between virtual and real, are completely blurred. Olowaili, can you tell us a little bit about how you conceive these cinematographic spaces? How do you work with those differences or those proximities between 2D and 3D space?
For me, a mola is a story and it is a person; the mola is a form of protection for women, specifically. When I started thinking about the script for the short film I said, “We have to show three generations, we have to show the mola in three stages: the beginning, the middle, and the end.” And the end is what the girl has on, which is the [mola] that carries the knowledge that the grandmother transmitted to the mother and the mother to the girl. At that moment I thought, What I want to do, when we are in the mola, is an overhead shot, from above, a look that is not human but spiritual, omnipotent like our gods or our goddesses, who are the ones transmitting that knowledge to the grandmother, the mother, and, lastly, the girl.
The 3D part is very dreamlike because this story, like all the stories of the Gunadule people, is very dreamlike. I wanted to give it that dreamlike feeling because, as I said, historically it was in dreams that women saw the symbols. That’s why I tried to show it as it really was. People who have gone to the Museo de la Mola [MUMO], which is in Panama, have seen these symbols in three dimensions; they can even make you dizzy. The molas are protective, they ward off bad energies. And what they do is to put you in a state of confusion, make you dizzy so that those energies leave, go away, and don’t enter your body.
The original molas are only geometric. You can see molas today with figures of little birds, but those molas are not original, but re-creations of the contemporary world. So that’s why I decided to do [that sequence] in 3D. In Bogotá I met with the editor and told him that I wanted it to look like a kaleidoscope. “What do you mean kaleidoscope?” he asked me. I told him a little about the history. I had to show him something from that museum of the mola because really that part is like when the layer arrives to the original woman, and she sees all those symbols that are told in the history of our people. I decided to do it in 3D to make it a little more dreamlike. I don’t know if it looked like that, originally.
I received a lot of feedback when the series aired. The [other films in the series] were very informative shorts, had very static camerawork, with interviewees looking at the camera. I don’t know, I think I’ve always been very rebellious—my parents say so—and I’ve never liked having an interviewee on camera or looking directly, no. That which I do, as Mile says, is from the heart.
It is precisely that richness of interlocking layers of visual regimes that you employ, the different types of images that are intertwined, that interests me, not only formally but at the level of the audiovisual language that you propose—a hybrid language, almost like a collage. And it’s also interesting that you don’t present the layers as something different; rather, they are presented in a coherent space in which you go from the body to the representation of the mola.
Dialogue with the natural world
The other topic we would like to tackle is ecology. Hopefully, little by little we can unite and destroy the dichotomy or the separation between the technological and the ecological, and rather try to think of both things together.
In that context that Laura describes, a missing line is that of animism. I am not a big fan of that word to describe the spiritual world in Indigenous cultures. They are owners of nature, spiritual fathers and mothers with whom humans dialogue. That is why it is said that the Indigenous people communicate with the stars, with animals, with the wind, with fire. This is a very complex issue and particular to each culture. We are not trying to propose a kind of homogeneous vision of the Indigenous world on this subject, but it would be good to think about it: What is this dialogue like between the visible world and the invisible world, and what does technology have to do with it? Is audiovisual technology able to record or represent these dialogues between the human and nonhuman worlds?
Yes, animism is not the right word. I think [what we are talking about] are the processes of vision or communication with a world that can be sensitive or infrasensitive, that does not necessarily reveal itself to vision as such, but rather needs rites of passage or rituals of communication to become manifest. It would be very pertinent to address that topic.
By speaking and writing Spanish and communicating through the audiovisual, we respond to a need to dialogue with neighbors who are not Indigenous. It is part of our principles and strategies to defend the territory and culture. As for nature, we approach it as a living being, with rights. Nature has spirits. We speak for those who have no voice.
What Amado mentions is the fundamental pattern that each town has in its ways of determining topics, what a camera means when it enters an Indigenous territory and what service it provides for us. There are protocols in each town.
On the other hand, cinema has allowed me to think about ecology beyond saying that we must defend animals and defend the territory. We Indigenous peoples call the defense of our territory ecology, but through cinema another knowledge is revealed. How can we defend the territory if we do not know which are the endemic species of our territories? How do we present them within the narrative construction of cinema? In other words, if when constructing narratively the hours of the afternoon I record the songs of a bird that sings at six in the afternoon and assemble it as a sonorous sequence, I am already constructing, in sonic and aesthetic terms, from what my territory provides me with. In the same manner, montage can also include other patterns of nature, so to speak, that determine hours, tones, moods, environments.
Audiovisual production has been quite good [for me], because while I was in the city I felt somewhat anesthetized. There was a large, sensible gap between the territorial physical space of urban areas and the territorial physical space in which I had lived my early childhood.
After many years of experience, I have come to several reflections. The first is [the need] to demystify that nature has no voice; I believe the notion it has no voice reflects more on humanity than on the environment. Nature, its landscapes, all its ecosystems have been speaking to us from the beginning of the universe about sustainability, about tremendous reciprocity. They are telling us of connections and relationships founded long before our personal arrival in this universe.
In 2012 I was given the opportunity to attend a workshop at the International Film and Television School [EICTV] in Cuba. The documentary lecturer told us that to craft a story one must know how it ends. This surprised me a lot, because I generally know where I start but rarely know where my story will end. This theory drove me crazy, and in the second documentary I produced, which is called Truambi , I scripted the ending first: “This is the story of a girl who goes and plants her navel. The documentary is going to end with a ritual of grounding the navel in the territory.” And how surprised was I when I went in with the whole team to shoot and I heard the territory telling me, “No, it’s not the time. We’re not going to allow you to make the film. You want to come here to record a ritual with the girl, but you are not doing things right. You already have your end, but you have not heard ours.” When we went to do the final scene that was going to finish off the documentary, nature managed to prevent it. Everything was ethically prepared with very professional people, and everything went very well in an intimate atmosphere. When we went to watch the footage there was nothing, nothing at all.
I think about the territory’s voices. For example, when it starts to rain in the context of a film shoot, everything stops. One of the things I like to challenge the most is the idea that rain is a mess for shooting. “No, it can’t be—one day of filming is ruined.” But when one knows how to take advantage of and accurately portray those moments and those states of nature, one delves deeper into their daily life and their language—for example, when the birds that belong to the location sing. I feel like those moments are missing in cinematography. I think what we’ve done so far is still very much focused on humanity and not on the grievances, so to speak, of nature.
To talk about this relationship with ecology, I also learned something about the rituals of filming, what one exercises in the territory. One must take care of knowing how much to disclose.
TRUAMBI (Mileidy Orozco Domicó, 2019).
We recognize the role of nature, of what is around, through the practices and experiences that we learn cohabitating with our territorial surroundings. In the excerpt we see the initiation of a girl who is in a relationship of recognition of her territory, while looking around, picking flowers.
Often when we film paths or routes there is no pause or break to make passing through a place more significant. It caught my attention when my mother, who was tired of carrying my niece, stopped and unloaded her. She taught me something I did not know, about how to resolve one’s needs in the territory. In a different context, [the action] is simply, “Take a glass and drink some water.” But here what my beautiful mother does is contribute in a very natural way some of the ancestral wisdom that she knows. She was never instructed [by me] to do anything. In the documentary genre, or at least in the form that I have adopted, one of the things I dislike the most is duplicating shots, repeating actions that have already happened.
So she takes a nearby leaf, makes a tumbler, and teaches the girl; the girl, as she is very receptive, follows the action, making her best effort, and they finally resolve that physical need to quench thirst.
RAÂ, PLANTS OF WISDOM TO HARMONIZE THE WORLD OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES (Nelly Kuiru y Escuela de Comunicación indígena Ka+Jana Uai, 2020).
In my case, as an Indigenous communicator I come from the heart of the jungle. I grew up there, barefoot, with a very close relationship with nature. My whole life took place in our territory, directly linked to nature. The stories of origin, the cures, the rituals—including evil things, such as illnesses—are also related to ecology, to the natural world. My dad says that when an elder or someone who lives in the territory knows how to interpret nature, they predict when a disease is coming. They can prevent it through their knowledge of nature, and later that benefits us.
The audiovisual content I produce is directly related to the territory. Everything that we do is part of the territory. We learn our language in the environment, and we also learn culture, the ancestral knowledge, through that relationship with nature.
The short film I made for the El Buen Vivir series is called Raâ, Plantas de sabiduría para armonizar el mundo [Plants of Wisdom to Harmonize the World, 2020]. Raâ means something that one wants very much, a very valuable thing. From our origin on planet Earth, we were given the coca plant, a medicinal plant of orientation. It is a plant that cools, that sweetens so that we can understand one another and coexist with one another and with nature, so that we do not harm one another. According to our origin myth, before [us] there was another world with other beings. The plants were poisonous, the animals were gigantic, and men were more evil than now. That world was destroyed by our Father, the creator. In this new world we still retain that essence of evil, of destroying what is around us. Precisely so that this does not occur, we were given coca and tobacco by the previous world, which represent the feminine and the masculine principles.
My short talks about these medicine plants and their relationship with human beings. Every time we do something like hunting, fishing, working on the chagra [small plot of farm land], procuring caraná leaves to build a maloca [communal dwelling], we ask for permission. And when this relationship of respect between man and nature—what I call ecology—is broken, the conflict arises that is already historically traced by our origin tales. I am not going to talk about climate change, because I believe that when we talk about climate change we are talking about what white people want to hear. Major Eliseo says that [nature] is precisely our mother, who feels exhausted and starts to react. Every mother is sweet, patient, but at some point, she reacts. That’s what I think is happening in the world right now. There is a weariness due to the misuse, the mistreatment of our environment, our mother.
My short is closely related to traditional songs, because for us rituals are the way to align the earth, the environment, so that we don’t have spiritual problems, health problems, issues of every sort. When this spiritual world or spiritual womb is opened during rituals, what we do is summon, through the songs, the spirits for the healing of the earth. That is why in my work I always use many of my own songs and my own instruments. Since we speak different languages, it is important to know what the songs are saying [through subtitles].
Often the question of opening up to the world worries and wearies me. When this new audiovisual content emerges, with its own narratives, we are also exposing ourselves to other people wanting to take our narratives and speak for us.
Thank you, Nelly. You have addressed a very important point, which is to question the mediation of non-Indigenous authors who speak for the Indigenous. In this sense, I invite Amado to enlighten us a bit about the marunzama and the bunkei, the instruments of power used by the mamos [Arhuaco, Kogi, and Wiwa male spiritual leaders] to communicate with spiritual fathers and mothers. It is not that they speak with the elements of nature, but with the spirits of nature. I think that this also reinforces, as Nelly said, the issue of Indigenous sovereignty in the transmission of knowledge, in this case the kunsamu, or traditional Arhuaco knowledge.
Even though we come from four different Indigenous groups, which share a territorial mission but speak different languages, our mamos or spiritual authorities agree that we’re left with one thought, one language, a territory, a way of seeing and growing in the world, with a responsibility to take care of nature. I value these spaces of sharing between brothers and sisters, knowing that we all have a different vision, and we do not intend to say that our vision is the one you must adopt. It is more about exchanging thoughts and about how we uphold our identity.
Communication has an origin before the birth of light, before the world materialized. It is different from communication through the tools we adopt. Communication for us is, for example, deciphering dreams, understanding the movement of the air, of the earth through tremors, the song of birds, the movement of different parts of the body. The elements of power that endow mamos to communicate spiritually are received through training. Then, when the apprentice knows the function of all the elements of nature, knows the root of diseases, he receives a marunzama, which is not only an object but an element that represents the daughter of nature. It is through that daughter Marunzama that the mamos can communicate with the spiritual parents and have answers to different problems.
So who holds the ability to interpret the communication with that spiritual or invisible world? Will it be only the mamos, the wise, the payés, the shamans, who can mediate in that world? And do the rest just listen and try to understand?
When you’re old, even if you’re not a mamo, you still learn things, about the interpretation of dreams, for one. The dream is not the same for everyone, even among the members of the same group. If I dream of an overflowing river, the interpretation for someone else will be different. It is not a formula, so to speak. The interpretation of the song of birds, the wind, or a dream can be done by anyone who understands that these signs are warning about something—for instance, that something is going to disrupt the family’s balance, such as an illness or bankruptcy. But the mamos do have direct control of these problems; they are the ones who can say, “This has been a failure in the spiritual world. We have to restore the balance, then we have to recompense so that this problem does not reoccur.”
I agree. As a living being in a territory, one interprets and learns with the passing of time. In our culture there are young people—future leaders—who have learned to interpret the signs of nature since they were children; they have sat down with the most knowledgeable. Anyone can interpret what we all know: if the rains come, if wind comes, if a bird sings. All of this is known by almost the entire community, because we learn it from childhood.
I am going to share an anecdote from 2020. Although we are already familiar with video devices in our territory, a non-Indigenous colleague, Pedro Samper, made a television series called Originarios with our support. The story about the sacred coca plant took us to La Chorrera, to my father’s maloca. My father received us at the mambeadero [reunion site with spiritual purposes]. He sat with the team of non-Indigenous filmmakers, oriented them, gave them ambil, and had them mambear [chew coca]. At one in the morning a very strong storm broke out. I heard my dad arrive at the center of the maloca, and he began to communicate with the spirits. The spirits demanded to know why my father wanted to tell the whole story about the sacred plant, about mambe. It seemed strange to them that non-Indigenous people sat in the mambeadero, since it wasn’t their space. My dad explained to [the spirits] why he needed to narrate the sacred origin of the plant. It wasn’t that they needed to mambear for mambear’s sake. It was a way to guide these people through our culture. As soon as my father finished speaking, the thunder, lightning, and rain subsided.
What I want to say is that, in that sense, I would not be the one who was going to sit in the middle of the maloca to talk to the spirits and say, “This is what we need to do.” I don’t have that power; no young person does, not just anyone. The true communicators are those men and women prepared with much sacrifice to face the profound knowledge of the world and its law of origin.
Words, things, and images
Nelly, I am going to piggyback on what you said about songs and music to establish here a relationship between the word and the landscape or the natural world, however we want to call it, in audiovisual production. You mention that it is good to also subtitle the songs, because they have meanings; those words are communicating things to us, they’re not just melodies.
Yes, of course, they are also part of the narrative. In fact, we say that the traditional spaces, the spiritual house or maloca is a feminine womb, a womb where the word is born, guided by the spirit of the creator Father through the masculine and the feminine that are symbolized by the tobacco and the coca.
When Amado said, “We are communicating with the world of the stars, the water, the earth, and giving a voice to those who have no voice,” and, on the other hand, when Mile stated that nature has a voice and is communicating, it is a purely semantic matter. Both are related in their notion that the natural world, of which men and women are part, speaks not in the sense of words but in another way; it communicates in another way.
Yes, Pablo, it is good to clarify what “they have no voice” means. Not all Indigenous people have that connection that traditional elders have. The grandparents, the elders, the wise are very important because they are the ones who know how to connect with and interpret nature. And when our colleague Mileidy says that the natural world has a voice, it is obviously through these essential people in our communities that nature communicates. We know when it is going to rain, when it is going to thunder, when someone is in danger, when someone is going to die, because the herald bird is singing. We know what is going to happen when dogs cry at night. Different animals bring different messages. Our struggle in the audiovisual realm is precisely to create a conduit for the voice of these traditional leaders. [The audiovisual] is a tool of strength, visibility, and political struggle.
Because we are among colleagues, I am going to tell you about a work in progress. Through illustrations we want to interpret what education was like within the mother’s womb—the different ways of eating, the complete diet, how men or women who became leaders or traditional elders were educated from the very womb of their own mother. In the current education of schools, we are disconnected from that part of ourselves, and, in fact, our forest is losing its voice. My impression of the audiovisual is that it is a form of resistance, of political, cultural, and social struggle.
I think it is a huge challenge for Indigenous filmmakers to express that communication from the natural world [to non-Indigenous people]. Of course, you hear the song of a bird, you hear the wind, or you see a cloud and you know what they mean because you are close to elders who guide you. But for those of us who did not partake in that learning, how to understand that communication?
You are right. We must think and rethink all this and also be careful with what we tell. We cannot communicate everything through these means. From our spiritual basket of resistance not everything can be shared, because, as the grandparents say, then we are left empty.
That’s why I think it’s worth thinking about the word, the spoken word, in Indigenous audiovisual productions.
I have also thought about these issues. When I watch movies, from time to time there are things I don’t understand, and yet I watch the movie. I think there are several positions. There is the position of autonomy saying, “This is very specific to my territory, and it is okay that it is not fully understood.” Another position on communication says, to the contrary, that it is a priority to inform, that the message needs to be clear.
But about those symbols, icons, codes, aesthetics, and sonic resources that are our own and are intelligible to those that belong to the territory, we can also state, “You can take what you can from it.” In addition, each work is subject to all kinds of subjective interpretations. There is also the other challenge, which I think is what most of us have immersed ourselves in, which is that of interculturality, having those privileged spaces to talk, explain, and share what is happening in our work. The truth is, my priority in films is directed toward the inside, to my family and my community, even if [the films] have reached an outside, with other interpretations. Obviously, there are people who do not belong to our territory who want to share our cultural understanding and would like to know everything. But that is also a path. It is like when someone who is preparing to be a jaibaná [spiritual healer] must follow a learning curve. We do not have to shorten messages for outside interests or strip ourselves completely naked in our audiovisual works.
The cinema of our Sierra Nevada colleagues has had a global audience, has managed to be very persuasive; and although [their films are] generally oriented toward a conversation about climate change, it is a conversation to which we are not invited as representatives of Indigenous groups. In that agenda, there is a narrative that green-party representatives use to tell audiences about responsible mining, and so on. Indigenous peoples have their own narratives with which they articulate what is going on with the climate crisis. For example, the Wayuu people announce a climate crisis when recognizing the effects of coal exploitation. But especially during the pandemic we see many narratives from women elders, from Indigenous grandmothers, about how life should be managed or about placing life at the center of knowing how to heal Earth in the face of, precisely, the climate crisis.
The other thing I would like to point out is the exploration of what Indigenous futurism proposes as a narrative possibility—that is, a way for people to manage hope [for the future] through foundational tales. Those myths of origin are the basis for determining what I am going to tell, how to narrate, and what genre I am going to use, whether it is science fiction or not. I will give a small example that I have discussed with friends of how to explore new narratives: Starting from a Wayuu origin story, a film can be shot in Japan, spoken in Wayuunaiki, and have no humans in it, only cyborgs that question the notion that humanity is a part of nature. I think that this is valid insofar as our origin stories are also very futuristic and have intensified aesthetics. Those are the things that come to my mind when listening to foundational myths.
Ka+ Jana Uai, the voice of our image
Thank you, David. I also wanted to ask Nelly if she could tell us about the school of Indigenous communication that she created in the Amazon. Here, in fact, the theme of the voice comes up again, since [the school] is called—forgive my pronunciation—Ka+ Jana Uai, “the voice of our image.”
If you search on Google you will find that a lot of outlets have given exposure to the work we did with the El Buen Vivir series and other work we have done in the school. These works draw the attention of people who are looking for stories to tell and come to our territory. They do not seek to strengthen communities or build the capacity of Indigenous youth or leaders themselves to tell their own stories; instead we end up being once again the objects of cinema and the audiovisual industry. There are many risks that must be analyzed thoroughly. I have called on colleagues to be very careful. This is also a way of resisting. When we tell our own story, we have to protect it in the same way that our grandparents and our ancestors have been protecting knowledge. We cannot open ourselves to that world, because we are going to end up the same as we did during the rubber industry era.
Precisely, the school is born from that fear and the need to make Indigenous peoples visible. It’s something that has concerned me since I was very little. Like my father, I have always been a person who has not been very open to going to forums to talk about our culture and to say that I am a leader. Or to put my feathers on so that they can recognize me as Indigenous. No, I’m not one of those, but there are colleagues who do lend themselves to [these activities]. At first I was alone at the school, winning over the youth and speaking about the importance of being able to communicate our own perspective, everything that occurs in our territory. I started with a small camera and with—as people say—“warming up the ears” of our leaders. Then two colleagues joined me, and we started taking pictures, going to meetings, going to other communities, and raising awareness through our networks. But then we said, “No, things shouldn’t be this way; we not only need technical training, but to think on our own, so that we can be the carriers of our word, make it be heard with these tools in the best way.”
I have always fought against those people who come to misconstrue our territory and our culture and produce content that folklorizes us. The school was born in 2000, and in 2012 we started as a collective, which is also called Ka+ Jana Uai, a consensual space where there are all kinds of classmates, not only from the Murui people, but also Ticunas, Yaguas, Cocamas, Letuamas, Mirañas, Boras, Ocainas, and Winanes. It was named in honor of a Murui companion who founded the collective. We said, “Let’s name it in the Murui language.” And with several elders, including the abuelo Bolívar, the deceased protagonist of the film Embrace of the Serpent , we picked out several names. Ka+ Jana Uai is “the voice of our image,” because that is how the elders interpreted it. It is your image, even though it is you who are speaking; it is already in a future tense. The elderly you leaves, and the image continues to speak.
At school we train in our own forms of communication and [teach] the political implications of [these forms]. We tell the kids what’s behind all this: The media doesn’t communicate just for the sake of communicating, people don’t create content just for the sake of it; it is necessary to carry a message and guide politically. The school is itinerant and does not depend specifically on whether there are financial resources available or not. For me, school and this communication thing is not a specific project, but a process. And things within the territories must be processes; they are not about making money. Surely, when I’m gone there will be more conscientious young people who can continue this fight.
The world of artists and Indigenous creation
Thank you very much, Nelly. I would like to pose one last question that brings us back to the issue of audiovisual sovereignty: How do you feel about the art world’s growing interest in practices that come from the frontlines of Indigenous resistance that you have been addressing? Do you feel included in these spaces, or is it, once more, a way to extract creations and knowledge from places that have historically been subject to so much violence?
I feel that there are two valuable ways to think of participation with the art world, with people who do not directly belong to any Indigenous community: there are collaborative and protagonist forms. Why both at the same time? Because sometimes people say, “Come on, help me.” And, in the end, the one who was from the [Indigenous] community and participated was not even named. Or [the people from the art world] do not hold due respect to characters, wisemen and -women who make themselves available, who share the ancient memories they guard.
For a long time, we have been objectified, both in human relations and in misrepresentations of what occurs within our territory. I feel that it is possible to collaborate with people who are not from our communities based on respect and active participation. Perhaps our community does not have the same storytelling capabilities or cannot match the technical or creative knowledge of external production crews. We are generally the ones who have a wider scope in the content of stories, because we grew up immersed in these stories. So it takes an appropriate disposition, sensitivity, humility, and language to achieve a fluid and collaborative dialogue.
Here the concept of cocreation is key. It is not about avoiding working with people who are not from the community, but about having a mutual project. It is not a question of prohibition. But it needs to come from our own storytelling efforts to create beautiful thoughts that also speak of cultural respect.
I think that we are well oriented at this moment because, for the first time, as a people and as communicators, we are taking the reins. We already have a public policy worked out by us, and we have a television plan. Therefore, at this moment, despite the fact that we are only starting, although the struggles have been going on for quite some time, I think that we are on a good path. I am not closed to the possibility of doing work with non-Indigenous people, but precisely one of my tasks is to guide them. If we are going to work with non-Indigenous peoples, let coparticipation or mutual participation be real and true. Not someone from outside speaking on behalf of the people from the territory, which is why I always criticized the movie The Path of the Anaconda [Wade Davis, 2019]. It seems to me that such films are still very colonialist. It is always the white anthropologist interpreting what the abuelo says. No, we communicate better the word as it is, articulate what our elders are saying.
I think that just as we create schools of communication, intercultural schools can be created (I don’t know what else to call them) tackling education, the environment, languages—both our own and Spanish, and perhaps other languages. All of this strengthens us as peoples. We do not need to close the door to Western knowledge but ask it to respect who we are.
When we started walking this path, we found an appealing way of interpreting Indigenous thought and adapting it for the likes of an external public. We have also been working in a space called the National Commission for Indigenous Communication, in which the five national Indigenous organizations in Colombia participate.
In that space we have made it clear that communication from Indigenous peoples must be direct, without intermediation. That is why even in the Sierra Nevada we Arhuacos cannot speak for the Koguis or for the Wiwas, because everyone has the obligation and the right to represent themselves. If we work with outsiders, we use a document which is signed to ensure that the resulting product becomes collective property; it’s not even [the property of] the filmmaking collective we are part of. If we follow this procedure, we won’t feel that they are squeezing us to later keep our knowledge, because everything that has to do with the image and with our own thinking is tied to this document. The public we are targeting is not Indigenous, but there are two ways [we make a film]. On the inside it serves as an archive, deposited in the territory for future generations; and on the outside, we need them to know how we are, how we think. Development for us is to stay as we are, strengthening our roots.
Some friends tell me, “Amado, you are an artist.” And I answer, “No, I’m not an artist. I’m a scared Indian who wants to continue being the way I am.” I have never been able to nest the word artist in my vocabulary. My intent consists in transmitting the concerns of the mamos to the outside world. And so I feel that the youth who are here with us should follow this path of sharing, because we see the need for our “little brother” (non-Indigenous peoples) to change their attitude toward nature.
Title Video: Galu Dugbis: La Memoria de las Abuelas (Olowaili Green, 2020).