Finding the Voice of a Nation

The small corner room on the third floor of the Residencial Sucre is different from the others in the downtown Copacabana, Bolivia hotel.

Beds and furniture have been stripped down and removed. A pile of mattresses lines one wall.  The windows are shut and the drapes are pulled, stopping light and noise from the cobblestone streets below from disturbing the 11 people packed inside. The room glows from the light emitted by the screens of four large computer monitors.

Small groups huddle around work stations in each of the four corners of the room, pointing at screens in deep discussion. Headphones are occasionally removed as the conversation becomes more animated.

Floating between the groups is Montreal documentary film maker Frederic Julien. For the past six months, Julien, 32, and his partner, Belgian journalist Delphine Denosieux, 26, have traveled across Bolivia on behalf of Oxfam Quebec, training and mentoring young aboriginal film-makers as part of a country-wide media project designed to help stimulate a new national dialogue and identity for one of South America’s poorest nations.

The night marks the end of a two-week post-production marathon in which the group has worked long hours editing film footage shot around the region into four feature documentaries.

As he makes his way around the room, it is clear that Julien, who has been making documentaries professionally for four years, is reaching a point of exhaustion. His beard is ragged, his eyes are red and he is fighting a stomach virus. Nonetheless, he is proud of the work the group has done and eager to show it off.

There is a documentary on migrant workers abandoning a small rural community for the city and another on the loss of traditional art forms in an increasingly globalized world. A third film talks about gender violence in Copacabana while another follows fisherman working in a depressed market on a polluted lake with dwindling fish stocks.

The films will soon be seen across Bolivia on a burgeoning network of community media and around the world via the film festival circuit.

Each of the works, Julien explains, is designed to tackle a serious issue facing the community of 6000 people which sits in a valley 3841 metres above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano, located just down the shoreline of Lake Titicaca from neighbouring Peru.

The project is also part of a larger effort to address the traditional inequality faced by Bolivia’s majority aboriginal population.  Each of the participants in the project, he adds, is being taught skills that will allow them to eventually contribute to the development of a national indigenous media network in Bolivia.

The project has attracted attention from the global humanitarian community.

With attention came offers of assistance. For the people working on the third floor of the Residencial Sucre, expertise, moral and financial support has come from an unlikely place, thousands of kilometres away.

Northern Quebec.

Franklin Gutierrez Zarate, a Bolivian teacher and documentary producer with the non-governmental organization Centro de Información y Realización Cinematográfica (CEFREC) or the Center for Cinema and Film Making, laughs as he explains the connection between Bolivia and Quebec that ultimately brought Julien and Denosieux to Copacabana.

“It was just by chance that we ran across these crazy people in Quebec trying to do the same things we were trying to do here,” he says, leaning back in his chair in the makeshift studio, pushing his baseball cap up his forehead.

The “crazy people,” he alludes to are a small group of Canadian artists who, as part of a social film making project, have gained an international reputation for their innovative and creative approach to community development.

For seven years, Wapikoni Mobile has toured Quebec’s Northern native communities, putting video cameras into the hands of aboriginal Canadians and encouraging them to tell their stories.

Launched in 2004 by the Quebecoise film director Manon Barbeau, Wapikoni Mobile drew its name from a young native girl who, before she tragically died in a car accident, inspired the director with her interest in social film making.

The project initially began in Quebec City when Barbeau put cameras in the hands of ten young street kids, outcasts and marginalized in their communities.

The resulting film, “L’Armee de l’ombre,” (“Shadow Army,”) garnered critical acclaim and led Barbeau to combine a similar approach with her passion for Northern Quebec’s native communities.

In the seven years since its launch, Wapikoni Mobile has produced 374 films, 277 music pieces and has been the recipient of 44 national and international awards.

The group’s structure is simple: Professional documentary makers, touring with trailers converted in to production studios, spend several weeks at a time in Northern communities encouraging aboriginal Canadians to tackle social issues head-on by using cameras to document their lives.

The projects are produced in several aboriginal languages as well as in English and French and distributed throughout the region and abroad to promote Canadian indigenous talent and culture and inform others about the challenges faced by Canada’s native communities.

Back in Copacabana, Zarate recalls how the Wapikoni Mobile approach resonated with CEFREC as they worked on film-making programs in a nation of ten million people caught up in the throes of major cultural change and with an aboriginal community trying to overcome a volatile history.

Bolivia, he explains, has always been rich in natural resources. The country’s silver mines were a famous source of revenue for the expansion of the Spanish empire.

The country gained its independence from Spain in 1825 but the country soon slipped in to a long period of political and economic domination by a small group of wealthy descendants of European colonists and military leaders.

For much of its history, Bolivia’s large indigenous population, made up of almost 40 ethnic Amerindian groups and comprising almost 60 per cent of the population, was denied the rights given to the minority ruling class. As a group, Bolivian aboriginals were either chronically poor labourers working in the mining and fishing sectors or subsistence farmers.

To preserve their wealth and political power, the ruling minority imposed restrictive laws and cracked down, often violently, on dissent. Despite this, grassroots organizations were active across Bolivia throughout the 20th century.

In the 1980’s things began to change for indigenous Bolivians, Zarate explains. A global economic downturn virtually decimated the country’s mining sector and many of the country’s activists, who had been involved in the labour movement, shifted their focus to aboriginal rights.

With an infusion of energy and manpower giving voice to the previously quiet majority, the indigenous rights movement quickly and radically mobilized to reshape Bolivia’s political landscape. Street marches and social protest soon created an unstoppable movement that forced the ruling political class to address the demands of native Bolivians.

Throughout the period of change, Zarate was advising a small group of aboriginal film-makers who were working to produce stories that articulated the emerging voice and self-image of native Bolivians.

“[As part of a national indigenous rights movement], we came to see that we had to destroy the house that was Bolivia and rebuild it from its foundations,” Zarate explains. “We also saw [at the time] video as an ideal medium to promote the creation of an equal society.”

Images of native Bolivians in the largely private national media at the time, he explains, were simplistic and ‘folkloric.’

“When we saw aboriginal Bolivians on television, if they were from the [mountainous Altiplano region] they were tending their llamas on a hill” he recalls. “If they were from the lowlands they were savages with poisoned arrows. We weren’t seen as humans with emotions and [the ability to contribute to the country].”

As the indigenous rights movement gained momentum, CEFREC set about contributing to the redefinition of how Bolivians saw themselves. “Our projects were designed to re-enforce indigenous self-esteem because [throughout our history] the aboriginal identity had a negative connotation.”

The group would soon be forced to change direction and take on a new series of projects that matched events in Bolivia when a series of political and social earthquakes completely reshaped the country’s identity during the past decade.

In 2005, after 180 years of struggle for recognition and equality, Bolivia elected its first aboriginal president, Evo Morales, an ethnic Aymara (Bolivia’s largest indigenous group) coca farmer.

Four years later the country overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution which granted Bolivian aboriginals equal status under the law.

The ratification of the 2009 constitution marked the turning point in CEFREC’s mandate. With indigenous identity no longer something to be ashamed of and now protected by law, the film-makers turned their focus towards tacking social problems in communities across the nation.

The group launched a program that identified future aboriginal leaders and began training them to make films with the new mandate in mind.

At the time, already having a substantial presence in the country, Oxfam Quebec and the Canadian International Development Agency offered to lend a hand. Oxfam Quebec, which works in several countries around the world, funding everything from disaster relief to gender equality projects, saw the Bolivian film project as an ideal fit with their mandate and expertise.

They also saw a natural, virtually perfect, fit with the enterprising group of film-makers at Wapikoni Mobile, with whom Julien had taken a job.

In 2009, with an undergraduate degree in political science under his belt and a Master’s degree in communications from l’Universite de Quebec a Montreal (UQAM) on the way, Julien joined Wapikoni Mobile.

Drawing on experience living in Latin and South America where he worked with aboriginal communities, Julien immediately found his voice within the group.

“We started with the ideas of the young people,” he recalls. “If they wanted to make a hip hop video, we helped them do that. Others were more interested in social issues so we worked with that also. It was up to them to decide what film they wanted to make.”

After two years and several projects with Wapikoni Mobile, Julien noticed an advertisement for the group’s international co-operation project in Bolivia funded by Oxfam Quebec. His background in Latin America, his fluency in Spanish and his film mentoring experience made him a natural fit for the job.

Soon he and Denosieux were on a plane, on their way to work with teams of young videographers.

Julien was immediately impressed at how organized and motivated the group was.

“It was different from working in Quebec. Aboriginal communities [in Bolivia] make up almost 60 per cent of the population so they already had a very developed organization and had already achieved a lot. In Quebec the representation is one per cent and three per cent in Canada so the organization levels weren’t as developed.”

The first challenge in Bolivia was to get to know the people they would be working with. They traveled around the country giving short ten-day workshops on different forms of film making.

The training sessions were made easier by the fact that most of the participants had some kind of radio or television background. None, however, had created their own film. Julien and Denoiseux also brought different forms of film to the table. There were workshops on animation and short video as well as documentary film craft.

Once the initial training was finished, attention shifted to Copacabana, the picturesque high-elevation village on the shores of Lake Titicaca where the two film-makers launched a longer-term project.

For six months, 18 young aboriginals from Copacabana have been gathering in stages at the Residencial Sucre, developing and creating documentary films exploring aspects of their lives and the issues facing their communities.

As a mentor, Julien says, his role is to allow the film-makers to choose their own subjects and then help them overcome the difficulties of expressing their ideas. He and Denosieux are with them from start to finish on the projects.

The program is not only about the documentary films being produced, Denosieux explains. After the course is finished, 32 indigenous participants will have the skills to contribute to the development of local and national media organizations.

Copacabana, for example, she adds, currently has an indigenous radio station, Radio Copacabana, as well as a community television channel and is planning to add to the network in the near future.

To one of Bolivia’s important indigenous leaders in particular, this aspect of the project represents a major victory in a decades-long battle for visibility and equality.

Rosa Jarja, a short woman in her 50’s, stands outside the studios of Radio Copacabana clad in a traditional Aymara costume. Fighting back tears, she explains the struggle indigenous Bolivians underwent to have their voices heard on the national broadcast grid.

Born in the rural Manko Kapac province, Jarja moved to La Paz at the age of 14. She soon discovered her calling as a radio journalist and, over the years, worked for several media outlets, focusing on education reporting. But, she recalls, being an aboriginal journalist, wasn’t an easy profession.

“At that time, native communities and particularly aboriginal women were absolutely discriminated against,” she explains. The radio programs she worked for were scheduled to be aired only outside popular listening hours, which were reserved for Spanish-language programming.

“[People looking to hear indigenous news] had to listen before 5am and, on top of that, there was almost no space on the schedule for women’s voices.”

Almost no one, she adds, reported on the ongoing mass discrimination against Bolivian aboriginals.

Despite the challenges, Jarja and a small group of indigenous journalists persevered and, for decades pushed for the establishment of aboriginal communication network.  Today she is a leader with the national indigenous council and is a representative for the native community as Bolivia develops national broadcast regulations.

The fact that young aboriginal women have the opportunity to make films of importance affects her deeply, she admits.

“Now that we have arrived, I am happy,” she says. “But there is still so much work to do and we still face huge challenges. We have to keep training.”

Standing in central Copacabana and squinting in to the afternoon sun, Sandra Chuquimia, talks about the film looking at the issue of economic migration that she has just completed. At 18, she is too young to have experienced Jarja’s struggles but she takes the project just as seriously.

Her parents were migrant workers who left the small fishing village of Chachapoya for the major urban centre of La Paz. At the age of 11 she returned to the village.

Growing up, she explains, there were 120 families in her village. When she shot her film, due to people leaving to look for work, there were less than 30 families in the area.

“I decided to make this film to show people [across Bolivia] how this issue affects my community,” she says.

The goal, she adds, is to spur conversation to try to find solutions for people living in rural communities.

Back on the third floor studio of the Residencial Sucre eight of the film makers are putting the final touches on their films. As the night grows longer, the film makers and the three mentors throw ideas about as to how they are going to title their films.

As the ideas spill forward, the younger ones laugh as the possible titles spin in different directions. The older participants maintain their focus and determinedly throw out idea after idea. Two of the films quickly find names, a third has options but the creators remain unconvinced. The name of the fourth, a documentary on domestic violence in Copacabana, remains elusive.

Having hit a wall, the group breaks up and heads back to their work stations. Julien stares quietly at an edit of the un-named film as attention shifts elsewhere.

It’s nearing ten o’clock when a laugh comes from the back corner of the room.

“What about this?” he asks, pointing to a word on the screen.


“It’s the longest word in the Aymara language,” he explains.

“It means ‘let’s dialogue’,” he says, eyes still red from staring at the screen.

“I think it says something.”

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