Old Movies in Bolivia

The Bolivian Film Foundation has been cataloging old movies from Bolivia. An article in Prensa Latina talks about the project.

La Paz, Aug 19 (Prensa Latina) The Bolivian Film Foundation cataloged more than 500 national films, among them documentaries and news of the 20, 30 and 50 of the last century, reported today in this capital.

When I saw this I was thinking about ways to address what I see as separation of us from Nicaragua which is common here on this site and others. (I am still working on a post about this.) This project in Bolivia seems like a good cultural bridge. All too often we think of movies as "something from Hollywood" yet I am sure there is a lot of film footage from around the world that could show us what is now history from a local perspective.

Is there something similar in Nicaragua and, if not, could there be?

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INCINE (starts and almost ends with?)

This was going to be a separate post on INCINE, but it fits here per Bolivia, so…: in developing countries with or without a real film foundation or preservation board many of the best items (and this is often true of nearly every form of "art", everything from paintings to photographs to postage stamps) are in private hands, and a few of the better private collections often surpass most regional or even the national museum. Catalogs like this new Bolivian one (though I haven't seen the list) are often heavy on news footages, short films, and for-hire projects – many of which, legally, were the property of the contractor, not the director. Since most of these films have never been screened on any scale (were likely broadcast on television, in edited form), there are even fewer copies in circulation or in private hands. Per the oldest projects, government appointees often had access to what was done and what became it (organizations and institutes come and go, and so might their legacy due to oversight where historical preservation has little meaning, and political control has great meaning). Since many documentary and other films deal with political issues, even more than other art forms, the history of filmmaking is even more likely to be dependent on private collectors, or the heirs of those who actually directed, shot, or edited the film (if they kept stuff). It is easy to think in terms of Hollywood motion pictures, with not just big budgets but big, multi-reel cases delivered to theatres, etc. But, most short films really are, SHORT. Often, they were done with a single in-camera 100-foot reel of 16mm motion picture film. For a silent film this is 16 or 18 frames per second, so a short "movie" is only about 3-4 minutes, and at best with no fades or edits, only 4:10 – and the finished reel fits in a jacket pocket. A long(er) movie is often the equivalent of 203 of these reels, edited.

Bolivia's early 20th century history is ripe with connections to Argentina, Chile and the European base of wealthy and/or ruling families. These influences led to many of the Bolivian projects. In Central America, there are few similarities as neighboring countries were fairly similar. There is no first or golden era of documentary filmmaking in, say, Nicaragua or Honduras (where, if there is any era at all it started in the 21st century; before that, it was mostly a couple guys, and much of the work via one: Sami Kafati – who made the country's first real documentaries and fictional film in the early 1960's and their first feature in the early 1980's (he died right before completion and his son, via a scholarship from the French Embassy, finished and edited the film in 2000). In Nicaragua, on a personal level it isn’t all that different. But, there are two notable collective level exceptions: the Sandinista creation of "Instituto Sandinista de Cine Nicaragüense" or INCINE circa 1979, which came as "Producine" was killed. Producine, though hardly a national cinema, was a publically funded Somoza outfit; their short films, usually news-based, were often shown before features films which were usually from Mexico, Argentina, and especially the U.S. Producine was essentially replaced by INCINE (modeled after the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, ICAIC, and it even copied their mobile cine, bringing projected films to rural people) – though the latter was intended to recover a Nicaraguan national identity via film, by interpreting the revolution.

Even though countless revolutionaries flocked to Nicaragua, and there were a good many filmmakers in the lot, their ideas and quest to recover Nicaragua's national identity through film did not always win out. Since there was no "film culture" in place in Nicaragua, many decisions were left to experts (not university students from North America and Europe) and their directors, and much decision making was dictated by those from Cuba and the Soviet Union. As can be expected, the films often took on a Soviet-style documentary formula. The cornerstone of their output was news shorts, referred to as "noticieros" (newsreels), which were usually 35mm-camera shot, 10-minute b&w film short films. This is the sort of thing that would air on television in most countries, but in Nicaragua they were movie theatre domain, due mostly to the political infighting of Sandinista TV and Sandinista Cine people. The first two years of INCINE were news based, usually focusing on a works project or development – though some parts of their work dealt specifically with the role of women in the Revolution and future of the country, etc. It is the next generation of INCINE that is the best, as Nicaraguan's learned the cine equipment, cinematography control, editing – and by then were willing to debate Cuban and Soviet "advisors" on what should be made (in many cases the Nicaraguans won out and longer films were made, often with local actors and musical scores/recording by Nicaraguan musicians, etc.). INCINE made 77 films between 1979 and 1989.

Starting with the Contra war, INCINE ended noticero production and made only fictional films as leaders feared no one would see them outside the country were they "fact" based projects. INCINE then later started making feature films, though since they were Marxist controlled their popularity was limited even in Sandinista circles (in some ways this is partly what makes them more interesting now, than when they were made). The Cuban connection did eventually pay off in terms of film quality, though mostly from South American exiles who were adopted by the Cuban arts community. The real notable success of INCINE was when they got Chilean director Miguel Littin to direct "Alsino y el Condor" (see: http://www.nicaliving.com/node/1065), the film version of Pedro Prado's "Alsino"; the film was nominated for an Academy Award (best foreign language film), and it won the Gold Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival. Littin also was part of the "Sandino" film project (see: http://www.nicaliving.com/node/1087). Littin's later adventure of getting back into Chile after Pinochet exiled him, and making a 4-hour film while in disguise with some parts on Pinochet's property (later chronicled by Nobel-Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1988, “Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin”) is equally noteworthy. Unfortunately, nothing INCINE later did surpassed Littin's projects. Their last major work, which helped bankrupt them, was the mid 1980's, "El Espectro de la Guerra" – dealing with a politically naïve young man during the Contra War, and directed by INCINE founder and leader, Ramiro Lancayo.

INCINE -like many film institute's- was born of a political act, and ended quickly with another: newly elected Chamorro. Because INCINE came about in 1979-era (as opposed to 1929-era), the history doesn't go back all that far. And, since they were sponsored by Cuba and the former Soviet Union, footage was likely distributed to some extent (the more places they went, the more likely masters can be had in decent quality), and since they had ties to the institutes in Mexico, another country is also involved. INCINE history is not really a mystery. What is missing in many developing countries, as is the case with Nicaragua, is a non-governmental film history. Though Littin's film was an INCINE production, of all their work it is the sort of political film that would have been made elsewhere, in a country with a better-funded cultural underground, without government sponsorship. Since it was a real political film, but not pure propaganda, meant it was taken seriously worldwide.

A good print account of INCINE is Jon Buchsbaum's, "Cinema and the Sandinistas: Filmmaking in Revolutionary Nicaragua" (University of Texas Press, 2003). The author used countless firsthand documents, including all the films themselves, interviews with numerous INCINE employees, and the INCINE archive. One weakness is that he seemed to focus on INCINE proper only, meaning there is little in the book describing the audience or any impact the films had on the greater culture. Unless things have changed, it takes some doing to see INCINE films. Sadly, there might not be a DVD documentary or treatment of the outfit or their works. There are older documentaries on Sandinista filmmaking such as, "Historia de un Cine Comprometido" (The History of a Committed Cinema) and a few others, though none might have yet been issued on DVD and the 1980's VHS copies are likely hard to come by.

"Sandino" showed up here in a bad DVD copy

The muchachos selling DVDs insisted that I buy it. I also got some FSLN era "Final Offensive" video, a compilation of film shots of various people and events (also not a particularly good copy, but interesting shots of various players, some of whom, like German Pomares, died in the revolution, and some other things that were even worse (one is a compilation of news videos of Contras being trained).

The characterization of Somoza may or may not be historical, but the writing and the actor do an very plausible interpretation of him: smart, ruthless and manipulative, but always charming.. Sandino is a bit less believable (the actor is too tall and there's less rawness than I suspect was true of the real man). The kids I loaned my DVD to had a copy of "And Pancho Villa as Himself." My guess is that both get a fair amount of pirate circulation in Nicaragua. I got my DVD of La Yuma from the same type of street dealers.

I didn't realize you hadn't seen it when you reviewed it or I would have done a review of it myself.

Both it and La Yuma seem to be decent films, though I'd say that La Yuma was personally more intriguing for me.

Crowd sourcing projects seems to work for US musicians quite well; I'm not sure how it will work for Nicaraguan film projects.

The other interesting development is that the price of reasonable quality video at the proof of concept level is now quite low though still expensive by Nicaraguan standards, but not impossibly high.

Edit: YouTube has "Sandino" in several parts, a copy of "La Yuma," and some documentaries, like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2R1XY05EEHI&feature=related

Rebecca Brown

Has someone posted about this movie project?

The same team that made "La Yuma" is raising funds for a new movie to be filmed in Matagalpa.


I think people move to foreign places for a range of reasons. Some people want to be around a different culture and tend to be what I've been calling "Nicaraguan-facing." Others want to be around other international travelers and expats, with the locals as basically a backdrop (a friend who was in the US recently said that all the ads for tourism in Nicaragua show all white faces). I don't think one can be turned into the other.

Films recommended to me by Nicaraguan kids: "Sandino" (made for Spanish television apparently), "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" (made for HBO, about Mexico). I also managed to find a copy of "La Yuma," but that doesn't tend to be something the kids know (they have heard of Dr. Who and now have a set of Dr. Who DVDs). The DVD vendors had maybe three or four other DVDs, one of which was a pro-Contra film showing Contra-forces being trained, another was the fall of Somoza with video clips of various people active in the revolutions. Some of the DVDs were in bad shape. I bought all the history relevant DVDs available that day.

I recommend "La Yuma" and "Sandino" both for people who want to know, for the first movie, how Nicaraguans see Managua, and the second for a sort of Hispanic remembering and recreating of Sandino's life. Both are good for Spanish listening practice, too.

Rebecca Brown