Culture, Globe, Latin America, Screen, Visual Arts, World

Miguel Hilari: between Indigenous and Spanish cultures

His family experience made him sensitive to the rapid cultural changes in Bolivia in recent decades. Aware of the history of film in Latin America, he is concerned with ethical as well as aesthetic issues in making films.


Graham Douglas


His latest film, “Compania”, won the Sesterce d’argent George Reinhart Award for best medium-length film.

Hilari grew up mostly in La Paz, but his father is Aymara from a small village, and he is very aware of the changes resulting from peasant people moving into the cities. As reflected in his filmmaking activity, he is most interested in these cultural changes.

He has been influenced by Kiarostami’s films, where journeys between the cities and the countryside are a central motif. Their strong evocative power is able to transport the viewer into very different places. Documentary cinema attracted him as form that allows greater freedom during the production process.

Although a public funding programme for cinema has been announced in Bolivia this year, historically there have been very few funding options, so for Hilari it is important for people to see that small budget films can be made and also shown abroad. Peru offers more support and has a tradition of bringing cinema and film-making to the villages, since Grupo Chaski started in 1982.

He also teaches at the university in La Paz and works in cinema production. Hilari spoke to The Prisma.

Your last film El corral y el viento (The corral and the wind) was all about the village your father came from, and Compania seems a very personal work.

My father is from an Aymara village called Santiago de Okola. Since my father’s generation, people who used to be peasants are moving into the cities, which is a huge change in lifestyle, and ways of thinking. Children raised in the cities, as I was, start speaking Spanish instead of Aymara. I’m interested in portraying these changes, without making moral judgements – because films made in Bolivia in the ‘70s would have condemned these changes as a loss of identity. We need to look at this from many points of view, for example for the opportunities it provides to gain new knowledge – including about film, which was never part of Aymara peasant culture, but we are now gaining access to it. Compania, is also about that, taking images and appropriating them.

Miguel Hilari

You are part of a group called Socavon.

Socavon is a group of five film-makers of my age, and sometimes all of us collaborate on a project, but often we just stay in touch while working on individual projects. In the ‘70s there was an important film group in Bolivia called “Ukamau, whose best-known film-maker was Jorge Sanjinés. He was part of the left-wing Cinema Novo movement across Latin America, including Glauber Rocha, which dealt with the issue of collective versus individual protagonists, and showed films in rural communities. I had the opportunity to work with him, and films from that period are still very important, although his recent government-financed films have lost their power. In a way, we want to connect to that movement.

How have things changed with Morales?

People are more aware of the racism and classism in our society, but the people who came in with Morales got very comfortable in their seats and now they don’t want to leave. They have accommodated very well to the power structure that existed, instead of changing it. For example, it would still be extremely rare for a film made by someone from a village to be screened in a cinema. The government likes to present itself as the saviour of indigenous rights, but two weeks ago they agreed to oil drilling on indigenous lands, against the wishes of the people there.

When Morales arrived 12 years ago, you could feel a climate of hope, but that’s completely gone now in Bolivia.

Poverty is a big issue still

Yes, and big budget film-making is ethically questionable, because with that money you could do a lot socially. Some films made in Bolivia try to imitate Hollywood in a very ridiculous way. But many interesting films were made in recent years on very small budgets, and that is a development I am following closely. I am interested in poor cinema.

One review of  “The corral and the wind” said that it showed a longing to return to your indigenous roots, after growing up in La Paz.

That might be right! My mother is a doctor and both my parents worked at hospitals in two villages very close to Okola, where my father was born, so as a child I used to visit there a lot. They moved to the city when I went to primary school. There is always sadness about leaving a place, but it’s important to find a way to take the good stuff with you, while you are building something new.

How important is music?

In my first film there was no music at all. In Compania there is a long sequence with Cambraya at the beginning. It is traditional mourning music for the dead. Music tends to evoke memories of the place and time where we heard it. Cambraya music has that power for people in the village, and I tried to make it work in the film, evoking memories, stories, dreams.

What audiences are your films aimed at?

My film may be difficult for some people because it’s rather slow and quiet. I hope that people will be willing to try to connect with it. The beauty of art is that you can talk to people beyond your immediate neighbours, but I don’t want my films to be only for international audiences. I am sure people in Bolivia will connect, and I specially hope to reach young people who come from families that migrated from the countryside.

Is there an issue about commercializing culture and exporting it?

Bolivia is full of examples where international film crews come to photograph poverty. I try to work over a longer time period and form a bond with the people I am filming. But those tensions are always there, including me being the one who presents my films in Europe, not the villagers. I try to be aware of these tensions and to think about how to work with them.

What positive effects are there for Bolivia from your films being shown abroad?

There are very many characters and stories to be filmed in Bolivia, and sometimes what is missing is just the will to do it. I’m not competing with block-busters, but just the fact of travelling with a film shows people in Bolivia that it is possible to make successful films without much money.

And for the arts in general, it is important to show that films are not luxuries, they may be as important as say an agricultural project.

What are you working on?

I’m showing a short film at the Oberhausen short-film festival in Germany in May, which I made in Potosí, called “Bocamina”. After that I will be giving classes for schoolchildren about cinema and photography in a village. The school is giving us a lot of support and we managed to get a grant for it as well. As a producer I am working on a documentary about a famous Bolivian photographer from the beginning of the 20th century, and also on a fiction film that will be shot near Cuzco in Peru later this year.

(Photos suplied by Miguel Hilari)

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