Sunday, February 9, 2014

Film Atlas (Bolivia): Blood of the Condor

Country: Bolivia
Title: Blood of the Condor / Yawar Mallku / Sangre de cóndor (1969)
Blood of the Condor starts in the middle. Ignacio, the headman of a mountainside Quechua Indian community, returns home drunk and beats his wife, Paulina, blaming her for the loss of three babies in childbirth and bemoaning their cursed luck.  Despite his unsympathetic introduction, Ignacio will emerge as one of the central heroes of the film along with his brother Sixto. We learn that sometime after the intro Ignacio is tricked into fleeing a police escort and gets shot, and that Paulina half-carries him to La Paz for hospital care.

There she finds the semi-estranged Sixto working in a factory, his leather jacket and familiarity with restaurants and sports unable to disguise that his lot is little better than if he’d stayed at home. Sixto tries to arrange money for a blood transfer, costing nearly twice his monthly income, stooping to begging and on the brink of purse-snatching to save his brother’s life. At the end, trying to track down a rich white doctor who might help him, he angrily storms a medical conference during the middle of a self-congratulatory speech about adopting Western methods to improve national healthcare. This is all the more hypocritical in light of other revelations; as the film fills in the missing pieces we learn that Paulina was secretly sterilized at a medical center run by the gringo-led Progress Corp (a swipe at the Peace Corp). Ignacio, after learning the truth, rallied an attack on the complex and was arrested, leading to the earlier shooting incident.

Blood of the Condor became one of the iconic examples of Third Cinema, a movement which sought to mobilize passive viewers by foregrounding political, revolutionary agendas, as opposed to Hollywood’s focus on entertainment (First Cinema) and European art cinema’s primacy of personal expression (Second Cinema). Though crude, Condor is strong stuff, celebrating the marginalized and widely discriminated Indian minority while advocating violent community-driven action in defense of their traditions and human rights. Director Jorge Sanjines spent significant time earning the acceptance of the Quechua villagers, all non-professional actors many of whom had never seen a camera before, and his film largely eschews condescension, heroics and soapboxing. In fact, its long respectful sequences of local festivals and cocoa leaf divining rituals may actually go too far, risking the boredom of international viewers. On the other hand, the rather sensible distribution of eggs so that every villager gets a few and the town’s emphasis on collective decision-making, in retrospect, hardly seems like radical Marxism (and perhaps that’s part of the point), but in its day it won both vocal critics and passionate adherents.

Unfortunately the film’s most tangible effect on public policy was the expulsion of the Peace Corp from Bolivia in 1971, though the idea that they were running a sterilization program, a rumor which caught the popular imagination, was entirely fictional. I have mixed feelings about Sanjines kicking the drama up a notch by resorting to an invented wrong instead of sticking to the very real and abundant miseries of socio-economic oppression, but whether you consider it creative license or shameless propaganda, it makes a good story. I have to admit that one of my favorites aspects of Blood of the Condor is its elaborate structure, bouncing back and forth between Ignacio and Sixto’s arcs, presenting rhyming rural and urban paths towards forceful proto-revolutionary self-assertion, but Sanjines later regretted what he considered an artifact of bourgeois filmmaking based on feedback from his target demographic, frequently uneducated peasants, who found the chronology justifiably confusing.  

Sanjines makes excellent use of landscapes, often in bold diagonal composition.


Patti said...

"Diagonal Composition" has been added to my list of potential band names.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Third Cinema Wednesday at

Keep up the good work!

FilmWalrus said...

Thanks danyulenglke! I like your work as well and added you to my blogroll. Love the idea of Third Cinema Wednesdays :)