Glances – Mexico
A pair of young amateur astronomers use the power of star-gazing to re-awaken a Mexican community’s cultural past.
Can the power of star-gazing be an effective counter to the threat of marginalisation in parts of Latin America?
Sofia and Yayo believe it can. They are amateur astronomers and trained sociologists from Argentina who have travelled the continent, working with disenfranchised communities to help them look upwards to the stars as well as inwards at their own cultural identity.
Their creative star-gazing workshops open up a way for stressed, indigenous communities to re-engage with their cultural heritage and better deal with their contemporary circumstances.
This film follows Sofia and Yayo on the last leg of their trans-continental journey, to the remote Chiapas/Mayan region of Mexico and the village of Acetal. People here have suffered as a consequence of being part of the Zapatista insurgency.
As the two travellers arrive at their latest destination they plunge into working with children and teachers in an abandoned school. Using an array of makeshift astronomy gadgets, we watch as they look at the stars, explore their ancient legends, write their own stories and work with the elders to create a sustainable legacy for the next generation.
Sofia and Yayo learn from these experiences as well. Their own personal story runs a second thread through the film, as Sofia prepares to give birth to their daughter in July while in Chiapas.
This is a road trip with a difference, a route through Mexico’s contemporary wreckage and its mystical past via an uplifting prism of stars, stories and surprises.
Mexico has one of the highest percentages of indigenous people in Latin America. The indigenous population of Mexico is 12.7 million who speak at least 62 different languages.
However, indigenous rights were not recognised by the Mexican government until 1992.
Most indigenous people in Mexico are located in the southern region of the country, predominantly in the state of Chiapas.
In the last 20 years there have been a number of protest movements, the most notable and violent led by the Zapatistas in 1994. Their goal remains to gain further autonomy and broader self-determination of indigenous recognition and rights.
Alfonso Gastiaburo is an Argentine filmmaker, focusing on workers’ rights and threatened indigenous communities.
He was born in Rosario, Argentina, where he still lives. In 1997, he made his first video production, a short fictional film called Muere muerto, muere.
At the end of 1998 he founded, along with other filmmakers, La Conjura TV, a counter-information media project that lasted until 2007. As part of that project, he made a series of documentaries on human rights and social movements.
Following the economic crisis of 2001 in Argentina, he filmed peasant movements, factories taken over by their workers and unemployed workers’ unions (which in Argentina are called movements of “Piqueteros”).
He brought a special focus to people deprived of their liberty in prisons and has also explored the lives and conditions of indigenous communities.
In some instances his documentary work has served as evidence of human rights violations and been used in court cases against the state.
Viewfinder: Why did you want to tell us this particular story?
Alfonso Gastiaburo: What I found most interesting about this couple who travel around Latin America teaching astronomy in rural schools was the dynamics between teacher and student – because the teaching project was often inverted and the limits between the one teaching and the one being taught was constantly changing.
What characterises a lot of the communities in rural Latin America – on the Altiplano, in Mesoamerica – is the importance that astronomy has and all the ancestral knowledge that exists below the surface in these communities, how it affects everything that revolves around rural life.
I hope that this documentary shows how indigenous cultures see the sky and how that shows us how they see the world. Western science has not particularly taken this learning in to consideration – but what is more important is that often within those indigenous communities themselves this knowledge is devalued. I thought it was important to redeem this kind of knowledge.
Are there universal themes that you feel are represented in your film?
I think that one of the universal issues was the subject of identity – the struggle to preserve pre-colonial identities; the loss of language, customs and how that affects the development of the lives of small communities.
In a way, what you are talking about is the issue of memory, of cultural memory, of historical memory. The loss of those things are subjects that are universal in the context of a conversation about modernity. Modernity tends to erase the past in order to push towards a more technological future.
Yes. And this is a struggle that has been going on for 500 years. But a lot of the cultural elements survive in a syncretic way, existing alongside Western rituals that have been imposed in Latin America especially from Roman Catholicism.
So what you are exploring here is Latin American identity as a hybrid identity – an identity made up of layers of different historical moments?
Yes. Exactly. And there are elements of those identities that seem more fragile in that they seem to be on the verge of extinction. But actually, I think that they are more resilient than we think.
What are the transformative issues you see underway in Latin America today from your perspective as a filmmaker?
I think that in the past few years in Latin America there have been a number of political processes which are very complex, rich and diverse. I think that the role of the documentary filmmaker with regards to those processes is connected to the emancipation of our continent.
This is a looted continent. I am from Argentina and that process started during the dictatorship but continued with democratic governments. Neoliberalism did not start in the 1990s in Latin America but in the 1970s around the continent.
The past 10 years have been different. And I think that our place as documentary filmmakers is not just limited to documenting these political processes, it is also about taking an active position in them. I think that one of the biggest responsibilities we have as filmmakers is to give the spectator tools so that they can analyse what is going on in the continent.
There are documentaries that have had roles in very important political events in Latin America. It happened during the coup against Hugo Chavez. It is the independent documentary filmmakers that have often made the films that confront both state violence and the hegemonic discourses of the big media conglomerates.
Documentaries are increasingly important in storytelling. From your perspective why is this?
The fact is there are more documentaries being made today. That is indisputable. The technological evolution has meant that it has become much easier to make documentaries, cameras are more accessible, editing software is more accessible and this has, to a certain extent, democratised the use of those tools.
But the quality of the film is more about the subjects you choose, actually being there to record. And more importantly, how you tell those stories, that is always the biggest challenge. The issue of building a narrative, making the story engaging – none of those things can be resolved by more technology or more money. So this process of technological democratisation doesn’t guarantee you being able to tell a story well.
On another level the documentary in Argentina is a visual account viewed by a fairly small public and not something for mass consumption. Only recently have documentaries been made for TV channels, but even then, it’s for cable channels not terrestrial ones. It is still a marginal genre here.
It seems to me that Witness conceives of the documentary as a first person narrative that constructs a gaze that tells stories from the ground – it proposes a narrative that deals with a microcosm. The idea of the “voice of the south” is not just a literal attempt to represent the developing world – it is also points to a conceptual position in terms of representation even within the channel itself: to use the documentary as a narrative mode that counters the macro discourse of news. How do you feel about this concept of documentary?
Well, that is exactly what has been the challenge and the most interesting part of this project. Witness proposes an observational documentary format which is not something we really produce here in Argentina or in Latin America in general for that matter. So all the process of adapting our way of telling stories to that kind of language has been a great experience.
Here in the region, we tend to use much more voice over, music, actors, archives, animation. At Viewfinder I was introduced to a way of telling a story stripped bare of those kinds of narrative aides and what becomes much more important is the protagonist you are filming. Because actually, what I kept being told was that using too many visual and audio effects actually distances you from the protagonist. And I think they are right.
In more abstract terms, Latin America’s approach to documentary tends to talk from a macro level when talking about a micro reality. And at Viewfinder that process was inverted. We were encouraged to tell individual life stories as a way of suggesting the bigger picture.
By Alfonso Gastiaburo
For me it was very important to tell this story because it combines multiple elements that reflect our various identities as Latin Americans; rural lifestyles, worldviews of indigenous peoples, and the role of education as a tool for transformation.
I have known this couple for a long time. I have closely followed the development of their educational project. I have also joined them at various points of their two-year journey across the continent.
What most attracted me to the story was that the limits, boundaries and dynamic of the student-teacher relationship suddenly became diffuse, reversed and eventually transformed both parties.
Sofia and Yayo quickly confirmed two main things they had suspected before starting the trip in 2010: that the knowledge they received in each community was much more valuable than the knowledge they shared. And that the world of stars, spanning all major pre-Columbian cultures, still survives below the surface.
At the heart of this exchange between itinerant teachers and the communities they visit is the ancient knowledge of the sky and the stars which remain in the collective memory.
Although they may seem forgotten, we find them in the way they understand the annual planting and the community rituals that are intermingled with Catholic tradition.
This complex set of astronomical knowledge so central to these communities is ignored by Western science, but very often, they discovered it is also ignored by indigenous people themselves.
These ways of understanding the world, as seen in the movements of the stars are at the core of the cultural identity of these people and in a wider sense, are an important part of Latin American identity as a whole.
With this story we try to rescue and re-energise this ancient knowledge before it fades away.
This episode of Viewfinder can be seen from Monday, January 21, at the following times GMT: Monday: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630.
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