THE LEGACY OF LATIN AMERICAN TESTIMONIAL
LITERATURE AND THIRD CINEMA
The historical experiences of testimonial literature and Third Cinema have been a great influential reference for both my artistic work and research praxis for a long time. Broadly, my interest has been based on the critical approach of both to rethinking the emancipatory potential of the arts. As they were both connected to the testimonial book Evelia: Testimony from Guerrero—which I originally developed from a documentary project, and that I will discuss further here—, it is worth first briefly exploring the shared genealogies and features of both artistic practices. This framework will facilitate scrutiny of the actual link to these expressions that, through praxis, emerged in the very project under discussion. Thus, the following reveals how the legacies of testimonial literature and Third Cinema also relate to insights on estrangement and identification, as part of the broader tensions that defined their approach to artistic praxis, in order to explore the ways in which these inquiries are reflected in my own artistic work, specifically the literary piece Evelia: Testimony from Guerrero.
In the film scene, the experiences and debates that sprang from the so-called New Latin American Cinema (NLAC), which responded to wider political and militant goals during the 1960s and 1970s, were among the most radical and critical approaches to rethinking artistic praxis in relation to form, legibility, and its role in the formation of culture in the latter half of the 20th Century. Movements such as Cinema Novo with its Aesthetic of Hunger, groups like Cine Liberación (led by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, who coined the term Third Cinema) or Grupo Ukamau (led by Jorge Sanjinés), as well as the Cuban film scene—with the important theoretical contributions of Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and supported by ICAIC (the Cuban Film Institute established after the Cuban Revolution)—explored the possibilities of reflecting and intervening on the social effervescence of a revolutionary process, while embracing the emancipatory capacity of formal experimentation in the arts. In this context, and alongside similar challenges of established paradigms in other artistic fields, investigating the formal possibilities of and limitations for making spectators aware of and actively engaged in their political reality, the dramaturgical explorations of Bertolt Brecht, especially regarding estrangement, became a recurring aspect in the debates on these matters.
These debates took different forms throughout the years, mainly in what was referred as the Third World (Mestman, 2002), but also with other participating authors, like Chris Marker or Jean Luc Godard. The influence spread in the Anglo-Saxon film field, mainly through the reclaiming of the Third Cinema notion by film theorists such as Thersome Gabriel, Paul Willemen or Michael Chanan, to name just a few. With the turn of the century, this very notion and what it implied within the film praxis has been rethought extensively by authors like Mike Wayne, who sees in it a critical “revolutionary praxis” (2001, p. 5), where theory and practice are challenged as part of a continuous process of re-elaboration. Filmmakers and artists as diverse as Peter Watkins or Hito Steyerl have continued reflecting on the implications of these radical debates through their work and theoretical contributions, exposing how the central themes of these originally Latin American debates remain pertinent and unsolved globally today (Wayne, 2012; Steyerl, 2010).
In the literary field, testimonial literature brought to a broadly politicized cultural scene a series of inquiries related to the urgency of the events that were being investigated in its works, as well as others linked to the protagonist role of traditionally excluded and marginalised voices, challenges of established literary modes of representation, and the author's undisguised political commitment. And this was happening in a modernised Latin America full of contradictions between development and poverty, where a widely spreading mass media was starting to occupy the social role of ideology and narrativity that had traditionally been monopolised by high written culture—which, additionally, was notably associated with Eurocentric insights originating from the complexities of colonial times. Thus, the specificities of testimonial literature made this genre erupt in the cultural bastion to challenge almost any established literary assumption at the time. The role of the writer, authorship and how it related to its subjects of study and the role of estrangement and identification in this regard, its position in the social production and reproduction, and what could be done to change it were questioned with a severity that resulted in raw ruptures and harsh confrontations. The scene was transformed for good, and, as with Third Cinema, the challenge expanded to the West, where prominent figures like John Beverley and Fredric Jameson have explored the issue to different extents.
Beyond the shared genealogies of both Third Cinema and testimonial literature (Pedregal, 2015), their common concerns regarding the socio-political reality, revolutionary agenda and the place of the filmmaker and writer within it can be summarised through e.g.:
- A shift in the subject of history, materialised through the focus on subaltern and marginal voices. This also implies a “shift in subjectivity” and the ideological role of the authors “to transform popular consciousness” (Morejón Arnaiz, 2006).
- The rejection of any appearance of neutrality in their narrative. Thus, memory appears as an intersubjective and collective tool that calls for political commitment, and in opposition to the role played by official history as a monolithic narrative in conformist support of the status quo.
- An interest in shifting from micro to macro. Thus, the significance of what was considered the “everyday epicness” (Mestman, 2013) of traditionally dominated or marginal testimonies served to provide a broader picture of a conflict—often local, but of global relevance.
- A call for a “new realism” (as cited in Gilman, 2012) that could help to rethink the tension between realism and modernity, legibility and experimentality, as it also appeared in the better-known debates between Lúkacs and Brecht/Benjamin in the 30s. At the time, this approach was determined by the aim to confront and reconcile the “two avant-gardes” (Wollen, 1982): the political and the artistic.
- And, in regards to formal inquiries, a constant rethinking of the tensions between estrangement and identification, for examining how the dialectics between critical reflection and emotional engagement can give the reader/viewer the capacity to break with the “hermetic structures that are born and die on screen” (Solanas & Getino, (2014 ) or on the pages of a book, and thus engage politically with political agendas of social change.
These experiences can be seen as cases of critical artistic praxis and inspiration that, by traveling from the Global South to the Global North, eventually also inverted the hegemonic ways in which other forms of artistic expression exercise their influence. Extensive current radical artistic approaches in film as well as in literature and other arts show that despite the differences marked by each era and its specificities, exploring these shared genealogies today is still broadly inspirational for those seeking alternative paths for rethinking a critical culture of resistance and social change.
PART I Susanna Helke: Estrangement and Gestures of Emancipation
THE CASE OF EVELIA:
TESTIMONY FROM GUERRERO
I recently published the book Evelia: Testimonio de Guerrero (Akal/Foca 2018) in Mexico and Spain. It is a testimonial book based on the life of the Guerrerense social activist Evelia Bahena García, who is known—particularly in Guerrero—for a life riddled with personal and social struggles. As I learned in the process of collecting her testimony, she first fought against domestic violence, and found her way out of it through her struggle against the mining industry in her region and the sense of community that it gave her. She started this second fight in 2007, originally by advocating the activism initiated by her father in support of the miners in her community. Today, after having survived various attempts to both bribe and kill her, she is a displaced person.
My interest in Evelia’s case was mainly motivated by the socio-political relevance I saw in it, in regard of further aspects of the tragic situation in contemporary Mexico. The project started out as a documentary film. While reflecting on the cinematic approach for it, I originally sought to combine testimonial tactics (influenced by testimonial literature) with a strategy inspired by an expanded approach of the notion of Third Cinema as a “guardian of popular memory” (Gabriel) and a “critical praxis” (Wayne, 2001, p. 5). Both had affected me profoundly during the research work I carried out for my practice-based doctoral studies, which partly followed the life and work of disappeared Argentine writer and militant Rodolfo Walsh, as well as other cultural expressions of his time. Thus, I determined these two historical experiences to be the proper artistic inspirational frameworks to engage with Evelia’s case; in Evelia, I saw a silenced, marginal voice that called for active engagement—one for which I could not remain neutral, unbiased. But in Evelia’s voice there was also a personal testimony that, in its “epicness”, would speak of a broader reality that affected a popular mass in Mexico, as well as in many other countries subordinated to neoliberal extractive policies.
Whilst collecting Evelia’s testimony, her narrative appeared to me as a fragmentary self-portrait encapsulating a vast picture, linking the stratification of both historical and contemporary experiences in Mexico. Among other issues, her story involved the migratory movement to the US in her childhood; a view of social reproduction through the link between the "non-productive" economy and a patriarchal social order and the violence endured by her mother, her sisters and herself; an experience of sexist, domestic violence; other elements related to the socio-political daily life of the excluded and marginalised sectors, such as the degradation of the environment and life in rural communities exposed to mining activity; the dispossession of land; the corruption of public authorities, institutions and media, and the links of all aspects of this landscape with the violence executed by coercive forces and organised crime.
Evelia’s own view on the links between extractive multinational corporations, organised crime and the public authorities in Mexico were some of the dominant elements guiding the social and political research for the project. They obviously also affected choices regarding how best to approach the representation of the project's content, as it became clear that a first approach to the tension between estrangement and identification could be materialised through the combination of the socio-political-economic data gathered and Evelia’s vital experience with and insights about it.
Evelia’s capacity to detach herself from her personal drama in order to draft a profound political reading of her social reality was a seminal motivation for the development of the work, especially in regard to the research that followed. Evelia's first-hand experiences and her broad views on the links between the mining industry, organised crime and the coercive apparatuses of the State in Mexico—links that might arguably represent the highest combined forces of dispossession in the catastrophic process of environmental and social disaster in the country—informed both the research and the writing. Consequently, at some point in the research process, the text seemed a more efficient tool for dealing with the emergency with which the original project was engaging than the traditionally longer-duration filmmaking process. This was key in the evolution of the project.
Thus, whilst transcribing the material I collected for this project and elaborating its narrative organisation, writing grew to become a dominant aspect of the project. This was due to a combination of various factors. One was the social and political research of the topics that related to Evelia’s testimony, which were becoming increasingly central to my work, serving as they did to engage Evelia’s subjectivity with her social reality. At the same time, and as part of this, the involvement of my own political agency in the narrativity became another layer of the working process, as I began inserting elements into the text that revealed my undisguised, subjective voice; for instance, exposing the experiences from when I had first encountered Evelia to putting the whole research together. All this was intertwined with episodes of my own clumsy, foreign ignorance—related, for example, to popular Mexican songs or celebrities by Evelia, political reflections, cultural and social discoveries, various analogies, etc.
My own subjectivity thus entered a dialectical relationship with Evelia’s voice in the search for a tension between identification and estrangement effects. I used this, for instance, to reflect on the links between her experiential views, which I associated with a broader constellation of Mexican and Latin American popular struggles, from Lucio Cabañas to Berta Cáceres. Additionally, I saw them in connection to broader theorisations of late capitalism, post-colonial conditions and neoliberal policies. For this purpose I used a number of diverse authors as references, e.g.: Francisco López Bárcenas (2017) regarding the mining historical cycles in Mexico; Agustín Cueva (1977) regarding the capitalist formation of Latin America; Franz Hinkelammert (2018) regarding the mystification of the market developed by liberal thought, as well as in connection to other critical insights on liberalism, especially involving John Locke’s thought, introduced by authors like Domenico Losurdo (2005) or Ellen Meiksins Wood (2002); David Harvey (2003) in relation to the notion of “accumulation by dispossession”; Naomi Klein (2007) for her notion of “the shock doctrine”; or Arundhati Roy (2016) for her view on what she called “the NGO-ization of resistance”.
Another aspect that led me to choose writing as the dominant artistic approach in a dialectical relation to these previous elements was related to inquiries into artistic form that were linked to testimonial literature. These mainly concerned the search for what, in its foundational debates, was related to a “new realism” and how that connected, once again, to the tensions between estrangement and identification as realms for both critical reflection and emotional engagement. As Claudia Gilman has stated, as it emerged “to replace the exhaustion of the novel as a tool for knowledge”, “[i]n testimonio the knowledge of reality came first, to which the author-witness stamped a fundamentally historical meaning” (2003, p. 343). And in this search for a “new realism” that served to engage with a broader revolutionary agenda, as Rodolfo Walsh expressed,
Realism doesn’t oppose necessarily avant-gardism. When the exhaustion of themes or forms weakens the picture of reality and its interpretation, the realist author becomes avant-gardist inevitably. Avant-garde is then the way that realism assumes in a historical conjunction of exhaustion. (as cited in Gilman, 2012, pp. 323-324)
Although in cultural times as different as our own, I felt that these aspects connected to the original emergence of testimonio remained pertinent for merging the research of the social reality being studied with Evelia’s and my own subjectivity to elaborate a text taht was at once emotionally moving and intellectually demanding, and that could prompt an active response in its reader.
Through the complexity of a process that expanded through three years of interviews, encounters, research and writing, it became clear that the cinematic techniques I had planned were being transformed into literary decisions that engaged more acutely with the aims and forms adopted by testimonial literature. Furthermore, this conscious engagement with testimonial literature (as a genuine Latin American genre) also underscored the differences of the genre from non-fiction literature (in the sense adopted by the American New Journalist approach). Thus, as noted by Gonzalo Moisés Aguilar, while the later relates to fiction via a negative term, suggesting fiction as the primary source of literature, Latin American testimonial literature emerged using a positive label that did not imply a break with fiction, but a dialectical reformulation and transformation of narrative forms for other purposes (Moisés Aguilar, 2000). Among these is an undisguised political commitment—far from any feigned claims of neutrality, objectivity and equidistance of some non-fiction literature—as well as an aim for social justice. These aspects were increasingly evident in the case of Evelia.
In conclusion, by using the case of Evelia as the point of departure for the work, I also intended to emphasise the role of memory of the excluded popular sectors and their struggles in providing a rich political reading of conflicts of such complexity as the ones treated in the text. This had been a central aspect for the original emergence of testimonial literature, and I wanted to embrace it in this project to expose how clearly these marginalised voices are capable of abstracting their battles to render visible the interests in dispute; in this particular case, the links between the extractive industries, organised crime and the coercive State apparatuses. These interests, in Evelia’s testimony, appeared as part of a broader global neoliberal agenda, often concealed in the Mexican and international hegemonic media and politics, that affects every aspect of the daily life in her community, her family and herself. Evelia’s voice and memory thus guided the search for extensive data that ultimately became central to the narrative, and which accompanied her observations through a strategy to shift from the micro-subjective to the macro-objective realm. As inquiries on narrative form and testimony became equally fundamental for the emergence of this project, the link between Evelia’s voice, my voice and the socio-historico-political Mexican scene being studied ultimately led the text to an effort in combining identification and estrangement methods to achieve its final narrative aims.
EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK
In that first interview, Evelia’s voice brought to mind a headline I had read online a few months earlier: “Guerrero bleeds out”. The article was about a wave of killings so bad that the schools in Acapulco had been closed as a result. It also presented a terrifying statistic: in 2015, Guerrero had officially registered 2,016 murders, compared to 514 the year before. The next year, 2016, for the first time in four years, it ceded its place at the top of the homicide league table to Colima, although the year would still ring out with 2,213 people having been murdered in Guerrero. In 2017 it would regain the dubious glory of coming first: 2,529 homicides; 6.9 people per day; 64.26 per 100 thousand inhabitants (beaten only by Colima and Baja California). This comes to 8.6% of the total number of homicide victims in the entire Republic that year, 29,168 in total, more than the 27,199 murders in 2011 during the peak of what would become known as the “drug war” waged by Felipe Calderón. (Since then, 22,411 murders were counted between January and August 2018, compared to nearly four thousand in the same period the previous year.) 2017 would thus become Guerrero’s bloodiest year in two decades, overtaking 2012, when 2,310 were killed. The morgues of Acapulco and Chilpancingo, running at three times their capacity, closed citing a lack of resources to deal with the workload; their employees could no longer deal with the nausea caused by the smell of decaying corpses.
“I don’t know how it was that going to the mountain appealed to me, but I liked it. I felt alive, because after so many years of violence, you almost cease to exist as a woman. They only ever saw me in worn out t-shirts down to my knees, uncombed hair, and I never went out apart from to take my kids to school... Only the mother existed, but not the woman, because I existed only as he wanted me to exist.” This new development brought about even more arguments and beatings at home. But Evelia had come to an intractable conclusion: “If I’m going to be killed in my house by a stray punch, I prefer to die in the mountains, fighting with my people.”
“In the end I only really knew him after his death”, she admits of the unexpected twists in reality that his death unearthed. And then she laughs—she can’t help it—as she remembers the song by Los Huracanes del Norte: “All the mourners arrived and twenty women in black turned up to the wake!” (I didn’t know the song back then. I looked it up at the time; and then later, while re-listening to Evelia’s words as I transcribed our conversation, I couldn’t help but hear the chorus playing in my head: “Some cry for sorrow / Others out of sincere pain / Some, if I’m not mistaken / Are weeping for his money”). “I sat there and one woman arrived, then another, and another... And they all loved him! And I asked myself: ‘Well, why don’t they take his body and bury him? Why does it have to be me?’” But Evelia accepted her role as “the widow” for the children’s sake, while Bulmaro’s family had the bare-faced audacity to deny the boys were his at all, in order to claim his life insurance. Evelia would have fight this on yet another front.
Evelia’s life seems shot through with seams of Mexican history, deposited one on top of another; from those stretching back to the colonial tragedy, to more recent farces such as the privatisation of communal lands, which started in 1856 with the Lardo Law, and snowballed during Porfirio Diaz’s presidency under his Vacant Land Law—solidifying the (failed) presence of capitalism in the country during the 19th century—or the Mining Act of 1992. The thing is, what Evelia would experience in the mountain would be no easier on her than her home life. In the novel Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s malevolent analogy of the American frontier, a character recalls that “When the lambs is lost in the mountain [...] They is cry. Sometime come the mother. Sometime the wolf”. In the mountains of Guerrero, it seemed at times that the wolf always arrived first.
“The second time that they tried to kill me was on the backroads. We were coming down from the mountains, because Fundación y Real de Limón are in the foothills and we were going up to the peaks, which was where the machinery was”. They had stopped going to Nuevo Balsas and had begun to use the overrun road at the back of the mountain that rose up to the Atzcala community. From there, as soon as the punishing Guerrero sun had started to set, they would get her on her way by horse or donkey. On this day, she was with four other people–Mr. Eligeo, Mr. Braulio, his brother Melitón and Victor—when six men stepped out from the undergrowth. Her comrades loaded their guns and held Evelia close to protect her. She was shaking in terror. “They told me not to be afraid, that they were going to defend me and then Mr. Eligeo said to one of them: ‘I know who you are and you’ll have to kill us before you kill her’”. The assailants pointed their guns at Evelia’s head. Her comrades pointed right back. For an instant, amid all the shouting, Evelia lost all track of what was happening around her. “Suddenly, they lowered their weapons, but they told us that this was the final warning; they recommended [my companions] let them kill me and the corporation would in turn give them whatever they wanted. My comrades said that they would defend me with their lives and to tell the corporation that it would never get their lands”. Once again, they had to change the routes they travelled by.
In accordance to the information given by Evelia to the Morelos Centre, and subsequently made public via various media outlets, on the afternoon of the 30th of July 2015, she received a strange phone call to her cell-phone: “Hello?”, she answered. “Are you Evelia Bahena?”, asked the unknown man on the other end of the line. “How may I help you?” But before the words were out of her mouth, the voice spat out: “Ah, just the person I wanted to talk to! You’re the hot-shot leader who everyone thinks is all that. Let me tell you, get out of here, you and those lawyers Félix RodríguezNavarrete and Diana Carolina, because we’ll fucking end you! I’ll break your fucking head!” She hung up, but a while later received a text message, with no punctuation whatsoever: “I know that you live in Zaragoza and that your husband is the dark-haired guy who rides a motorbike so best be gone from here because I’m gonna kill you and all your family sincerely La maña”. So Evelia made her way to the settlement of Tlachinollan, where they said they’d pick her up at two that afternoon.
The camera now off, I asked for her permission to use her real name. Her face tensed. For a second, I thought that she was having doubts, but no. “People die and you never hear of them again. I’m more use alive than dead, but if they’re going to kill me and I have to die, then let people know what I did and why they killed me”.
A note on the outcome
The text Evelia: Testimony from Guerrero was shaped and re-shaped several times through a series of drafts, affected by new encounters I had with Evelia, new findings that appeared throughout the research, and also by a rapid series of events in Guerrero and Mexico involving the activities of the mining industry and other issues related to it. In the spring of 2018, I first published a ten-page article in Revista Pueblos, in Spain, that served as a short testimonial tale of Evelia’s life and reflections.
At the same time, I was finishing the longer version of the text that had started in connection with the filmmaking process, but that had by this time clearly (and uniquely) become a literary project. Publishing the text was at that point was not only a personal achievement, but also a political goal, and fortunately the process was as fast as its urgency demanded. The publishing house Akal expressed interest in it in the summer of 2018, and in November of the same year the text was published in Mexico. It included additional appendices by sociologist Elvira Concheriro, journalist Luis Hernández Navarro, and the researchers Letizia Silva and Violeta Núñez, and it came out before the new government assumed power in December. The book was published in February of 2019 in Spain. The English version is currently under revision and will possibly be published in 2020.
Since its publication, the book has received certain media attention, with Evelia and her struggle gaining some visibility. Evelia has been also invited to several political initiatives in Mexico and Latin America—for instance, at an encounter of Latin American activists against the mining industry in Ecuador—and has been called to the organisation of displaced Mexican social defenders that is being currently implemented by formerly imprisoned activist Nestora Salgado, who is now a senator.
After publishing the book, the film project remains an artistic goal, although an uncertain one as yet. Additionally, as the project was originally related to a specific academic endeavour—as part of my postdoctoral research position—, the case of the book Evelia has enabled me to explore, in other fields, the differences and links between artistic and socio-politico-theoretical research in other fields, how these can provide a fruitful realm for understanding the ways in which one can complement each other, and what social and political effect its results can possibly have.
Arundhati, R. (2016). The end of imagination. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Benjamin, W. (1998). Understanding Brecht. London, United Kingdom: Verso.
Gabriel, T. Third Cinemas: Exploring nomadic thoughts & narrative communities. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from teshomegabriel.net/
García Espinosa, J. (1979). For an imperfect cinema. (J. Burton, Trans.). Jump Cut, 20, 24-26.
Gilman, C. (2012). Entre la pluma y el fusil: Debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo XXI.
Gutiérrez Alea, T. (1982). Dialéctica del espectador. Havana, Cuba: Ediciones Union.
Mestman, M. (2013). Las masas en la era del testimonio: Notas sobre el cine del 68 en América Latina. In M. Mestman, & M. Varela (Eds.), Masas, pueblo, multitud en cine y televisión. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Eudeba.
Sanjinés, J. (1979). Teoría y práctica de un cine junto al pueblo. Mexico City, Mexico: Siglo XXI.
Solanas, F., & Getino, O. (2014 ) Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and experiences for the development of a cinema of liberation in the Third World. In S. MacKenzie (Ed.), Film manifestos and global cinema cultures: A critical anthology (pp. 230–250). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Wayne, M. (2001). Political film: The dialectics of Third Cinema. London, United Kigdom: Pluto Press.
Wayne, M. (2012). The Tragedy of History: Peter Watkins's La Commune. Third Text, 16 (1), 57-69.