Friday, September 04, 2009


Freya Schiwy's Indianizing Film is an important and ambitious book. Its subject is indigenous media, by which Schiwy means specifically the video and DVD programming made (mostly) by and (mostly) for indigenous groups, above all in Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to some extent Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

This programming is sometimes broadcast on television, but more often is screened directly in villages and other indigenous communities, usually in the presence of a facilitator from the organization that has produced the material. If necessary, the facilitator will bring the TV or projector and screen, and even a generator so that the presentation can be staged even in the most remote areas. The show may well be accompanied by commentary, translation, or interpretation, and be designed to foster debate and discussion at the end of the screening. What is shown is usually (at least in the Bolivian case) a package that may include short documentaries or docudramas, news briefs, video letters or memories, and dramas. The shorter pieces tend to be no more than ten minutes long; the dramas may run for half an hour or more.

Though her focus is on the Andes and the Amazon, or rather more particularly on the Bolivian case that straddles high and lowland, Schiwy is clearly thoroughly familiar with indigenous media production from across Latin America, and also with the comparable material from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. This book takes its place alongside Eric Michaels's Bad Aboriginal Art as an indispensable reference point for any consideration of indigenous media.

The topic is important because it revises our understanding of what it means to make politically committed or radical art. Schiwy compares at some length the new indigenous media with the Marxist experimental film of the 1960s and 70s (again, above all in Bolivia). She notes that though the new media is less formally adventurous, it has perhaps greater impact than the rather highbrow cinematic efforts it effectively replaces. At the same time, there are important continuities between the two movements, and it's significant that one of the leading lights on the Bolivian scene is the son of renowned sixties director, Jorge Sanjinés.

Perhaps more importantly still, Schiwy's examination of indigenous media cautions us against seeing the indigenous as simply the relics of the past, or even as some kind of romantic essence that persists beyond and despite time and history. It reminds us that there is no necessary contradiction between indigeneity and modernity or technology. Indeed, ironically some of the most persistent and romantic images of Native Americans are in fact the result of indigenous people's interaction and adaptation of European technologies: the Plains Indians' mastery of horsemanship, for instance, could only come about once the horse had first been introduced to North America. Moreover, Schiwy suggests that indigenous media reveal the possibility of alternative modernities that would enable what she variously describes as "decolonizing the soul" (28) and (more often) a decolonization of knowledge.

Here, however, I start to take issue with Schiwy's approach. Her stress on what towards the end of the book she terms the "politics of knowledge" (212) or "knowledge politics" (213), which she throughout signals in terms of "epistemic privilege" (139ff) and "epistemological hierarchies" (13), is unhelpful. For a start, it is a strange reduction of indigenous politics--and indeed, politics as such--to issues of epistemology. Yet, as the UN Report Schiwy cites in her Afterword reveals, "the major points of contention" in recent indigenous mobilization have been "sovereignty (and the implications this may have for the coherence of nation-states) and, perhaps most important, the control over natural resources on indigenous lands" (217-18). Trying to force such struggles into the framework of knowledge politics, or for instance to talk of "epistemological and economic border[s]" as though they were one and the same (210), is strangely depoliticizing.

Further, what is meant by "knowledge" in these instances is quite undertheorized and too often (despite Schiwy's occasional protestations) devolves into mere representation. So in practice the video programming is treated as a conduit of pre-existing native knowledges which are otherwise in danger of disappearance. Indeed, it seems that very often this is also the explicit theme of the programming itself, which is dedicated either to preserving and disseminating the memory of traditional beliefs and practices, or (in the dramatic pieces) to warning of the dangers of letting them be forgotten. Schiwy's analysis loses sight of the productive aspects of the technology, the ways in which it produces new forms and modes of subjectivity and indigeneity rather than merely preserving the old. She invokes the networks that such technology traces yet subsumes them under the strange notion, simultaneously totalizing and essentializing, of a "pan-indigenous social ethos" (84).

The problem is the theoretical tools with which Schiwy is working, which are not up to the task she sets them. The reduction of politics to an undertheorized version of epistemology, and the romantic conception of subaltern otherness, is the hallmark of Schiwy's reliance on the work of Walter Mignolo. Indianizing Film tries, often heroically, to put some of Mignolo's slogans to good use. We read of the "coloniality of power," the "colonial difference" and "border gnosis," but they remain as unenlightening here as they are in their original context. I will give a prize to anyone who can even parse the phrase "coloniality of power," let alone explain what it is intended to mean. What, for instance, is intended by the claim that "the coloniality of power constructs the idea of modernity as a projection of European economy and epistemology" (40)? Schiwy tries to do justice to such concepts, but in the end they fail her.

In short, Schiwy's material is much more interesting that the theoretical slogans that have been imposed upon it. I would have liked to have heard, by contrast, more about the reception of this programming, the ways in which local facilitators interact both with the programming and with audiences in the debates that follow. For a project that is, we are repeatedly told, collective and communal, we hear overwhelmingly from the film-makers and activists, who travel to and fro between one film festival or another, and far less from the communities themselves. Schiwy consistently questions, often with good reason, traditional anthropological approaches to indigeneity, but a little anthropology here might have gone a long way. It would have meant she could have dispensed with the North American champions of indigeneity such as Mignolo, as well perhaps as their Latin American spokespeople.

Indigenous media are clearly a fascinating and important interface between indigeneity and technology, in which both elements are transformed by the encounter. Unfortunately, the guiding metaphor of Schiwy's book suggests that only technology is affected as the video-makers "integrat[e] what is foreign into traditional cultural and economic forms" (13). This notion of indianization as simple integration or appropriation is but the reverse of the traditional notion of assimilation, the idea that one culture can be unproblematically folded into another.

Yet as Schiwy's own analyses indicate, everything about both the technological processes at work here (the creation of new networks, the filmic montage that allows new connections and so new conceptions of indigeneity) and even the content of the videos themselves goes against this idea. One film, Angels of the Earth, for instance, is described as "a story of shifting ethnic identification" (43) that is also surely an intervention into the "unsteady category" that is indigenous identity (44). If this is indianization, the technology is not the passive object of indigenous uses and desires, but an active agent that is to redesign and retool those desires. The notion that film is more about teaching us how to desire than about informing us what to think is familiar from film theory and is, for instance, the entire thesis of Slavoj Zizek's A Pervert's Guide to the Cinema. In this sense, the indigenous are perverts, too, and there is no harm saying so.

Freya kindly agreed to respond to this review of her book, here.

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