Our Brand is Crisis is basically the prologue to the film Cocalero. But in my opinion, it’s a far superior film to that one. The movie follows the twisting curves of the 2002 Presidential Election in Bolivia. In particular, Boynton’s film focuses on the candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who is popularly known as “Goni.” Goni was raised in the United States during the political exile of his father, and he actually served as President of Bolivia for one term in the mid-90s. During his presidency, he instituted several reforms, including the controversial privatization of five key state-owned industries, which is often cited as broadening the gap between rich and poor in that country. In 2002, Goni campaigned with the help of the US marketing firm GCS (Stan Greenberg, James Carville, and Bob Shrum). Using US-style campaign strategies, the GCS folks focused on a brand for Goni that portrayed the country at a crossroads, a moment of crisis. Their slogan was “¡Sí se puede!“—“Yes, we can!” (also used by Barack Obama in his Spanish-language promotional material, but first used as a slogan by the United Farm Workers back in the 70s).
To this viewer, watching US political consultants gather focus groups, develop branding strategies, and market a candidate in an election in a developing South American nation was just plain weird…and really, really scary. They decided to hit their biggest competition in the election, Manfred Reyes Villa, with a barrage of negative ads questioning his intentions, his wealth, and his ties to the military. But this was coming from a group of folks who were relatively unfamiliar with the country, don’t speak Spanish (!), and are in the political game to make a profit—though they pay lip service to supporting only “progressive candidates.” All of this set up a devastating period in Bolivia’s history (bloody riots from 2003 are shown in the set-up sequence at the beginning of the film) that paved the way for Evo Morales’ ascension to power. Although Morales didn’t win the 2002 election, the fighting between Manfred and Goni caused him to sneak solidly into the top three of the election. In 2005, he would win in a landslide. Meanwhile, Goni lives in the US once again and faces extradition back to Bolivia to face charges of crimes against humanity. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”
I was greatly disappointed by this film. The trailer intrigued me and reviews like the following post from Netflix made me jump to rent it.
This film provides an opportunity to witness the road to the presidency of an unlikely candidate in Bolivia. The filmmaker’s access to Evo Morales and some of his supporters and allies provides a window into a political process that is both organic and extremely organized and hierarchal. The power of community organization seems to outshine education, money, even ideology. The film also shows us the lives of women and men who live off of coca production, whose business has become more profitable as a result of the US crackdown on cocaine production. This relative profitability is also a powerful political tool to rally farmers behind this candidate.
The problem is that Cocalero is actually quite different from this description, in my opinion. Yes, the film does show Evo Morales, the first fully indigenous president elected in Bolivia, during his first successful presidential campaign. But we don’t get any insights into the man really, nor do I think the political process in that country is shown in any detail. Most of the film is either Morales in down moments like getting haircuts, playing ball, swimming in the river, etc. or scenes of rural coca workers in the field or his party’s political events with little to no context. So for this viewer, I was often lost. Why is he speaking to this group? What group is this? What are the politics here? It’s really a shame, because the story of Evo Morales is an interesting one, and he’s tightly connected to figures like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. I’d like to know more.
Often contemporary documentary filmmakers like to remove any outside authoritative voice from their films: no narrator or textual description. Subjects are left to shape the narrative of the film, which is the case with Landes’ movie. I think it stems from a fear that is a byproduct of postmodern criticism, which has tried to swing an intellectual pendulum away from ethnocentrism, male-oriented narratives, Western ideology, and the director-as-character phenomenon (think Michael Moore). Personally, I think it often leads to failure. In Cocalero, for instance, the filmmaker perhaps tries to hint at criticisms of Morales by briefly (very briefly) showing a Catholic priest talking about unionist tactics, a scene of Morales ditching an event in the indigenous community, and another at a voting instruction class at the union. But the scenes felt thrown in. I kept wondering what Landes was trying to say. Why are these here?
Well, I’ve got another film about Bolivian politics in the aughts on order, Our Brand is Crisis. I have high hopes.
I first came across The Devil’s Miner while channel surfing a couple of weeks ago. I landed in the middle of this film about children working in the silver mines of Bolivia and was immediately mesmerized by the main subject, 14-year-old Basilio, who is essentially the narrator of the film. Luckily, Netflix carries the film, so I was able to see the piece in its entirety.
Basilio is the stand-in for his father, who passed away when he was much younger. He cares for his mother, brother, and sister financially by venturing into the depths of the mountain to help crews tap veins of silver. And it’s as dangerous as you probably imagine. The film claims that more than 8 million workers have died in Bolivian mines over the years and that children make up a disturbing proportion of the workforce, in part because miners live very short lives in the country. Many of them fall victim to silicosis by the time they reach forty.
Though rather short (1hr 20min) in length, the film is able to show quite a bit about the culture of Bolivia’s Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) mining community in Potosí. In particular, we see the miners’ devotion to Tío, the devil who controls the bowels of the mountain. “Outside we believe in God, our Savior. Inside the mines, we must believe in Satan, Tío.” Miners create shrines to the mountain’s Tío, offering cigarettes, coca, and other delights to the figure, in order to ensure safe work in the mines. Because the Tío, it is said, can eat the miners up if he wishes.
The film is simply made and quite powerful, but the sorrow of it makes your stomach hurt. However, the subjects are far from victims, at least in terms of their attitude. Basilio is constantly thinking of ways to avoid spending the rest of his life in the mines, though the viewer naturally worries about whether he’ll be successful or not (he is according to an epilogue included in the extra material on the DVD). And his maturity is amazing. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of his childhood while watching the film.
la mina : mine
el/la minero/a : miner
la plata : silver
el polvo : dust