In 2005 I became associate producer on the film El Charango—a 22-minute Spanish-language documentary about music and mining in the Bolivian city of Potosí.  While I possessed no formal training in film production, I was guided by the simple burning passion for the charango and the culture from which it comes.  I worked with director Jim Virga and editor Tula Goenka (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Salaam Bombay!) to construct a narrative about how a little musical instrument relates to the largest silver mine in the world.  Through this process, I inadvertently received an amazing education in the use of film to document the human condition.









I traveled to Bolivia in December 2004 with friend and longtime photojournalist Jim Virga.  Inspired by reading Thomas Turino’s The Charango and the “Sirena”: Music, Magic, and the Power of Love and Ernesto Cavour’s extensive text El Charango, I wanted to create a documentation of the charango that was accessible to the average person.  With President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s recent resignation and successor Carlos Mesa’s prevailing troubles with natural resource exploitation, it seemed appropriate to frame the emergence of this little folk instrument through the story of Cerro Rico and Potosí—the America’s first boomtown.


We arrived to La Paz on the heels of the Gas Wars.  With protest on everyone’s mind and a transit strike looming, Jim suggested we hire a jeep for the long drive to Potosí.  As we climbed out of the city, our guide Sonia educated us on the most recent chapter of Bolivia’s longtime struggle with natural resource privatization and marginalization of the poor.


While the stories I encountered in the Altiplano are too many to be retold, they all hold in common two things—the profound effects of colonialism and racism on the underprivileged; and the conflation of European and Pre-Columbian cosmology.  With a friendly guide named Marco, we descended into the 400-year-old silver mines of Cerro Rico and found ourselves in one of the dens of El Tío, deity and benefactor to the miners.  While the miners commonly accepted monotheism above ground, below the surface they shed their thin shell of Catholicism to make offerings to El Tío in exchange for money and health.  On the southern slopes of Cerro Rico, during the Fiesta de San Lorenzo, I found myself privy to a post-soccer-match llama sacrifice and bar-b-cue.  Afterwards, a party blossomed in the sunset of a dirt courtyard.  With a grinning gap-toothed accordionist squeezing out rousing versions of “Qolquechakamanta,” I clumsily danced with colorfully dressed cholas and feasted on hearty llama soup.  After nightfall, I shared coca leaves and Singani at the table of the village elders.  As I explained our goals for the film, a drunken man stumbled up and accosted me, demanding to see my documents.  In a flash, this moment of precious cross-cultural communion was shattered.


***


To recall this experience brings to mind my father and how he must have felt, sticking out like a sore thumb in a foreign land.  While I was trying to “fit in,” whole-heartedly participating in the event, I remained conspicuous simply because of my white skin, blue eyes, blond hair, and different accent.  Thinking back, I wonder what it would have taken to head off the inquisitor.  Perhaps if I had only spoken Quechua; if I could have only changed the color of my skin or the cloth on my back like a chameleon; if I had only skipped the part about having Chilean heritage; or if I could have just changed my name.  Luckily, I had earned the elders’ trust and they calmed the man.  Otherwise, who knows what would have happened?  In return, I still owe them a video copy of the llama slaughter.

 

Please contact me if you are interested in screening the film, doing a Q&A, and having a short musical performance. 

El Charango (DVD)

2005

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Film Production