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This past Sunday, the Latin American Innovation Film Festival at the Gala Hispanic Theatre came to a close with a screening of “El Canto de las Mariposas,” a documentary on indigenous storytelling and survival, colonial conquest and the utilization of art as a means of archival preservation and celebration.
This was the big-screen District-debut for the documentary directed by Núria Frigola Torrent. This year’s film festival focally featured the works of emerging female filmmakers, and “El Canto de las Mariposas” — which won the prize for best Iberoamerican documentary at the 2020 Guadalajara International Film Festival — was the perfect cap to the festival.
“It’s a very deceivingly simple film, which ultimately is a very complex work,” says Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founder and executive director of the non-profit media arts organization Cinema Tropical and curator of this year’s film festival.
“El Canto de las Mariposas” follows the story of Rember Yahuarcani, a Lima-based indigenous artist from the White Heron clan of the Uitoto Nation, who looks to his Amazonian roots for inspiration for his paintings. His father, an artist himself, helps to guide Rember through an understanding of his family history — a history littered with violence, generational tragedy and coinciding resilience — and how he can evoke the spirit of his ancestors through brushstroke.
Rember’s ancestors, the Uitoto people, directly suffered from the rubber boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rubber boom was a time of mass-extraction of naturally-forming liquid latex from the Amazon rainforest, where efforts for capital gain blended into practices of mass-exploitation.
“[Núria] creates and reconstructs this important and vast universe, [where] present, past and future meld together,” Gutiérrez reflects. “And she talks about so many different topics, and brings them together in a very powerful way.”
Those familiar with how recurrently history is told through the lens of the “winners” won’t be surprised to hear the discrepancy between how, colloquially, this time period is known as the “rubber boom,” and how those affected refer to the time period as “la guerra de caucho” — the rubber war. The Uitoto were forcibly enslaved, brutally murdered and tortured by the rubber barons for the sake of coin and conquest.
After visiting his parents in the Amazonian community of Pebas, Rember resolves to visit the surviving Uitoto — who reside in La Chorrera, in modern-day Colombia — in a dual-effort to revitalize his art through watering his roots. Through oral histories, Rember learns more about the impacts of the rubber boom on his people.
“When Rember accepted our invitation to do the documentary, he asked me not to include ‘mediators or anthropologists interpreting their version of reality,’” says Núria Frigola Torrent, the film’s director. “I completely agreed. I think the input Rember is giving to history, as a science, is their version of who they are and what happened to them. It’s not the truth, the only version, of course. It can never be. But giving versions is what enriches common imaginaries that, all together, construct the historic memory of a country.”
After the screening, there was a Q&A with Amalia Córdova of the Smithsonian Institute and Germán Prado from the Embassy of Peru. They fielded questions about the natural world and art, the semi-consistent presence of butterflies across Latin American folktales and more — adding new shades and hues of adept insight and expertise to the screening experience.
After the Q&A came to a close, there was a closing reception in the lobby, hosted by the Embassy of Peru — accompanied by complementary pisco sours.
And while I’m not big on pisco sours, as I emerged into the lobby, my legs and brain made a beeline for the exit. I simply couldn’t get the closing image of the documentary out of my head.
Rember returns from the Amazon, back to the hustle and bustle of Plaza San Martín, and stares at a blank canvas. He stares, and stares, and finally says that if his grandmother were with him in that exact moment, she would hug him and cry, and no words would be exchanged.
I don’t think the documentary could’ve ended more perfectly — with this tragedy of the blank canvas. We usually think of the blank canvas as an opportunity for new life, but it’s easy to forget that a blank canvas can also be a moment of grief, that a blank slate is an end as much as it is a beginning.
And since grief is complicated, so is the blank canvas. I imagine his grandmother’s tears hot with anger, joy, despair and unbridled pride. A blank canvas is a celebration of what can be reproduced, but a recognition of what can’t be recovered — with hopefulness and hopelessness swimming around one another like water and oil.
In the film, the Uitoto elders said that when their people were burned alive by the rubber barons, butterflies rose from the ashes. They say their ancestors live on through these butterflies. And with the blank canvas, there exist ashes, and there exist butterflies.
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