Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Christopher Hewlett

We are pleased to present a trailer and abstract for Dr. Christopher Hewlett who received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filmmaking on ‘Amahuaca: Building the Future’: A Collaborative Film Project in Peruvian Amazonia.

AMAHUACA SIEMPRE english trailer from Fernando Valdivia on Vimeo.

‘Amahuaca: Building the Future’: A Collaborative Film Project in Peruvian Amazonia

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

The Postdoctoral Fellowship was spent working on a series of inter-connected films about Amahuaca people from communities on the Inuya River in the central Peruvian amazon.  Throughout the course of the fellowship I collaborated with Fernando Valdivia, a Peruvian filmmaker, social commentator and professor of cinema and filmmaking. While we made three separate films during the fellowship, including one documenting a health crisis in an Amahuaca community, the project is oriented around the creation of an Indigenous Cultural Heritage Center and formation of a new indigenous political federation, which took place over a three-day event in 2015. While centering the narrative on this event the film explores the themes of memory, transformation, cultural heritage, and collective resilience. These themes emerge as the film follows three generations of Amahuaca people as they they navigate contemporary life, reflect upon their lives and share their hopes for the future. The title, ‘Amahuaca Siempre’ (Amahuaca Always) comes from the final scene of the documentary when Carlos Melendez, the only Amahuaca bilingual schoolteacher, explains the importance of being Amahuaca for himself and why he continues fighting to make younger Amahuaca people proud of their heritage and identity.

The period of the Postdoctoral Fellowship was spent working on a series of inter-connected films about Amahuaca people from communities on the Inuya River in the central peruvian amazon.

The first was a short video we made about a serious health crisis in the Amahuaca community of Alto Esperanza at the headwaters of the Inuya River. During the filming-stage of the documentary, which took place in January and February of 2017, I visited visited Alto Esperanza with the film crew and found many sick women and children. The primary illness was leshmaniasis, which is a potentially deadly disease spread by a small fly that often results in sores on the skin that spreads across the body. In response to the high number of cases in this one village, we made a short film about the situation that we later posted to youtube with English and Spanish versions. The film was also shared with media outlets around Peru, and was picked up by newspapers, radio programs, television and online news platforms.

As a result of the video and campaign, a group of medical practitioners and representatives of the ministry of health visited the community. From the information that I currently have these medical practitioners identified more tan 15 cases of leshmaniasis in just this one Amahuaca community. The ministry of health reported that the trip had been succesful; however, as of December of 2017 there had been no treatment provided for the illnesses. As a result, the new organization (SHARE-Amazonica.org) which I started during the period of my fellowship, funded the making of another video. This has been completed and posted on youtube. If nothing further is done by April of 2018, then we will begin another public campaign using the video, our website and other material to raise awareness about the issue.

The second is the film ‘Amahuaca’, which was produced as a result of a filmmaking workshop held at the Indigenous Cultural Heritage Center in the Amahuaca community of Nuevo San Martin. During the course of the workshop, a group of Amahuaca people ranging in age from approximately 8-70 years old learned about the process of making a film. The result was a 30 minute film created by Amahuaca people about their traditions and why these are important. The group were responsible for creating the story, filming, recording sound and doing the lighting. the workshop was organized by me and led by Fernando Valdivia whp was also responsible for editing the material. Luisa Wagenschwanz and Alex Giraldo who comprised the film crew assisted with the workshop and trained the group on lighting, sound and managing production.

The third and central film combines these two shorter films with additional footage shot in 2015 and 2017, as well as archival material from the 1960s. It is approximately 65 minutes in length. The title, ‘Amahuaca Siempre’ (Amahuaca, Allways) comes from the final scene of the documentary when Carlos Melendez, the only Amahuaca bilingual schoolteacher explains the importance of being Amahuaca for himself and why he fights to make younger Amahuaca people proud of their heritage and identity. This is particularly appropriate as the project began with the creation of an Indigenous Cultural Heritage Center in the Amahuaca community where Carlos teaches. Focusing on this event allows the film to explore the themes of memory, transformation, cultural heritage, and collective resilience.

The film opens with photos and text to set out the historical context and then introduces the main protagonists who are representative of three generations of Amahuaca people. The viewer is introduced to Margarita who is a great-great grandmother and was a young mother when she lived in the first evangelical mission for Amahuaca people that was established in the headwaters of the Inuya River. She is looking at pictures from this period in the book ‘Farewell to Eden’ and Carlos is asking her questions. Carlos later says that Margarita is now like his mother, as she was very close with his own who had recently died. At the end of the film Margarita says that she wants to return to the area where she was born to eat a kind of fish that no longer exists on the Inuya. She is now too old to return.

The viewer is then introduced to two younger Amahuaca, Gino and Nelly who are in their early 20s. Gino is the only Amahuaca student from the area attending university. Nelly is a young mother and was unable to complete primary school. The film follows them as they navigate life as young Amahuaca adults, talk about their lives and share their hopes for the future. Gino wants to return to his community to help out, become a role model for younger Amahuaca and eventually start a small business. Nelly wants to finish school, but has really always dreamt of being a cosmolotologist. Finally, we are introduced to Roberto Pansitimba who at the age of 10 became a central protagonist in the book ‘Farewell to Eden’ while living with his parents and extended family in the mission. He is now a great-grandfather and leader of Nuevo San Martin. The film aims to offer a balance of ages, experiences and genders with 1 woman and 1 man from the first and third generations, with Carlos as an unmarried professor and founder of the cultural center is positioned as the main protagonist. Throughout the film we travel with Carlos as he is elected to be the first president of the newly established indigenous federation for representing Amahuaca people, visiting communities, and eventually renouncing the position so he can focus on his duties as a teacher.

The idea for the foundation of the cultural center arose during my fieldwork in Amahuaca communities on the Inuya River from 2009-2011, which was funded by a Wenner-Gren dissertation fieldwork grant. In fact, the film project began with the inauguration ceremony of this cultural center, which was also funded through a Wenner-Gren Engagement Grant. The Cultural Heritage Center plays a central role in the documentary to anchor the stories of three generations of Amahuaca people as they remember the past, reflect upon the present and anticipate what challenges and opportunities the future may bring.

The documentary incorporates archival material that was made available through the support of the American Museum of Natural History and International Center for Photography. I have signed contracts with these institutions for non-commercial use of photos and film footage which was collected in the early 1960s. Robert Carneiro and Gertrude Dole lived with Amahuaca people at two sites in 1960-61, which resulted in the creation of a large archive of photos, notes and film footage. Gertrude Dole used a portion of the footage to make a short documentary, which was released in 1974. Matthew Huxley and Cornell Capa visited the mission of Varadero several times during this same period and co-published ‘Farewell to Eden’ in 1964. This book, photos from the museum archive, the original film and new documentaries are displayed in the Cultural Heritage Center along with material artifacts made by Amahuaca people.

We have completed versions of all the films with English and Spanish subtitles, and will be making another version of ‘Amahuaca Siempre’ with subtitles in German this year. We are also currently in the process of building a website using the domain, Amahuaca-Siempre.org.

‘Amahuaca Siempre’ has been shown several times in Peru and once in Cuba during a film workshop that Fernando was invited to attend. The official premiere was for the CINESUYU Film Festival in Cusco in September of 2017 where Fernando was being honored for his contribution to filmmaking in Peru. The U.S. premiere will be held at the Field Museum in Chicago on the 5th of March as part of a short tour we are making to three cities. We will be showing the second ‘Amahuaca’ at the American Museum of Natural History on March 7th and ‘Amahuaca Siempre’ again as part of a film series I run out of the Center for Research and Collaboration in the Indigenous Americas (CRACIA) at the University of Maryland on March 9th. Most recently, the film has been selected as a potential finalist at the prestigious Anaconda film festival in Bolivia. Over the course of 2017-2018 we will be submitting it to multiple film festivals in South America, North America and Europe over the course of 2017-2018. The most meaningful screening of the film was in the Cultural Heritage Center in the Amahuaca community in December of 2017. It was shown for three consecutive nights to meet the demands of the Amahuaca people for whom it was made. They now have their own copies of both their film ‘Amahuaca’ and the full-length ‘Amahuaca Siempre’ on dvd.

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