From the Desk of Gabriela Zamorano Villarreal: Politics and Media Practices

The following is a contribution from Gabriela Zamorano Villarrealauthor of Indigenous Media and Political Imaginaries in Contemporary Bolivia (July 2017). Zamorano Villarreal is a professor-researcher at El Colegio de Michoacán, Centro de Estudios Antropológicos in Zamora, Michoacán, México. She is the coeditor of De frente al perfil: Retratos raciales de Frederick Starr, a book in Spanish on racial photographic portraiture.

What can media practices tell us about politics? Both my academic interest on politics and visuality, as well as my previous collaboration with indigenous media initiatives in Mexico and Bolivia inspired the research for this book. During my research stay in Bolivia from 2005 to 2007 I accompanied various indigenous media makers in their daily work, which included attending film workshops, organizing union meetings, collaborating in film shooting  processes in diverse regions of the country, and presenting their films at different venues within Bolivia and internationally.

I found that all these activities maintained a continuous dialogue with the political scenario at the time, namely, with the unique transformations that led to the electoral triumph of an indigenous president, to rewriting the national constitution and to the foundation of a plurinational state in 2009. In other words, I found that film production became a site for discussing, negotiating, and even rehearsing possibilities for a more active participation of indigenous peoples in national politics.

This endeavor involved an ethnographic analysis of two aspects related to media and politics in Bolivia. First, it became crucial to understand how the studied media practices related to the growing social struggles that led to state transformations. Due to the active participation of indigenous peoples in these struggles, this involved looking at how filmmaking processes contributed to disputing and building a commonsensical idea of indigeneity in national politics. At the same time, this analysis involved rethinking the notion of ethnicity not as something intrinsic to indigenous struggles and media practices, but as an unfinished and highly contentious form of political affiliation that allowed for common claims based on diverse experiences of historical and economic exclusion.

And second, it was fundamental to pay attention to film technologies themselves, and to the ways these were reworked by indigenous media makers and peasant and indigenous unions for their own pedagogical and organizing purposes. Cultural and film studies have taught us a lot about the tight relationship between film and imaginary. My ethnographic approach allowed me exploring, aside from the productive role of film contents, the practices that make possible and attribute significance to its production and distribution processes. This approach helped me understand these practices as forms of “intervening in reality” and as sites in which “political imaginaries” or “visual fields of political possibility” become continuously generated and contested.  Altogether, the book helps to understand how indigenous media makers produce and dispute, through film production, political imaginaries that draw on notions of indigeneity. These imaginaries are becoming central to the efforts for cohering the plurinational state project and to envisaging alternative futures in one of the most recent and emblematic cases of indigenous political involvement in state politics within Latin America.