Filmmakers Laura Graham And David Hernández-Palmar On Perceptions Of Indigenous People
When anthropologist Laura Graham was working on her graduate research with the Xavante people in Brazil during the 1990s, she encountered a Catholic priest who inadvertently showed her the power of media.
“He came to the community, and he brought film of Xavante that had been filmed in another area,” Graham said. “And they were so excited to see this film. But he said, ‘You can watch this film after you watch a film of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection.’ So it was this kind of bribe. And that made a big impression on me.”
It inspired her to get involved with a Brazilian nonprofit called Video in the Villages – and to buy a video camera, playback equipment, and even a generator – to teach the Xavante how to make their own images and use them however they wanted. A few years later while on a Fulbright fellowship in Venezuela, she met Wayuu photographer David Hernández-Palmar. It was the beginning of a partnership that led to the film Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration Over Rivers.
Hernández-Palmar said his Wayuu people didn’t have the issue the Xavante had of creating materials for insiders or outsiders. But he says other indigenous populations in Venezuela and Colombia have issues of who controls the narrative, especially when it comes to mining and environmental issues.
“[The Wayuu people are] without borders. We are in both countries, Venezuela and Colombia. And they are two total different types governments,” Hernández-Palmar said.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Laura Graham and David Hernández-Palmar, welcome to World Views.
LAURA GRAHAM: Thank you, it's very nice to be here.
GRILLOT: Well, you both are doing such interesting work in indigenous areas of the world, focusing on indigenous populations. But in particular on indigenous media. So first of all, tell us a little bit about your background, Laura, and how you got into this as an anthropologist, and how you got to working in Venezuela with David?
GRAHAM: Well, my work with indigenous peoples began in Brazil with a group called the Xavante, who live in central Brazil. And I did my master's and doctoral research there. And I had an experience during that field work where I really came to recognize the power of other people's controlling mediated representations of indigenous peoples and the fact that indigenous peoples - the Xavante in this case - didn't have control over how their image and ideas about them were circulating in the media, circulating in the broader public. Xavante have been very prominent in the Brazilian media and have had very little control over that image circulation. And one experience I had was with a Catholic priest. He came to the community, and he brought a film of Xavante that had been filmed in another area, another reserve. And they were so excited to see this film. But he said, 'You can watch this film after you can watch a film of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection.' So it was this kind of bribe. And that made a big impression on me. And about that time, I was beginning to learn - this was in the early 1990s - of indigenous media projects elsewhere in Brazil. But also that this was a time that media projects were launching, especially as cameras were becoming more easy to use, not quite so expensive. And so together with a group called Video in the Villages, a nonprofit in Brazil, I brought a video camera and all of the playback equipment - including a generator. There was no electricity in this community. And I began to teach them how to use the camera. So they would be able to make their own images and use them in whatever way they wanted. So a few years later I had a Fulbright fellowship in Venezuela and I met David, who is a photographer. And long story short, I was invited to come back to Brazil to document some activities that were going on related to an environmental protest, and the environmental movement. And I wanted David to meet the Xavante filmmaker that I had been working with, and invited him to come along him, and he was very happy to do that. So that began a partnership of our working together on a number of different projects. The most concrete of our collaborations is a film called Owners of the Water: Conflict and Collaboration Over Rivers. And that's the story of our trip to Brazil and David's encounter with the Xavante, and the Xavante's struggle to protect their river. And Xavante have environmental problems, and problems protecting their water, which in some ways is similar, but also different from struggles that Wayuu people have in Venezuela and Colombia.
GRILLOT: So David, can I pick up on something that Laura just said about her concerns regarding the power of controlling indigenous voices. And that indigenous populations weren't able to, they weren't in charge of their own portrayal. Is this your experience in Venezuela, and why you would connect with somebody like Laura in terms of engaging in these kinds of projects? Tell us about your experience as a member of an indigenous population in Venezuela.
DAVID HERNÁNDEZ-PALMAR: Actually, among Wayuu people, my people, we didn't have that issue about creating material for insiders or outsiders. But I saw that in Xavante communities, and I thought it was a very, very interesting thing. Especially because you have to think about minority and self-representation, but also who controls the narrative. Well, in the case of Venezuela and Colombia, and indigenous peoples that live there, sometimes I think we have to think of those governments and how the media has been imposed in our everyday life. And maybe so we didn't have that notion of having insiders or outsiders videos for conception. But now regarding issues of environment, mining, some other sensitive situations back there, for us it is just recently that we've begun to think why it is so important to control the narrative. I mean, thinking of that in a conscious way...[unintelligible]...because we have no hidden agenda. We always make open calls for assemblies in Congress and gatherings. Not only by media, but also what's going on regarding [unintelligible], water, and all the elements that are part of the everyday life. But I mean, from that very exercise I realized there were other layers of all the indigenous media. And why we call it indigenous media, and who are a part of that? What is the type of collaborative where can work in two? It is the same level of dialogue within those processes. So it's a non-stop dialogue, actually. I was just recently talking to Laura Graham about what is the most important thing? The product, or the whole dialogue that's actually embedded in the process. So in the case of the Wayuu, most recently we're doing our own showcase. A film showcase back there. Without borders. We are in both countries, Venezuela and Colombia. And they are two total different types of governments. What is the challenge we are facing? Taking into account they both the same thing in terms of [unintelligible] - coal mining, oil and all these sort of things. And why we should just begin to think of what is the time for the information content in those products? But also wondering and asking questions. Are others taking part in this? It's not something that we're romanticizing. They are just the keepers of the pureness of the information. But also the thing about taking away all those traces of ageism, because it's up to everyone. Indigenous, non-indigenous. From the youngest to the oldest, to take care of the planet, of the earth. So I mean we're just having these conversations based on those...
GRILLOT: Well, very interesting conversations that you're having, David, I'm curious, though, when you refer to indigenous media, and Laura, you refer to this as well, the creation of outlets for indigenous peoples to control the narrative, their own narrative, to control the way in which their story is portrayed. But is there any attempt to connect that to mainstream media? I mean, are you also working with mainstream media to incorporate indigenous media into what's being seen and heard and viewed by the masses, if you will, in mass media. Or trying to reeducate and retrain, if you will, mass media, those who participate in mass media? What are your strategies there for not only providing the indigenous populations a voice, but to have that voice amplified beyond the indigenous community?
HERNÁNDEZ-PALMAR: I put it in two ways. The very first thing is when you...what are your aspirations with your narrative? Would you want to make it be competitive and as strong as CNN, for instance? If that's the case, you have to think about all the money you have to invest. How would you do that? But on the other hand, it's just the best thing is to have our own narrative and have other ways or alternative ways of storytelling about ourselves. I think that's the main thing that we are aware of. It is good just to have other venues, other alternative things, so we can also choose within those dialogues and those contradictions, and also our education through media or our about media. And then people have more chances just to choose which side of the storytelling they would rather focus on. On the other hand, we were in Bolivia three weeks ago, and there was this huge summit about TV, the human rights of indigenous peoples, and technology. What are those challenges? Why is some advances in constitutional writing being destroyed by new administrations there? All these advances regarding the rights of indigenous peoples to our means of communications. So those are the main challenges. And yeah, of course, we are aspiring to have a continental network of indigenous programming on TV. And also we're learning about the shutting down analog to digital, that transition. Which countries are going through that in 2020. For instance, Venezuela. And what are those technologies. So all of these things that we're facing, even though we're still working with MiniDV and other situations with technology we have access to. But at the same time, why is it important for us to just have a voice in the big conversation about creating platforms of media and self-representation back there in Venezuela. And not only for indigenous peoples, but also women and elders, ecologists, farmers, peasants there. So I think that that's why we are so, we're not like fortifying the discourse of everything has to have law. Everything has to have a law without proper [unintelligible]. But we've said that is very important not just be complaining about something, but also how do you connect with those peoples that have actually the power to pass law and make...how do you put flesh and bones to that? Because it is also such a challenge as to create a law. How do you put it in practice?
GRILLOT: Well, Laura, maybe we can end with you on that note on the power of film and video to communicate a lot of these things. As a filmmaker, is this the best way to perhaps, for lack of a better way of putting it, kind of infiltrate the general population to get these messages out and to emancipate indigenous populations in terms of how they're perceived in their own countries and their own territories?
GRAHAM: Well, I think that audio-visual media is an extremely powerful medium. It's something that captivates people. If you walk into a home and the TV is going, people gravitate toward the television. It's a very, it's a magnetic media. But I would also say that community radio is also a very powerful medium through which indigenous peoples are controlling ideas, their narrative, as David puts it. Trying to break down the hegemonic narratives of the dominant society. Part of the dialogue I think that David is referring to is this interview, for example, our opportunity to broadcast his ideas, our work to a broader audience, thru any kind of media. Face-to-face encounters. We're going to be meeting native peoples and filmmakers from the Americas here, so these are all part of dialogues, connections, and further mediations that are happening. So audio-video medium is one medium, but we will be having face-to-face conversations, and the ripple effects are tremendous.
GRILLOT: Well, Laura and David, thank you so much for being here today and engaging in this dialogue and furthering our knowledge and awareness about this issue. We really appreciate your time.
HERNÁNDEZ-PALMAR: Thank you.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
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