Community Video and Self-representation
Interview with Carlos Efraín Pérez Rojas
By Gabriela Zamorano, Latin American Programs Assistant, Film
and Video Center, NMAI
Starting out in Oaxaca
How did you become interested in making movies? And why is it
important for your community and your organization that there
be Native people making films and videos?
CP: My first involvement with video had to do with family.
My mother is from Oaxaca, but she left her community when she
was very small, so I grew up hearing her stories of the village.
Then when I finished high school I became very interested in meeting
my family in Oaxaca. So I embarked on a search. My goal was to
reconnect with my mother's village, with its history, and also
to get to know her better.
Then, when I went to Oaxaca, I discovered TV-Tamix. This was
my first encounter with video. From then on, my curiosity about
video just grew. Actually, at first, I was just curious about
the technology, about this tool. I was also inspired by the enthusiastic
and experimental team then working at TV-Tamix.
Can you tell us a little about TV-Tamix? What is it? How did
it come into being?
CP: Well, TV-Tamix is a community organization that started
up in 1994. It focused on producing community radio and television
in Tamazulapam. We had a 10-watt transmitter, and each weekend
we would broadcast two shows. One was called Espacio Sagrado
(Sacred Space), and the other, which I ended up doing later, was
Hoy en la Comunidad (Today in the Community). It was a
GZ: Were they radio programs?
CP: Television. There were also documentaries being made
about the Community's customs and traditions. While I was working
with them, I did camera for a couple of documentaries, like Kidukj
adj (Serving the People), and Permaneciendo (Staying).
But I feel my experience at TV-Tamix was only a first brush,
a realization of the use video can have in a Native community.
So I joined the effort TV-Tamix was making then to spread Mixe
culture through video. Generally, that was the kind of video I
was making in Oaxaca. But it was in Chiapas that I got involved
in video one-hundred percent, and this was a result of the resisting
autonomous municipalities policy [of including the use of media].
That's when I went to work with the Chiapas Media Project .
GZ: This seed, or potential, for the use of video in Native
communities, how did you follow it when you went to Chiapas? Was
there a question or something that excited you about video? How
is video used in Native communities?
CP: When I got to Chiapas I had the spark, a desire to
learn more about the medium. Although I had participated in several
documentaries, I still didn't have a clear idea of where I could
go with video. I brought up Chiapas because I went there to give
workshops, to train community members, working alongside Zapatista
authorities. And in working with them I saw how they were using
video, which I thought was very important-as a tool to denounce
human rights violations. This was one of the things they wanted
to achieve with video. It was a lot about defense and whistle-blowing.
And, the "low intensity" war against the autonomous
municipalities was more crude then, around '98, so the context
So I went in that direction. I made a video for the Red de Defensores
Comunitarios (Community Defense Network) which was used internally
for training and raising awareness in the communities. Then I
was part of a collective effort to integrate video into the autonomy
process of indigenous municipalities in Chiapas. That was about
seeing video as a medium in the hands of the community, which
could go beyond defense and
denunciation, and having to do essentially, as I see it, with
the right to
What we discussed there was how important it was for indigenous
people to rely on their own resources in order to, first of all,
reclaim their rights as peoples and to represent themselves as
they saw fit. While we were working in Chiapas a lot of people
were coming from outside to make videos, films, photographs, books,
radio shows, music. All of this was important and has been very
helpful to the Zapatista movement, but we felt it was necessary
for the indigenous people of Chiapas to start telling their stories
in their own voices and with their own means.
GZ: What you're saying about self-representation ties
in with my next question: why is it important for you, the community,
or the project you're working on, that there be Native people
making videos and films? Can you tell us more about the right
to self-representation? What advantages and what problems do you
see in this concept?
Well, as I see it, the work being done by indigenous people in
Chiapas is not coming to replace the work of outsiders who come
into the communities. No, video is like a way of seeing, a point
of view. It's like a voice that we need to hear to be able to
understand the complex reality faced by indigenous peoples, not
only in Chiapas but across the country.
For instance, one of the most important videos made in Chiapas,
for me, is one called Mujeres Unidas I don't know
if you've seen it. It was made by the November 17th municipality.
And they did it because, at that time, the communities in that
municipality were discussing how important it was for women to
get organized-women were starting to organize to work in the orchard,
the corn field, the bean garden. And they thought of making a
video in a community that was already organized and working well,
and using it show to people in communities where they weren't
organized, in order to motivate them. In my view, Mujeres Unidas
is an important example of how video, made to have an impact outside
the community, can also serve a community use.
GZ: More like an internal dialogue.
CP: Exactly. Look, I'm going to focus on the Chiapas experience.
Most of the videos I've seen that are made by foreigners are about
icons: the Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista Army and its leadership,
and so on; whereas films made by indigenous communities are about
everyday people, not hooded armed fighters, but corn-growing peasants.
So, one important thing in Chiapas about their self-representation
is that they're showing a face of the movement that is rarely
seen. And I sometimes think people don't want to see this face,
because the movement has been idealized. Wouldn't you agree?
GZ: How do you see your own role within this process known
as "indigenous media"?
CP: Well, maybe this conversation will help me figure
things out, because I myself am starting to wonder what it is
I'm doing. I see myself as a video activist, let's say; because,
as you said, most of my work has involved training people to make
video in indigenous communities. And although I've made some documentaries,
they've all been related to social movements. It's a subject matter
I like, and that I've become committed to. In fact all three documentaries
I've made have involved commitments to social organizations.
It's important to say that there's more than just hunger, pain
and poverty in Native communities. Solutions are also being offered.
And these are very creative proposals in cultural, political,
economic, and social terms. Going back to self-representation,
I've noticed that views from outside tend to show indigenous peoples
as victims, the gaze is attracted to the sandals, the hungry people,
the dirty child. That view falls short, in my opinion, of reflecting
what's happening inside the communities.
When Native people represent themselves they show more dignity.
And they'll say it. I participated in videos that were made in
Chiapas and when the commanders spoke with the person in charge
of making the video, who would be someone from the community,
they'd tell him 'Do it, but make sure we look real tough, make
sure we look strong. If we show up whining and weak in the video
then people will think the Zapatistas can't take hardship.'
work I make about the social movements coming from indigenous
peoples deals with both national and internal issues. Of course
I talk about the problems that exist, but I will also offer a
message that brings hope, because the whole point is to awaken
solidarity in the viewer. For me that's part of making a video:
getting a reaction.
So right now I feel like a video activist. When I got the Rockefeller
grant I was treated as a "video-maker," I mean that
it made me feel like an artist, which is something I do have inside
of me, and that lately has made me question lots of things. I
know how important it is to make socially oriented, socially committed
documentaries. But I've noticed that audiovisual work, including
mine, is very far from showing the same level of creativity that
Native communities show in organizing and mobilizing themselves.
I look at my videos and those of others on these issues and they
often seem cold, square. What I would like to do now is to capture
some of the creativity that characterizes social movements in
GZ: That sounds like a challenge.
CP: Yes, because a lot of spaces have opened for so-called
"indigenous media." I don't like calling it that-I see
it as community media, since in all these works there is an element
of community participation. The people I know always work with
the community, whether in selecting subject matter, during production,
in the editing or at some other stage of the process. That's how
I've tried to work, recovering that sense of communal effort.
GZ: Do you find it more interesting to emphasize its being
rather than Native work?
CP: Yes, this has been discussed before. I attended a
talk by Guillermo (Monteforte) at the first International Meeting
of Independent Video "Contra el Silencio Todas las Voces."
He had been invited to talk about Native video. But he said there
was no such thing, as far as he was concerned. He understood the
movement as being defined by a form of expression, not by the
ethnicity of the videomakers. We had a really nice talk that day,
Guillermo, Roberto (Olivares) and I.
It occurred to me that something very similar happened with classical
music, particularly with wind instruments, that came into America
with the Catholic Church. Documentation shows that the first Mixes
in the Sierra to use these instruments did it as part of the liturgy,
which was in Latin then. And slowly they started playing waltzes,
marches and overtures and so on. But there was a gradual process
of appropriation, and at some point they started making music
that was their own; hence the Mixe, Zapotec and Chinantec "sones"
and "jarabes." Once they had made the instruments
their own, they started expressing their stories, their lives,
their images, their sounds.
Well, that's what I was telling them at that meeting. That we're
in the midst of a learning process, we've accessed the technology
and slowly we'll make it truly ours. That's where I'd like to
get to, because the 'social issue' documentary, the cold and square
kind with a voice-over, although important, in my opinion, lacks
The term "indigenous video" falls more within the discourse
of anthropologists and filmmakers who have worked in Native communities
trying to preserve the customs and culture. These are worthy goals,
but my experience at TV-Tamix is that we're not achieving them.
GZ: Or that you're re-formulating them.
CP: Exactly. That we've reached a point where we say "Ok,
give me a break, let's do something more personal, something more
about our feelings, work that's more individual."
GZ: Well, good luck on your search.
CP: Yeah, for now, I'm going to be in Guerrero one more
year, and I'm already thinking about next year. A project I'd
like to do is to get together with "el Gordo" (Hermenegildo
Rojas), Genaro (Rojas), Charapa (Carlos Martinez) and Noé
(Aguilar) [founders of TV Tamix], and work out a script outline
in two days that we could each really get into. It would be a
very free exploration where we could let ourselves go.
There's a lot of talent in that group: "el Gordo" is
a good musician and he makes good videos, Genaro is a beautiful
person, Charapa is a computer nut, and my camerawork is not so
bad, I think. We could make an interesting team.
Image credit: Carlos Efraín
Peréz Rojas - courtesy of the filmmaker; Eyes on What's
Inside: The Militarization of Guerrero / Mirando Hacia Dentro:
la Militarizacion en Guerrero - courtesy of Promedios de Comunicacion;
Eyes on What's Inside: The Militarization of Guerrero / Mirando
Hacia Dentro: la Militarizacion en Guerrero - courtesy of
Promedios de Comunicacion; Eyes on What's Inside: The Militarization
of Guerrero / Mirando Hacia Dentro: la Militarizacion en Guerrero
- courtesy of Promedios de Comunicacion
Transcription by: Jesús