Posted tagged ‘peru’

ND/NF: Balancing Between Silence and Singing: Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow

March 31, 2009


Indigenous Peruvian Fausta (Magaly Solier), protagonist of director Claudia Llosa’s second feature The Milk of Sorrow, suffers her entire childhood and early adulthood from a condition referred to in her community as “la teta asustada,” translated in the film as “the milk of sorrow.” This affliction is believed to be transmitted to an infant who suckles from the breast of a raped and violated mother — as happened to Fausta’s mother and many of her neighbors in the village where Fausta was born during one of Peru’s periods of violent political upheaval.

The condition might not be listed in medical textbooks, but as far as popular notions go, Fausta would be a textbook case: burdened under a terror and sadness so heavy she rarely smiles, refusing to walk anywhere on the streets unaccompanied, and suffering from violent fainting spells and nosebleeds when she becomes overwrought. But despite a lifetime of certainty of the worst, Fausta hasn’t been entirely crushed. In the core of her being smolders an incredible power and beauty. When she is with her elderly mother there is joy and love. The film opens with Fausta listening to her grandmother sing. The sound of her song to my ears jangles at first with unfamiliarity, but compels me to listen and open myself to its authority. Fausta’s mother’s melody follows an order of the singer’s own devising — reminding me a little of the pansori performance opening Ch’unhyang (2000), an unfamiliar style requiring patience and attention to win me over.

Her mother’s lyrics, revealed through the subtitles, are grimmer than grim, evoking a darker time in Peru, full of anguish, rape at the hands of terrorists, the murder of husbands, a world many years before the film takes place. While I experience this strange disconnect between the eerie beauty of the song and the violence of the message, my heart surprises me by locating hope here between Fausta and her mother: the singer and listener have survived. But when Fausta’s mother dies, part of me fears that the private Fausta will herself die.

Another secret weighs at the core of Fausta’s physical body. Taking to heart the advice of one of Fausta’s mother’s neighbors for how to avoid rape during the years of terror, Fausta has inserted a potato deep into her vagina (Why a potato? Well, among other cultural significance to the potato in the region, Peru is said to be the birthplace of the potato).  Her mother’s neighbor had said that by making her body loathsome, she preserved her dignity. Indeed, the woman later removed the potato and bore her husband children. But the extremity of Fausta’s self-protection is out of step with the contemporary Peru she inhabits. When Fausta’s uncle brings her into the emergency room after the violent fainting spell that strikes her moments after the death of her mother, he tells the doctor of Fausta’s condition, victim of “la teta asustada.” The doctor isn’t interested in his abstract, poetic description of the “milk of sorrow”: he asks the uncle if he knows about the potato in Fausta’s vagina. An operation will be necessary to remove it before it causes her further injury: the potato has begun to sprout.

Fausta refuses to heed the contemporary world: she will not remove the potato, and turns her energy almost entirely to the question of how to transport her mother’s mummified body to the village where she was born for burial. And within the self-martyrdom of her refusal to believe her country can move beyond the terror of her early childhood, the seed of her mother’s secret singing begins, like the potato itself, to flower up inside her. And as the story develops, the film balances Fausta silence with the eruptions of her own singing, the purest concentration of her passion and feeling.

–Matthew Griffin

Buy Tickets:
Wed Apr 1: 6:15 (MoMA)
Fri Apr 3: 9 (FSLC)


Inside the NYJFF: Exploring The Fire Within

January 22, 2009


“You don’t often ask a person of his religion the first time you meet; but in light of the film he made about the conversion process of a Peruvian community in the Amazon basin, I felt comfortable asking The Fire Within director Lorry Salcedo Mitrani whether he was Jewish. The story he told me revealed as much about the subjects of his documentary as his own personal history.

Lorry’s grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey. He was sent by his parents to New York to avoid persecution, did not like it and continued to Peru. There, he met his future wife, a Catholic woman with whom he started a family. He was one of two Jews in his town, and was always referred to as ‘el judio’ (the Jew) but did not experience anti-Jewish sentiments. They decided to raise the boys as Jewish and the girls as Catholic. Lorry, a descendant through his mother, was brought up Catholic, but had Jewish uncles and cousins with whom he went to synagogue, participated in Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish weddings and did not experience it as a bizarre situation.  Lorry’s grandfather died when Lorry was 12 and his memories of him are as the weird grandfather who spoke Ladino.

Still, Lorry’s interest in his own ancestry drove him to begin telling the story of the Jewish immigration of Peru in photography, starting in 1990. After researching in many family archives, he became aware of the Jewish community in Iquitos and found himself fascinated by the way the group combined indigenous customs with Judeo-Christian faith.  In 2002 Salcedo published the book (The Eternal Return: Homage to the Jewish Community of Peru) and decided that the story of the Jews of Iquitos needed to be made into a film. He met Ariel Segal, a South American born historian who was working in Iquitos documenting the lives and history of the community aka the ‘mestizos’. There was a genuine yearning of the people to formally convert. As a puzzle waiting to be completed, the film maker and the historian followed the hard work of the people of the congregation and the rabbis who worked together toward the goal of conversion and immigration to Israel.

The experience of Lorry’s grandfather is parallel to the protagonists in his film.  Both found a way to mix religions into their families. Salcedo became aware and interested in Jewish themes later in his adulthood and feels it was a part of his creative process in making the film.   He describes himself as a visual anthropologist who translates social stories and issues into artistic visual language.”

-Ronit Waisbrod, New York Jewish Film Festival correspondent

Check out The Fire Within at the Jewish Museum: Tue Jan 27: 3 & 6:30

[More about Lorry and his works on his website]

[From Nextbook: Hidden Roots in the Jungle]