It’s Not Cultural, It’s Political: An Interview With Storm In The Andes’ Mikael Wiström and Josefin Ekermann

By 30 March, 2015

Swedish film-maker Mikael Wiström’s documentary Storm in the Andes juxtaposes the drastically different yet interconnected stories of Flor Gonzales and Josefin Ekermann, two women driven to make sense of the Peruvian Civil War of 1980-2000 and its effects on their families. Ekermann, raised in Sweden, is the niece of Augusta de la Torre, a Maoist revolutionary and co-founder of the insurgent guerilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) with her husband Abimael Guzmán. Peruvian Flor, an English teacher, lost her brother Claudio in the decades of internal conflict sparked by the beginning of Sendero’s armed struggle in the Andes. We follow both women as they strive to find the truth about their relatives; Flor, to discover what really happened to her brother and clear his name, and Josefin to cut through a lifetime of myths about her aunt and come to terms with the often difficult reality.

The film, Wiström’s third Peruvian work after Compadre and Familia, is a gripping mix of the personal and the political. Flor and Josefin’s searches are at once cathartic and disturbing, their relationship both tense and transformative, but Wiström makes sure that the political context is never far away; the questions of truth and reconciliation raised resonate far wider than just these families. I spoke to Wiström just before the film’s screening at this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London about the socio-political backdrop of the film, his personal experiences in Peru, and the unique position of the documentary maker. We were later joined by Josefin, who described the significant impact of Storm in the Andes on her own life and future plans.

How did this film come to be made?

MW: Really, this film originated in the 70s when I was in Peru, as a young independent photographer. I lived there for a year and a half, most of the time living with common people. During that time Peru had a military dictatorship, which had initiated a very radical land reform in 69. This land reform had its counter-forces, and when the peasants encountered resistance to its implementation they took their own initiatives, directed by the peasants’ organisation CCP. In the central Andes they took the step to occupy the state, and threw out the land owners. Not violently – no landowner was killed in the process. There was some killing of peasants, with the intervention of the police, but relatively limited violence. And I participated in one of those occupations, and I took pictures. You can see some of them in the film.

I studied economic history and social anthropology before I went, I had begun to speak Spanish, and I really felt that I participated, that I was an observer to a historical event. It’s not a historical event like D-Day or something like that, because those events are officially recognised as the grand moments of history, but you seldom give this value to processes that are uniquely popular, that come from below and under. I think at that moment it was really the force of the people, that had been enduring for hundreds of years, that finally succeeded in taking back the land. That’s no small feat, and illusions were born from that moment, which led to disappointment afterwards, because the illusion was so profound, a feeling of being freed from an oppression that has not only to do with the land but with the subjugation they had suffered as human beings for such a long time – the humiliation and knowing that they had been kept in ignorance and obscurity and poverty, and that their children were going to continue to live in that situation. When they suddenly saw that it was possible to end this by their own force, many of them felt the sky was the limit. That we can really create a new world. And this was, of course, not so. Very soon the process was blocked, because a right-wing military government soon came to power, and after that a traditional, conservative elected government. At that moment, Sendero found the fertile ground for their violent ideology.

But all this experience, coming back to the origin of this film, was really my experience of living a historical moment of profound human value. I saw it very close-up, and I was young – you can imagine the impression it created. I also came from a political situation, with the Vietnam War finishing when I was in Peru in 75. I remember the headlines in Peruvian papers – “Cayó Saigon” and things like that. I had been very active in the anti-war movement in Sweden, which had one of the strongest anti-war movements in the world; even our Prime Minister was part of that movement, so we had a really good basis for anti-imperialist feeling and for young Swedish intellectuals to create an interest in the so-called Third World. I was definitely part of that tradition.

You compared your experience in Peru with D-Day and these “grand historical events.” Would you say that trying to represent other historical events, perhaps more popular historical events, is something that pervades your work?

MW: Yes, definitely. First of all, I find it very emotionally engaging. I identify with those people. I think I’m one of them and I feel that I have always been on that side – the other side doesn’t interest me. They can speak for themselves, I cannot represent them. I identify with all the contradictions that exist within it. People are not only good just because they are poor, they are also bad, because difficult circumstances make you bad, and that is very complicated. But I see the richness; I enjoy the richness of the human situation. It’s difficult to say that I enjoy the suffering, but I see the value in the difficult contradictions of life and overcoming them. I see how people fight to do that, in very difficult circumstances, and it alleviates my own life to see other people being able to change things, and to cope with things that they can’t change, and maintain human dignity in those situations. You would think people would not be able to maintain dignity and sane mental states in those situations, but they often do. It’s fascinating to see.

My other three Peruvian films don’t involve political processes because they are stories about a family, but I think that you can see all the stories, all the contradictions of the world, within this family. You don’t have to pin-point political processes or political conclusions, because people are able to draw their own conclusions from what they see, and that’s a much better analysis than taking theoretical standpoints, or academic analysis.

Do you think there’s a specific role for the film-maker in questions of human rights?

MW: Sincerely, I have never identified myself as a human rights activist. That comes as a conclusion from what I’m doing; it has to do with human rights, but I’m not seeking cases for advocacy. I’m fascinated by the stories, I am in love with my characters and I want to see them develop, and I enjoy being with them. I have fun. I wouldn’t have 1% of the fun writing an academic thesis, or even being a journalist making a short visit and writing an article, because these projects mean that I have to live with these people for a long time. I have to come back and I have to be responsible, because if I’m not responsible they won’t respond and they won’t participate, and they won’t be honest. So I have to be those things, and that makes it an integrated part of my life. It’s not only a profession, it’s a way of life, and I like it to be like that. You wouldn’t ask a peasant, “is this your profession?” “Well, I’m a peasant, I have to live from something and I’m living on the land so it’s not a profession.” I really feel that getting old, I will suffer from the fact that maybe I will not be able to do these films any more, because of physical limitations, although I’m not there yet. It hurts me that I won’t be able do these things and be with these people under these circumstances, because it’s a tremendous richness to be able to enter into people’s lives that profoundly. It wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have the camera, because that’s a good motivation and pretext for asking questions you don’t normally ask.

Can you tell me how the inclusion of the two intertwining stories developed?

MW: It was actually not my initiative. I started making this film from the point of view of Flor, the Peruvian protagonist, because we did a photographic exhibition in her father Samuel’s village in 2007. People’s reactions were so strong that I understood that we had a story there. I spoke to Flor then and I understood that she was an intelligent young woman; very emotional, but also very controlled. She’s very different from Josefin, which is very good. She told me the story about her brother, that even Samuel hadn’t told me, because of the pain. So I decided to start making this story from Flor’s perspective; looking for the riddles of her childhood, as Josefin says in the film. She was born in 78, and the armed conflict started in 80. They escaped from the countryside at the end of 84. She only spoke Quechua when she was a child, and she lost it completely because of the war and the trauma. She doesn’t speak any Quechua at all now. She wanted to know the truth about Claudio, and wanted to go into the years that marked her, so it was natural to start with her. That’s what we were doing when I received an email one day, from Josefin. And she told me about her family, which was astonishing.

Of course, I knew the history of the family, because it’s central to the story, and I also knew that they were living in Sweden, but I had no intention of making contact with them. I had read the book by Santiago Roncagliolo about Guzmán, and he tells of ultimately deciding not to contact Josefin’s family because it would have been useless, because they wouldn’t have accepted him. And he was probably right. So, it was a great surprise. Of course, I thought “Oh, Jesus Christ, if we can get her into the story it will be much more exciting, much more complex.” And she very quickly accepted. So that part was easy. The difficult part was convincing Flor’s family. I think when Flor understood that Josefin would play an important part in the film, actually becoming the protagonist of the film, there was perhaps a bit of jealousy and a feeling that somebody had taken her role in the film. Which is understandable, but I also had to be professional and understand that this film – and I tried to explain that to Flor – would reach a much broader audience and be much more efficient. Of course, I was right in that, but it’s difficult to tell that to somebody like Flor. Now she knows that and she accepts it.

So, Josefin, we’ve been talking about how the film came to be made, and I’d be interested if you could tell me about that from your perspective.

JE: Basically, I had seen Mikael’s previous films, and I decided to contact him telling him about my story, and that I appreciated his work. I got a reply when he was in Peru, asking if I would like to meet when he came back to Sweden, and we spoke about his current project. And then he ended up asking me if I would like to go to Peru, and I said yes.

Did that idea that you might make a film motivate your initial contact?

JE: No, not at all. I wasn’t planning on being asked to go to Peru that day. That was a surprise. I just wanted to tell my story really, because I knew that he knew a lot about Peru, so that was why.

How do you think the process of making the film affected your emotional journey in Peru?

JE: The making of the film was a huge journey for me, both mentally and in terms of what I wanted to do in the future. I had plans to go to Australia and start a life there, and instead I’m definitely not going to Australia, I’m thinking of taking a chance on South America and Peru, and working on human and women’s rights there, so my life has changed quite a lot.

Could you expand on what it means to you to show this film as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival?

JE: Well, it’s great to be part of this festival. I’ve seen quite a few films that really make an impact, really good work, so to be part of that and be able to have some say in it is quite an honour.

How has the film been received in Peru, and in Latin America generally?

MW: In Peru it was a big surprise. We started making the film in 2010, and the political situation in Peru was different. Alan García was President, and he was the perpetrator, or the initiator, of the atrocities in El Frontón, so we were stepping on dangerous ground. We felt that maybe the film would never be shown in Peru, at least not with Alan García as President. Also, when the elections were coming up, there was the risk that Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, would win, and that would also have caused many problems and would have perhaps made it impossible to show the film in Peru.

But, fortunately, that was not the outcome of the elections. So, there was a situation where people relaxed a little bit, and that was an opening for the film. It was accepted at the Lima Film Festival; I have a good relationship with them and with Salomón Lerner Febres, the president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who is a cinephile and really adores my earlier films. He was very supportive during the work on the film, and all of that influenced the film being present at the festival. It definitely made the biggest impression on the press. It went outside the cultural sector. And that’s great for a film-maker, at least for a film-maker that has some social intentions, when a film jumps out of the cultural sector. It’s not a cultural event, it’s a political event, a social and political event. And the media reflected it like that. Josefin was not present; because of security concerns and also because we didn’t want the press to write sensational articles, because then the focus would shift from the real protagonists, the peasants and the Peruvian people, to Josefin, which is not fair to the subject. So that was intentional, that she was not there. This meant that Flor had to participate in a lot of press activities, and she did very well, it changed her a lot. And the family gained a lot of pride; I think they had been very scared of what the consequences of this film could have been. Fortunately, the process of Claudio’s recognition as a victim and not a perpetrator was solved before we finished, and guaranteed to be in the film.
You could talk a lot about reactions to the film because people in both camps reacted positively; both from the military and from Sendero. There are, I imagine, a lot of people who don’t like the film, but they have not pronounced themselves; they keep in the shadows and maybe that’s a good sign, because they feel that maybe what is said in the film is true, even if they don’t like it. On the other hand, it’s impressive how those who show their faces and say what they think, from either side, recognise what is said in the film. If they recognise it, then it means a discussion, a dialogue, is possible. So, I think in that way it’s been a good contribution to the historical archives in Peru. I’m immensely proud of the fact that maybe I have made a positive contribution to Peruvian history, something opening a profound discussion about the historical circumstances.

Josefin, how has the film been received in your personal life, by your family?

JE: It took my parents a few weeks to see the film for the first time. They were quite nervous about what they would see, but in the end they liked it. I have no contact with my relatives, so I don’t know if they’ve seen it or not.

MW: But you have to add to that that the conflict before they went to see it was tremendous. I mean, you don’t understand the importance of their reaction if you don’t understand what it was like before.

JE: Yes, during the four years that I was making this film there was a constant struggle within my family. So, it was quite difficult to be part of this film, but I’m still very happy I did it.

And finally, what’s next?

JE: Latin America is definitely on the agenda some time. I graduated last year, so now it’s all about finding a job, saving money for that trip.

MW: I’m working on a project in a small Swedish town.

No more Peru?

MW: No, I don’t say no more Peru… I’m also working on a project in Peru but it’s a very, very sensitive project and I won’t talk about it. I have no idea if it’s going to be possible to make it. I think if Alan García wins the elections it’s out of the question, but maybe if he doesn’t. It’s a question of digging into a story that came to me through a soldier, because of this film. Which is not surprising; people know this film now, and when I approach them they will think of their eventual participation, of their relationship with me, in terms of this film. I also want to continue to tell the story of my godchild’s family, from the earlier films, because so many things have happened and they are quite amusing, and quite positive. I want to continue my relationship with Peru, so I am looking for other projects.

Storm In The Andes is part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival which each year moves from city to city around the world. In March the film screened at the London edition of the festival and will in June be screened in New York, as well other cities around the world. See the Human Rights Watch Film Festival website for more details:

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