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Exploring Nature - Nov 12 to Nov 18

Interview - Laura Huertas Millán

Interview with Laura Huertas Millán, filmmaker of Jiíbie presented in the section Exploring Nature available November 12-18

How did you develop the film with the Amazonian Muina Muruí community?

The film is part of a series about the coca plant, which I started in 2011 after meeting Cristobal Gomez Abel [a member of the community]. The series also developed through a long research process in Colombia, the United States and France, looking into anti-ethnography and alternative ethnographies. Very soon after we met, Cristobal and I started a conversation around the contrasting uses of the plant in this part of Amazonia [the Colombia-Brazil-Peru borderlands], from traditional use in Indigenous communities for spiritual and political purposes, to the manufacture of cocaine on the underground, extraction-oriented drug-trade circuit. Cristobal had a front-row view of the arrival of the drug barons in the region in the early 80s. He witnessed the violence and the ravages. To him, cocaine represents the perversion and appropriation of a sacred plant whose main power is pacification. Today he’s an activist who teaches younger generations the Indigenous use of the plant, the ritual ingestion of mambe [the green powder made from the coca plant] for transcendental, not recreational, purposes.

For Jíibie, Cristobal suggested that we work with his family [his brother-in-law and nephews, who appear in the film] and so we filmed in their home. I think the film captures that family micro-community, built around the daily ritual of making mambe and its cosmogony, rather than the entire Muina Murui community. I make no claim that the film is a collaboration with the community, beyond Cristobal and his family, and I would not presume to speak for a group beyond Cristobal’s family, where several different, complex stories intertwine; the community has its own sovereignty. The dialogue with Cristobal is ongoing, and I think the film is a reflection of that conversation. But it is also a cinematic research process, which thanks to its specificity transcends the bounds of the conversation at times, building a third space.

In La Libertad, you filmed a group of Indigenous women in Mexico. Here, only men are involved in the ritual preparation of coca powder. What did you want to highlight through your observation of this social group?

The conquest and colonization of the Americas is and always has been marked by the extremely violent heteronormative and racial repression of other genders and sexualities. In Colombia, it’s practically normal for gender dynamics within Indigenous communities to be confined to the private sphere. I completely understand that in light of the violence perpetrated by the state and by a racist, far-right culture – a violence that’s still very common toward gender dissidents – this form of protection might be necessary.

I also try to have a detached view of man/woman classifications in these kinds of settings. On the one hand, because I do not believe in the heteronormative binary nature of gender, and on the other because I believe that my perspective as a mestiza – seen as white in Amazonia or güera [“whitey”] in Mexico – I don’t have access to the full complexity of these gender constructions, and that’s a legitimate issue. Lastly, in these contexts marked by such stark cultural difference, saying “man” or “woman” does not mean the same thing for everyone; the social and historical constructions of gender are different in each context. So what I have to say about this topic should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m offering hypotheses grounded in a dialogue with the people who appear in the films, and other people off-screen who have written about or researched the topic. Here, the approach to gender has to be seen, in my opinion, as unstable, non-definitive.

In the film, men conduct the ritual because, for reasons intrinsic to the community, it’s men who are in charge of tending the coca plant. They plant it, nurture it, harvest it, make mambe, consume it. Women are in charge of other loci of power, but coca is a feminine entity, and as the myth related in the film has it, she is the bearer of teachings through a form of otherness, of complementarity.

For reasons I’ve already touched on, there’s no intent on my part to pass judgment on the arguable “genderization” of the ritual I’m filming. However, if there’s a connection between the different approaches I took in my two films, the common denominator is a kind of denaturalization through cinema. In observing the activities evoked by the question, I try to dismantle stereotypes that are usually taken for granted. In La Libertad, I wanted to present weaving as speculative work within a non-Western, non-heteronormative family. In Jíibie, the coca processing activity defies the clichés and stigmas surrounding cocaine in Colombia. Of course, the drug war does exist, but it cannot be allowed to monopolize all representations of our nation, which has a great diversity of peoples who use the plant in different ways.

The ritual’s central idea is that the coca plant is not a product but a person. Can you explain the plant’s social role in the community?

Through cinematic techniques, like the ability to combine words and images, sounds and associations, the film becomes a sensory immersion supported by what Cristobal told us about mambe during filming. Specifically, that coca is a sacred entity, a feminine entity, a plant imbued with power that enables the articulation of speech and coexistence. We see the plant as a person and a subject of law, not as a mere product to be consumed. So the film is built around sensations related to elements linked to the invisible world, fire, ashes, water, breath, which are precisely the elements essential to making the powder. I tried to follow, with the camera, the moment when that ineffable speech happens, and the making of mambe, which is a ritual in its own right.

Cristobal was adamant about the way coca is given and must be received. It must be venerated, but it can also punish. In the film, the little girl from the myth explains to her father that the green powder is the spine of a new nation that is deliberating, engaging in mutual aid. Those who don’t accept it are transformed into parrots or green animals – and every time I think about it, I can’t help thinking of soldiers and their green camo – while those who accept it are the cultivators, figuratively and literally. They create a culture.

That sacred role is the polar opposite of the exploitation of coca that emerged after the arrival of European colonists, who not only perverted its use, but also suppressed it. How important is it to you to highlight the ancestral role of coca, which remains alive today? Does this suggest the possibility of a new relationship with nature?

Yes, and there are actually two elements that are essential for me in telling this story.

On the one hand, as I said earlier, denaturalizing the demonization of psychotropics. The plant is not a “bad plant” – there’s no such thing. It is not the plant in itself that must be “eradicated”, as the politics of the current drug war would have it. Instead, there’s a need to make her an ally in thinking about and legislating its uses. So the film opens with text about the history of prohibition: mestizo chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega noted as early as the 17th century how the Spaniards in Inca territory had monopolized the plant for their own benefit, and later prohibited it on religious pretexts. The film also opens with a look at the composition of cocaine, which, being made outside of all legal regulation, has become a quintessential example of extractive capitalism. In making this film, seeing the plant differently, it’s important for me to contribute to the collective efforts of numerous artists and intellectuals in Colombia and elsewhere, in thinking differently about our relationship with drugs, contributing to a wider debate in opposition to the drug war.

On the other hand, I think the coca/cocaine binary needs more complexity, and it also reflects our impasses vis-à-vis the planet’s non-human beings and subjectivities. Too often, plants are considered as beings without intelligence or subjectivity, simple products to be consumed, whereas I think we should see them as subjects, legal persons, political agents, subjectivities, just like other human and non-human persons. It’s the link with coca, the Amazon rainforest, the teachings of Cristobal that made me grasp it. And so I’m trying to convey these emotions, these feelings, through the film.

Because of the violence associated with the drug trade, coca still has a very politically charged image, in Colombia and also Mexico – a question you’ve already broached in Le labyrinthe. How do you tackle such a complex subject?

It is impossible for one person to convey all the complexity of a five-century history that’s so deeply intertwined with colonialism. But there are many of us looking at this from different angles. In Colombia alone, there is a rich legacy of artists and intellectuals working with/around the coca plant/leaf: Amado Villafaña, Miguel Angel Rojas, Barbara Santos, Diana Rico, Juan Alvaro Echeverri, Fernando Urbina Rangel, Wilson Diaz, to name just a few. The themes that matter to us and that we try to develop with deliberation and sensitivity resonate in other geographies. In France, where I live, the effects of the drug war are highly visible and affect mainly racialized and marginalized people. These topics are just as important here. For me personally, it is therefore important to be able to think about these questions through the prism of my dual culture, through plural geographies, paying attention to collective debates and approaching it through a cinema that tries to invent new languages to feel the world differently, to re-establish nonviolent ties with nature.

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