Óscar Catacora’s Wiñaypacha is a beautiful and somber film which—in its deceptive simplicity—deconstructs western understandings of space, nature, and the human being.
A striking element of the film, from the very first scene, is the repetition of sublime images of nature. Imposing grey mounds of earth—sometimes capped with snow—pierce through miles of sprawling green plain which, so variable in its slope, often breaks into small cascades. There is little vegetation save for small shrubbery and tough grasses and little company but the permanent fog that hangs over this Andean tableau. To the eyes of those of us from industrialized societies, we are truly out in nature. The vastness of the landscapes for us imply a necessary distance from what we perceive as the stage for a society. Nature, for the modern—to use the term in Lugones’ pejorative sense, is conferred a permanent spatial otherness from “civilization”.
This perception, which the film’s opening moments impresses upon us, enters into a prolonged tension as we see into the lives of the Aymara-speaking protagonists, Willka and Phaxsi. On the one hand, there is an enduring melancholic absence in the film’s presentation of the landscape and the motif of their departed son, Antuku. Aerial shots that neglect the protagonists’ stone dwelling as central to the location of the film—by either physically displacing it from the center of the frame or including very zoomed-out shots—project onto it a character of being incidental to the immensity of the Andes. Antuku’s absence, first made apparent by the small, worn-out wool sweater Phaxsi longingly admires, also divorces Willka and Phasxi’s home from a sense of civilizational locality. This is reinforced by Phaxsi’s constant wondering: “has Antuku forgotten us?”
On the other hand, despite the repeated suggestion of placelessness, there is a countervailing affirmation of the significance of the setting. At one point in the film, the protagonists partake in La Celebración del Pachakuti and must go to what Phaxsi calls the sacred mountain. This localizing of sanctity in the previously de-placed location underscores the primary tension in the setting that we have identified above. It is no longer nowhere; it is a locus of cosmic significance to those who live there. Furthermore, its inclusion in the historical overturning of space-time of Pachakuti authenticates its locality by placing it inside a social history. Another detail which countervails the modern dichotomy of space by fostering the unity of natural and social spaces is the presence of apachetas throughout the landscape. These are usually conceived as either sacred entities or offerings to Mother Earth. The dual nature of the apacheta, in which it is both a navigational signifier for the socially-established paths of the Aymara as well as a link to the sanctity of nature as such, implies a reciprocity and coexistence—rather than polarization—between social and natural spaces. Instead of nature being definitionally removed from civilization, the Aymara cosmologies conveyed through the film imply that the symbiotic interplay between these types of spaces is what reinforces the placeness of the protagonists’ dwelling and its surroundings.
The film provides space for the projection of a modern understanding of the dichotomized spaces of society and nature onto the Andean scene, but not without its constant subversion. The effect is to make us acutely aware of the first projection even as we are invited to reconsider it. The presence of this tension extends from the general conflict of civilizational and natural spaces to a conflict between the ideas of social and natural beings. Just as the film calls into question the spatial dichotomy, it also reveals the modern “schizoid understanding of reality that dichotomizes the human from nature, the human from the non-human, and thus imposes an ontology and a cosmology that, in its power and constitution, disallows all humanity, all possibility of understanding, all possibility of human communication, to dehumanized beings” (Lugones 751). Phasxi refers to her sheep as her children, and, with Willka’s help, performs a ceremony of life when she discovers that one of the sheep is pregnant. In the ceremony, for which they dress the sheep up, they wish them fertility and happiness. This inclusion of non-human beings in a human ceremony which extends to them human wills and desires erodes the dichotomized incommensurability of species. This does not imply a sameness of species, but rather a recognition of the fundamental similarity of reliance on the same environment. All species are sewn into the same fabric of the world. There is an agreement between natural existence and social ontology that does not exist for the modern.
As beautiful as the unity between social and natural as well as between human and nature is expressed in the film, some truth remains in the modern conception, but not in the way originally conceived. What I mean is that the colonial imposition which makes itself known through the viewer's apprehension of the film’s setting reveals itself as a real material process. The subversive elements against the modern conception of placeness that are all mediated through communal traditions and social relations, which as a result of the brutality of the colonial process—whereby indigenous peoples were directly massacred, killed by disease, separated by colonial distributions of land, and subjected to the colonial supersession of natural with “civilized” spaces—have become more and more tenuous. Nothing in the film is made clearer than the death which looms not only over the individual protagonists, but over the communal traditions and memory which mediate the locality of the setting. A fire at their home and a predator killing all their sheep is enough to doom the protagonists and their social, place-based memory. The source of these tragedies—that there was no young person to quickly go buy matches to start a safe fire and that there was no one to watch over Phaxsi’s sheep children while the couple struggled to walk to the nearest town—are of a purely social character. Social relations are the only thing that can sustain locality as well as individual life, and thus the colonial erosion of these relations is responsible for the process of de-placing and for the death of the protagonists.
The sadness of the film arises not only from the death of Willka, but from the complete death of the communal relations which mediated the locality of the setting. Once Phaxsi is forced to make her way to the nearest town, the modern, colonial dichotomization violently attains its fulfillment. However, the film shows glimmers of hope and beauty by demonstrating the absolute importance of those who continue to ground their communal tradition in its mediation of nature, affirming the validity of a place which does not exclude the natural.
“Pacha translates as ‘time’ but also as ‘space’. Quechua and Aymara share . . . the semiotic unity of time and space, making pacha perhaps best glossed as ‘space-time’. The second part of the word, kuti, means ‘return’ but also ‘to turn over’ and shares other senses of both ‘time’ and ‘turn’ with English, as in a turn playing cards, or time as in an instant, a fleeting, punctual moment in a cycle. The senses of time denoted by pacha and kuti resonate with the Greek chronos and kairos, as the difference between secular, everyday time (chronos) and the messianic event (kairos), between continuity and rupture, between flowing time and the fleeting moment. Pachakuti, then, is the turning over space-time, the overturning of the world. Like the kairos of St. Paul, pachakuti has a distinctly messianic temporality” (Swinehart 98).
Lugones, Maria. “Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia, vol. 25, no. 4, 2010, pp. 742–59, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40928654. Accessed 22 Apr. 2022.
Swinehart, Karl. "Decolonial Time in Bolivia’s Pachakuti.” Signs and Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 96-114, https://doi.org/10.1086/701117. Accessed 22 Apr. 2022.
Wiñaypacha. Directed by Ó. Catacora, performances by Rosa Nina, Vicente Catacora, CineAymaraStudios, 2018
By Samuel Araura