Kukuli (1961) adapts a Peruvian legend about a bear that kidnaps women. However, this “rapture” occurs only at the end of the story, after we have accompanied the character on a journey through landscapes and traditions of the Quechua people.
Many of the legends and Quechua stories related everyday people with magical beings and / or characters from foreign cultures. Such narratives, mostly oral, have a moral and superstitious tone, in which is possible to conclude a moral for the story and characters and are mostly intended for the education of children and teenagers. It can be argued that the raptor bear story is just an excuse that articulates and closes the story, as part of Carnival, when the characters from the Quechua and mestizo imaginaries (as a result of cultural fusions), meet and collide.
Kukuli is a young woman who, according to her age of courtship, leaves her old grandparents, little sister and beloved llama, in order to travel to go to the carnival festivities to find a find someone to woo and take as a husband. This should be the correct ritual, but things change, and she meets Alako on her way. This man, out of any ritual of commitment, simply endorses her instinctively and primary. The film emphasizes that Alako is a landless Indian at the service of a settler. This could possibly mean that there is no way for him to settle on a land of his own.
On the way, Kukuli sees the indigenous traditions of its people. However, when she arrives to town, the traditions that she finds there are hybridized as the result of the mix of Indian beliefs, Catholic religion rituals and appropriations from African descent culture. Kukuli is a film that witnesses crossbreeding and hybridization, although without questioning them, on a journey from the periphery to the center that brings together the phenomena of the mixture: the town of Paucartambo. When Kukuli returns to her home, we see that her grandparents don’t exist anymore. Only the little girl is there, presumably Kukuli’s sister. Turned into a llama, the protagonist will go with her love in search of another territory. Why did she do so, if she could have stayed at home?
Alako represents the Indian in voluntary or involuntary uprooting that becomes a fugitive and therefore, in search of new identities and roles wherever he goes. He is a man who is forced to go away and to see the world; to pollinate it; to mix it. In every culture we can find men like that.
“In the Andean world, especially in areas adjacent to the forest where Paucartambo is located there is the myth of the bear abductor of beautiful women.
This story probably comes from the East, on a long journey through Europe, and obviously this belief goes to Peru and is transformed, because the Andes are great assimilators of the contributions that came after the Conquest, exactly during the Colonial period, and later in the Republic period. That was when the legend of the raptor bear acclimated and acquired a new life, and a new concept. The raptor bear is a character that has a huge force and I would say that is associated with the telluric forces of the earth. This bear has great powers of seduction, is said to have seven penises, thus being a kind of “super-macho” and is capable of seducing beautiful women: shepherd women.
From a relationship with a previous shepherd woman, a son, Pablito (Pablucha) is born. He is the Ukuku, who has the human intelligence of the mother and the father telluric force. The Ukuku is the character who kidnaps Kukuli.”- Luis Figueroa (1)
However many interpretations are allowed. When the Spaniards brought African black people to use as slaves in the conquest and colonization of South America, they started also a process of encounter and hybridization. The black people, with their traditions, knowledge and rituals, collided with the indigenous worldview. The character of the possessed suggests the very raw meeting between these two races and cultures. In the carnival we can see dancers representing different ethnic groups with their respective icons and symbols. Catholic Church gave connotations of pagan and even demonic to any behavior, cult and /or ritual that was beyond its comprehension or simply away to be channeled into their evangelists projects on the continent.
Prophecy of the witch
As a device for the plot, the warlock predicts something evil that will take place in the future. Apparently, the cause of this misfortune is the uprooting of Alako and his hinted detachment of the traditions and indigenous beliefs. Neither the Quechua, nor the Catholic religion saw with “good eyes” the concubinage, or pre-or extramarital relationships. Thus Alako’s rupture with his roots on land, ancestors and wedding traditions, could cause instability and probably the eventual breakdown of society.
Catholic Church took advantage of basic commonalities that had with the Quechua traditions (for example monogamy and penitence), seeking for cultural penetration, adaptation and introduction to Christianity by learning and using the Quechua language and expressions without using force or repression. The presence and grandeur of the Church as building and construction of villages around it, were the architecture constant of the evangelizing crusade throughout South America and many other colonies throughout the world. The priest is no more than a symbol, like all the other characters. This depersonalization is very common in the narratives of myth or legend. It would have been interesting to see or hear his position on the processes of cultural mixing in the town and region. Alako rings the bells and is related in some way to the church and the priest, but however, he notes that his marriage is only a test-marriage, like warning the representative of the religion that his vision of the rites (and in general, about the world) is purely pragmatic. This leads Alako to listen to the witch, as any kind of oracle, to take just what it’s useful. And if something does not convince him, he simply defies it. He is the kind of man who is above his cultural or social identity or any historical or cultural affiliation. It’s the kind of man who can open up paths of freedom, or conversely, plunge a whole society into darkness.
The Indians, led by the priest, punish and defeat the raptor bear, fighting violence with violence. In an ultimate unmasking, we confirmed that it was a beast with human behavior and excess, and not viceversa, that seemed more apparent. The fable is completed with three deaths, where the lovers have the opportunity to reincarnate and return to the peaceful and bucolic encounter with nature (although who knows if it can fill the libertarian and detached aspirations of the indomitable Alako), while the beast presumably visited or returned to the dark and terrible common place to several cultures: Hell.
Syncretism in Kukuli
“In the Andean world, we deeply believe in that religion that shapes syncretic proceedings after the years of Colonial Period, where the deities are reinvented in some way. The Pachamama [Mother Earth] is no longer just the Pachamama, is also the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin Mary is Mother Earth. In this feast of the Virgin of Carmen in Paucartambo this syncretism occurs.
In regard specifically to the feast of Our Lady of Paucartambo (fondly called Mamacha Carmen by the people), it is said that all paucartambinos are in love with this Virgin because it’s like a human being and has all the virtues of a beautiful woman. Mamacha Carmen is the center of the festivities that take place every year during the festival of July 16th in Paucartambo, fundamental background of the film. This syncretism can be seen not only in regard to the religious concept of Andean religion, but in all the dancers who worship the Virgin, who come to dance to the Virgin.”- Luis Figueroa (2)
Kukuli’s journey, adapts the plot without risking too much audio-visually speaking. Most of the information on motivations, affiliations, spatial coordinates, moods, traditions, are given by the narrator, reducing chances for much more creative solutions, without necessary leaving aside the didactic nature or tone of exaltation and weighting of Quechua culture and its traditions and places. On the contrary, the latter should have been enhanced. Many images, process and rituals give the impression of being explained by the narrator, however, this speaker is limited to a simple review, if not superficial, and thus, explanations are not very effective about processes and complex dynamics that the community develops. The editing of the film is concerned with carrying Kukuli from one direction to another and basically, with relating her spatially to the characters she meets.
In some special moments, the film tries to build additional meanings from the succession, management and succession of images. For example (at the carnival) in this sequence masks are arranged on a basis of a suggested metamorphic/contrasting process. Such a sequence is distinguished within the film for trying to allude to the idea of the hierarchic/developmental levels on magical beings, from earthling, celestial or demonic, alternated with the procession of Mamacha Carmen depending exclusively on the joint and articulation of images and movement rather than the narrator’s voice.
At some point of the film it was given the impression, judging by its production proposal and lighting, that everything would be done with / during daylight. But, surprisingly, some shots in complete darkness interrupt and bring very interesting sugerences and contrasts with the rest of the film.
Kukuli and the Cuzco Film School
“The Cusco film movement originates from the Cusco Film Club that was born a
December 27, 1955, commemorating the invention of film by the Lumiere brothers with the screening of the film “Children of Paradise” by Marcel Carné. A large attendance of members, artists, intellectuals and the general public filled the Colón Auditurim, known today as the Municipal.
While the objectives of the CFC were initially distributing the film in its most valuable universal expressions, so it was, and this perhaps most importantly, the creation of the first Cuzco films, which as a whole, achieved a remarkable success from critics nationally and internationally.
Among many others, the statutes of CCC pointed out: the making of documentary essay films, film works in general, and contributions promoting the study of cinematic art. Inside the CCC, around twenty documentary films were made between 1955 and 1962, and in 1960, was filmed the first feature film, KUKULI, released in Lima on July 26, 1961 in the Le Paris movie theater. Kukuli is the first film of Peru and the world spoken in Quechua spoken. It was considered by the essayist and playwright Sebastian Salazar Bondy as “birth of cinema” for Peruvian national cinema." (3)
(1) and (2) Entrevista entre Renée Le Saint, Jean-Louis Decroix y Luis Figueroa
(3) Blog Cine Andino de Luis Figueroa Yábar
Thanks Javier! I am interested in this film, and the film it is against, so I will hold off on reading until I see the film. Unless you think it would be better to read the intro before seeing the film…
agree it’s somewhat limited by the travelogue-like narration but i loved it anyway. thanks so much for the opportunity to see this and for the introduction thread! also: llamas rule xD
Big thanks, sterling work. The hybridisation comes through, it’s colourful and has a certain ingenuous yet mysterious quality, while i’m wary about applying messages or meanings to the bear, church, customs and any political satire etc.
p.s, i’m all for llama love, they have nobility, but Alpacas are even more cuddly
Thanks for the comments!
Yes Kenji, you are right about the perils when applying messages. I have to apologize. It was very difficult to take distance. Particularly I regret a bit speaking about Alako and the bear. I felt that Kukuli, as a mise-en-scène of a popular legend, invited to interpret a lot and I just fell in the interpretation trap in that forest of symbols and beliefs. Yes, it’s risky: if I interpret something, I take it for granted, and therefore,I take it as immutable and closed. I don’t know to what extent we are part of realities entirely based on hybrid symbols and beliefs in many places around the globe in every minute of our lives. In the film the myth and the concrete collided at the carnival segment. It was like trying to explain magic and superstition when even the trip in itself and every single movement can be a superstitious symbol. It was very difficult to find a point of balance, I must recognize.
Thanks for this concise and informative introduction, Javier. I’m glad you pointed out how African culture was assimilated in Peru. When seeing the various masks in the Carnival scenes, I was surprised to see a definite African influence in some of them. You have explained how various cultures and traditions were merged, all under the umbrella of the all-pervasive Catholic church. Some nice cinematic touches in the film, which your pictures from the film show us. I thought it interesting that the llamas at the end, representing the re-incarnation of the spirit of the two main characters, were black (or dark in color) and white – sort of a symbolic representation of the two figures of Alako and Kukuli.
Perhaps they are condemned because of Alako’s rootlessness and his refusal to conform to a ‘sanctified’ marriage and insisting on his ‘trial-marriage’. Alako is just ahead of his time! Also, making the bear figure an animal was perhaps a bit too literal of a reading by the filmmaker, as just having a man assuming the character of his mask would have been enough. I guess the filmmaker wanted us to take the bear figure literally, to preserve the myth.
Cinephiles now have another bell-ringer and bell tower scene to match those in The Hunchback of Nortre Dame and Vertigo. An interesting film. Thanks for helping us with this, Javier, and submitting this film. Nice to see the birth of Peruvian film.
Thanks Javier. Good work for an original and timeless film whose mythical and mystical subject can never be captured in this primary form ever again. I’m so pleasantly surprised. Bravo!
Now this is a perfect example of how great and helpful a film intro can be. The film was totally satisfying on it’s own yet the intro provided so much more wonderful insight in so many areas. Thank you so much Javier for your suggestion and write up.
Also, making the bear figure an animal was perhaps a bit too literal of a reading by the filmmaker, as just having a man assuming the character of his mask would have been enough. I guess the filmmaker wanted us to take the bear figure literally, to preserve the myth.
I was curious about this too. Almost losing myself in a meta-film world. First I wasn’t sure if the film was aware that these are all just actors. As if maybe the costume of the bear is something they would wear in a play version of the myth. I was wondering if were were supposed to new feel like we were seeing a filmed play which used people in costumes to represent animals and thus require of us a suspension of disbelief. But then we see the head of the creature actually was a bear or some kind of similar animal. Very interesting indeed.
Ralch’s list of films from the Andes is excellent. Peru, along with other Andean nations, remains neglected. I think Kukuli would make for an interesting double bill with the politically charged Bolivian landmark Blood of the Condor.
In the Andean world, especially in areas adjacent to the forest where Paucartambo is located there is the myth of the bear abductor of beautiful women.
The bear and carnival segments of Kukuli were the most interesting aspects for me, and it would have been nice to see this bear myth fleshed out a bit more throughout the film. Not as an explanation of the myth, because Luis Figueroa’s rendering of it was poetic and beautiful.
Oxymoron: Also, making the bear figure an animal was perhaps a bit too literal of a reading by the filmmaker, as just having a man assuming the character of his mask would have been enough. I guess the filmmaker wanted us to take the bear figure literally, to preserve the myth.
I would disagree, because the reveal of the bear as being an animal rather than being a human in a costume had a magical-realism poetic quality about it I thought, in that we are left to interpret the jarring dissonance and what it means. Though, before I watched the film I was not aware of the bear myth, and so maybe this has coloured my appreciation of it.
Most of the information on motivations, affiliations, spatial coordinates, moods, traditions, are given by the narrator, reducing chances for much more creative solutions, without necessary leaving aside the didactic nature or tone of exaltation and weighting of Quechua culture and its traditions and places. On the contrary, the latter should have been enhanced. Many images, process and rituals give the impression of being explained by the narrator, however, this speaker is limited to a simple review, if not superficial, and thus, explanations are not very effective about processes and complex dynamics that the community develops.
Right, the voice-over narration was ordinary and unnecessary I felt; it kept taking me out of the film.
Yes, the carnival segment was interesting because it relied on poetry rather than prose.
Kukuli would also make an interesting double bill with the Bolivian Come Back Sebastiana. Actually, Sebastiana, the character, could be somehow a child version of Kukuli. In both of them, grandparents play a crucial role even when they are close to death. The two films tell us also about a previous civilization. Those are works about origins, preservations and transformation of cultures. The commitment with Mother Earth, the approaches to reality through myths, magic beliefs, symbols, and the debates/paradoxes about historical-cultural-identity vindicate Sanjines’s Aymara films, together with Kukuli and Sebastiana as totally must-see films.