Quechua is a family of languages that has united many of the indigenous people of the South American Andes for millennia. Since about the 15th century AD it was one of the Inca Empire’s linguae francae, a common language used for commerce and general communication between people from different corners of the land.
But Quechua and its regional variants have been a common point between various indigenous groups in different areas of South America since at least the 5th century AD, long before the Inca expansion. From there, it evolved into different, mostly intelligible forms, spoken across a region that corresponds to what is now known as Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, southern Colombia and northern Argentina.
When the Spanish conquered the region, their religious men learnt and used Quechua to convert the locals into Catholicism. But, after 1781, when Tupac Amarú II tried and failed to rebel against Colonial powers and their treatment of indigenous people in Peru, the Spanish rulers banned any manifestation of indigenous culture, including their languages.
Still, Quechua managed to survive and, currently, about ten million people around the world are native speakers. Nonetheless, even though variants of Quechua are recognized as official national languages in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia (and a regional official language in Colombia), many of its speakers worry it will fade away among the cultural hegemony of Spanish and English. Yet, many are resisting.
Recently, I had the pleasure to meet Alberto Muenala, an Indigenous and Ecuadorian filmmaker from Otavalo. He recently directed KILLA ÑAWPUMUKUN (Before Moonrise), the first ever feature-length movie done in Kichwa, the variant of Quechua spoken in Ecuador. KILLA, as the movie is simply known, is acted in both Kichwa and Spanish, and is an action story dealing with identity, loyalty and the tension between industrial development, tradition and the protection of the environment.
Muenala and I spoke in The Bronx (a stronghold of Quechua speakers in New York City) and then on email about his language, his culture and his work as a Kichwa filmmaker:
Why did you make KILLA?
The necessity to manifest our own experiences, and to walk our culture, brought us to reflect, through cinema, this current history of the peoples and nationalities of Ecuador. We know that cinema is one of the most powerful tools out there and that we can use it to open the doors so people can get to know our culture, our social issues and, most importantly, so Kichwa doesn’t disappear as an indigenous language of the people of the Andes.
How do you see the state of Quechua cinema in Ecuador and elsewhere
After the big uprising of 1990 and 1992, in Ecuador, indigenous people were made visible, not only with their political struggle, but also by their audiovisual productions. The latter helped to create awareness on the process of indigenous peoples. Since then, audiovisual production has been an essential tool for the alternative communication of the various peoples and nationalities. That’s why we already have documentary, fictional and experimental films.
Are there any networks for Quechua Filmmakers?
There is no network for Quechua filmmakers at a Latin American level, but we do have a series of connections in Ecuador, grouping around 50 collectives, dedicated to different kinds of productions within the different peoples and nationalities.
What obstacles have you found as a Kichwa filmmaker?
The biggest has been the economical aspect. While it’s true that there are many collectives and that each of them has at least a minimal budget and equipment, there is no production company interested in permanently producing with Kichwa filmmakers. After many years of encounters between filmmakers from the different indigenous peoples and nationalities, we managed to introduce a proposal for the creation of new ways to support Kichwa cinema. Two months ago, CNCINE (Ecuador’s government institute for cinema) approved our proposal, which we hope will allow us to grow in the future. But the path to achieve mass production is still long.
Why do you think there hasn’t been a Kichwa film yet?
It’s a question of processes, of maturity, of will. KILLA comes in a moment in which there are many young filmmakers, willing to work on cinema, willing to join a collective effort, willing to overcome petty differences that did not allow for intercultural work. With all of this is behind us, many Kichwa collectives got together and invited non-Kichwa filmmakers – which is something that doesn’t happen from the other side – and in this way we managed to create an intercultural production team. We achieved to work as a collective, and the positive results are visible in the movie.
KILLA is in its postproduction stage and Muenala has set up a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it. You can go here to support it. The campaign will be open until Monday, April 20th, 2015.