A 23-year-old Peruvian armed forces veteran struggles to reintegrate himself into society only to hit a series of roadblocks, both societal and psychological, in the feature directorial debut from Peruvian filmmaker Josué Méndez. Santiago Román (Pietro Sibille) has just returned to Lima following six years of military service. Coolly received by his parents and unable to find a stable, well-paying job, the dejected Santiago’s attempt to further his education is quickly squelched when he discovers that his military pension doesn’t offer the money needed to pay his way through school. Though Santiago eventually lands a low-paying job as an inner-city taxi driver, his disdain for the scum of the city finds the formerly active young soldier sinking into a deep depression. Increasingly haunted by his violent military past, he is conflicted by a desire for education and temptation to join his comrades in a decadent life of crime. The conflicted veteran must choose between an honest life of poverty and an act of desperation that could end in tragedy.
At the time of its release, Días de Santiago was regarded as probably the most accomplished film by a Peruvian director who was welcomed onto the domestic arena for attempting ‘new narrative structures or styles that, while perhaps not innovative compared to what is happening in other cinemas around the world, brought a fresh perspective to Peruvian cinema’ (Middents 2009: 191). It is notable, however, that Méndez’s first film received very little financial or other support for its pre-production and production stages from conventional sources. Although the director was granted a script development award in 2000 from Conacine, the state-run operation that until 2011 administered a small pot of money in support of the development of national cinema in Peru, he financed the shoot and most of the post-production himself with a micro-budget of around $20,000. Continuing to work as an editor for national television, he shot the film on low-tech digital format over 24 days, pulling in favours from colleagues and associates. Completion was finally made possible by an award from the Hubert Bals Fund for world cinema that was established by the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1987 with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It premiered at that festival in January 2004, and thus became the first Peruvian film to be selected for Rotterdam’s official competition. The festival screenings and awards that followed made it possible for the producers to draw up and implement a comprehensive distribution plan for commercial exploitation in cinemas and on DVD. The film was finally screened in Peru, at the main festival for world cinema held in Lima, in August 2004, and thereafter enjoyed a profitable commercial run throughout the country. In fact, it remained on domestic screens in a competitive environment for an unprecedented six months from late 2004 to early 2005, and was shown in a variety of provincial cities as well as on the commercial circuit in Lima.
Días de Santiago was celebrated for taking a distinctive approach to the recurrent and familiar themes of violent conflict and national identity. Perhaps the overwhelmingly positive reception by national critics who considered it the best quality Peruvian film for several years was even more surprising than the international success it enjoyed, given the negativity that has often usually greeted a new film by a local director. The critics praised the way it took a more experimental approach to the codes of film language and adapted them to the representation of a dystopian vision of urban Peru. Many were impressed by the director’s use of a nervous, jump-cutting non-linear editing style, edgy handheld cinematography, and unpredictable switches between black and white and colour, as well as by the use of blue and orange tints to emphasise the inner turmoil of his main character. They also applauded its impressionistic approach to the use of sound: the sparing use of lamenting tones in a zither-based soundtrack, and the experimentation with everyday noises to evoke the tense, heightened reality of the moment. Moreover, credit was given for the tight composition and an intermittent voice-over which further ensure the audience is positioned to experience the world from inside the protagonist’s tormented mind. Most of all, they admired Méndez’s obvious passion for cinema generally, and the implicit formal references in the film to the work of internationally renowned film-makers such as Krzysztof Kieslowski and Wong Kar-Wei.
Set at the end of the 1990s, an increasingly repressive decade in political and social terms, Méndez’s film follows the frustrated efforts made by Santiago, its young working-class, mixed-race protagonist, to reinsert himself into family and civilian life after several years as a marine defending the integrity of his country in the remote Amazon and Andean areas of Peru. Particular sets of enemies mentioned in the film include the Ecuadorian Army, and remnants of insurgent groups such as the Shining Path, who had by this point become linked with traffickers of cocaine. Once home, Santiago tries hard to reintegrate himself into civilian life and to fulfil the expectations of others but is blocked at every turn. His relationship with his wife crumbles, his old army comrades try to draw him into a life of crime, and he fails to develop any emotional tie with his family. His professional options are restricted, and he becomes convinced that the only way to survive in the urban jungle of Lima is by applying the tactics he learnt as a marine to everyday life. Ultimately, though, he struggles to impose strict order on his life and on those around him. When he realises that his initial strategy is failing, he tries instead to imitate the middle-class youngsters he meets who idle away their days by clubbing, drinking and shopping. Events spin wildly out of control when his violent brother’s girlfriend begins to make seductive overtures and pleads with Santiago to kill her lover. In the end, Santiago cannot stop himself lashing out in frustration at those who confront and try to control him, and the narrative moves towards a disturbing and explosive ending.
Although the film focuses on the troubled inner world of one traumatised individual who cannot escape the cycle of violence in which he has become entrapped, his story may also be taken metaphorically and symbolically as a painfully realistic vision of a generation in crisis within a specific national context. It offers an effective prism through which issues of concern to young Peruvians at the turn of the twenty-first century may be understood, while at the same time it struck a chord with audiences around the world who appreciated it largely as an intricate portrayal of a young man returning from war. Santiago’s story begins with his return to a place that he no longer recognises and the narrative centres on the painful process of reintegration into a society that has moved on without him. His years in the armed forces have obliged him to put certain ambitions on hold, only to have them cruelly dashed when he returns home.
His world and his hopes crumble and disintegrate when he abandons the rigid structure of the armed forces; he faces an uncertain future without support and guidance from anyone who really understands what he has been through, or what he now lacks by way of psychological formation. His is an intensely personal struggle of reassimilation into civilian life that draws attention to ‘the struggle against dissolution and fragmentation’ (Bauman 2004: 77).
The formal quality of Méndez’s film is raw, intense, and fragmentary, reinforcing the psychological trauma of Santiago by the use of strategies of dislocation that are reminiscent of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s, revealing a little of the director’s many cinematic influences. These fragmentary moments provide a discomforting viewing experience, and in so doing, they highlight the film’s approach to identity as fractured, multilayered, contradictory, complex and fluid. It also focuses on the constant need to react and respond to changing social conditions and human emotions. Santiago strikes a far from optimistic note about humanity, contemporary Peruvian reality, and life for young people living in Lima by illustrating the tragic consequences of a society in meltdown. Moreover, although rejecting the traditional approach of flashback to depict directly Santiago’s traumatic years in the jungle, the film nevertheless conveys a strong sense of an individual who cannot escape his past and who is paralysed by his own memories. As such, it deals more with the abstract concept of memory and the scars it can leave, than with individual concrete memories, offering a vivid and painful exploration of the scars left by war on human beings who return home.
Asked about where the idea for his debut feature came from, Méndez explained:
“The film is my reaction against the city. I studied in the US, came back to Lima, and I felt the city was hostile to young people. That was in 1998, when the war with Ecuador had just finished, and I started seeing all the young war veterans returning, also, to Lima. I had already started to interview war veterans when I met Santiago, who was the brother of my old nanny. The psychology of the character is completely based on this guy. So the film tells the story of the war veteran but it’s also the story of all young people feeling bad in the film.” (cited by Matheou 2010: 386)
Unlike the family and friends around him who remained largely oblivious to the personal impact of conflict, Santiago is unable to shake off the memories of the brutality he engaged in, and his wheelchair-bound former comrade is so consumed by the indelible psychological scars of war that for him the only way out is by committing suicide. Santiago recalls time and again the early excitement he felt at being sent out on a mission, a sentiment that was soon dashed and replaced by disillusionment sparked by the harsh treatment of recruits like him by the officers. However, even harder to confront is the rejection of his worth by civilians who have no idea what he and his comrades have been through on their behalf.
Indeed, the film is structured as a series of increasingly tense combats between Santiago and all those he encounters in civilian society, with the protagonist positioned as both victim and aggressor. As well as drawing attention to the spiralling torment he suffers, these clashes also serve to highlight further the disconnected nature of Lima society at the end of the twentieth century. The city, like so many others across the world, is presented as a complex environment that is completely divided in terms of its racial groupings. Santiago is forced to learn that the capitalist values of wealth, individual progress and private ownership are more important in this unfamiliar, uncanny world that he returns to than the socialist values that marked the country one decade before. This atmosphere of dislocation is highlighted, for example, when the intense, hyper-disciplined Santiago and his lazy, self-serving brother are forced to confront each other; when he tries to join in the social activity enjoyed by the young women in his computing class; when he makes a hesitant enquiry about his course options to the receptionist at the private college and is treated with disdain; when he is reminded of his lack of status and wealth by the department store supervisor who shows no respect for his military experience. In short, the more Santiago tries to reinstate the sense of order, discipline, camaraderie and respect that he appreciated about military life, the more he realises that his efforts to reintegrate as a civilian are doomed.
Despite resonating with such a pessimistic tone, the film was welcomed by domestic and international audiences for whom it appeared to offer a distinctive vision of everyday life in the metropolis for those who fail to conform to the expectations of consumer society. The image of a dystopian city at the turn of the century that offered nothing but isolation for a returning military man certainly struck a chord with critics and general cinema-goers alike. Moreover, it won its director a scholarship from the Cannes Film Festival that gave him the opportunity to spend six months developing his next project in Paris at Cinéfondation, a residency programme created in 1998 to inspire and support the next generation of international filmmakers.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Peru. Production Company: Chullachaki Producciones. Producers: Tito Bonicelli, Enid Campos. Director and Screenwriter: Josué Méndez. Cinematographer: Juan Duran. Editor: Roberto Benavides Espino. Music: Manuel Larroche, Mogambo. Cast: Pietro Sibille (Santiago); Milagros Vidal (Andrea); Marisela Puicón (Elisa); Ricardo Mejía (Papa); Alheli Castillo (Mari); Ivy La Noire (Inés); Lili Urbina (Mama); Erick García (Coco).]
Sarah Barrow, ‘Transnational Film Financing and Contemporary Peruvian Cinema: The Case of Josué Méndez’, Stephanie Dennison, (ed.), Contemporary Hispanic Cinema: Interrogating the Transnational in Spanish and Latin American Film, Woodbridge: Tamesis, 2013, pp. 137–54.
Zygmunt Bauman, Identity, Cambridge: Polity, 2004. Ricardo Bedoya, ‘Peru: Films for After a War’, Eduardo Angel Russo, (ed.), The Film Edge: Contemporary Filmmaking in Latin America, Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2010, pp. 145–59.
Demetrious Matheou, ‘Peruvian Tales, New South American Cinema, London: Faber and Faber, 2010. Jeffrey Middents, Writing National Cinema: Film Journals and Film Culture in Peru, Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.