Kukuli, a young llama herder lives a simple life with her grandparents high in the Andean mountains of Paucartambo, in the countryside of Cuzco. She leaves to attend the annual Feast of Mamacha Carmen in the town of Paucartambo. On the way she meets Alaku, a mestizo who has lost his land. He seduces her, and they enter into servinakuy (trial marriage). Continuing their journey to Paucartambo, they consult a sorcerer with a llama skeleton hung outside his house. Reading the coca leaves, the sorcerer notes Alaku’s lack of a home and declares that death accompanies them. Fleeing in fear, the couple reach Paucartambo where, during the fiesta Alaku is killed by the Ukuku, a legendary figure, half man, half bear, who also abducts Kukuli. In death, the lovers are transformed into llamas: one white and one black; and they fall in love again.
Kukuli is one of Peru’s rarest feature fiction films. It was the world’s first 35mm film to use the Quechua language, and is considered by many film historians to be central to the birth of a distinctive national cinema for Peru.1 It was nominated for international awards at the time of its release, such as for the ‘Grand Prix’ for the trio of directors from the second Moscow International Film Festival, 1961, and is considered a landmark for contributing to the portrayal of the ancient cultures of South America and Peru.
Dedicated to ‘the Indians of Peru’, Kukuli was the first fiction film produced by the Cienma School of Cuzco, an important movement that began as an influential screening club and which later also supported the production of documentary and feature films. These films were made in and around the ancient Andean city of Cuzco between 1955 and 1966 by indigenous filmmakers, and drew on local customs, rituals and legends for their inspiration. The two main objectives of this School were to promote the production of local films, and to exhibit non-commercial domestic and foreign films with the aim of contributing to the development of local culture. They also organised events, such as seasons of European cinema, that helped to raise funds that would support local filmmaking. Even when they stopped working as a collective, the independent filmmakers continued to have the Andean world as their core theme, and placed emphasis on giving a voice to the indigenous world of rural Peru. The Cuzco School is considered to be one of the inspirations for the indigenous film movements of today, united by a desire to use cinema to tell stories and express culture themselves rather than finding Kukuli (1961) 293 themselves portrayed as the ‘Other’ by filmmakers from elsewhere.2
Filmed on location in the communities of Paucartambo and Mollomarca, Kukuli is essentially a work that seeks to integrate authentic representation with imaginative form. Adapted from a local myth, it presents a hallucinogenic mix of love story and animistic Peruvian mythology. Regarded by many as a piece of cinematic poetry, it recounts the legend of the seduction of Kukuli, a shepherdess, by Alaku, and her subsequent kidnap by the beast of the mountains, the Ukuku. The apparent narrative simplicity provides the framework for the exploration of the symbolic significance of the dances, festivals, customs, everyday rituals and beliefs of the indigenous people of rural Peru. As such it is also a provocative political statement that sets out to reclaim a stake in the discourse of national identity that was dominated by the coastal, mestizo culture of Lima and the conservative regime of President Manuel Prado, who was against the depiction of indigenous Peruvians and their culture on screen. The film’s soundtrack recorded in China using the Peking Symphonia, a fact that had to be hidden for a long time since travel to socialist countries was strictly forbidden by the right-wing regime of the time. Moreover, its blend of the material and the supernatural, with exquisite work on colour and sound and a deliberately lyrical script, demonstrates the influence of the European surrealists whom Figueroa met while in Paris in the 1950s, and with whom he discussed the potential of magical realism as an effective and valid aesthetic approach for politically committed cinema.
Despite concerns about its politics and its rather esoteric aesthetic approach to style, the film was enthusiastically received by domestic audiences. One of the first reviews following its premiere in Lima described it thus:
“Kukuli narrates an Andean legend in colourful images; this is a love story that highlights the desperate isolation of the young couple, the purity of feeling that unites them, the guilty indifference of other men. Everything plays out with unforgettable serenity along the path that destiny seems to have assigned to the people of the mountains.” (Claudio Capasso, El Comercio, July 1961)
European critics were likewise full of admiration at what the filmmakers had achieved with such meagre resources, and regarded it as a key work in the development of a distinctive Latin American cinema that eschewed Hollywood styles and drew instead on such movements as Italian neo-realism and surrealism:
“Kukuli is an inspiration for Latin American film-makers, expressing with images the soul of the mountain villages, very profoundly, in a bid to react against cultural colonisation, particularly through the art of cinema.” (Julián Garavito, Europe, July–August 1966, Paris)
Moreover, the themes dealt with by this landmark film are of enormous relevance to its context, covering class, gender, social and race relations. The marginalisation of the two young protagonists when they arrive in Paucartambo from the mountains, for example, is crucial to an understanding of how difference was viewed as something dangerous and to be feared. Their failure to understand the local rituals and symbols is in part responsible for their deaths. Horror and beauty are intermingled through character, landscape and narrative, and through the juxtaposition of images of extreme poverty with those of great harmony.
There are several ways of interpreting the figure of the Bear (Ukuku) and the myth from which this film has been adapted: some have argued that it is an allegory for the first sexual experiences of young indigenous people, while others, notably filmmaker/academic Gabriela Martínez (2006), have suggested that the Bear instead represents the colonial ‘Conquistadors’ and their descendants who have not only exploited the land but have also abused the local young women. Martínez also proposes that the scene when Kukuli first encounters Alaku is not one of horrific violation (as it certainly appears if one reads the young woman’s face as an expression of fear) but of playful seduction, drawing on the local Quechua notion of the pukllay (literally means ‘game’ or ‘playful’ but in the context of male-female relationships means reciprocal ‘courtship’ which might lead to sexual relations and an agreed quasi-marital arrangement called sirvinakuy). For renowned critic-author Ricardo Bedoya, the film’s meaning is very clear:
“It is a journey of initiation through the most characteristic spaces and myths of Andean culture. She experiences sex, desire, and the mythological violence embodied by the ‘Ukuku’, the bear who steals little girls. Kukuli is the embodiment of an image of the Andes as legendary and outside of time.” (2010: 155)
Screenings of Kukuli were until very recently extremely rare mainly due to the loss of the negative during a fire at the processing lab in Buenos Aires in 1970. However, it was recently restored by German film conservationists, and is now selected quite regularly for screening at significant events celebrating Peruvian culture around the world.3 Moreover the use of a female protagonist, one of very few representations of Andean women in Peruvian fiction cinema, has been influential on contemporary filmmakers such as Claudia Llosa, whose second feature is Milk of Sorrow. 4 Perhaps even more significant in terms of the legacy left by this film, and the Cuzco School more generally, is the impact made on inspiring subsequent generations of filmmakers based outside the capital of Peru to continue to use cinema as a means of exploring and expressing their own lives, communities, identities and ambitions on screen. Names such as Flaviano Quispe, Omar Ferero, Mélinton Eusebio and Daniel Nuñez are all now familiar and respected amongst the Peruvian filmmaking world, and several are well known internationally via festival appearances, and via the many more opportunities to generate awareness of their work that is afforded by social media networks.
1. The film’s dialogue is entirely in Quechua, a bold but important decision given the stigma against the regional language at the time, when Castellano (Spanish) was the only official language of Peru, even though around 40 percent of Peruvians spoke the indigenous language.
2. See Edward Said’s work on the ‘Other’ in Orientalism, first published in 1978 and reprinted as a 25th anniversary edition in 2003. Although Said’s focus was on the ‘East’, his understanding of the way the West has developed romantic and exotic pictures of Oriental cultures, and may be viewed as a reflection of European imperialism and racism is in many ways relevant to depictions of and relations with cultures from more remote parts of Latin America. This notion was also set out by the ‘indigenista’ movement, whose main proponent was the Peruvian intellectual and author José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930).
3. The newly restored print was shown at a screening in London 2011 as part of the season of events celebrating Latinos in London.
4. Llosa’s debut feature Madeinusa (2006) offers an updated view of life for young women in the Andes, drawing also on the dialogue between horror and beauty that dominates the landscape, and upsets any preconception of peaceful coexistence.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Peru. Production Company: Kero Films. Producers: Luis Arnillas, Enrique Meier, Enrique Vallve. Directors: Luis Figueroa, Eulogio Nishiyama, César Villanueva. Screenwriters: Hernán Velarde (Quechua dialogue), Luis Figueroa, César Villanueva, Sebastián Salazar Bondy. Editor: Ricardo Rodríguez Nistal. Music: Armando Guevara Ochoa. Cast: Judith Figueroa (Kukuli), Victor Chambi (Alaku), Lizardo Pérez (Ukuku), Emilio Galli (Cura/Priest), Felix Valeriano (Machula/ Grandpa), Martina Mamani (Mamala/Grandma), Simón Champi (Brujo), Mercedes Yupa (Mercedescha), Eduardo Navarro (Narrator).]
Marc Becker and Harry E. Vanden, José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2011.
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. 145–58.
John King, Magical Reels, London and New York, Verso, 2000.
Gabriela Martínez, ‘Kukuli and the Cuzco School of Cinema’, Cronicas Urbanas, No. 11. Editorial Guamán Poma de Ayala, Cusco, Peru, 2006.
Edward Said, Orientalism, 25th anniversary edition, London, Penguin, 2003. Cine Andino de Luis Figueroa Yábar, http://luifigueroa. blogspot.com/, 2007 www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJEJCjDsv-c (clip of Kukuli) www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTasAshilWo& feature = related (clip of film about Figueroa)
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.