PSIFF10: THE MILK OF SORROW (LA TETA ASUSTADA, 2009): Interview With Dr. Kimberly Theidon
"The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice."--Martin Luther King, Jr.
As Claudia Llosa indicated in her Q&A session at the PSIFF10 screening of La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009), a book entitled Entre Prójimos: El conflicto armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú written by American medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon, Ph.D. provided the inspiration for her second film. Dr. Theidon's study compiled testimonies of women who were mistreated or violated during the political violence that took place in the Andean highlands in the 1980s. In some of these testimonies the women spoke of an illness "la teta asustada"--wherein trauma experienced by women who were raped by members of the Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) was passed on to their children through breast milk. These captivating testimonies motivated Llosa to research further and to eventually script The Milk of Sorrow.
Equally fascinated by Theidon's fieldwork (see the online reader below), I contacted her to see if she would be willing to talk about Llosa's film. She was more than delighted to do so.
Dr. Kimberly Theidon is a medical anthropologist focusing on Latin America. Her research interests include critical theory applied to medicine, psychology and anthropology; gender studies; domestic, structural and political violence; theories and forms of subjectivity; human rights and international humanitarian law; truth commissions, transitional justice and reconciliation; the politics of post-war reparations; comparative peace processes; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs for ex-combatants; anthropology of development; and US counter-narcotics policy.
Michael Guillén: First of all, Kimberly, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I know how busy you are preparing for your classes. As you know, I am enthused by Claudia Llosa's La Teta Asustada and--when I was speaking with her at the Palm Springs International Film Festival--she referenced your work as one of the inspirations for her story.
Kimberly Theidon: Which is very gratifying.
Guillén: It's wonderful to consider that academic work can achieve a broader audience through an artistic inflection such as Claudia's.
Theidon: I do want to say one thing about that. A lot of academic writing is stultifying and people write it in such a way that--unless it's assigned in a class room--you don't want to read it. Part of what I try to do is to write in a different voice. I still have to write some academic articles to earn those tenure bonus points in the sky; but, I hope at some point to write something that is as moving to my readers as the research has been to me. That was what was so delightful and gratifying when I saw La Teta Asustada. It was so powerful and people who would never pick up the article on sexual violence--because they don't want to hear about it, because they find it boring, you know all the stereotypes--will see that film and maybe it will get them thinking about the subject differently. The film is beautiful.
Guillén: I'm aware that one of your course objectives is to convey to your students that politics can be expressed through beautiful language. Can you speak to the role of beautiful language in reaching a broader readership?
Theidon: The topic of sexual violence can be horrific. It can be gory, dependent upon the genre, and can include a level of detail that people really don't want to read. Part of what is so powerful about La Teta Asustada is that Claudia Llosa is respectful--not only of the material and of the people whose stories she's telling--but, of her audience. I am not a fan of "shock anthropology". We've all seen it. Photographers and filmmakers will seek out the goriest photo or image they can find, thinking that will move people to action. That may be the case; but, we also talk about the dismay of images and at some point we can also have an act of exaggeration where people turn off. Part of what Claudia has done in La Teta Asustada is that she has left some of the gruesome off of the screen. It's there, and it haunts the viewer, just as it does Fausta and her mother. There's something so powerful in not having to show graphic details, which would be disrespectful of the women who have talked about these kinds of experiences, but also the audiences.
When I teach about sexual violence, if I have a hundred students in a room, I assume someone in there has had some experience with it or--if she (or he) hasn't--that they have a friend or family member who has. I approach the subject with that kind of sensitivity so that they understand that it's not just some "academic" talk. It's the care and deep respect with which Claudia treats this subject in her film that I am so impressed by.
Guillén: Several critics have commented on Claudia's stylistic choice. At Variety, Boyd von Hoeij has written that La Teta Asustada "perfectly aligns form and content. The film never shows the crimes committed against women before the 1990 regime change, though the violence, rape and torture they suffered inform every frame. By keeping them offscreen, Llosa underlines the fact they are unspeakable crimes, not even talked about today--though their aftermath is still felt even after the women directly concerned have passed away." At Slant, Andrew Schenker has written: "As potentially sensational as the film's subject matter may be, Llosa treats the material with an appropriate restraint, employing medium and long shots to hold the action at a coolly observational distance--a strategy perfectly in keeping with her lead character's reserve--and leaving all lurid details pointedly off screen."
Theidon: For me it's an absolutely commendable stylistic choice. I've always felt tension when I write about sexual violence. The thought that anyone could ever find it titillating is--between the two of us--disgusting. Oh my God. Is there anyone who would read this and find it exciting? That has been one of the most disturbing unimaginable thoughts. We can talk about a "pornography of violence"--when people throw those images in someone's face or publish the most gory testimony someone can possibly find--as playing into a certain economy of images that is very disturbing, especially when it's about women and violence. The subtle way in which the subject haunts the people in Claudia's film and the audience is very powerful and effective.
Guillén: I study a lot of Latin American cinema, and literature, and one of the remarkable aspects I've noticed is the capacity of poetry and--for lack of a better term--"magical realism" to express the horrific even as it seeks to heal it.
Guillén: In your fieldwork and practice, you seem committed to the restorative, the resuscitative, and the reconciliatory; i.e., to healing in these communities that have been ruptured by violence. Which leads me to ask, you're a medical anthropologist and I'm not exactly sure I know what a medical anthropologist does?
Theidon: Medical anthropology is a specialty field within the broader field of anthropology. We look at systems of healing. We look at questions regarding the body. In my case, I'm interested in trauma and traumatic memory and how people understand where memory sediments and what you can do about that. Some medical anthropologists study genetics. Some look at artificial insemination, the children that are produced, and what does that mean about reproduction, kinship and the family? So it's a field in which we bring anthropological theory and tools to bear on a broad set of questions that effect people's well-being: how they live in their bodies and in the world. That's what--in short--I would say about medical anthropology.
This question of magical realism is an interesting one because part of what I have found talking with survivors of war--as I have in Peru and Colombia--is that for people who have gone through these experiences, the line between the real and the surreal is very porous. I have thought to myself that when someone sits across from me and talks to me--and here I will be a bit graphic so I apologize--but, when they talk what it's like to see someone pick up a chainsaw and slowly cut someone up, is that any more surreal than imagining whatever we might imagine? How do you make sense of that if you're someone who has lived through it and seen that? There is a hallucinatory reality for many survivors. They have seen things that have caused them to recalibrate their own sense of belief and disbelief. Part of what I think about magical realism and why it captures that is that it invites us to live in that hallucinatory space. Michael Taussig has written about the "space of death". He talks about that space in which words become unhinged from the objects they name and when rumor is rife and when what one's own eyes are seeing cannot be true, and yet oddly enough is. Magical realism plays with that altered sense of perception that--to my mind--is often true, quite honestly, to help people experience these kinds of liminal experiences. Magical realism lends itself quite well to capturing that.
Guillén: By any chance, have you seen another film based in the Altiplano entitled Altiplano? It's a Belgian film that covers similar territory as Claudia's film; however it differs in that--whereas Claudia's film exhibits a light magical realist touch--Altiplano is much more about sensory overload, which is reminding me of what you're saying right now. [Note: Theidon also wrote about this some in her article "Terror's Talk: Fieldwork and War" [see below]: "Violence is frequently described as senseless, and it may well be that horrific violence destroys accepted meanings, shared vocabularies, and assaults the sensory organs. Allen Feldman has referred to a 'sensorium of violence' to capture how one's perceptions are altered by armed conflicts and fear." (Allen Feldman, "Ethnographic States of Emergency." In Antonius Robben and Carolyn Nordstrom, eds., Fieldwork Under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Survival (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 243.)]
Theidon: No, I don't know it. I'm going to write it down right now. Thank you. I'll look for that one definitely.
Guillén: So how did you and Claudia get in touch? Did she contact you?
Theidon: No, somebody gave her my book. It's all been this wonderful serendipity. I didn't even realize the movie was being made. Someone gave her my book Entre Prójimos and she began to read the testimonies where the women talked about their concerns. What the women were talking about was how fear had altered their bodies. But also their concerns about their fear being transmitted to their nursing babies through breastfeeding. The women spoke so poignantly about the fright in the breast: the milk of rage, of worry, of sorrow. They would use different terms at different times. All of these emotions can effect women's bodies and she can pass them through her breast milk to her children. So there was tremendous concern about the children. In Quechua the term is mancharisqa ñuñu--mancharisqa is susto or fear, and ñuñu is breast or milk depending upon the context and/or suffix. Thus, I wanted a term that could capture the double meaning: both the woman herself who feels the fear and can then transmit that fear via breastmilk to her baby. I translated the original Quechua term as la teta asustada.
We mentioned a bit earlier about memory and how you look for it, how you study it, and where does it sediment? Well, probably bodies in a very powerful way, particularly women's bodies. There's a gendered division of emotion and memory work. Time and again across so many contexts, women narrate communal suffering. They narrate where their families once lived. They narrate what it's like not to be able to feed their children. Such narration is part of the memory work that women do. To remember all of that in bodies--think of what that means!--they are martyrs, the ones who suffer for what they have witnessed. There's something powerful about the way memory sediments in women's bodies and how they talk about it. Those testimonies were part of what Claudia read. When La Teta Asustada came out--and I remember when she won the Berlinale Golden Bear and she and Magaly Solier accepted the award speaking Quechua--it was so powerful that it moved me to tears. Friends started sending me congratulatory messages and I thought, "Congratulations? Did I do something?! What? What did I do?" [Laughter.] It was wonderful.
What I appreciate about Claudia is her generosity in acknowledging that the book inspired her. What I hope for when I work on these topics is that something I write moves somebody, even one tenth of how it moved me. Whenever that happens, it makes me feel great, so--when I heard about the film--I was delighted beyond words. I repeat: so many people will see that film who are never going to read anything about sexual violence. And I have to tell you that the film has opened up the debate in Peru. People are talking about this in a way that I'm convinced wouldn't have happened if not for Claudia and her film. In many countries there is a real hesitation to talk about what happened in terms of sexual violence during periods of conflict. She's opened up the debate with her film. Peruvians are so proud of her: "La pelicula nuestra!" Her film is a powerful artistic intervention in politics.
Guillén: So to confirm: the movie came to you after the fact? You had nothing to do with the script or being on location during filming?
Theidon: No, not at all.
Guillén: Have you spoken with Claudia about the film?
Theidon: We have never even met. Can you stand it?
Guillén: That's amazing!
Theidon: I know. It's crazy. A friend of mine brought the film to Cornell--I'm in Boston--and so we're looking at having a showing of the film here over the semester; but, I've never met Claudia. Isn't that an interesting thing?
Guillén: I would love to be there when that happens.
Theidon: Absolutely. I hope so too.
Guillén: In your course descriptions for the classes you teach at Harvard, I note that you use film in your course work. Can you speak to why you do that? Why you find it effective?
Theidon: The images. The fact that many of us are maybe more visual. That's how we learn things. That's how we take in the world. There can be a way of saying things with images that are, perhaps, difficult to describe in language. There's a visual connection for many people. Different ways, different genres, each have their strengths. I also use novels because I want people to remember the power of beautiful language. As I said earlier, so much of academic writing is just grueling. We all know that. Remember back to the courses you took when you had to read those things? When I read novels, I can remember what it's like to construct beautiful language, and to live in it, and to hear it, and to have it in your audience. So that's part of it.
Guillén: How effective do you think film can be in leaping over the expected modes of entertainment to achieve education and the conveyance of political and/or anthropological messages? Is there--as you've termed it--a "goodness of fit" in using filmic texts?
Theidon: Absolutely. Also, some people read, some don't. A reading public is rather reduced in some parts of the world. Film reaches a much broader audience of people.
Guillén: I'm aware of your work with gender studies, and was curious if you could comment upon why the rondas campesinas--the armed civil defense patrols composed of male community members--is configured as female?
Theidon: What a good question! Ronda is just--for some reason--a feminine word. I don't have a better answer. Ronderos are the men who participate.
Guillén: Are you still Executive Director with the Praxis Institute for Social Justice?
Guillén: I'm intrigued about your written references to "transitional justice" and was wondering if you could synopsize for me your understanding of what "transitional justice" entails?
Theidon: Sure. "Transitional justice" refers to these moments of political upheaval that we have seen in so many parts of the world. The transition is from military regimes of the 1980-1990s in Peru; the transition from Communism in Eastern Europe; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and what is referred to are these times in which, generally speaking, you have violent authoritarian regimes that for a variety of reasons crumble under the weight of their own corruption or they are overturned or there's popular protest or there's a transition to civilian rule. What do you do in these transition periods? Part of what transitional justice comes out of involves World War II: the trials of Nuremburg, the trials in Tokyo. How do successor regimes deal with crimes of the state in the preceding regime? Who will be brought to justice and how? Will there be trials? Will there be prosecutions? Will there be amnesties? Is it registration--in Eastern European countries for example--where people are not allowed to hold public office anymore? There are different ways and different mechanisms that are brought into play. "Transitional justice" refers to these periods in which a country is undergoing some kind of change, generally following an authoritarian or violent state.
Part of what I have tried to suggest in my work is that most of the literature in transitional justice is focused on the nation-state level. Now, of course, we have the international criminal court: the transnational. In my own work I've been particularly interested in what happens locally, where people also have to deal with victims and perpetrators, and those who blur the boundaries, and the former guerillas: "There's the man who raped the woman who's standing right over there." You participate in communal assemblies where a young man might stand across from the people who killed his father. These kinds of examples. I'm interested in what happens locally when people try to live together again.
Guillén: That's fascinating. Reading your article "Terror's Talk: Fieldwork and War", I was viscerally struck by the following scenario, which I'll quote in its entirety (2001:28-29):
"Conducting fieldwork during times of armed conflict requires tremendous time--people will not speak to you if you arrive asking. Additionally, one simply cannot observe--you will not be permitted to if you ever intend to open your mouth. There will come a point when you must take a stand. People will remind you that you are far too implicated not to. "I was called out of my room by gunshots and shouting. A crowd had gathered outside of the calabozo--the room the ronderos used to lock up prisoners overnight. I made my way through the crowd and found soldiers using their rifles too push away the women who were attempting to shove past them into the calabozo. I saw mama Juliana and mama Sosima, shouting at the soldiers. As I made my way to Juliana, I learned that her partner Esteban was one of the young men locked inside. La leva had made its way to Carhuahurán--the illegal forced 'recruitment' by the army of young and primarily undocumented men. However, 'men' seemed a euphemism for the adolescent boys locked inside. Juliana was distraught: Although he was several years her junior, Esteban was a good partner for her, bringing bright pink plastic shoes to her little daughter Shintaca. He was a kind stepfather and a hard worker. Juliana was not going to allow these soldiers to take him away. The mothers of the other two young men were also protesting, and before too long the women were grabbing the soldiers' rifles and attempting to pull them out of their hands. People knew that I had a camera and told me to run and get it. Villagers began exhorting me to take pictures of the soldiers as they struggled with the women. I began shoving my camera up close and photographing their faces. I joined in the shouting and the grabbing. The soldiers began to back down: I imagine that being photographed shoving unarmed women around with their rifles disturbed them. The mayor came down and in front of the soldiers asked me to take the photos to the Defensoría del Pueblo and show them what had happened. Mayor Rimachi and the women succeeded in freeing the young men--the women simply refused to back down.
"I had previously been hesitant in my dealings with the soldiers, always conscious that my actions might have unintended consequences for the villages in which I lived and worked. Although an airplane could deliver me to safety, for villages flight would not be airborne. However, in this situation, there was only one thing to do. Had I not stood side by side with the women as they grabbed those rifles out of the soldiers' hands, who would I have been in that context when the soldiers moved on? I had spent many evenings around small cooking fires and blackened pots, listening to how the soldiers had treated the women and young girls when the military base was fully operational and positioned on the slope overlooking the village. The panopticon had brought daily life under the power of its gaze. I had heard the stories; I could choose a side or have it chosen for me.
"I did indeed meet with the Defensor del Pueblo en Huamanga, and with the director of the Consejo Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CONADEH) in Lima. These groups knew that 'la leva' continued despite official denial of the practice. Photos provided some proof and the events of that day could become something more than just the routine abuse of rural villagers in the countryside. The women had made the difference; the photos were testimony to that."
Recognizing the power of the camera in this instance, I'm curious if film itself has ever been used in these communities to facilitate healing?
Theidon: That's a wonderful question. Somehow--since you mention cameras--I have to share one thing. I was in Peru over the Summer and there was a military incursion in one of the towns I was in and what was so fascinating is that people pulled out their cell phones and started taking pictures. One of the guys looked at me and said, "We take pictures now. They can't just come here and do whatever they want anymore." I thought that was fascinating: the way that technology can change what people can do. People can pick up their cell phones and call for help; they can take photos, right? This question of what can be made visible is powerful.
Who shoots film so much in these communities is the Evangelical Christians. They've been using film since the 1950s. There's a fabulous article or book to be written about how these rural villagers perceive film and how they participate in a film. Look at some of the programs from Colombia, for instance, where they are more participatory in photographic projects. They give people cameras and ask them to tell a story about one day in their lives. They invite children to take photographs and tell their lives this way. That's a powerful technology. It would be fabulous to offer something like that but with a video camera.
Guillén: I've seen some of the video work that has been done in Rwanda during their processes of reconciliation and so I was curious if that was in play in the Altiplano or not?
Theidon: Are you thinking of Anne Aghion?
Guillén: I'm not familiar with her work.
Theidon: Her work is beautiful. I use her films in my classes. They are amazing. She has filmed conversations people have about what has happened. She's filmed Gacaca and the tribunals they have held. Those films are so powerful.
Guillén: I will hunt them out. Thank you for that recommendation. To wrap up here, my final question is somewhat difficult to phrase; but, one I've been thinking a lot about. I don't know if you've had the chance or inclination to see James Cameron's Avatar?
Theidon: Yes, I have.
Guillén: Avatar received a lot of criticism by several critics for mirroring (as Daniel Kasman stated it at The Auteurs) "the hackneyed capitalist-tech vs. tribal-environmental battles of ideology and violence that permeates the film's textual themes." As much as I understand what is being criticized, I am at the same time disturbed that these themes are dismissed as hackneyed when they are--in fact--the living conflict in so many places of the world where indigenous groups are being undermined by capitalist greed. Altiplano is, in fact, very much concerned with these themes and I've read dismissive criticism against that film as well. Can you speak to this discrepancy between this criticism of what is considered "new" vs. "hackneyed" against the reality of ongoing violence against indigenous people?
Theidon: I have my own mixed feelings about Avatar. Visually, it's one of the most stunning films I've ever seen. How anyone can deny the beauty of those images, I do not know. Is the story problematic? Sure. The white man who is healed by nature and by living with those native people, how he looks back on the Western life and sees the evil of it, and how the white man then saves the native. This is what people find offensive. The other image that a lot of people have commented upon is--not just that the natives in this film wear beads and whatnot and that they're snarly and make animal sounds, which some people find blatantly racist--but, others feel it puts far too kind a mask on Western imperialism, while others feel it's too down on the military. Everybody's got some thing to say about it. But the hackneyed notion of the savage--which is something that many people have critiqued--and the way it's an essential other who heals, the balm for the white man's tormented soul, well, there are some outdated tropes in the film. But visually, I think Avatar is spectacular.
Guillén: Part of why I was interested in hearing your take on the critique of racism in Avatar is because I am much impressed with your work countering the assertions of endemic violence and "the two Perus" proposed by Peru's Investigatory Commission of 1983, where--ironically enough--Claudia Llosa's distant relative Mario Vargas Llosa came under fire for seeing indigenous cultures as a "primitive" obstacle to the full realization of his Western model of modernity. Can you speak to that controversy?
Theidon: Sure. Part of what I wanted to understand was how people began killing one another, what motivated the killing, and did it have a political context? Part of what happens with this "culture of violence" argument is that they think "culture" is reified as this timeless entity, as opposed to being a field of contrasts, of change, of trained national images that people pick up and appropriate locally, being rife with gender and generational conflicts. First of all, you're certainly not going to hear any anthropologist use this notion of culture in such an antiquated way. There has been a tendency with these "culture of violence" arguments to assume that, "Well, we're not being biologically determinative"--they're being culturally determinative--"Those people are--not just naturally violent--they're culturally violent." There's been atrocious literature written about this, generally speaking about the Highlanders.
But when do people become violent? How do they understand the violence? When people say, "We didn't used to do this. Times change. What have we done here? We're still trying to understand it", it's important to hear that and try to tease out whether there was a political context--for many there was--and what motivated it? The arguments of a "culture of violence" is a reaction used against an ethnic other. But people don't talk about the cultural violence of the U.S. military apparatus. Does anybody talk about that? Of course not. Because the "culture of violence" is quintessentially what an ethnic other has. That's what I find so troubling about this subject.
Of related interest: Catherine Grant's consummate survey of Peruvian cinema in the age of transnational film finance at Film Studies For Free and Yvette Bíro's review of La Teta Asustada, generously provided by Harry Tuttle at Unspoken Cinema.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.