Film still: Vidas paralelas
Film still: Against the grain

Against the Grain: Cultural Politics After Peru’s Troubled Times

Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Peru. Directed by Anne Kaneko. 65 minutes. Peru, 2008.

Documentary film, as visual testimony, truth telling, and as evidence of the complexity of dealing with collective violence and its aftermath, has become a central way to communicate the experience of state terror and its multifaceted effects after Latin American authoritarianism. Over the last two decades, documentaries have internationally circulated within human rights festivals, aired on national television, and traveled through other transnational media outlets to educate, move, and transmit cultural memory to global audiences about the kinds of social suffering that took place during the prior three decades in the region. Within this growing genre of documentary films about the memories of authoritarianism and its legacies, Ann Kaneko’s film Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Peru (2008) is unique in its prioritization of the relationship between culture and politics, for in it she emphasizes the dangerous experience of making political art under an authoritarian regime, and the personal cost and contradiction of aesthetic interventions during and after war.

Against the Grain is Japanese-American Director Ann Kaneko’s second feature-length documentary film, though she has made a handful of shorter documentaries. It is arguably the most prescient, since its thematic deals centrally with a state of emergency, witnessing, and the social role of the artist. Cataloguing the numerous obstacles to making culture in conditions of war, the film is part filmic journey, and part personal narrative exploration into the lives of four artists over a period of five years in Lima, Peru and Ayacucho (2001-2006). Heterogeneous in terms of their social subjectivities and art practice, these artists share the fact that they were all intimately touched and changed by two decades of internal armed conflict (1980-2000). The film begins with Kaneko’s own story as a filmmaker on a Fulbright fellowship in Peru in 2001-2002 when she was quickly thrust into the news, interviewed by the national media about what kind of film she would make during her stay. In a self-reflexive moment, Kaneko describes how she returned to Peru to unpack recent political events through her camera over the course of three trips towards completion of the film’s production, staying for the longest period during 2001.

Film still: Vidas paralelas
Claudio Jiménez Quispe, Cross

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The documentary chronicles the lives of four artists: Claudio Jiménez Quispe, Alfredo Márquez, Eduardo Tokeshi, and Natalia Iguíñiz. Jiménez Quispe is forced to leave Ayacucho, the region most affected by the Maoist rebel group Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), the target of Fujimori’s counter-insurgency efforts. As part of his art practice, Jiménez Quispe resemanticizes retablos, traditional wooden display boxes, in order to narrate the story of Peru’s civil war. Márquez, a visual artist who produces vibrant political art, was active in the 1980s underground punk scene until he was framed by Fujimori’s police and spent four years imprisoned unjustly. Meanwhile, Tokeshi is a Japanese Peruvian whose paintings reckons with national symbols like the Peruvian flag, raising the specter of immigration and the racism that exists towards Peru’s Japanese population, especially after the downfall of former President Alberto Fujimori. Lastly, Iguíñiz approaches personal and social issues through photographic portraits of the conservative middle class and its asymmetrical relationships with the working class. Kaneko shows us, through provocative representations of gender and the stratified class system, how Iguíñiz challenges the Catholic Church, social norms such as the nana (domestic worker), and the accompanying social contradictions that existed prior to and after the civil war and peace process. Such fissures fall outside of the purview of institutional processes of accountability, despite the fact that similar stark social hierarchies have been root causes for systemic violence.

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Alfredo Márquez and Ángel Valdez, Caja Negra (Black Box), 2001

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Kaneko began filming Against the Grain in 2001, the same year that interim president Valentín Paniagua established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to investigate the violence perpetrated by the Peruvian armed forces, Sendero Luminoso, and the armed peasant patrols during the internal conflict. Under the direction of ex-president Alberto Fujimori, the counter-insurgency war demonized rural Andean populations as terrorists and produced massive migration from rural areas to Lima. Democratically elected in 1990, Fujimori seized authoritarian power by effectively staging an auto-coup, increasing the presence of military rule throughout the country, radically eliminating Congressional authority, and effectively rewriting Peru’s constitution. The highly mediatized capture and imprisonment in 1992 of Sendero’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was the basis for the rebel group’s defeat, enabling Fujimori to declare a victory in the internal war on terror. However, after the release of highly publicized videotapes put into circulation by Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s security chief, there was concrete evidence of corruption that directly implicated Fujimori and other high-level government officials. As a result of the scandal, Fujimori was forced to leave the country in 2000.

Lalo Quiroz, Se vende o alquila este local (For sale or rent), 2006. Lima, Perú

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This volatile set of events ultimately paved the way for the Peruvian Truth Commission, which investigated the most egregious crimes and murders of the civil war period. In the wake of the twenty five year sentence that Fujimori received for abuse of power, which included authorizing the military to kidnap and murder its citizens and a host of corruption charges, viewing Against the Grain becomes an act of historical witness to a moment of state power and violence run amok. Integrated in the film is Kaneko’s version of the events that lead up to Fujimori’s prosecution. These formulate a parallel narrative of art making during the civil war, the casualties of such efforts, and the ongoing process of how culture expresses continuing social inequalities in Peru.

Art Testimony and Practice

In an article on the institutional process of truth-telling and its effects on victims-survivors, authors La Plante and Theidon ask, “How does the process of giving testimony and participating in public hearings impact victim-survivors in terms of their emotional well being, their relationships with their families, communities and the state, and their expectations of what a truth commission should achieve?” (2007, 229). The authors’ focus in the piece is on the give and take between the State and the survivors, and the role of healing in the act of telling one’s story to an official body, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. As LaPlante and Theidon suggest, “When victim-survivors speak about their suffering and losses, they place a responsibility on their interlocutors to respond: testimony is a demand for acknowledgement and redress. Survivors of political violence come forth in part to reclaim their history as well as to demand a different sort of future” (230). Kaneko’s film is also concerned with questions of healing and narration and the kinds of futures that can emerge in the afterlife of collective violence. Unlike LaPlante and Theidon, who are interested in macro relationships between survivor groups and the state, Kaneko addresses the aftermath of terror through visual narratives of the micro effects of art practice on vernacular culture and the structural injustices that aesthetic interventions expose. Through the complexities of art as a form of political recognition, Against the Grain challenges the idea of heroic resilience in response to intense social suffering.

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Natalia Iguíñiz, Charo y Rosario, La otra (The Other), 2001.

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Kaneko complicates the picture of the war’s aftermath and the usual categories of subjects that are produced by such events by exploring the links between racialization, social class divisions, and fissures regarding the supposed solidarity amongst women. In a moving scene, Natalia Iguíñiz introduces the viewer to her stunning, almost life-size, yet disturbing photographs of Peruvian upper and middle-class women photographed with their nanas in the important exhibit “La Otra” (“The Other”). In each case, the physical differences between women of different class positions are reproduced as racial hierarchies, visualizing how divisions in Peruvian society travel through and get mapped onto female bodies. The cultural distinctions that emerge in photographs of nanas and their employers are connected to differences in height, skin color, access to the latest fashion, and bodily comportment.

Kaneko interviews the subjects of the photographs and discusses their opinions of the unlikely physical pairing of employer and domestic worker that emerges in these portraits. One of the female employers responds to the portrayal by saying, “The truth is that I love the work of Iguíñiz because it is rich in content. She approached my employee, Rosario, who what’s more, has the same name as me. She executed her ideas with a strong sense of social awareness—with a lot of respect. This is what I liked. I like the theme of the vindication of the female domestic worker.” Interestingly, though the employer has a strong discourse of social justice regarding the artist’s ability to expose social divisions, the audio-visual aspect of Kaneko’s representation underscores the silences of domestic workers and, thus, their lower status.

As a route away from censorship of political art, Peruvian artists in the 1990s turned toward self-portraits as a form of creative expression and representations of the body. Iguíñiz says, “I started out in school, making many self-portraits. The themes that interest me most are things that are intimate or feminine. Or things that have to do with the body. Or that have to do with the feeling of guilt that many women have in a culturally Catholic society where a woman is a whore or a virgin.” In the director’s voice over we find out that, despite the supposed tameness of such issues in comparison to more overt political critiques, Iguíñiz’s work continued to be censored. “I was thrown out of certain galleries,” she exclaims, “They closed my shows because the gallery was run by the city or because they didn’t want problems with certain people.”

Iguíñiz' experience with censorship led her to produce work that followed a deeper public engagement with and commitment to addressing the repression of female desire. In one shot of the documentary, we see a poster tacked up on a telephone pole with the image of a dog as part of a project called “The Bitch Speaks,” and right below the email address: “This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..” Kaneko details how this art action drew an angry response from a wide swath of Peruvian society, including several members of Commission for Women and Human Development and the Congressional Commission on Women. Iguíñiz’s purpose with the public display, which was plastered throughout the city, was to contend with patriarchal representations of female subjectivity in a tightly controlled male-oriented society, in much the same way that feminist art in the region has for decades addressed such images.[1] Kaneko makes apparent how the fierce public and official reaction served Fujimori’s intention to clamp down on freedom of speech in the nation, ultimately bolstering his populist platform. As Fujimori kept his grip on power after a fraudulent election, Iguíñez was part of Colectivo Sociedad Civil, an art collective that has been highly recognized for its artistic contribution, particularly the action Lava la bandera (Wash the flag). References to corruption and public opposition took form in a growing movement of artists and citizens who every Friday washed the Peruvian flag in front of the presidential palace as a form of social protest that demanded public accountability.

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Eduardo Tokeshi, Bandera I, “Fardos y banderas” (Flag I, “Bundles and Flags”),1986.

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Kaneko also focuses on painter and installation artist Eduardo Tokeshi, whose Okinawan parents emigrated to Peru to open small stores and carry out other entrepreneurial efforts. Though Fujimori’s ascent to power produced a national dialogue about Peru’s heterogeneous ethnic populations, his public failure and downfall meant a backlash upon the large and emergent Japanese-Peruvian community. In the film, Tokeshi explains how Japanese Peruvians were not at all favored during Fujimori’s regime, “I’ll tell you that he didn’t organize any kind of event that would favor the Nikkei community. It’s strange because the ones who paid the price were, in fact, the Nikkei community.” As a painter, the work of repetitive symbols of the national flag became the focus of his visual practice. As Tokeshi says, “The first flag I made, for example, emerged when I saw that the country was completely chaotic. Country, you weigh me down, you disgust me so much, but I don’t have any other home. The flags were and are up until now a way to tie me to reality.” In this quote, Tokeshi describes the lack of belonging he feels in relationship to a militaristic nationalist context that does little to understand the diverse contexts of its ethnic populations. By repetitively painting tainted flags, Tokeshi speaks not only to the blood shed in the nation, but also to the inability of the nation to represent immigrant populations as anything but other, or as ”chinos” (Chinese), which both flattens their nationality of origin and their contributions to Peruvian society.

In an interview with Kaneko, she described Tokeshi’s work this way: “In his flag series, he expressed his anger and his indignation at what was going on. He’s a private person and not at all the kind to go out and demonstrate in the streets and if he did, that would make him very conspicuous. Of course, there were prominent activists who were Japanese Peruvian. But during the Fujimori presidency he would have been asked why he was out there, so he chose to discuss his identity through the national flag as a symbolic of contemporary politics” (interview with author, September 2, 2010).[2] By highlighting such visual art, Kaneko concerns herself not only with civil war and aftermath cultural politics, but more importantly digs deeply into the layers of social problems like sexism and racism that often seem to evade institutional peace processes and transitional justice.

Filmic Witness After Truth

As a theoretical proposition, the category of memory can be useful for understanding abstract social processes like collective violence. But how does memory work operate in daily life and in people’s interpretations of their own stories and traumas? Reflecting on her experience of making the film, Kaneko discussed:

There’s the category of “memory” and it can be very general. Then, when one really looks closely at people’s lives you realize how personal it all is, and when you dig a little deeper in one place it puts these many experiences into perspective. When I filmed in different moments, 2001, 2003, 2006, each protagonist of the film was in an entirely different place in their lives and narrated their story very differently each time. This was especially true with Alfredo and Claudio, because of the trauma they had personally experienced with the war.[3] Alfredo was really able to talk about the details of that time. For instance, how Fujimori’s police planted explosives in his studio and framed him. After I did initial interviews, Alfredo was exhausted because it was hard for him to go back to that time. It was an emotional effort to go back there, but he did it because he was very conscious and knew its historical importance.

Throughout my interview with Kaneko, she expressed a high degree of self-awareness about the taxing effects that returning to the subject of the civil war and its effects had on her subjects. She repeatedly stated that her filmic subjects knew that it was critical for them to tell their story on camera, so that some form of healing and important transmission could occur as a result of their testimonial. She was also reflective about how her subjects’ insights changed over time:

When I interviewed Alfredo in 2001 it was apparent that he still felt the presence of Fujimori since he was still in power and he feared retribution for telling his story on camera. At that point it was still too soon for them to psychologically revisit those moments, it’s really exhausting for them. With Claudio, he was in tears when I interviewed him in 2006. He’s a reserved man, before he’d talk about it but didn’t want to get into it. Then, he was able to talk about it more forthrightly. He acknowledged that he was able to express his emotions much more clearly later.

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La resistencia, Muro de verguenza (Wall of Shame), 2001. Perú, Lima.

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Kaneko and I talked about how part of the reason for the increased openness of her subjects probably had to do with their own increasing confidence in the director as she got to know each one of them better over the course of the five years of making the film. But Kaneko also suggested that the cumulative effect of the peace process and the passage of time had produced a climate that nurtured such exchange and that articulating a clearer narrative about one’s personal history during the civil war became much more commonplace and easier to string together in such a moment. This was definitely the case for the ten screenings that took place in Peru, organized by Kaneko as a way of distributing her work amongst the urban communities whose story was told in the documentary.

Screening Against the Grain

Documentaries can raise the issue of public witnessing with a different inflection than that of a truth commission or report, in part because such events often do not have the same kinds of heightened material stakes and expectations. As such, screenings can function as sites of encounters between aggrieved populations, a filmmaker, and film subjects. At such events, collective narratives emerge about the fractured experience of violence and its lasting effects. When documentaries are shown in communities that have experienced terror, visual testimonies can allow for confirmation of shared experiences, and a common narrative to be told and voiced about collective violence (Gómez-Barris 2009).

In 2009, Kaneko returned to Peru to screen her newly finished documentary throughout Peru, but mostly in Lima. For the director, the reaction of audiences at two locations that had a formidable recent past, Vichama Teatro and the Casa Cultural de Martín Olivos, were especially powerful. The Vichama Teatro is located in Villa El Salvador, the Lima neighborhood that was the home base for activist María Elena Moyano, who helped organize the Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador (Fepomuves) and whose murder by members of the Shining Path brought international condemnation. In such an overdetermined context, Kaneko worried that her film would not be well received. She explains her concern:

One of the things I wondered about when I made the film is how this narrative would be relevant to local audiences, since they already knew their own history and I wanted to make it both accessible and useful to them. It was interesting because when I showed it there I got quite a response. It was really the first film that put together this history in such a comprehensive manner. And people’s response was to be very appreciative to me for making the film.

The film rang a chord for the post-memory generation, those who had not directly experienced the war but had learned about it mostly through the transmission of their parents.[4] As Kaneko sates, “Many young people came up to me and told me that they were happy to hear these stories told through art. They said it made it much more palatable to see art and hear from artists.”

Kaneko continues:

The screenings were very powerful, especially in Villa El Salvador. This community was literally built in the sand, although it’s a thriving district due to the organizing efforts of community members now. But it started out as a very impoverished community, with few material resources and little infrastructure. When I screened the film there an older woman teacher was very inspired by the film and thought that it was a great tool for young people to be able to say things and make their voices heard. My concern really was that the film would be seen as downer with the weight of history—many within the older generation they were interested in “la memoria,” to never forget. But others were really inspired by the smaller victories in the film and what people did to survive and to create in very troubled times. When I’ve presented in the U.S. and in Japan, there’s a response as if how painful the history is, and empathetic but distancing, freeing people from doing anything, but it doesn’t transform the way people live their lives or what they do. But to present in Villa El Salvador allowed for a reflection of their lives. They kept saying to me it doesn’t feel like a film by an outsider. We couldn’t have made this film. But you captured something of our society. That was a great compliment, because representing something like that is a monumental task.

When Kaneko discusses her experiences at the Villa El Salvador screening, it is obvious that it was a very important moment for her as a filmmaker and chronicler of Peruvian culture and politics. It marked a shift for her from doubting her ability to adequately represent the complexity of her subjects’ struggles, which were in many ways a microcosm of what many in the nation had endured and of the ongoing issues that undergird the afterlife of civil war. Kaneko’s work visualized present day social realities in Peru, realities that were unearthed and examined through the film’s stories, images of street life and protests, and moving portraits of the costs and rewards of making art.

Toward Closure

When I asked Kaneko what she thought the sum contribution of her film was to contemporary Peru after civil war she eloquently said:

I think it recounts the fear and intimidation that happened in Ayacucho through Claudio, the need and motivation to leave one’s home because of a war. With Alfredo it portrays these other non-violent movements that were happening at the same time that rebel groups were violent. Alfredo gives us insight into the larger cultural and intellectual world, and also how certain people paid the price through their involvement. Through Iguíñiz we gain a greater understanding of how hierarchical and divisive this society is through class and gender, and how people are still trying to struggle through these issues. Through Eduardo we get a picture of how identity and immigration are a part of Peruvian plurality and contemporary society.

Film still: Vidas paralelas
Lima-based graffiti artist Joan Jiménez Suero (Ente)

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Ultimately, Against the Grain works precisely against the homogenization of institutional memory through a textured portrayal of art making and art practice during and after times of peril. Though the film contextualizes the history of the period, it refuses to subsume all present day social ills to the tyranny of the recent past. In this way, Kaneko gives us glimpses of art’s multifaceted capacity to be used as a weapon in war, but also as a strategy to resist and subvert the frame of violence and trauma.

Kaneko’s film implicitly troubles the idea that institutional truth is the most important path toward confronting the ghosts of the past and the injustices of the present. Through encounters with artists of various social positions and subjectivities, Kaneko visualizes the ongoing legacies of war, and how these legacies press upon the persistent race, gender, and class cleavages within contemporary Peruvian society.

Macarena Gómez-Barris is Associate Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her book Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (University of California Press, 2009) examines the afterlife of authoritarian violence in the transition to democracy period through a torture camp turned memorial park, documentaries, and visual art. She has published in Latino Studies, the Sociological Forum, Television and New Media, Culture and Religion Journal, the Journal of Visual Studies, and numerous anthologies. She is currently working on a book project on religious tourism, "the pilgrimage," and the cultural narratives of nation in Cusco and Jerusalem.


  [1] There is a large literature on the topic of feminist art during and after dictatorship in Latin America (Masiello 2003, Nelson 2002). For what kinds of interventions are already scripted by militarization and nationalism see Taylor (1997). More recent work discusses the incorporation of feminism as, though not solely, a strategy of State power, and aesthetics as forms of intervention (Richard 2008).

  [2] All subsequent quotes by Ann Kaneko are from a long interview I conducted with her on September 2, 2010, unless they are noted as coming from the voiceover in the Against the Grain.

  [3]In the film we witness Alfredo Márquez immediately after he comes out of four years of unjust imprisonment, and he can barely speak to the press corps and their cameras. Claudio Jiménez Quispe is visibly moved many times during the film while addressing the torture he personally suffered.

  [4]For work on the post-memory generation in Argentina, see Kaiser (2005). See also Marianne Hirsh’s classic work on the topic (1997).

Works Cited

Gómez-Barris, Macarena. 2009. Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hirsch, Marianne. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kaiser, Susana. 2005. Post-Memories of Terror: A New Generation Copes with the Legacies of the ‘Dirty War.’ New York: Palgrave-McMillan.

Kaneko, Ann. 2008. Against the Grain: An Artist’s Survival Guide to Peru. Film.

Laplante, Lisa J. and Kimberly Theidon. “Truth with Consequences: Justice and Reparations in Post-Truth Commission Peru.” Human Rights Quarterly, 29 (2007): 2298-250.

Masiello, Francine. 2001. The Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis. Durham: Duke University Press.

Nelson, Alice. 2002. Political Bodies: Gender, History, and the Struggle for Narrative Power in Recent Chilean Literature. Cranbury and London, Associate University Presses.

Richard, Nelly. 2008. Feminismo, género y diferencia. Santiago: Palinodia.

Taylor, Diana. 1997. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender an Nationalism in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War.’ Durham: Duke University Press.