Film poster: Vidas paralelas
Official movie poster for Vidas paralelas, 2008.

Parallel Lies? Peru’s Cultural Memory Battles Go International[1]

Vidas paralelas. Directed by Rocío Lladó. Spanish with English subtitles. 100 minutes. Peru, 2008.

Last June in Montreal, the annual Ibero-Latin American film festival, Festivalissimo, dedicated a special screening to the Peruvian film

.">Vidas Paralelas (Parallel Lives, 2008) by Rocío Lladó. Festival coordinators invited the director general of the film festival and the Peruvian consular general to introduce the film, and invited the rector and three of his colleagues from the Universidad Alas Peruanas (“Peruvian Wings University”) that produced the film to attend. After the film there was a short question period, followed by a wine reception. Having seen the previous year’s international success La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow, 2009), by Claudia Llosa, that won the Berlin Golden Bear for best foreign film, I expected another cinematic accounting of the war years along the same lines. Yet, Vidas Paralelas film recounts a different vision of the war, the tragedy of the abandoned soldier.

The program description of this film states that Vidas Paralelas “raises controversy” and that it is based on a true story of two childhood friends who were separated by an attack on their highland town (Ayacucho) by the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (SL, Shining Path). This tragic event led to each adolescent taking a different road in life: Felipe became a military man, Sixto became a commander in SL, and they met later in life in combat. The drama of the film is heightened by a twist not mentioned in the printed description. Once the war is over and the SL captured, the remnants of Shining Path disperse into the jungle, Sixto among them. Fate is not as nice to Felipe, who ends up standing trial, accused of the death and disappearance of a SL member (María Niña). In the absence of her corpse, and with the weight of a truth commission report that supposedly stated Major Felipe Cano’s involvement in her death, Felipe is convicted of her murder. (We find out later that she too is in the jungle with Sixto and the others.) The arbitrariness and injustice of the Peruvian legal system leaves Felipe abandoned by his nation, the country that he had served to protect. The film ends with a written summary stating that during the internal conflict “thousands” died and that we need to know this history “in order not to repeat it.”

The plot of the film seems to subtly reform Peruvian memory debates. Rather than deny the war, this film rewrites its script, and the role of the war’s opposing armed groups (civilians appear as backdrop and self-defense groups, or ronderos, are absent). It is not difficult to make the argument that Shining Path members were villains: the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the CVR, condemns SL as responsible for 54% of the violence. However, it is much more difficult to make the argument that the armed forces were heroes: the CVR accords 29% and 6.6% of the documented violence to the military and police, respectively.

None of the abuses committed by the armed forces comes out in the film. The only potential allusion to less than upstanding acts by the military is an oblique reference to needing a pair of “cholas” to keep the soldiers warm at night (“chola” is a racist term for Quechua-speaking women). It turns out “cholas” in this scene refers to hot water bottles. Vidas Paralelas was made for a Peruvian audience and seemed to be quite a “blockbuster.” Yet, while the quality of the images suggests good financing (from the Peruvian military), the plot is strained by several overly dramatic moments and an almost comical portrayal of SL as sex fiends that Peruvians might find the film oddly funny, rather than a cautionary tale.

The discussion after the film clarified the reasons why the Universidad de Alas Peruanas decided to sign an agreement with the Peruvian military to make this film, their first foray into cinematic production. During the Q&A, the rector of the Universidad Alas Peruanas stated that this film is meant to tell the “other side of the story,” that is the story not told by other films that show the military as bad guys, the “pro-senderista films,” and the truth commission. In reference to the truth commission, the rector said, “los que forman la CVR han sido muy parecidos en su ideología a Sendero” (“members of CVR are similar in ideology to SL”), and he stated that today’s NGOs are “Shining Path” (“son senderistas”). The rector went on to inform the audience that thousands of military men are now languishing in prison as the terrorists are being let out. (The former president Alberto Fujimori is now in prison for human rights abuses, serving a 25-year sentence, the maximum penalty possible. He is, along with less well-known figures, perhaps the inspiration for the film’s Major Cano character. As for the released terrorists, the rector may have had in mind the American Lori Berenson who had recently been granted parole. The rector’s remarks bring us back to the 1990s of Alberto Fujimori, a period in which to speak of human rights was equated with terrorism. By fêting this film, the festival organizers and the Peruvian consular general, perhaps unwittingly, supported the film’s and the rector’s dichotomy of a cinematic field as consisting of pro versus anti SL/armed forces films.

Sitting in the theatre with some of the audience aghast at the rector’s comparison of the CVR and NGOs to Shining Path and some of the audience in agreement with the rector, I felt as though a microcosm of Peru’s present memory battles was taking place here in Montreal’s theatre eXcentris.[2] Two memory camps (not to be mistaken for the rector’s dichotomy) were at work in the room: those in favor of the truth commission which attempted an inclusive inquiry into the internal war, and those who wanted not to overtly ignore or to forget what had happened, but rather to actively rewrite the past into one where the military were untarnished heroes, and where the root causes of the war–poverty, racism, and exclusion–remain unaddressed.

By attending international film festivals, the rector may have been trying to counteract the international impact of Claudia Llosa’s film, thus, asking us unfairly to equate Teta Asustada with Vidas Paralelas as parallel interventions into the past. That is, Peru’s memory battles have gone international, using film festivals as a forum. Film – and art in general – is the present battlefield for memory in Peru and abroad. The rewriting of the war years by the present government is yielding a subtle narrative (more subtle than that of Vidas Paralelas): yes, there was an atrocious war that cost many innocent lives and is a national tragedy. Yet, there are no lessons to be learned, other than not to repeat it. The quasi-denialist rewriting of the war years is one that seeks to reaffirm the armed forces without reforming the institution that seeks to pretend a democracy and a peace that does not acknowledge the thousands of common graves upon which Peruvians walk, and the root causes of poverty, racism and exclusion that lay the groundwork for continued discontent.

Cynthia E. Milton works on history in the Andes, in particular on historical representations of violence in contemporary Peru and perceptions of poverty in colonial Ecuador. She is the author of The Many Meanings of Poverty: Colonialism, Social Compacts, and Assistance in 18th Century Ecuador (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), winner of the Bolton-Johnson Prize of the Conference on Latin American History for the best work on Latin America published in 2007, a co-editor of The Art of Truth-telling about Authoritarian Rule (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) and of Curating Difficult Knowledge: violent pasts in public places. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). She has written several articles on historical clarification in post-Shining Path Peru. She is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Latin American History in the Department of History at the Université de Montréal.


     [1] I wish to thank Benny Chueca, Alberto Vergara, and Alfredo Villar for their discussions on this film.

     [2] Some of this debate is evident in the posted comments on the YouTube trailer.