Rodrigo Bellot’s ¿Quién mató a la llamita blanca?

¿Quién mató a la llamita blanca? (Who Killed the Baby Llama?) Directed by Rodrigo Bellot. Spanish with English subtitles. 112 minutes. Bolivia, 2006.

Rodrigo Bellot’s enchanting film hurls the audience into a kaleidoscopic encounter with contemporary Bolivia, a world rife with contradictions, corruption, and cocaine. It also offers up a hilarious indictment of U.S. imperialism, internal racism, and the official hypocrisy involved in policing the drug trade. As the jester-like narrator, who appears in different guises throughout the film, intones: welcome to the paradise of underdevelopment. While at times the layering of images, plot-line, and satirical political analysis come together in a bewildering cacophony, for me, the experience easily approximates an uninitiated traveler’s first encounter with the country and reflects the film’s intention to voice a Bolivian exploration of Bolivian reality.

¿Quién Mató a la Llamita Blanca? is at once a political satire, a crime heist story, and a cultural celebration. The event to which the title refers takes place a third of the way into the action, and it offers a glimpse onto the heady mix of humor, cultural pride, and hijinks that guide the film’s trajectory. The two protagonists, an indigenous criminal duet known as Los Tortolitos (the Lovebirds), are contracted by a shady American-accented foreigner called “El Negro” (although he is white) to transport a package of cocaine. They proceed on a journey through Bolivia, visiting Oruro, the Chapare province, and Cochabamba before heading down to the city of Santa Cruz, in the southeastern part of the country—all the while pursued by a bumbling (white) duo of drug-consuming and corrupt special anti-narcotics officers who have been tipped off to the deal.

This journey takes the characters from highlands, dominated by indigenous peoples, to the lowlands where the white elite predominate, and the conflicts attached to these cultural and geographic divisions become apparent along the way. The Lovebirds (Miguel Valverde and Erika Andia) thoroughly enjoy their adventure, which includes an impromptu break to dance in a local saint’s celebration, the Fiesta of San Jorge. The infectious revelry of the event spills over into the next morning, when the Lovebirds dip into the package of cocaine and embark on the road to Cochabamba. Not paying attention to the road, the Lovebirds accidentally strike and kill a baby llama, and flee the scene.

Heading in the other direction on the same road comes a car that offers another surreal window on Bolivian society: our jester-cum-narrator (Guery Sandóval), sits in the back seat of this car cross-dressed as a “chola”—a woman of Andean indigenous ancestry. The “chola” embodies some of the harshest racial stereotypes that the term can pejoratively imply. Our narrator, we learn earlier in the film, has been offered a ride in this car only after regaling its occupants with a tale of racial divisiveness and national denial, ripped from actual news headlines. In the 2004 Miss Universe Pageant, Miss Bolivia was asked to identify a common misperception about Bolivia; she responded with the common belief that all Bolivians were indigenous, when in fact many were tall, white, and English-speaking, like her. The real-world uproar the “chola” invokes is satirically compounded in the film by the fact that Dustin Larsen—the son of an American cattle rancher and powerful landowner in Santa Cruz who was the improbable, white, Nebraska-raised, non-Spanish speaking winner of Mr. Bolivia contest in 2004, played by himself—rides in the front seat of this same car. The car stops for the baby llama in the road, just as a young girl appears, crying, and accuses the gringos of killing her llama. A crowd of campesinos quickly encircles the travelers, who are rescued by the anti-narcotics cops tailing the Lovebirds. The scene provides both comic relief and a sobering reflection on the way race and power have fuelled simmering resentments and contested notions of national Bolivian identity. Before his rescue, Mr. Bolivia lamely, desperately, and unconvincingly repeats in a thick American accent: “Yo soy Boliviano!” Such meaningful moments take place throughout the film, in which everyday acts of resistance and defiance confront routine enactments of racial privilege and state power.

In ¿Quién mató a la llamita blanca? the drug war plays out as a raucous mix of Bolivian domestic divisions, social distractions and political corruption, manipulated by foreign greed and influence. There is a persistent critique of the involvement of the United States in Bolivian politics as well as the drug trade. In one of the concluding scenes, El Negro reappears as the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Bolivia—he had attempted to set up the Lovebirds in order to make a larger drug bust. In a lavish ceremony, El Negro accepts an award for his efforts in making the country “drug free” and concludes his remarks with the telling slip: “May God Bless Ame….uh, Bolivia.” The very human and entangled relations that unfold over the course of the film are constantly unsettled by (and unsettle) the rigid social categories and political ambitions that shape the landscape in Bolivia. Yet, the collaborative, national spirit that went into producing the film ensure that ultimately optimism and humor triumph.

Whether or not one is familiar with Bolivia, ¿Quién mató a la llamita blanca? is entertaining and informative viewing and does the important work of creating a new vocabulary and framework for understanding the circumstances Bolivians encounter today. Some of this is conveyed through music, as the techno-inspired soundtrack propels the story’s dizzying twists, and offers up the occasional counterpoint: “Yankí Go Home!” It is also the product of a self-conscious indigeneity wittily on display with the frequent on screen pop-up dictionary definitions that provide visual accompaniment to the slang words that pepper the movie’s dialogue. The banter is grounded in local culture, and these acts of visual and audio translation invert the power dynamics of the outsiders’ gaze.

In an interview available on the film’s DVD, Director Rodrigo Bellot gives credit to the many students and faculty of La Fábrica Escuela Internacional de Cine, based in Cochabamba, who together helped create the film. The purposeful fashioning of a popular grassroots-cinema in Bolivia is a central mission of La Fábrica,and it is compellingly on display in ¿Quién mato a la llamita blanca? Unflinching in its criticism of recent Bolivian political history, the film castigates former presidents and their henchmen as dictators, opportunists, and thieves, along with the seemingly amnesiac populous that continues to elect them. The movie was filmed in 2005, a year that culminated in the revolutionary election of the country’s first-ever indigenous President, Evo Morales, and it embraces many of the issues which animated his candidacy. Morales himself is not left untouched: although the film’s closing lines express hope that his election will lead to a better future where all the nation’s llamas will be safe, it is also slyly insinuated that his status as a “first-class” kind of guy might well be attributed to his airplane seating preferences rather than his leadership.

Suzanna Reiss is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She obtained her BA and PhD from New York University and her MA from the University of Toronto. Her research interests include the political-economy of US expansion, the history of capitalism, Cold War and anti-colonial politics, and the history of how ideas about science, race, citizenship, and the coercive power of the state have shaped national and international policing efforts and defined popular notions of “criminality.” Her current work on international drug control provides a perspective on the material and ideological foundations of twentieth century US imperialism.


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