Quipu Project weaves the narratives of the indigenous and poor women of Peru who underwent forced sterilization in the early 1990s under dictator Alberto Fujimori. Building on centuries of oral tradition, via the new frontier of immersive documentary storytelling, Quipu's participatory elements raise new questions about the acknowledgement of suffering—by both survivors and audience. A CrossCurrents Doc Fund project in 2014, it screened as part of the DocX program at Hot Docs 2016.
Hot Docs: What is Quipu Project and why does it benefit from an immersive, interactive experience?
Rosemarie: Quipu is an interactive and participatory documentary about forced serializations that happened in Peru in the late 90, and the current struggles for justice that the affected people are still involved in. In the late 90s under Fujimori’s government, more 300,000 people were sterilized in Peru, in only 4 years. A lot of them claimed this was done without consent and are still looking for justice. When we started meeting the affected people, and seeing that for two decades they have been very active in a fight for justice, we decided we didn’t want to tell a story about the past. That, it would be far more interesting to create something, with documentary and interactive tools, to help those affected tell their own stories in their own words now. They were already doing it, and they were the best ones to tell the stories. So the key for us when we first approached the project was its participatory potential.
Maria: In terms of technology, the reason the project benefits from an interactive approach, is because we could connect people who didn’t have access to digital technologies to participate in the creation of this documentary with us, as if they were connected to the web. They are sharing their testimonies through a simple phone, bridging the digital divide: connecting low tech and high tech. Otherwise it would be impossible to generate a dialogue with rural women that live in the Andes. They could never imagine being connected to someone in Toronto that is listening through the web. We make that dialogue happen through this interactive approach and marrying technologies together.
Hot Docs: There’s an interesting mix of low tech and high tech, but also an interesting mix of old forms of storytelling and new ones, through immerse documentary and this ancient, oral tradition that’s been used for centuries. Can you talk about what it was like weaving low and high tech storytelling?
Rosemarie: That’s where the Quipu metaphor comes from, the Quipu is an ancient communication device used by cultures that were traditionally oral cultures. Quipu’s weren’t writing forms, they were devices that activated speech, and they were collective and mobile. Respecting the way the protagonists and the affected people tell their own stories, and the way they feel comfortable telling their stories, completely determined the way we designed the whole project: we used the phone, and always use audio, as the main form of communicating the project, as opposed to text. In our case, because a lot of the people were illiterate, but also because the natural form for them to tell their stories was through a rich oral tradition. They tell stories really well but they don’t have the means to have them heard. In our position as documentary filmmakers, our role changed a bit, it wasn’t just telling someone else's stories, but curating a platform and a system through which their stories could be presented, in a way that could react wider audiences.
Hot Docs: Was it obvious that these women came from an oral tradition? Did they use similar narrative techniques and patterns in the way they spoke?
Maria: I guess we’re still impressed by the way they share their stories and how they have their own kind of dramatic structure. When we first designed this phone line and went to Peru to test the prototype with a group of women in the north of Peru, as directors we were scared: would the stories be strong enough? Would there be enough of a dramatic arc? I'm still impressed when I hear new stories come through the phone line. It's amazing how everyone knows how to tell stories. These peoples have an incredible perspective and can share such a sensory context. Each one can be heard through the Quipu, and each one is as important as the other.
Rosemarie: Regardless of where they were calling from, usually everyone has the same structure of how they tell their testimony, and this dictated how we designed the notes in the Quipu. Their are themes within the testimonies that we selected as "notes" so that listeners can browse through topics, and we took those themes from the common structure of the testimonies: the campaign, the operations, their life after, etc. The way they told their stories dictated the interface and navigation.
Hot Docs: You both come from a documentary filmmaking background. Did the way in which you collected information feel like a departure? You’re providing conditions for stories to emerge: the phone lines, the offline “web pages”. Your subjects are coming to you rather than the other way around.
Rosemarie: It wasn’t entirely like that because a really important component of this project has been the workshops. Its important for us to highlight that we’ve been working for three different, already organized groups, in three different regions of Peru: Convenio IAMAMC-AMHBA (Huancabamba, Piura), AMAEF-C-GTL (Cusco) and the group Independencia (Ayacucho). Most of the testimonies already in the Quipu come those communities and those organizations that have worked with us. Teaching people to engage with the phone line so they can teach others, leaving phones with some women, who we call the “story hunters”, because these women have lots of friends who were sterilized as well. Women go to the workshop, learn how to use the phone line, and then go to their friends house and collect their testimony from their friends. It's how things work in the communities affected anyway, there is a web of support, a physical presence. Now, in this stage of our outreach campaign, we are partnering with a national radio station to start promoting the project in places we haven't visited.
Maria: But yes I would say our role as directors was different from past experience, the approach is different in the sense that you are empowering them to tell the story with a medium, and then yes, waiting so see what happens. There has been a lot of observation as well, its more like an ethnographic approach in the way were are gathering stories told in their own ways, and then going out to film and decide which stories we wanted to capture. It's documentary filmmaking using different elements, or in different orders.
Hot Docs: You received the Crosscurrents fund two years ago and one of the remits of the fund is supporting filmmakers who can illustrate a relationship between their subject and their own experiences. Can you talk about how your personal experience relates to the project?
Rosemarie: I am the Peruvian one and I am the one who brought the story to the rest of the team. This is was a policy that was mostly targeted at indigenous, rural people or people who lived in urban marginal areas, and didn’t affect people from certain social, economic status that lived in Lima, like my family. However, I was aware of the topic despite it not being very well known and discussed in the media until presidential elections that occurred five years ago in 2011 when Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, almost won the presidential elections and the opposition started attacking her with this issue. I was shocked that I didn’t know of the scale and magnitude of this issue. Despite the fact that Fujimori is still in prison for other human rights violations and there has been an attempt to work on memory from the dictatorship. I don’t know if it's because it affected indigenous women, who are the most invisible in Peruvian society..
It happens that the lawyer and human rights activist, Giulia Tamayo, who uncovered this issue in the late 90s was the mother of a very good friend of mine from school. She knew all the context: she had fought with this women since the beginning, and she spoke with Maria and I very early on). Outraged women have motivated us: Giulia gave us an amazing perspective on what was happening and allowed us to see the struggle of what these women were going through and what the media was not showing. That’s what motivated us to do this project and in this way.
Hot Docs: When interacting with Quipu Project online I was thinking of the way this project bypasses government sanctioned apology or so called government “truth and reconciliation” practices. Not waiting for establishment-based recognition, but rather putting the power to share and heal in the hands of survivors. Do you think this is the potential of immerse projects? That this will change the ways communities can collectively heal and be acknowledged?
Rosemarie: Definitely, people don’t have to rely on media and gatekeepers and governments to tell you what happened to a people. To directly discover human beings and to offered the potential to be acknowledged and have a more horizontal discussion and relationship - it has a really transformation potential.
Maria: For almost 20 years nothing had happened in terms of recognition or justice or repartitions. Why should we keep waiting? Let’s archive this memory ourselves in a collective way, with the real people affected, telling the story from the bottom up, if you will. For years these people told their stories to journalists, the government and through judicial processes, and nothing happened.
Rosemarie: We realize there is a real need for the protagonists of this story to have concrete answers and results from the justice system, and we are very aware we are communicating this story from a communication and arts perspective, but we’ve always made it clear that this is a much bigger fight. We support the groups we work with but we are not actively involved in anything legal.
Hot Docs: Why was it important to give the public the opportunity to not only interact with the project, but contribute to it via the same methods as survivors?
Maria: We discussed this a lot. We felt it was a nice way to close the circle of dialogue. We realized the most important part of this interaction was to first just sit and listen, but it was nice let survivors know that they had been heard. That was important, and the heart of the project. Through the phone line, people with no access to the web can also listen to responses.
Rosemarie: We were aware that it was asking a lot from the audience. Even if you are moved by the testimonies, you might not know what to say. It's not an easy message to record, necessarily. We did some user testing and noticed that lots of listeners said they would record a message. We also tested it with the women and we started seeing they were encouraging each other to contribute because other people, in other countries, are hearing them. For them it’s a massive deal because it’s the first time they know someone somewhere is acknowledging them.
Maria: We are showing this to other communities who have undergone a similar experiences and have received acknowledgement and reparations, to give them the opportunity to also offer encouraging messages, like, “I’ve gone through this too, you will also win your fight". But we also think the messages that just say, “I’ve listened” are important too.
Hot Docs: What can we expect from the walkthrough of Quipu at Hot Docs on May 1st?
Rosemarie: We will guide the audience through the interface and explain how one can navigate the archive.
Maria: As well as a look at behind the scenes: our approach in gathering stories, and our relationship with the communities. As well as what the situation is like know, which is interesting. There is a political context at the moment, which is very powerful in Peru. We are in the middle of presidential elections in which Keiko Fujimori might yet win.
Rosemarie: Right now is such a crucial moment. There is a big possibility that a dictatorship will return to Peru. If this happens it is very, very unlikely that the women and men affected will find justice in the coming years. They are trying to release Alberto Fujimori from prison for the crimes he has been sentenced for, and the sterilization trail hasn’t even started. It will be very hard to achieve justice if he is exonerated now. Even though it’s a very bleak situation, I think social movements in Peru are much stronger now, in general. In a way, maybe the profile on this issue will become stronger. We can only wait and see.
Interview Conducted by Madelaine Russo.