In 2021, Cecilia Araneda spoke with Carlos Ferrand as part of a multi-year curatorial research project on Latin Canadian cinema. This is a brief extract of her research. The film on this page, Cimarrones, is viewable by the public to June 30, 2021.
Montreal-based Carlos Ferrand was born in Lima, Peru. He has worked in filmmaking for the past 40 years as a director, director of photography and screenwriter. He has directed more than 40 films and videos, including Cimarrones, Cuervo, Il parle avec les loups, Visionnaries and Casa Loma. As a director of photography, he has collaborated on productions such as Céline Baril’s Du pic au cœur, Jean-Philippe Duval’s Lumière des oiseaux and Catherine Martin’s L’esprit des lieux and Dans les villes. He works in both fiction and documentary. | carlosferrand.ca
CA: As a Canadian documentary filmmaker, you may be most well-known for Americano (2007). That documentary has a very interesting lens: it is apparent right away that it was not made by an Anglo or Franco North American, even though it does speak to a certain amount of privilege of experience. Your film Cimarrones (1982) is an interesting contrast to that film, one that is more specific to Peru. Who are the Cimarrones and how did the idea for the film come to be?
CF: When we filmed Cimarrones in 1975, I had no idea that I would finish the film in Canada, where I immigrated to in 1980. The idea for the short was given to me by Enrique Verástegui, one of the founders of Hora Zero, an important poetry movement that marked my generation and went on to influence other writers like Bolaño. Enrique was born in Cañete, a small city by the Pacific Ocean where slave trading ships used to land. He told me about the African rebels who escaped the haciendas to live in freedom. The haciendas were extremely large agricultural estates that depended on the work of enslaved Africans and other disenfranchised people to function.
The small Cimarron villages were called Palenques and were established not only in Peru but in many South American countries, as well as the Caribbean. Enrique introduced me to the paleographer who could decipher the legal texts we found in the national library in Lima. Enrique and I then wrote the simple story for the script based on what we found in the old manuscripts. It was a fun process that enabled us to dream about rebellion, justice and revenge, all wrapped up with the flavour of a Western where the winners are not the usual ones.
CA: Cimarrones was filmed in 1973 in Peru, during a period when you were documenting agrarian reform, but you finished the film in Montreal nearly a decade later. Why did you need to leave Peru during that time? Logistically, how were you able to restart the film halfway around the world? What played into your decision to make slightly different versions of the film in French and in English?
CF: I was working as a filmmaker for Reforma Agraria, an organization which worked to undo the feudal system that had controlled Peru since the arrival of the Conquistadors. One of the haciendas at the time was as big as Switzerland. It belonged to the Rockefellers, who had never even set foot in the country. One did not need to be a Marxist to see that something was not quite right in the system. We made about a dozen short films which then travelled the Andes in small trucks armed with film projectors. At night, they would set up a screen in the plazas of small villages. The projectionists carried their own generators since many of these villages had no electricity at the time.
Then the socialist Velasco military government was brought down by another general, Francisco Morales Bermúdes. We later learned Morales was working in partnership with Pinochet and the fascist Plan Cóndor. Somebody told my friends and me that it would be better if we left Peru for a while. We later learned that most of the films I made at the Reforma Agraria were destroyed, probably by being burnt. I managed to rescue four of those shorts, one of which was Cimarrones.
Even at the time, it was already clear that the stories of people of colour belonged to them. I was able to make the film because I was invited by Enrique. That is also why there is an Afro-American historian-narrator on screen telling us their story.
Once I settled in Québec, it did not take even half a day to understand that the Anglos had abused the Francos, just as the Gringos had done it all over the southern hemisphere. That is why I made two versions, one in French and one in English. It was also very important for me to have the presence of women. In the French version, the historian-narrator is a woman. The film was finished through the Montréal NFB. I first presented it to the French side, but they were not interested, so I went to see Peter Katadotis, who was head of English production. The words social justice meant a lot to him, and his department ended up financing the cost of both the French and the English versions.
CA: Spanish colonial rule of Latin America was a time of massive slaughter – first of Indigenous nations, and later also of enslaved African people. Enslaved Africans and their descendants became important contributors to the overthrow of Spanish colonial rule, just as Indigenous people were, but their societal contributions have been nearly completely erased from the official record. Cimarrones has only recently been screened in Peru. How has the film been contextualized there? How does Cimarrones fit into Peruvian cinema?
CF: Most people are not comfortable talking about exclusion, sexism, racism, etc., unless it’s to validate beliefs we already hold. Discussions about those subjects are not pleasant, and move very fast into the quicksand created by guilt and ignorance. My fetish word is misoneism: the fear of that which is new or unknown. The word exists in English, French and Spanish, but very few people use it. We don’t want to know the things we don’t already know.
Perú has always been in the grip of a terribly racist, sexist and homophobic culture. Recently, both the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Chirapaq, the Peruvian Centre for Indigenous Cultures, denounced La Paisana Jacinta, a very popular TV show and film that managed to insult Indigenous people, women, farmers and many more.
White skin is valued to such a degree, not only in Perú, that it often feels like we are living in a bad sci-fi movie. The notion of white superiority is so entrenched that many people just want to avoid the subject of race, as if it were a bad odour. It is very difficult to speak about the subject in a way that a dialogue can be created with those you don’t agree with. I know I’ve never learned how to do it right. I get up on my high horse and then the preaching tone creeps in and dialogue goes out the window.
Though we thought Cimarrones was a fun and lively film, it was ignored for almost 50 years. What brought it back from limbo was Trump and the Floyd rebellion. Many people just said enough is enough; many young white people, too. In Peru, the LUM, the national memory museum, broadcast Cimarrones on its website on Afro-Peruvian Day in 2020, and it was viewed in just a few hours by more people than in its first 50 years.
CA: Peru – alongside many other Latin American countries – retains many legacies of Spanish colonial rule, among them a wealthy and white oligarchy that serves as a non-elected ruling class. Social class is a far more present factor in Latin American life than Canadians could imagine. You’re very open in acknowledging that your family is a part of Peru’s oligarchy. Even though you can be more anonymous in Montreal than in Lima, how do you situate this identity within your filmmaking practice? Are there ethical considerations you think about?
CF: There are many people who received a “good” education thanks to the privilege of belonging to the ruling class. It’s that very education gave us access to the consciousness that exclusion of any kind is simply wrong. We were, and are, many rich white kids who refused the values of the ruling class we belonged to. Being white does not make one automatically stupid and education imparts a sense of responsibility, a sort of layperson’s Hippocratic oath. But there is more to this. One does not get interested in social justice because of a special calling, a vocational impulse, or a sense of charity and “compassion for the poor.” One first gets attracted to other cultures, people and ways of life, because they are rich and interesting. (European culture is as rich and fun to explore as much as Andean, African and Amazonian cultures.) After that first moment of attraction, one sees that a huge chunk of humanity has been shunned just because they do not belong to the Eurocentric ideal of the “Far West.” That’s when you say, “but that’s ridiculous,” and that’s when the fight starts.
Social class and racism are not as blatantly out in the open in Canada as they are in other places, but their insidious work is present for anybody who wants to see it. The vastness of the country and its newness creates less friction in society, but if one asks Indigenous people and people of colour, the great majority will acknowledge we’re still far away from an equal society. Idle No More and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, among others, have shown where we’re at. Despite Canada having the world’s third-largest supply of fresh water, water on Indigenous reserves like the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation in Ontario have for decades been contaminated with various chemicals or bacteria. This is just like in the slums of Perú. In Québec, the struggle to preserve the French-Canadian identity has blinded many people to the fact that French-Canadian settlers acted upon Indigenous peoples using the very same techniques and values as other European colonizers.
Full disclosure: I’m a lousy activist. My primary interests are cultural, esthetical and philosophical. As a cameraman, I’m first attracted to appearances, to textures, looks and atmosphere. I’ve also been deeply imprinted by the Andean cultures, where the rough and unvarnished earth and the traces of the human hand on exquisite weaving are things I find beautiful. I find chrome, slick, new-looking surfaces incredibly boring. Having been born in an Andean country, a place where Indigenous cultures are thriving, I’ve been able to carry this understanding with me to Canada where I’ve filmed with the Inuit and now am co-directing a documentary about the Innu with Joséphine Bacon, a wonderful poet. I’ve been invited by the Innu to work with them, and this is an ideal situation for someone like me, from a hybrid cultural background.