Between two stools

INDIGENOUS RIGHTS: An intimate look at an indigenous people’s tensions with Chile.
Director: Paola Castillo
Producer: Paola Castillo
Country: Chile

Through a slow and eloquent cinematography, the director of Frontera, Paola Castillo, places us at the center of the daily life of a peasant family, while explaining a drama result of the Mapuche people’s tensions within the conflict with the state of Chile.

The film is captivating and profound, but it is not easily deciphered without some knowledge of the Mapuche and their conflict. However, the narrative is skillfully stitched together so that audiences can transition from a more humane first layer to gradually read subsequent narratives, provided that one is willing to gain deeper knowledge about the tensions in the region.

A libertarian disposition

The Mapuche are about 200,000 people and about 300,000 speakers and currently occupy a region in the less meridional south part of Chile. The occupation of the Mapuche territory is relatively modern, started militarily between 1860 and 1881, but the last attack and perhaps the most vicious came with the division of lands during the military dictatorship from 1973 to 1989, which only allowed the Mapuche to rent for 99 years, definitively carrying out the legal dispossession of their lands and eliminating their status as an indigenous people.

Our main protagonist, Juan Carlos, is a local leader attached to a project of the Indigenous Land and Water Fund that collaborates with the Chilean government in hopes of recovering occupied lands. This program was created in the early 1990s seeking to resolve the land conflict between indigenous people and the State. The original purpose was to finance the purchase of land to be restored in accordance with the historical rights of indigenous peoples, however, the program has been in question at various levels and is considered by many to be the cause of the current spark of violence started in 1997.

At the heart of the matter is the paternalistic attitude behind the laws that support this program, which by purchasing land implicitly admit the legitimacy of ownership on land that was militarily occupied, rather than giving restitution to the historical right of ownership of the indigenous peoples of the region.

CONADI, the institution that regulates the Indigenous Land and Water Fund, testifies to some of the criticisms against the program, such as the astronomical increase in land prices due to speculation. The same UN special rapporteur of the rights of indigenous peoples has already reported the lack of elasticity in the market for indigenous lands and studies determine a price increase of more than 800%. But this film avoids judging or documenting data in detail and prefers to present a sensitive but neutral account of Juan Carlos’ family drama.

The Mapuche people have long struggled to improve their conditions from a clearly libertarian disposition, taking into account their reality intimately tied to agriculture and livestock means.

This same healthy libertarian consciousness is natural to the Mapuche, self-professed as a horizontally organized culture, where political authority is accessible to men and women, but spiritual and medical authority is always held by women.

Such a lack of vertical hierarchy necessarily welcomes a disparity of opinions about the conflict within the same community. Not everyone agrees on methods to improve the situation. Frontera lives in this tension between two different visions of the struggle, yet stays firmly set on Carlos and his family.

At the heart of the matter is the paternalistic attitude behind the laws that support this program

High price compromise

While it is true that the film avoids passing judgment and does not bear witness to other ways of understanding the conflict, it is also clear that the compromises between those who fight, the government, and those who collaborate, are paid with high prices.

Juan Carlos’ house is set on fire in an attack by a group of radicals and his involvement with the government in the development project rewards him with the status of a sellout. Enough to grant him enemies in his conflicted community.

Focusing the story on the victim, Castillo tries to remain equidistant between parties in the conflict, the government, and the most radical members of the Mapuche struggle.

Using this incident, the film highlights the problem of sabotage and fires, but only briefly covers the attacks on the logging industry that are usually at the crosshairs of the most radical factions of the Mapuche struggle, and that might have given a little more context to the less informed viewer.

Frontera-Paola Castillo-MTR1
Frontera, a film by Paola Castillo

Savor the smell

The direction of photography at the hands of Pablo Valdés gives us a pleasant, beautiful film, with compositions that explain and transport. A camera work that tastefully translates the slow pace, almost allows you to savour the smell of the countryside; the ensuing tempo of the land in which the Mapuche feel a total involvement.

The burned house anchors the plot pivot and the construction of a new house works as a metaphor for the transition between tradition and assimilation; the symbol of sacrifice present in the wooden house and the hollow sense of modern industrial ways as the brick house. A dilemma of modernity that Juan Carlos himself rejects as alien to his roots.

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Marc Molas Carol
Marc Molas Carol
Spanish editor at Modern Times Review, and Catalan music producer, based in Barcelona.

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