Page last updated at 09:09 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Peru's hard-hitting Oscar film hope divides opinion

Magaly Solier in a scene from The Milk of Sorrow
Actress Magaly Solier plays the main character Fausta

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Lima

In Peru, there is a sense of excitement ahead of the 82nd Academy Awards ceremony.

People who have never even heard of the Oscars are suddenly taking an interest, and local media websites have set up digital stopwatches counting down the seconds, minutes, hours and days until the big night on 7 March.

This year, for the first time, a Peruvian film, The Milk of Sorrow, has been nominated for an Oscar - in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

The Milk of Sorrow, or in Spanish La Teta Asustada (literally The Frightened Breast), has already won about a dozen international awards, including the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival last year.

Director Claudia Llosa took inspiration from a university thesis on Peru's war
Director Claudia Llosa was inspired by a university thesis on Peru's conflict

The film itself could not be further from the glitz and glamour of cinema awards ceremonies. Back home, its controversial subject matter has divided Peruvian opinion.

The film is set against the background of Peru's bloody internal conflict between the communist Shining Path movement and the state security forces, a conflict that saw more than 69,000 Peruvians die between 1980 and 2000.

It tells the story of a young woman, Fausta, whose mother who was raped by soldiers while pregnant with her. The film uses as its central image a belief taken from Andean folklore that a mother's trauma is passed onto the child through breast milk.

Details such as this have provoked accusations that the film depicts Peru as a backward country steeped in superstition and misery.

Aldo Mariategui, editor of the Correo newspaper, led some of the most virulent attacks on the film when it was screened last year, saying any European viewer would think of Peru as a "savage country, almost African, where the people are so ignorant that they think sorrow can be transmitted through mother's milk".

In a less offensive tone, Rolando Arellano, a marketing expert and columnist, responded to the Oscar nomination by saying the film did not show the reality of a developing country with strong economic growth.

Instead, he said, it "reverted to the stereotypical image of a problematic nation with very poor and extremely downtrodden people who live with the ghost of official and unofficial terrorism".

However, most commentators and bloggers have praised the film. Newspaper columnist Mirko Lauer dismissed what he called the self-appointed defenders of Peru's image.

"I think that's really bunk. This whole idea of caretaking the Peruvian image to the outside is equivalent to living a lie in front of visitors. It isn't really worth the comment.

"Furthermore, I think the movie is very discreet in that aspect. Everybody has this to say: Claudia Llosa's treatment of a country in pain is serious and careful."

Poisonous legacy

Claudia Llosa, the film's writer and director, told the BBC that the inspiration for the film was a doctoral thesis written by Kimberly Theidon, an anthropology professor at Harvard University.

Maglay Solier
Our fathers - one can call those who govern us our fathers - need to address what happened. As they don't dare to talk about it, then we the people will
Actress Magaly Solier

"For me, it was quite striking because at that point I had never heard about 'la teta asustada' before and I thought it was so graphic as an image.

"It showed how if we don't properly heal the wounds of the war they will actually maintain themselves, passing from generation to generation to generation."

For the film's star, Magaly Solier, it was a story which was close to home as an indigenous woman who speaks Quechua as her mother tongue.

She was born in 1986 at the peak of the conflict in the Andean region of Ayacucho, where the worst of the killing and sexual violence was inflicted on the civilian population by the communist guerrillas of the Shining Path and the Peruvian armed forces.

"Peru is still deeply wounded, most of all Ayacucho where I'm from," she told the BBC.

"I speak for those women who can't speak for themselves, the women who were victims of terrorism, who lost their children, their animals, their lands. Through me they have a voice."

Post-war society

Just 23 and with no formal acting training, Ms Solier has become the poster girl for a new Peru and has been an outspoken critic of the authorities.

"Claudia got hold of this story because it needed to be told," she said, referring to the thousands of women who were raped during the civil conflict.

"Our fathers - one can call those who govern us our fathers - need to address what happened. As they don't dare to talk about it, then we the people will."

Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the state security forces and other state agents were responsible for 83% of the rapes carried out between 1980 and 2000.

While The Milk of Sorrow deals with a difficult subject matter, it also celebrates the irreverent, upbeat Chicha music and culture - a fusion of Andean traditions and urban popular culture which are thrown together in the poor settlements which flank Lima on all sides.

It is the hidden face of modern Peru: a post-war society of sprawling shanty-towns swelled with migrants who fled the violence in the Andes and were forced to adapt to life in the capital city.

It is ultimately a positive film as the heroine, Fausta, leaves her troubles behind and embraces a new life filled with hope for the future.

Claudia Llosa is also hopeful that the success of the film she made for $800,000 will act as a spur to get more young talent behind the camera.

"The bar is raised for young Peruvian film-makers to believe in themselves, to say if she can do it, maybe I could do it too."

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