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Violence against women in Peru and the films of Claudia Llosa

2011 July 13
Still from The Milk of Sorrow, Fausta leans down to her mother's face on a bed

Fausta and her mother in The Milk of Sorrow

There are times when I’m glad I live in such a blinkered cultural bubble, with only a dim grasp of global politics. Case in point: while I was enraptured by Mysterious Cities of Gold in the 1980s, the real-life land of the Incas – Peru – was being torn apart by a bloody internal conflict between communist guerrilla army the Shining Path and government security forces.

I was only five, of course. But when I watched it again at university (a rite of passage, surely?) only a year after the conflict had wound down, I was none the wiser. In fact, in some senses it hasn’t really ended. The latest reported attack by Shining Path rebels was in April 2010.

Between 1980 and 2000 some 70,000 people died, including huge numbers of civilians. Countless survivors are still in search of justice, including the thousands of women who were victims of sexual violence and humiliation at the hands of soldiers.

Despite this, and the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there is a reluctance in many places to discuss the events of the war and what happened, and many women, especially poor and indigenous women in the Andean areas that were worst effected, struggle to voice the suffering they have endured, to access support and see justice being done.

The Milk of Sorrow

It is this situation that is addressed in Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s 2009 film, The Milk of Sorrow. The film is based on the book Entre Prójimos by Kimberly Theidon, which collected testimonies from women who had experienced sexual violence, including brutal gang rape (here’s an interview with Theidon). Many of the women Theidon spoke to reported a belief that the trauma they had experienced had somehow been transmitted to their children through their breastmilk. Llosa claims in this Birds Eye View interview that this is a genuine belief (hm…) but either way it is certainly a good expression of the severe psychological damage and lingering emotional distress caused by conflict to individuals and entire communities.

The film follows Fausta, a young woman whose mother was raped during the war, and who believes she has been fed on the milk of sorrow. Another character says that children like her have no souls; they have fled for fear. Fausta is so afraid of her mother’s fate she inserts a potato into her vagina as a guard against rape. Here’s the trailer for the film.

Llosa’s first film is also set in Peru, also deals with sexual violence, and stars the same actress, Magaly Solier. Madeinusa (2006) is on the one hand a bit of a fairytale, about an invented religious custom in a fictional Andean village. But on the other hand it deals with poverty, rape, incest, murder and child abuse. In the village in which 14 year old Madeinusa lives, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday Christ is dead, so there is no sin. Or rather, your sins don’t count. Beautiful scenery, gut-wrenching scenes. It’s bleak – there’s no wholly sympathetic character in the whole film, and even the everyman ‘good guy’ is happy to take advantage of Madeinusa’s teenage interest in him. She emerges triumphant, after a fashion. Here’s the trailer (in Spanish).

Explaining or exploiting?

While I think both Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow are stunning bits of cinema, they do make me uncomfortable, as both films and their director have been accused of racism in their portrayal of the indigenous population of Peru as superstitious, vicious and backward. Llosa belongs to the Peruvian white urban elite, and in fact now lives in Spain. The charge levelled at her is that she has used the stories and experiences of Andean women to turn a profit but without showing respect for indigenous communities or involving native people in the project in more than a superficial way. Carlos in DC sees this as emblematic of the inequality in Peruvian society:

I have witnessed the racial and cultural discrimination that our Indigenous peoples face in Peru, especially in the city of Lima where we are discriminated by our accents, ways of living and traditions. At the same time, Lima profits from our cultures and resources.

To me, The Milk of Sorrow symbolizes that racial and economical division exactly. A filmmaker from Lima and her producers from Europe are using the sad experiences and the suffering of our Andean women as a topic for their profitable film.

It’s that old chestnut again: by representing and discussing sexual violence and using real testimonies to inform your representation, are you reinforcing a message of victimhood and exploiting the women whose experiences you use? Worse still, are you at risk of producing something titillating? It’s a tough one even without the dimension of race, which clearly can’t be ignored in the Latin American context (or, well, anywhere really).Magaly Solier raises her hand on an anti violence campaign poster

The Milk of Sorrow, more than Madeinusa, has served to raise awareness of sexual violence in conflict, and Magaly Solier has also supported an anti-violence against women campaign, so perhaps there’s the social good silver lining.

Lots of impatient IMDb reviews urge people just to enjoy the films as art and stop worrying about the politics. I think that is exactly the wrong approach. Whatever else Claudia Llosa’s films are, they are an opportunity to talk about things which don’t often get an airing; painful, complex things which need to be voiced.

Feminism in Peru

I’m trying to pay attention to things that are happening in the world wider than London, and especially learning about and learning from the women’s movement in other countries.

Happily, I got to meet women from two leading feminist organisations in Peru – DEMUS and Fepromu – at a Womankind Worldwide event in April, where they spoke about their work. You can watch subtitled films of their talks here and here if you’d like to know more about what it’s like working for women’s rights in Latin America.

There’s also this interesting article about the relationship between development, Western feminism and the grassroots women’s movement in Peru, centred around the network of comedores.

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