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‘La Teta Asustada’ – an overview

‘La Teta Asustada’ – an overview

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Published by Kristiaan Knoester
Claudia Llosa’s ‘La Teta Asustada’ (‘The Milk of Sorrow’) avoids the simple condemnation of Peru’s obvious social ills – terrorism, abuse of power by armed forces, economic exploitation, ethnic prejudice – choosing instead to focus on the internal experiences of one character, placing more emphasis on mood and the subjective responses of the protagonist than on visually showing the significance of events as if they were a simple relationship between cause and effect.
Claudia Llosa’s ‘La Teta Asustada’ (‘The Milk of Sorrow’) avoids the simple condemnation of Peru’s obvious social ills – terrorism, abuse of power by armed forces, economic exploitation, ethnic prejudice – choosing instead to focus on the internal experiences of one character, placing more emphasis on mood and the subjective responses of the protagonist than on visually showing the significance of events as if they were a simple relationship between cause and effect.

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Published by: Kristiaan Knoester on Jun 09, 2010
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‘La Teta Asustada’ – an overview 
Un Perú que estudia es un Perú que triunfa. (A Perú that studies is a Perú that triumphs)– 
widespread slogan painted on [school] walls
.)Quedaron, de este modo, bajo tutela las instituciones de la recién ganada democracia; sealimentó la impresión de que los principios constitucionales eran ideales nobles peroinadecuados para gobernar a un pueblo al que —en el fondo— se menospreciaba al punto deignorar su clamor, reiterando la vieja práctica de relegar sus memoriales al lugar al que se harelegado, a lo largo de nuestra historia, la voz de los humildes: el olvido.(In this manner, institutions belonging to a young and hard-won democracy were warded off;no resistance was given to the impression that constitutional principles were noble ideals but inadequate for the governing of a people that – at its core – was derided, so much so that their  pleas were ignored, echoing the old custom of relegating their recollections to the same placewhere, throughout our history, we have relegated the voice of the poor: oblivion.)
 — Preface to the final report by the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation of Peru.
It is always encouraging to see a Peruvian movie that engages difficult but ongoing social problems. But it isn’t surprising; Peru’s problems are quite hard to ignore. Or maybe it’s because the Peruvian film industry is so small in relation to other Latin countries, that thosedoing the financing, including the state, can only justify the investment if the movie somehowreflects something of Peru’s ‘social reality’, a way to distinguish it both domestically and inforeign film festivals. Either way, it should really be applauded when a movie comes alongthat does so without compromising its artistic integrity; that is, does not make art thehandmaiden of moral outrage.This cannot be stressed strongly enough, considering the latent dominance of ideologicallymotivated pamphlets passing off as critical art (in a continent marked by the polemic image of the heroic revolutionary struggle), though the real temptation probably lies in the guise of escapist entertainment that, while claiming to reflect social realities, still relies upon the samedominant cultural and ideological stereotypes that they pretend to criticize. Not so Claudia Llosa’s ‘La Teta Asustada’ (‘The Milk of Sorrow’), a movie that avoids thesimple condemnation of Peru’s obvious social ills – terrorism, abuse of power by armedforces, economic exploitation, ethnic prejudice – choosing instead to focus on the internalexperiences of one character, placing more emphasis on mood and the subjective responses of the protagonist than on visually showing the significance of events as if they were a simplerelationship between cause and effect. Not that these other issues do not play a role. They do, though mostly out of sight; the weightof their presence is always felt. Instead, it is their subjective effect on individuals that themovie depicts.The movie’s opening immediately sets the tone. It begins in black, taking its time beforeintroducing the voice of a woman singing. It is in Quechua, the indigenous tongue still spoken by a large group of peoples centered on the Andean region. A translation communicates whatthe song is about. It turns out to be a harrowing description of oppression and sexual abuse(whether at the hands of terrorists or state troops, or both, is left unsaid). While the singingcontinues the black screen fades away. We then see to whom the voice belongs to: an old
woman lying on a bed. Shortly thereafter she stops singing, and another voice is introduced.It’s from a young woman whose face gently approaches the woman from the left; she issinging softly to her. She repositions the old woman, making her more comfortable. Whileshe tidies her bed, the camera angle changes and we see her standing in front of an openwindow without glass, in the background the familiar scenery of unfinished one- and two-storied adobe houses amidst an arid and sand-covered landscape— common along the coast of Peru and the outskirts of Lima, where most immigrants from other provinces have huddled.For a while both engage with each other through song, as in a normal conversation. When theold woman no longer responds, the girl’s expression turns somber. Her mother has just passedaway.As it is, the whole exchange turns out to have been the last words of a dying woman whowanted nothing more than that her experiences, appalling and degrading as they may sound,not be forgotten. So it is more than just a stylistic choice to have these abuses narrated in thisway. The daughter, like most spectators, had not seen what had been done to her mother – shewas
in utero
at the time. She was nevertheless deeply affected by it all.Likewise, there is much that may never be known of events that transpired during the struggleagainst terrorism in the 80’s and early 90’s, though governments following the Fujimori erahave made great efforts at openly documenting human rights violations and reconciling allthose involved (‘Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación’ – Commission on Truth andReconciliation). The problem, however, that ethnologists, anthropologists and those taskedwith the documentation of these events faced, was the unwillingness of many victims to speak openly about their experiences; a result of fear, trauma, guilt, shame, cultural differences, or any combination of these. This was even greater in the case of women who had beenemotionally and physically abused, though – and this is not surprising – not as much as thesilence of the men responsible of rape. Such a silence, however, tacitly condones the impunityof these atrocities at the expense of justice and the victims.In a public interview Claudia Llosa acknowledged a book titled “
 Entre Prójimos: El conflictoarmado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú
” as a source for her interest inthis topic. Written by Kimberly Theidon – a medical anthropologist who, among other things,has been documenting the systematic abuses that indigenous women suffered at the hands of terrorists and state forces – the book describes the notion of ‘la teta asustada’ that was usedcolloquially to describe the trauma passed on from mother to child through breast milk – a pervasive sense of fear that is said to afflict all those born during the time of terrorism. It isonly one of the most obvious elements that Llosa borrowed from the book.Another aspect of Theidon’s work has been to analyze and substantiate the theoreticallegitimacy of academic research like her own, the result of ongoing debates within certainacademic fields about how to approach and represent ‘non-western’ cultures (see: ‘criticaltheory’). Though it would be too much to delineate the nature of these debates, or what is atstake, the movie nonetheless brings across an aspect implicit in Theidon’s and other similar work: that it is not enough to claim that these events remain something that Peruvians cannotafford to ignore, but that those speaking on behalf of the victims must also beware that theydo not underestimate the power of their pleas, or risk silencing those whom they wish toempower.
Despite this historically and politically charged background, the titular reference is not onlymeant to introduce what will become the guiding motivation of the protagonist (Fausta)during the rest of the movie; namely, to return her mother’s body to her native village. Thefilm eventually delves more into an equally debilitating form of oppression, a spiritualdegradation that persists long after the transgression of which it was result, making the moviemore universal in its approach than it otherwise would have been had it chosen to narrate or depict particular abuses. (Much like a good horror movie manages to tap into an archetypalfear simply by depicting the presence of a threat, allowing the rest to be filled in by theimagination.) It also demonstrates that Claudia Llosa understands that the true scars thatvictims must bear run deeper than we are often willing to admit. So deep that they may be passed from generation to generation, as in the case of Fausta and her suffering of “la tetaasustada,” that in her case manifests itself as a visceral fear of being raped. As a result, her demeanour is morose, and at times abrasive, and she is unable to open up to other people, particularly men.The movie therefore seeks more than just make us empathize with the protagonist. In fact, itmay not even want us to, at least not in the usual emotionally manipulative way. Throughoutmost of the movie we see Fausta walk around in this mixed state of perpetual sadness andfear, or what could just as easily be diagnosed as depression. Rarely do we see Fausta happyor relaxed, except for brief glimpses: the short prelude with her mother; while watching TV inAida’s kitchen; and after Aida’s concert. This makes it difficult to identify with her; her  psychological affliction is so context-bound to her subjective experiences that finding acommon ground, particularly for most viewers, may be almost impossible.The purpose, however, is not to demarcate some unbridgeable divide between the indigenousexperience – or that of victims of organized violence – and the rest. The source of the problemis more general (and hence universal). After all, when dealing with someone who shows littleemotion, is in denial, or acts in ways that seem either counter-productive or counter-intuitive,we are all forced into the position of outsider. It is a role that only those who have had a friendor family member with similar symptoms will probably understand, regardless of their cultural background.If anything, it is this frustration that the movie evokes. Fausta did not, after all, herself suffer at the hands of terrorists or state troops. Unlike her mother, she was not raped, nor forced towitness the murder of a husband. It could even be said that, due to this omnipresent fear, shehas not yet begun to live. Likewise, we may even question the amount of energy devoted to protecting her virginity if it keeps her from falling in love. But the limits of our empathy – and our patience – is really put on trial as soon as we learn of the potato she inserted into her vagina; a safety measure against rape. The most common response would be to rationalize thisas the product of ignorance, superstition, or hysteria; all common faults attributed to ethnicminorities (and women) by the educated, such as the doctor treating Fausta. But the logic isnevertheless sound, as is her explanation, based as it is on empirical evidence rather than onsuperstition: the example of that one woman in her village that according to her mother avoided rape, and later had her own children, all thanks to a strategically placed potato. Tomost, though, it seems absurd. (This absurdity, in turn, may explain why so many reviewershave described the movie as ‘magical-realist’: an easy category in which to place a South-American movie that, uncharacteristically, uses a minimalist but poetic aesthetic as a mediumin service of social critique, without placing neither art nor critique as an end in and of itself.It therefore goes without saying that describing the movie as ‘magical realist’ or ‘feminist’

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Thank you for drawing attention to these themes. For further information, see http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/1...
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