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A Filmmaker’s Mission: Shining Light on Afro-Bolivian Invisibility

So, you want to make a documentary film. Should be pretty easy, right? Just grab your camera, shoot, edit and you’re done. Not so fast. The multi-layered processes associated with making a film tends to be a bit more complicated and peppered with lots of starts and stops, especially financing issues. Plus everything else imaginable and some things you just can’t imagine.

In the world of filmmaking, taking on the untold story, the unimaginable and the unthinkable are often what makes film projects so incredibly appealing. Capturing history — whether its life’s smallest moments or biggest events– is often the attraction.

New Yorker Sisa Bueno, an adventurous Latina of African descent and a self-described political junkie, is learning first hand about the starts and stops of filmmaking. As a graduate of the prestigious New York University Film School, Sisa admits, “I had the naïve thought that documentaries were much easier than traditional fiction films, which is completely untrue.”

After graduation, Sisa decided, “I’ll do a documentary. I’ll go there (Bolivia) and I’ll shoot it. It will take me three months. No, it will take me a year. I’ll be fine. I’ll be done by the age of 27.  I was 23 when I did this…I’m 29 right now and I’m still not done.”

Afro-Bolivian women in Los Yungas, Bolivia. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Gutiérrez

It’s even more complicated when your subject may not have widespread commercial appeal. For Sisa, the focus of her film is a group of Bolivians who until recently were both unknown and ignored: Afro-Bolivians.

Her documentary We of the Saya is a firsthand, up-close look at the day by day challenges encountered by Bolivia’s African descendents as they seek full-recognition and to be counted as individuals in the country’s newly constructed constitution. It’s about their struggle for the most basic of human rights: equality.

“I was in the room when they were drafting a Constitution…and that’s pretty powerful,” says Sisa who captured the moments when Afro-Bolivians, often collaborating with the country’s indigenous population, worked to draft elements of Bolivia’s new Constitution. “I felt like I was filming a very historical moments,” she says.

Sisa was able to capture such moments on film thanks to unprecedented access to the people and politicians. “There’s not a lot blocking or prohibiting you from sitting down with Governors, which I did. I didn’t get to sit down with the President, but even being close enough to the President to shoot pretty good footage of him — that kind of stuff I could never do here (United States of America),” says Sisa, adding that, “people aren’t interested in Bolivia so they (Bolivians) aren’t used to a lot of people coming in.”

Potosí, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico (Rich Hill). Photo: Sisa Bueno

Bolivia’s African population was brought to the country in the 17th century. Today, the Afro-Bolivian population is estimated at approximately 35,000 – 45,000 in a country of 10 million inhabitants.  Even with those large numbers there is uncertainty; Afro-Bolivians have not been officially counted during the country’s most recent census. Basically, Afro-Bolivians did not exist. And when a group does not exist, living conditions are deficient with minimal resources and poor access to health care and education, creating a lifetime of struggle.

Afro-Bolivians are concentrated in a region called Los Yungas, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) from Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Named after independence fighter Simon Bolivar, Bolivia is the second poorest country in South America.

However, all aspects of Afro-Bolivian existence are not about struggle and hardship. Afro-Bolivians celebrate their culture through a folkloric dance and musical tradition called Saya. It is is a fusion of Andean instruments with African percussions. Drums, gourds, shakers and bells are the primary and most important instruments.

Photo: Taken by Afro-Bolivian Photographer Carmen Angola

Saya performances include women wearing traditional clothing worn by the Aymara, an indigenous ethnic group of Bolivia. Clothing consists of multi-colored skirts and blouses adorned with ribbons and a bowler hat for women. Men wear traditional shirts, woolen pants and sandals. Many consider Saya the strongest influence of Afro-Bolivian culture in the country.

And speaking of impact, Sisa admits that this documentary is her “first big project.” In making the film, she learned a great deal about her interests. “I learned I had major courage actually. I learned that this is really what I want to do. I really want to do films that deal with international stories and bringing them here. And it’s not just to uplift Western communities or Western ideologies, it’s also for me,” says Sisa. “It made me a better person, traveling and getting to know other cultures and understanding them had a huge impact on me personally.”

Sisa spoke passionately about her desire for the film to empower its viewers. “It gives a sense of empowerment and people can use that inspiration any way that they choose,” she said, adding, “I just want people to understand that really, they’re in control of their own destiny. No matter how big or small your situation is, if you want to do something, do it. It can be something as big as writing your own constitution or it can be something as small as quitting your job. The power is within you.”

We of the Saya is not just about the empowerment of a community. It’s also about the empowerment of a 29 year old filmmaker.


Note: At the time of publication, filmmaker Sisa Bueno was raising funds to complete production of We of the Saya through a Kickstarter campaign. The campaign’s goal was to raise $6,725.00 by July 11, 2012. We’re happy to report that Sisa Bueno successfully raised $6, 790.00 on July 11, 2012. 

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This sounds like an amazing project.

    July 3, 2012
  2. priceless21 #

    Reblogged this on Forever Black Effusion.

    July 25, 2013
  3. Girl #

    … Hopefully, the filmmaker is familiar with the other two documentary films (also originating from U.S. citizens) that are already circulating about the Afro-Bolivian population…

    July 27, 2013
  4. Erika Cruz-Cooke #

    WOW When are we able to see this film?

    August 3, 2013
  5. Taino 2moons Fury #

    To say someone of dark skin is of African descent shows the ethnocide of Aboriginal indigenous people who predate the arrival of natives and Europeans.Please learn the true history of the Americas Many of the Bolivians are descended from the original indigenous people who were always there

    March 15, 2022

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