Bolivia's struggle to preserve its film heritage

Trailer for the restored Bolivian classic Wara Wara

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Back in 1989, in the basement of a house in the Bolivian city of La Paz, a trunk containing dozens of metal drums of film negatives was found. Among the discoveries was Wara Wara, the only known surviving work from Bolivia's silent-film era.

Set during the Spanish conquest of Bolivia, the black-and-white film by Jose Maria Velasco Maidana tells the story of an Inca princess who falls in love with a Spanish captain.

Eighty years after it was made, and after more than a decade of careful restoration, Wara Wara is now once again being shown to the public.

The 1930 film is the most important one held in the archives of Cinemateca Boliviana, a private foundation which is entrusted by the government with rescuing, preserving and safeguarding Bolivia's film heritage.

But the restoration and return to the national archives of films such as Wara Wara is rare. It is a difficult, often impossible task, and many Bolivian films risk being lost forever.

Urgent need

In the vaults of the archives, thousands of film reels are kept inside rusting metal containers.

Alejandro Villegas, the only archivist at Cinemateca Boliviana, opens up one from the 1932-1935 Chaco War, when Bolivia fought against Paraguay.

"This is the way we used to keep the material over the years, wrapped in newspaper," he says. "It shouldn't be done, because the paper contains acids that destroy and degrade the film."

Bolivian film archivist Alejandro Villegas Restoration work is expensive and time-consuming

About 28,000 films, almost half of them Bolivian, are gathering dust on the archives' shelves.

Some have not even been opened, let alone catalogued or restored, because of a lack of funding and the necessary skills.

Mr Villegas says the films face an uncertain future.

"Some of the material is dying and we need to hurry and find out what we can do."

Bolivia's film heritage cannot compare with that of Brazil or Mexico. But the country made a few jewels, such as Vuelve Sebastiana (1953), Ukamau (1966), La Nacion Clandestina (1989) and Cuestion de Fe (1995), which all received international awards.

The executive director of Cinemateca Boliviana, Mela Marquez, says not all these films are in a condition to be shown, and restoring them is a huge task.

"It's a very difficult and expensive process. And we don't get any help from the government," she says. "To preserve is to preserve the memory for the next generations, for the future."

Ms Marquez says she understands why politicians believe providing food, education and health services to extremely poor people should take priority over culture.

But she would like the archives to be declared part of Bolivia's national heritage so they can get access to public funding to repatriate the vast majority of Bolivian films, which are being stored in foreign laboratories because of a lack of money and infrastructure in Bolivia.

Happy ending?

A spokesman for the Bolivian Ministry of Culture, Julio Cesar Paredes Ruiz, says that the ministry did not exist a year ago, and has a lot to get to grips with.

Film cans stored in Bolivia's national archive Many of the films in Bolivia's national archive need urgent restoration

"We are working first of all towards a general culture law, and within that a law governing the protection of all cultural heritage, so that we can have a more successful policy," he says. "We're also working on getting the money needed to protect our heritage."

Bolivia is going through huge political, social and cultural change, but Bolivian director Juan Carlos Valdivia says very few Bolivian filmmakers are documenting this transformation.

After spending many years abroad, Mr Valdivia has returned to Bolivia to make films once again in his home country.

"I see foreign productions not only coming to use our locations but now they're beginning to tell our stories," he says.

He wants other Bolivian filmmakers to follow his example. "We should protect our cultural industries and our film making, and we should protect it with all our teeth and all our strength," he says.

In the film Wara Wara, the Inca princess is sentenced to death for falling in love with the Spanish conquistador. But the couple survive and live happily ever after.

It is the kind of ending people in Bolivia are hoping for for their film heritage.

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