New Wayuu documentary tells the story of a return to ancestral lands in Colombia

Sergio Brito (right), director of the short documentary with his production team. Photo by Sergio Brito, used with permission.

Sergio Brito's family was not condemned to living in the desert, they were banished from it. They fought to return for three generations. The short documentary in which Brito tells the story of the return opens with a video that his uncle and namesake Sergio Brito Cataño recorded in the early morning when the clan returned to the desert. It shows women unloading belongings and gathering firewood for the bonfire, men burying poles to build the “ranchería” (family farm), children among cacti and bushes: thirty families reestablishing the settlement of their great-grandmothers.

Brito is part of the Wayuu people, an ethnic group that inhabits the La Guajira peninsula in northern Colombia, a region that in the late seventies became the epicenter of natural gas exploitation. Chevron arrived in Alitayén, the ancestral territory of Brito's family, with promises of employment and compensation for the exploitation work. Both of these promises were accomplished, but the benefits of the project remained in the hands of the leaders of one of the community's clans. The fight over the distribution caused an armed conflict between the clans that left more than ten dead.

The families of the Ipuana clan had to move to Venezuela, to other settlements in the north of La Guajira and to Riohacha, the capital of the province of La Guajira. Among those people was Sergio's great-grandmother. “My great-grandmother always told them ‘you are not from here, you are from there,’” says Brito. “She told them that this was their ancestral territory, that their dead were buried there. For us the Wayuu, the cemetery is very symbolic, this is where the remains of the grandparents, the ancestors of the maternal territory are located.”  

Rubiela Epinayu Ipuana, mother of Sergio Brito Epinayú, who, together with her brother, led the return of the Ipuana clan to the desert. Photo by Sergio Brito, used with permission.

In 2009, the clans signed a peace agreement that cleared the way for their return. “Frictions in the community are still alive. [The Ipuana] had to found a settlement on the edge of Alitayén, the main one, but they have built a water reservoir, and the children now have access to education, they have already been settling in.”

“I wanted to tell this story for a long time,” says Brito. “We had part of the archive of an old digital camera. My dad told me ‘let's make a documentary,’ but I was always doing other things and I didn't know how to finance it either. When he passed away, I said ‘Well, this is going to be a goal to achieve, even if it's a short story.’”

Esta historia tú la puedes encontrar en muchas comunidades de La Guajira, porque han entrado empresas extractivistas que dividen las comunidades por temas económicos, por intereses personales, y que de una u otra manera benefician solamente a una persona o a un grupo. 

Muchos wayuus de las comunidades están aprendiendo a hablar español, a leer, a comunicarse. Entonces ellos ven que se les están vulnerando sus derechos y forman las guerras. En La Guajira, sobre todo en ese sector de Manaure, han existido muchas guerras entre los mismos clanes donde se han desaparecido familias completas.

This is the story of many communities of La Guajira, because extractive companies have divided the communities with economic issues, with personal interests, and that in one way or another only one person or a group is benefiting.

Many Wayuu people in the communities are learning to speak Spanish, to read, to communicate. Then they see that their rights are being violated and they start wars. In La Guajira, especially in that sector of Manaure, there have been many wars between the same clans and entire families were murdered.

These fractures in the Wayuu communities are caused by the corruption of provincial administrations, the lack of investment in health infrastructure and social projects and, as Brito's short film shows, the arrival of extractive projects that are exploiting the region and creating conflicts between the clans. In La Guajira, the department where nine out of ten Wayuu live, a child is 70 times more likely to die from malnutrition than in Bogotá. According to the Department of National Planning, only 16 percent of rural areas have access to water and 87 percent of the population is vulnerable to extreme droughts.

Fernando Epinayu Ipuana, uncle of Sergio Brito Epinayú, was one of the initiators of the return of his clan to Alitayén. Photo by Sergio Brito, used with permission.

“My mother tells me stories and I have had the opportunity to talk to historians and they told me that before the ‘Alijuna’ or Western people arrived in the Wayuu settlements, we had a system that allowed us to live,” says Brito. “Before their arrival, my mother said, you didn't hear about children dying from malnutrition, there were no cases of violence, there were no cases of vandalism, there was no crime.”

He says that the national media has painted his people as solely victims and that they constantly misinterpret Wayuu traditions. But the Wayuu film movement is growing, telling the stories of the communities in their own voices.

En La Guajira, los que están impulsando el sector son los wayuu. Venezuela en su momento tenía más comercio, mayor calidad de vida, entonces muchos wayyus se fueron para allá a aprovechar la bonanza. Muchos nacieron allá, pero hay una binacionalidad, uno se reconoce como wayuu, no como colombiano o venezolano. Entonces ellos han traído esas nuevas formas de vida, la idea de que lo audiovisual también es una opción, de que es importante contarnos nuestras propias historias. 

Personas como Leiqui Uriana, Lismari Machado, Marbel Vanegas, Luzbeidy Monterrosa empezaron esa red de comunicación wayuu en Uribia y Maicao. En Riohacha también empecé yo con otros compañeros, hemos estado creando esa narrativa desde el ámbito del cine. El Muciwa (Muestra de cine wayuu) ya lleva trece años mostrando cortos de Venezuela y Colombia en lengua wayunaiki. Eso me parece que es importante porque nosotros le estamos dando la importancia a nuestras producciones, no tenemos que ir a mostrarlas a otro lado, tenemos el espacio aquí, para contar las historias desde el saber y la naturalidad de los territorios.

In La Guajira, those who are promoting the film industry are the Wayuu. At the time, Venezuela had more trade, a higher quality of life, so many Wayuu went there to take advantage of the bonanza. Many were born there, but there is a bi-nationality, we recognize ourselves as Wayuu, not as Colombian or Venezuelan. So we have brought these new ways of life, the idea that the audiovisual is also an option, and that it is important to tell our own stories.

People like Leiqui Uriana, Lismari Machado, Marbel Vanegas, Luzbeidy Monterrosa started that Wayuu communication network in Uribia and Maicao. In Riohacha, I, together with other colleagues, have been creating that narrative through film. The Muciwa (Wayuu Film Festival) has been showing short films from Venezuela and Colombia in the Wayunaiki language for thirteen years. That seems to me to be important because we are giving importance to our productions, we don't have to show them somewhere else, we have the space here to tell the stories from the knowledge and identity of our region.

Women and girls from Alitayén at the premiere of the documentary, wearing Wayuu traditional dresses and acheepa ceremonial body painting. Photo by Sergio Brito, used with permission.

For this reason, Brito has understood cinema as a craft to tell the stories of his community, but also to bring it together around conversations and screens.

Un momento muy gratificante del proceso de producción fue después de que se apagaron las cámaras. Estábamos en la fogata, yo hice como una especie de integración con toda la comunidad. Estaban preparando una mazamorra, ya era como las nueve de la noche. Ellos se acuestan temprano, pero ese día nos acostamos como a medianoche, nos quedamos hablando, echando historias. Hice como una mesa redonda para que participaran los muchachos de la comunidad. Muchos mayores se acercaron porque vieron que llevábamos cinco días grabando con ellos. Sintieron como que no fuimos solamente a grabar, sino que estuvimos con ellos en la comunidad. Después llevamos una pantalla inflable y crispetas para que vivieran la experiencia de una proyección de cine, que se vieran. Se reían porque había tomas de ellos cuando llegaron, que se veían muy diferentes, muy niños. Todo ese proceso de integracíon fue gratificante y una experiencia muy bonita.

A very rewarding moment in the production process was after the cameras were turned off. We were at the bonfire, as a way of gathering the entire community. They were preparing ‘mazamorra’ [grits], it was already around nine in the evening. People go to bed early, but that day we went to bed around midnight, we stayed up talking, telling stories. I organized a round table for the kids from the community to participate in. Many elderly people approached us because they saw that we had been filming with them for five days. They felt like we didn't come just to film, but that we were together with them in the community. Afterwards we brought an inflatable screen and popcorn so they could live the experience of a film projection, so they could see themselves on the screen. They laughed because there were shots of them [the elderly] when they arrived, when they looked very different, very childlike. That entire gathering was rewarding and a very nice experience.

You can watch the short documentary below:

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