This film has been nominated by the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the category Best Foreign Language Film representing Peru. But the movie was produced by the Spanish government and two Spanish private companies; and financed by a German film festival and a Swiss film fund, along with the small contribution og Peru’s government film agency
Although the film is based on true stories of rape, violence and negative effects that the civil war of Peru caused to many Andean women, but unfortunately it presents our Indigenous communities in offensive, distorted and insulting ways. This is the result of a racist approach of director Claudia Llosa, a white woman of Italian and Spanish ancestry, who based the film of a book written by a U.S. scholar.
The Milk of Sorrow does not include the voices of Indigenous peoples of Peru, especially women, who represent most of the victims of last century’s civil war, and who are victims of a vicious racist discrimination and violence in today’s Peruvian society.
The movie was titled originally as La Teta Asustada but it was translated differently into English. Its name translates as The Scared Tit or The Frightened Breast, and is the story of Fausta (Magaly Solier), an Indigenous woman from the Ayacucho region who suffers of a psychological disorder, as a result of the violence that she and her community faced during Peru's civil war (1980 - ), including the rape and eventual death of her mother. She believes that her mother’s breast milk was poisoned by the violence she witnessed, so in order to avoid the same fate, she places a potato in her vagina.
Director Claudia Llosa based her film on the stories that few Andean women shared with Kimberly Theidon, a Harvard University scholar who wrote a book about the her experience in Peru. Claudia Llosa only uses the name and the myth of Theidon’s book, but her film mostly a cheesy, offensive set of stories about the sad life of Fausta, her family and her communities both in the Andes and in Lima as a migrant.
Llosa has said in Europe and the U.S. that her film is based on a true Andean myth and on current diseases of Indigenous women, which is false. In Peru she assures that her film is based on fiction, therefore Peruvians should be offended by the ridiculous ways she presents our traditions.
The film portrays our Indigenous communities as abandoned, defeated towns inhabited by exotic and curious peoples, products of the mountain life. The film presents our peoples of Ayacucho and Lima as objects of study and laughter, as superstitious individuals with ridiculous and even disgusting ways of living. All of which is covered up with a beautiful photography and a good technical production.
The use of a rotten potato inserted in a vagina, is based in isolated cases of Andean women who adopted a temporary tradition, unknown for most Indigenous women of Peru. The potato has a special meaning for Andean people, is a root developed by our Indigenous civilizations thousands of years ago. Its use as a sign of sexual repression and ignorance is plain offensive.
This movie doesn't include the voice of Andean women who suffered the violence of the war. It uses their stories and their cultural and religious beliefs, with a foreign and even white supremacist perspective, comparing the lives of Fausta and her abusive employer, a rich white woman of Lima.
As a film The Milk of Sorrow can be a successful and beautiful production, and it pretends to be sympathetic to the suffering of Andean women. But its messages to viewers are negative and contribute to the anti-Indigenous racism in Peruvian society.
This offensive approach has proven beneficial to Claudia Llosa, and her film has been awarded in festivals of Germany, Cuba, U.S. and other countries. While most reviews written in the U.S. assume that the images of The Milk of Sorrow are based on a true story:
Paralyzed with fear, the girl has inserted a potato in her intimate parts to protect herself from the same fate as her mother. As in "Madeinusa," Peruvian realities and Llosa's light magical realism mesh to create a vivid picture of a society and its problems. Things that might seem strange in any other context feel perfectly normal here.Most Indigenous women never place potatoes in their vaginas, there seem to be isolated cases in Ayacucho. In the film, Fausta's mother is left to die outdoors and her body is filled with flies in the streets of a shanty town of Lima shanty, but our Indigenous peoples have a deep respect for the dead, because we believe in life after death.
More offensive images can be seeing, like the dog smelling on the rotten potato that Fausta has in her vagina. In that moment she gave the dog a sick pigeon to eat. At some point an Indigenous man asked Fausta to shower him “with your menstruation blood". None less, this kind of images present our men and women as part of primitive and insensitive communities.
Fausta is presented as a scared woman working as the housekeeper of a rich white woman in Lima. Fausta is defenseless, naive, needy, and very dependent on her employer who is shown as the educated, sophisticated and elitist piano player. Even when the rich woman is mean spirited, the rich always is seeing as superior.
Claudia Llosa covers up the racist approach of her film with beautiful Native music, sang mostly by Magaly Solier in the Quechua language, the language of the Incas. This seems to be more of a commercialistic pose, than an honest expression of the cultures of our peoples. Llosa appropriates our traditions and uses Magaly Solier as her token actress.
During the 2009 Berlinale Film Festival in Germany, this film was awarded with the Golden Bear. In other words, Berlinale not only financed The Milk of Sorrow, but awarded it with its main prize. During the award ceremony, Claudia Llosa and her producers including Berlinale's director Dieter Kosslick, forced Magaly Solier to speak in Quechua language. Please watch this video:
Even when it’s very offensive, this film makes sense commercially. Many people in westernized societies love exotic movies, about "interesting" peoples and cultures from other parts of the world. Viewers who didn't grow up facing racism in Peru, might not even realize how offensive it is to Peruvians. A friend who is a film critic pointed out to me:
Filmmakers and western audiences in general are fond of stories that portray rural, Indigenous people as more simple, closer to nature, full of traditions, and in touch with magical aspects of the world, and they actually respect these things as positive qualities that the western world has lost.Personally, when I saw The Milk of Sorrow I was deeply offended, mostly because it reminded me of the racist concept that many white Peruvians have about our Andean peoples. Since I was born in the Andes and eventually my family moved to Lima, 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. They present us really bad, with fake traditions, with false images of who we are, through false stories.
Peru is a country with a mixture of races and cultures, but the majority of our population is of Native Indigenous and African heritage. Since ours is a post colonial country, a minority are of Europeans controls most of the politics and economy, thus racism and class division has kept most Peruvians in rampant poverty, with small elites of European descendants directing the country. This discrimination is especially noticeable today in the extremely racist Peruvian media.
Peru is indeed one of the most racist countries in the Americas, and The Milk of Sorrow reminds me about such inequality, and Claudia Llosa's previous film Madeinusa was also very racist and disgusting to many Andean peoples. She presented our rural Native communities as idiots who live in backward ways, as unclean savages who eat the lice we pick from our hair, with men raping our daughters, and cruel racists who hate all white people.
In reality, there is only one explanation to the fact that 75% of the people in Ayacucho live in poverty, while this rate in Lima reaches 38% only. This huge gap is a sign of the social injustice dominating Peru, and the lack of sensibility and unity among Peruvians, as we are not one united nation.
An example of such division, is the cultural disconnection between Claudia Llosa and the women of Ayacucho. The filmmaker has based this film on a book written by a foreign scholar. The expression Teta Asustada [Scared Tit] was coined by the U.S. medical anthropologist
Kimberly Theidon, Ph.D. in the book Entre Prójimos:
In Quechua the term is mancharisqa ñuñu--mancharisqa is susto or fear, and ñuñula teta asustada. is breast or milk depending upon the context and/or suffix. Thus, I wanted a term that could capture the double meaning: both the woman herself who feels the fear and can then transmit that fear via breastmilk to her baby. I translated the original Quechua term as La Teta Asustada.How could Kimberly Theidon translate from Quechua, when she shows a lack of understanding of the way Spanish language is spoken in Peru, and our cultural heritage:
Rondas campesinas are translated as "farmers rounds/patrols" as in rounds of people. In Spanish language, many words are configured as feminine in sound but not in meaning.
Guillén: I'm aware of your work with gender studies, and was curious if you could comment upon why the rondas campesinas--the armed civil defense patrols composed of male community members--is configured as female?
Theidon: What a good question! Ronda is just--for some reason--a feminine word. I don't have a better answer. Ronderos are the men who participate.
Also there are rumors about the way Indigenous actors were treated by Llosa. Some witnesses in Lima assure that the people of Manchay, which is the poor shanty town outside of Lima where the movie was filmed, only received $20 each from the filmmakers. Some of the actors feel that they were ordered to act as idiots, clowns, sexist macho men who are always attacking defenseless women.
Most of the actors in this film are in fact, amateur Indigenous artists who are economically poor in real life, and Llosa has taken advantage of that reality. For instance, actress Magaly Solier, an Indigenous woman from Huanta, a city in the Ayacucho region, has been used as “the exotic character” by Claudia Llosa and her Spanish producers, and also as a marketing product.
Maria del Pilar Guerrero, another Native actress in this film, is actually the nanny of Claudia Llosa's sister, and not coincidentally she is hardly ever allowed to speak in media appearances.
Being this film about stories of Native peoples from the Andes and Lima, one can expect the wide participation and involvement of our communities in the film, its script or at least in the filming process. This is not the case. Historically, white Peruvians take over our Indigenous cultures to make profits. An example of this is what took place at the Berlinale ceremony, which to me were acts of white supremacy.
Racism in Peru is peculiar, because too often is product of a self-loathing racism where non-white people oppress their own communities, believing they are white. Also not all white peoples are racist in Peru. However, this racial discrimination has deadly consequences on our Native communities.
In conclusion, the film The Milk of Sorrow is a project for profit, fame and racist destruction of the self esteem of Peruvians, as its damaging images will impact the identity and culture of our children who see their parents, grandparents and friends presented in offensive ways.
We must be aware that Claudia Llosa is part of a racist elite of Lima, and she is related to the Hispanic-Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who strongly opposes the Indigenous movements of South America, accusing us of being "savages, obstacles to our development". This conservative writer also covered up the 1983 assassination of eight leftist journalists by a paramilitary group in Uchuraccay, in the Andes of Peru.
Perhaps because of Llosa’s powerful influences, the media in Peru, the U.S. and Europe have given "The Milk of Sorrow" a positive feedback. But no one is asking the Indigenous peoples in Peru, how we feel about it.
Films can help people and communities to overcome their worst problems, even if they are presented as fiction. They can educate and encourage societies to change, and transform their realities. But they can also be very destructives in that sense.
I care about the consequences of this film, because Peru as most Latin American countries is in urgent need to end racism and cultural discrimination, in order to achieve true development and progress. We need to build nations of equality where we teach our children that different people can live together while valuing our differences, our diversity, our races and cultures. We need to tell the world that is time to value that the fact that as humans we are diverse and equal at the end of the day. We ought to learn to respect each other. The Milk of Sorrow promotes exactly the opposite.
If the Academy gives the Oscar award to this film, it will send the wrong message to Peruvians and to the Indigenous peoples all over the Americas. It will state that is acceptable for filmmakers to create racist movies where Native peoples are not important, that no matter how offensive films can be for people in real life, it’s fair only because the end justifies the means.
My hope is that the Academy will chose wisely, in behalf of the arts and the humanity.