Wara Wara

Trailer for the restored Wara Wara

Those who bemoan lost silent films, particularly in a national context, might like to consider the situation in Bolivia. Just the one silent fiction film survives of those (admittedly few) made in Bolivia, and that was only discovered in 1989. In that year sixty-three cans of nitrate film were found in a trunk in the basement of a house in La Paz. The films were the work of José Maria Velasco Maidana, all made between 1925 and 1930. Among the reels was Wara Wara, Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film.

Wara Wara was released in 1930, and in the form that survives it runs for 69 minutes (at 24 fps). It was directed by Maidana for Urania Film, and starred Juanita Taillansier, Martha de Velasco, Arturo Borda and Emmo Reyes. The film is based on the novel La voz de la quena by Antonio Diaz Villamil, and is set during invasion of the Inca kingdom by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Here’s the plot summary (adapted courtesy of the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso site and Google Translate):

The peaceful kingdom of Hatun Colla is invaded by an army of Spanish conquistadors who destroy villages and kill its leader Calicuma and his wife Nitaya. In the chaos, the high priest Huillac Huma saves the princess Wara Wara and take her through secret passages into a cave in the mountains. In this hideway he masses an army of natives with the hope of eventually defeating the Spaniards. One day, Captain Tristan de la Vega, the head of a small force of Spaniards, arrives in the vicinity of the hideway. In the ensuing battle Captain Tristan ends up protecting Wara Wara and is wounded. She leads him into the hideaway and tends to his wounds. They fall in love and dream of a life together. But Huillac Huma and the other tribespeople would rather see Wara Wara dead than have her become an ally of the invaders. The couple are left to starve, but they are saved and are ready to begin a new life.

The restoration of the film has taken twenty years. It was originally copied onto acetate film stock in Germany, but reconstructing the film as released was a painstaking process involving considerable investigation of primary sources. A digital restoration was undertaken by the L’immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy in 2009. The restored film was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in July and at the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso in August. It was given its official re-release in Bolivia on 23 September.

Trailer highlighting the restoration work done on Wara Wara

The film’s director José Maria Velasco Maidana (1899?-1989) was a notable composer and conductor as well as filmmaker. He is known in music circles for his ballets and symphonic works, a number of which embrace national/native themes. He was married to the American artist Dorothy Hood. He took up film in 1925 at the very start of Bolivian fiction film production. Films had been shown in Bolivia since 1897, but exhibition was dominated by North American product, and aside from some short actualities in the teens national film production did not begin until 1923, with the first fiction feature, Pedro Sambarino’s Corazón Aymara made in 1925. It was followed later that year by Maidana’s La profecía del lago, which was promptly banned by the local censor because it featured the love between a native man and a white woman. He formed his own production company, Urania, and made Wara Wara (1930) and Hacia la Gloria (1931), as well as various documentary shorts, before returning to music.

To judge from the clips available on the two trailers have have been issued, Wara Wara looks to be fascinating in detail and competent in construction, even if its epic ambitions were probably constrained by cost. There are some strong visual compositions, including a shadow puppet sequence. More than that I cannot say with only a trailer to go on, but certainly what is there whets the appetite for more – let’s hope for a local DVD release, given its great importance to Bolivian cinema.

There’s more information (in Spanish) on the Cinemateca Boliviana site and in the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso 2010 catalogue.

A book has been written on the restoration by filmmaker Fernando Vargas Villazon, Wara Wara. La reconstrucción de una película perdida.

Information on silent films in Latin America generally can be found at Thomas Böhnke’s highly recommended Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika site (in German), which includes a section on silent film in Bolivia (acknowledgements to Böhnke for his Nitrateville post about the film).