Problematic Artists, Important Art: The Case of Ciro Guerra

There is a longstanding and possibly unresolvable debate in art criticism over the importance of distinguishing between art and artist. The school of New Criticism, developed in the mid-twentieth century, sought to isolate works of art as self-contained objects. In 1967 the postmodernist Roland Barthes declared that “the author is dead,” signaling a view of art in which the intentions and biography of the artist are not only irrelevant, but interfere with the viewer’s ability to admire and interpret works of art on their own merit. These are just two expressions of what seems to be the dominant answer popularly given to the question of art vs. artist—that it is at best unnecessary, and at worst childish, to let one’s opinion of the artist impinge on one’s appreciation of the artwork, at least so long as whatever makes the artist questionable is not implicit in the art they produce.

I don’t necessarily take issue with this perspective in every case. There are artists whose work I appreciate yet whose political views or behaviors I disdain (likewise, there are admirable artists who have produced bad art—is that a reflection of their character?). Nonetheless, I don’t think we should always accept the need for a distanced and “objective” view. If you find yourself unwilling or unable to separate your feelings about an artist from the art they produce—particularly if the artist has done harm to people or causes you identify with—then you are under no obligation to second-guess yourself. That being said, I want to trouble the waters a little and ask what happens when problematic people create important art. When it is no longer a question of whether an artwork is simply aesthetically “good,” but of whether it is politically important, how do we negotiate the tension between art and artist?

This piece was originally intended as a review of the Colombian director Ciro Guerra and his work with several Indigenous Colombian communities, with whom he directed three films and a Netflix mini-series. Since first watching his film Embrace of the Serpent (2015) in Colombia a few years ago I have considered Guerra one of my favorite directors, having since seen most of his filmography. So it came as an unpleasant surprise (but maybe it shouldn’t have been) to discover that in 2020, eight women accused Guerra of sexual harrassment and assault in the Colombian feminist periodical Volcánicas. Now, I have no problem accepting Guerra’s probable culpability and dismissing him as just one more in a long list of prominent men who have abused their power in the world of film and entertainment. There is a familiar story here about Guerra, a man with a privileged position in his society and with power and clout in the world of cinema, gaining clemency from justice while his victims are ignored and derided.

At the same time, I believe something has to be said about the films that bear his name. However problematic Guerra may be as a person, his films do something important—and I think that’s true even (maybe especially) if we remove the man from the equation.

Guerra has directed three films that portray several Indigenous Colombian cultures: The Wind Journeys (2009), Embrace of the Serpent (2015), and Birds of Passage (2018); He also worked on a Netflix mini-series called Green Frontier (2019). What I find interesting and admirable about Guerra’s films is that more than accurately portraying the Indigenous cultures they concern, they were produced collaboratively and with the direct involvement and approval of those communities. In these films, Indigenous actors from cultures such as the Wayuu of the Guajira Peninsula, the Arhuaco of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the Ocaina, Ticuna, Bora, Andoque, Yucuna, and Muinane of the Colombian Amazon portray themselves and speak their native languages on screen. Additionally, in The Wind Journeys, members of the Afro-Colombian community of San Basilio de Palenque also portray themselves and speak their native Palenquero, the only Spanish-based creole language in Latin America. What is important here is that few other films have ever portrayed these communities and cultures, and those that have may have done so without the participation and consent of the communities themselves— a major problem with Indigenous representation in media, both in the United States and Latin America. That Guerra’s films not only portray these communities, but do so respectfully and cooperatively, is a mark of their originality and an example of how non-Indigenous filmmaking with Indigenous people can be done right.

What needs to be said at this point is that this is a strength of the films that doesn’t depend on Guerra’s character—in fact, I think it’s better if we consider it a strength despite Guerra’s involvement. After all, more people than just the director go into the making of a film, and since we are talking about Indigenous representation, we should focus our appraisal not on Guerra but on the Indigenous communities that the films concern. They are the ones to whom credit belongs for having articulated their Indigeneity in the ways they were able through the means and format available to them. That Guerra had a hand in providing them with those means matters less to me than that they took advantage of the opportunity to do something original and important with it. This is particularly important work at a time at which the issues affecting the Indigenous communities portrayed in the films—from genocide and ecocide to everyday racism, narcotrafficking, and armed conflict—are increasingly pressing, especially considering how little a non-Indigenous audience is likely to know about such issues.

Ultimately, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to the question I opened this essay with. Some art can be appreciated in isolation from its artist and some can’t. And sometimes, like in the case of Ciro Guerra, the situation is a little more complicated. I don’t know why Guerra, a non-Indigenous person, decided to make films about Indigenous Colombia. I don’t think his reasons particularly matter. What matters is that the Indigenous communities he worked with instrumentalized the platform they were given to articulate themselves, for the first time, on the big screen and for a global audience. And for that I stand by the value of these films as important pieces of art with political salience. As for Guerra—well, he’s just like the rest of them.

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