Tuesday, 8 September 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Sigo Siendo - winner of the Best Documentary award at the Lima Festival de Cine - is a fascinating meditation on music, and a number of other things.

A young singer with charming musicians in Sigo Siendo.
Directed by Javier Corcuera, the film is situated in a well-defined generic niche, similar to Buena Vista Social Club. That is, it tells the story of very old, very charming individuals in Latin America and their entrancing music. Like Buena Vista Social Club, the movie takes place in the present but often harkens back to a golden age several decades ago when its subjects were young (usually during a difficult political context). Happily for viewers, Corcuera goes off in his own idiosyncratic direction.

The movie focuses on Maximo Damian, “Don Maximo”, an indigenous Peruvian violinist. He seems to be a lifelong itinerant musician. No spring chicken, Don Maximo crosses the beautiful but forbidding Peruvian hinterlands - hills, jungle, parched landscapes - as well as the teeming capital of Lima. The scenery is beautifully captured by the director and cinematographer, with the vividness of a travelogue, but an atmospheric, near-mythic quality as well.

Hitting the parched road in Sigo Siendo (I'm Still).
Don Maximo plays at one festival or celebration or another. Often these are linked to indigenous rituals, for instance calling upon the waters to replenish the land (with the help of the canal whose operation is being inaugurated). Water is a chief symbol in what remains a very agrarian country. One of the polarities we observe is between the dry countryside and Lima, which is not only an urban metropolis, but located next to the ocean. Don Maximo recounts how when he saw the beach for the first time as a youth he wondered where the giant “flood” was coming from.

There’s a striking cultural dichotomy depicted between the indigenous world and the more Westernized Hispanophone society. Aside from the Indians’ link to ritual and nature, there’s language. Most of the people we see speak a native language, rather than Spanish (the film’s alternate title is Kachkaniraqmi), and it’s in this language that the music is sung.

Landscape plays a big role in the film.
Yet the dichotomy is more complicated than we might think. The indigenous world has adopted Western fabrics and clothing, and the music is played on conventional instruments as well as traditional ones. We meet one indigenous man who long ago moved to the capital and became a chemical engineer, seemingly in disguise in his Western business suit, but also maintaining a parallel life as a traditional musician.

Some viewers may also be surprised to see that in addition to the indigenous and Spanish cultures in Peru, there’s a vibrant Afro-Latin culture.  There the music has the percussive stress of African music, as well as bluesy lyrics (sometimes laced with humour), and types of dance that resemble clog dancing and tap. Don Maximo has no problem harmonizing when he takes part in a procession in which dozens of rhythmically stamping feet are as much percussive music as dance (and also provide a visual show as they raise clouds of dust on the unpaved road).

Making music together in Sigo Siendo.
One last dichotomy has to do with age and gender. All the male musicians portrayed are quite old. Is it because the director chose to focus exclusively on them? Or does it indicate that the young male generation isn’t interested in traditional music? This is left unexplored. There are also a number of women singers depicted, nearly all younger. We understand that the older generation of indigenous women was constrained by manual work and domestic life, even if they participated in local celebrations. The young women we see are obviously talented, but with an emotional streak somewhat at odds with the austere purity of the traditional indigenous sound.

The poster, and a hint of Afro-Peruvian music.
In general, Don Maximo seems to travel effortlessly from one world to another, on foot and for longer distances by bus and minibus. He may wear simple clothing, or put on an elaborate Amerindian costume for celebrations. As a boy he apparently had a troubled family life - his father was also a violinist but for some reason opposed his son’s choice to follow in his footsteps, going so far as to hide his instrument and to un-tune it. He was clearly closer to his mother.

Don Maximo has his own family, whom we never see. We don’t know if his wife is still alive, or where his children are. Beneath the ups and downs of his peripatetic life, the ambiguities and mysteries, is his ever-present violin. When Don Maximo muses on mortality he says that if he was to be reborn, his future incarnation would still have the violin.  

Production: Rolando Toledo/Gervasio Iglesias/Guillermo Toledo. Distribution: New Century Films. Photos courtesy of the distributors.