A Surfing Story

The latest instalment of the BBC’s excellent Storyville documentary strand is a film called Into the Storm: Surfing to Survive. This documentary, directed by Adam Brown, follows Jhonny Guerrero, a teenager from the Chorrillos neighbourhood of Lima who is pursuing a career in professional surfing with the help of a project set up by Sofía Mulánovich, Peru’s most successful surfer.

While not an entirely cliché-free production (kid from tough background finds a way forward by following his passion), it’s a sensitively constructed film that shows how surfing in Peru has traditionally been the preserve of the wealthy and the well-connected. And this appears to remain largely true: Jhonny discovers his passion for surfing off the beaches of his own neighbourhood, but the documentary suggests that without the intervention of Mulánovich and her team, he might have been drawn into a life of crime and drugs.

Does this deprive Jhonny of agency, and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes about Lima’s poorer barrios? Into the Storm comes perilously close to falling into that trap, but ultimately avoids it by paying careful attention to Jhonny’s own words and experiences.

“Local surfers from above #chicama #surf #peru” by neverything is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At one of the documentary’s most affecting moments, Jhonny is persuaded to leave his home and to go and live with a family in the more affluent area of Punta Hermosa after being injured in a shooting. Into the Storm doesn’t shy away from depicting the emotional turmoil involved in this decision, nor does it avoid addressing the mutual incomprehension that arises between Jhonny and his mentors, who by their own admission belong to a different world. Jhonny only achieves his best results once he has achieved a degree of reconciliation with his family, and moved back to Chorrillos.

The film raises some intriguing questions for our project: to what extent can the ocean truly act as a space of liberation or escape from social divisions on land? How does the practice of surfing relate to contemporary social and cultural tensions in Peru? Writing in 2009 about surfing in Peruvian literature, David Wood suggests the following:

surfing emerges as an effective medium for addressing the tensions inherent in binary visions, which have characterized Peru’s cultural history […] (the coast and the Andes, heterosexuality and homosexuality, tradition and modernity). By locating itself in a border-land (or, more properly, a landless border), a transitional and ever-shifting space that is located between or beyond such binaries, surfing and the surfer constitute a privileged means of considering problematising and transcending some of the most thorny issues in contemporary Peru and Latin America[…].

David Wood, ‘On the Crest of a Wave: Surfing and Literature in Peru’, Sport in History, 29, 2 (2009), 226-242 (p. 241).

It will be interesting to see how recent cultural developments might fit into, or challenge, this critical framework, and to what extent it might apply to Chile. One area we intend to explore is the intersection between surfing and environmental activism: Peru is unusual in having a ‘Ley de Rompientes’, a law passed in 2000 and implemented in 2013, which allows specific waves to be inscribed in a register for conservation. The NGO HAZla por tu Ola campaigns to have more waves included on this register, and the documentary A la Mar (in Spanish) recounts the history of this campaign.

In Chile, meanwhile, Fundación Rompientes is campaigning for a similar legal framework to be implemented. More to follow on surf culture on that stretch of the Pacific coastline…

Introducing the Project Partner

We’re very fortunate to be working with some brilliant organisations in Chile and Peru on this project, and in the weeks and months to come we’ll be sharing details of some collaborative activities with Fundación Mar Adentro and MAC Lima.

To kick things off, though, we wanted to introduce the official Project Partner, the Centro de Cine y Creación (Centre for Cinema and Creation, CCC) in Santiago de Chile. The CCC has provided hugely valuable support for the project since application stage, and we’re very excited to be working with them.

Chilean cinema has seen tremendous international success in recent years (thinking of A Fantastic Woman winning the Oscar in 2018), but this success hasn’t been reflected in its distribution within the country – neighbourhood cinemas risk becoming a thing of the past. With that in mind, the CCC is restoring a historic property in the centre of Santiago, in order to turn it into a community centre with a micro-cinema, offices, workshop spaces, an art gallery and a café.

The aim is to explore how cinema, alongside other arts, can help foster a sense of community in the rapidly changing neighbourhood of Argomedo. As part of this effort, the CCC is particularly interested in engaging with environmental issues (and this is where we come in).

Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that many activities have had to shift online, and the CCC has adapted admirably, offering storytelling and short films for children via Instagram, among other events. You can find out more about their activities on their Instagram and Facebook pages (in Spanish). And stay tuned for news of our first event together in April…

A Ceviche Question

The smell of fresh fish fills the air as hawkers cry out the prices of that day’s menu popular in Mercado San Jose. I have been visiting this same ceviche stall in Lima’s Jesus Maria neighbourhood for many years; a non-so-hidden gem as I’ve often had to bustle for the chance to perch at the counter on a rickety stall around lunchtime.

Plates of the emblematically Peruvian seafood dish ceviche are piled high with sweet potato and toasted corn, and doused with an extra helping of leche de tigre. If you’re lucky, you can get an extra refill of chicha morada, a highly-sugared beverage made from boiled purple corn, to wash down the meal. As an anthropologist it is always quite the experience, both for my tastebuds as well as my ethnographic eye. Ceviche, and the entire culture surrounding it, is very special indeed.

Whilst Ceviche is a dish that now circulates internationally, it was born of the Peruvian Pacific and is an icon of the country’s gastronomic boom and associated rise in tourism. In recent years, the country has gained increasing international recognition for its gastronomic prowess, having won the ‘World’s Leading Culinary Destination Award’ eight years in a row, and only being beaten off the top spot in 2020 by Italy- a more than fair contender. The catapulting of Peru onto the worlds gastronomic and tourism stage goes hand in hand with a strengthening economy and sense of national identity; all with patriotic elements such as ceviche at the helm of this sea change.

However, ceviche enters dramatically into other important debates of our times too.

In recognition of the troubling rise in plastic waste, a campaign and subsequent changes in legislation were launched in 2018; ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’ (I don’t want this in my ceviche). The campaign saw renowned Peruvian chefs sprinkle vials of microplastics over their plated ceviche as a final and foreboding ‘garnish’, alongside the “sale” of microplastic seasoning vials in Lima supermarkets. Yet, such a campaign, and the wider question of contemporary ceviche, raises important questions that deserve attention.

It is true that plastics are fast becoming a significant issue of concern regarding the ocean, highlighted by documentaries such as ‘Blue Planet’ that have influenced significant changes in viewers lifestyles as a result. But plastics also negatively influence human health too- it has been estimated that we may be eating up to 5 grams of microplastics per week, snuck into our digestive systems through food and water.

Plastics are especially concerning when discussing the Pacific, as we need only look to ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, the worlds largest accumulation of ocean plastic, for evidence of the dire straights we are in. Hopefully, campaigns such as ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’ may go some way to address this and change attitudes towards plastics. For example, gaining momentum, the movement led to the Peruvian Ministry of Environment successfully banning single use plastics in coastal areas (beaches, ports) in 2019, with the rest of the country set to follow by 2022.

Whilst campaigns to reduce single-use plastics may certainly be welcome, the local expression of this in Peru deserves further attention for what it tells us about imaginaries of the Pacific. Through ‘No quiero esto en mi ceviche’, Peruvians are encouraged to abandon plastics as they may adversely affect the fish that go into ceviche, and thereby potentially harm national identity and gastronomic prowess if the dish is ‘contaminated’. There is absolutely no mention of the harm that plastics do to living animals though; fish only enter environmentalist discourse as marinated corpses contributing to symbols of national identity. As such, I want to ask an important question: Is the Pacific perceived as a multispecies world deserving of care and respect, or as a resource, filled with other little swimming resources, only worthy of protection when national goals and symbols like ceviche are negatively impacted upon?

It is this important question regarding oceanic multispecies health, Pacific-related national identity and gastronomic booms, and the circulation of ceviche imagery, that I will be exploring as part of the ‘Reimagining the Pacific’ project this year.

Images from Pixabay

Port Cities and the Moving Image

One of the topics that this project will be focusing on is the cultural and political life of port cities like Valparaíso in Chile and Callao in Peru.

Paul will be talking about some of the preliminary work he’s done on this topic at an online research event tomorrow, Wednesday 3rd February. The event, which is at 4pm GMT, will present four different perspectives on the topic of ‘Port Cities and the Moving Image’, from Chile to Japan via Vancouver and Bristol. It has been organised by the Screen Research group at the University of Bristol. You can find more details and a link to register here.

Paul will be talking about Pablo Larraín’s 2019 film Ema, in which the labyrinthine cityscape of Valparaíso stands in for intricate social hierarchies that the protagonist is aiming to upend. You can read a blog post on this topic, as part of a dossier on Ema at the film site Mediático, here.