The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

An Essay: Unshelving Indigenous Video                      by Laura Elliott

Essay by Laura Elliott (USA/ Mexico City)

Published in Issue 31

Unshelving Indigenous Video

 Excerpted from the masters thesis of the same title. You may contact Laura at if interested in reading the entire text. 


The media technology of today has drastically advanced from that of our childhoods; a definite truth for baby-boomers, but just as relevant for those in their twenties. As a result, habits of media consumption are in a period of transition. These changes mean new opportunities and challenges for independent and alternative mediamakers. Specifically considering the case of Mexico, this article explores indigenous video and how it has developed within the country. It then looks forward by considering horizontal distribution and collaboration platforms that can be adapted to distinct ways of life.

In mainstream media indigenous peoples have been overwhelmingly stereotyped or ignored. Yet, these groups have found ways to appropriate media, making it work for them instead of against them. Video has become a relatively accessible tool for indigenous peoples, through which they can relay their own stories, realities, and points of view through the juxtaposition of imagery and sound. Technological advancements in the medium allow media to mix into a blend of choice and participation.

On a global scale, we are evolving from a ‘push’ audiovisual environment to a ‘pull’ environment, as media expert Margot Hardenbergh (2009, p. 171-175) conceptualizes. The push environment had few offerings. When there were only two or three television channels and one-house movie theaters, a country’s entire population viewed the same material. Now, in a developing ‘pull environment,’ viewers must be far more selective. Hundreds of channels are available on television, and the Internet provides thousands of additional options for audiovisual material. Viewers not only decide what material to watch, but also when to watch it. They are challenged to make sense of an abundance of information and tempted to fall into routine viewing patterns. Individuals and groups have more power to choose what they view by ‘pulling’ the content that is part of their media consumption regimen. A ‘pull’ environment’s enhanced compatibility with decentralized communications networks stands a current topic among indigenous mediamakers.

Although the global digital divide—the uneven spread of information and communications technologies between and within countries—is still a relevant concern, efforts to close the gap offer hopeful alternatives to disparities caused by concentrated control of knowledge and power (Guillen & Suárez, 2005, p. 681). Schiwy’s (2008, p. 23) analysis of indigenous video as a factor in the “end of the lettered city”[1] appropriately frames the issue. Literacy, in the ruling power’s language, was and is fundamental to class divisions. In line with this concept, aboriginal media researcher Eric Michaels likens those who control television to those who write history (as cited by Leuthold, 1997, p. 733). When widely ignored or misrepresented in media around the world, the need of indigenous peoples to represent their own realities is important not only for external relations, but also for strengthening their own communities. Highlighting the connection between ‘media’ and ‘mediate,’ American anthropologist and media specialist Faye Ginsburg (1995, p. 265) insists that these videos produced within indigenous communities, “work to heal disruptions in cultural knowledge, in historical memory, and in identity between generations.”

Building on this, Juan José García of the Oaxaca, Mexico-based media organization Ojo de Agua Comunicación explains how a videomaker can use collective knowledge to “stir up reflection within one’s own community about their own perspectives on the world, their own wisdom” (as cited by Brígido-Corachán, 2004, p. 370). Knowledge transmitted to indigenous communities through formal schooling and mainstream media significantly influences ways of thinking and living, and the distance between the source of information and local realities can present serious disconnections. García sees indigenous media as an alternative: “We give the community other perspectives to make decisions having to do with their natural resources, their language, their culture, their rights, and their political activity” (p. 373).

Despite influence from anthropological works, there is an important distinction between indigenous and ethnographic filmmaking.  In the early twentieth century, ethnographic filmmaking was a way for Westerners to document and study non-Western “others.” Under a colonial influence, this approach to ethnographic filmmaking was quite similar to those that documented animal behavior or events in nature. Anthropologists arrived in indigenous communities to shoot footage, and upon returning home they edited the footage and added narrations (Ginsburg, 1995, p. 257; Heider, 2008, p. 507). As Karl G. Heider (2008, p. 507) affirms: “the films were made about them, not with them.”

Emphasizing the creator’s influence over the interpretation of their work, Alexander Halkin (2008, p. 162) articulates how an outsider’s upmost respect does not directly translate into transmitting community viewpoints. As founder and former International Coordinator of the Chiapas Media Project (CMP), Halkin notes that outsiders were inclined to produce material about militarization and violence in Chiapas. Conversely, community-made videos have focused on the struggle and resistance to neocolonialism and globalization. They portray themselves as survivors more so than as warriors. Regardless, the cameraman or editor’s ‘gaze’ is inevitable, even when indigenous people play these roles upon creating media within their own community. As Ginsburg (1995, p. 264) confirms: “that one is an ‘insider’ does not guarantee an untroubled relationship with one’s subject.”

Just as there is no international consensus on the definition of indigenous peoples, there are also varying opinions about how indigenous video should be defined. Moreover, there is debate about whether it is valuable to label indigenous video as such, and if it should be given its own place in audiovisual media. In this article, indigenous video refers to any video made within an indigenous community by members of that same community. However, because outside advocates often support productions and trainings with time and resources, the nature of these projects is not isolated, but rather results from advocate-activist collaboration. As cultural anthropologist Erica Wortham (2004, p. 365) emphasizes, it is not quite a category, but is more often a position. Similar to how ‘outsiders’ invented the term indigenous and ‘insiders’ appropriated it, the same has happened with the designation of indigenous video. Generally, it is a named classification that governments create to align with public programs, that scholars define to analyze, or that activists adopt so their work will draw greater attention. According to Ginsburg (1995, p. 258), “the label ‘indigenous media’ suggests the importance of contextualizing this work within broader movements of cultural autonomy and political self-determination.”

In many countries, government initiatives have marked the beginnings of indigenous video movements, which have since developed under an interweaving of political, social, and technological influences. With time and progress, the number of non-governmental and locally controlled projects has increased substantially. In Mexico, the government project Transferencia de Medios Audiovisuales a Comunidades y Organizaciones Indígenas[2] (TMA), launched in 1989 by Instituto Nacional Indígenista[3]—now Commision Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas[4]—was a starting point for the numerous programs that followed. The TMA branched off into regional programs run from Centros de Video Indígena[5] (CVIs) in Oaxaca, Michoacán, Sonora, and Yucatán.  Today, only the Michoacán and Yucatán CVIs still exist (Salazar & Córdova, 2008, p. 46; Rodriguez, personal communication, March 9, 2012).  Among the related non-governmental organizations, Ojo de Agua Comunicación’s foundation was largely based in the Oaxaca CVI. In contrast, Chiapas Media Project (CMP)/Promedios was created out of a need for Zapatista civilian communities[6] to communicate their struggle and gain support from international and domestic audiences in the 1990s and early 2000s. Once a binational NGO, they now operate as two separate organizations.  These bodies continue to support local media projects in indigenous communities according to their own guidelines, which have adapted over the years as the organizations have matured (Smith, 2010, p. 266; Halkin, personal communication, March 2, 2012).

Drawing attention to the special spaces, funding, and festivals that exist for low-budget films, women’s filmmaking and more, Fransico Vazquez (personal communication, March 12, 2012) of Promedios reasons that indigenous video should be similarly treated. This shifts critical emphasis away from intricate filmic qualities—which may be hard to attain without a specialized crew that is operating cutting-edge equipment—and places it on what Ginsburg (1995, p. 259) calls, “cultural mediations that occur through film and video works.”  Moreover, Vazquez notes the relevance of cases like affirmative action in the United States, which has opened more possibilities for minority groups that have been oppressed for years by government policies and social discrimination. Originally from a Náhua community near Mexico City, Vazquez believes similar measures are needed to allow indigenous peoples to gain a more just position in national and global socio-economic systems.

Yet, creating special spaces for indigenous media is not always necessary. For instance, Anastacio Aguilar (personal communication, February 11, 2012) shies away from the label, preferring to call his work memoria audiovisual. Aguilar is a member of Colectivo Yoltajol located in the municipality of Cueztalan in the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla.  As part of the Náhua community of San Miguel Tzinacapan, he has seen outsiders preoccupied with analyzing who is and who is not indigenous, and he fears that naming his work ‘indigenous video’ might foster a spirit of exclusiveness. 

A key factor, which relates to this concern, is the intended audience and how it is reached. Most indigenous videomakers in Mexico create their videos for a local community audience. Then, whether by chance or intention, some videos reach external audiences. There are also videos that never leave the local community and still some that hardly leave the shelf. This said, there is an intrinsic value in the creation process alone. In addition, indigenous videomakers and their communities should have the right to choose their target audience and make decisions about distribution. Some indigenous videomakers try to limit who sees their materials or direct viewing to specific audiences.

On the other hand, for indigenous videomakers who do wish to spread their work, there are general difficulties tied to funding, interest, priorities, and intellectual property rights. Television, the Internet, festivals and screenings, DVDs, and non-digital libraries and archives all present limitations and obstacles, but each also has a range of advantages and possibilities. For example, television has a wide reach that extends to rural areas and is a convenient way of watching audiovisual media to which many people are very accustomed.  However, it is a shared commercialized space with strict time formats and style expectations. Additionally, corporate and government powers continue to have great control over Mexico’s television content. Meanwhile, online video-sharing and social networking offer ways to bypass restrictions of television, but the technology has developed unevenly. Until there is more equal access to quality Internet service, it is not an ideal alternative. Furthermore, festivals and screenings offer a collective viewing experience and generate discussion and networking, but they are usually in urban areas and are more complicated to organize in rural regions, which seldom have access to proper equipment. In turn, while viewing DVDs is relatively simple, producing DVDs entails equipment, software, and materials. Additionally, DVD libraries and archives are critical resources for community members and researchers, but they can become convoluted and disorganized.

For Guillermo Monteforte (personal communication, February 11, 2012), Founding Member of Ojo de Agua Comunicación, an ideal distribution method is one based in local communications nodes in which connections between the nodes gradually expand into a large and participatory network.  Consisting of community movie theaters, television stations, and/or radio stations, the nodes are a practical way to circulate an area’s media projects. As opposed to centralized national or regional distribution centers, this model allows local community audiences to discuss and evaluate material, give feedback, and ultimately define their own content according to their standards and expectations. (This is already happening with community radio stations in Mexico, which are currently more popular.) Related NGOs are fostering this process through workshops, meetings, seminars and dialogue, as well as a gradual exploration of the Internet as a tool. Monteforte insists, however, that there is no intent to reach the mass media, and is resolute that imitating models of national television is not the solution.      

As communicators, indigenous videomakers and mediamakers in general face the task of molding existing distribution and collaboration platforms innovatively, in ways that best fit their own circumstances and those of their desired target audiences.  Accordingly, creativity will be vital in our adaptation to the new ‘pull media environment’ if we are to foster balance and equal opportunity in modern day media and history writing.

References CITED


Brígido-Corachán, A. (2004). An Interview with Juan Jose Garcia, President of Ojo de Agua          Comunicación. American Anthropologist, 106(2), 368-373. Retrieved September 3, 2011   from EBSCOhost.

Ginsburg, F. (1994) Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media. Cultural        Anthropology, 9(3): 365–382. Retrieved from September 3, 2011 from Google           Scholar, NYU     Public PDFs.

Ginsburg, F. (1995). Genre Positions: Indigenous Media and Ethnographic Film. In L. Devereaux & R. Hillman (Eds.), Fields of Vision. Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Photography. (pp. 261-291). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of      California Press.

Guillén, M.F. & Suárez, S.L. (2005). Explaining the global digital divide: economic, political
            and sociological drivers of cross-national Internet use. Social Forces, 84 (2), 681-708.
            Retrieved June 27, 2011, from JSTOR.

Halkin, A. (2008). Outside the Indigenous Lens: Zapatistas and Autonomous Videomaking. In P.    Wilson & M. Stewart (Eds.), Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics, (pp.    160-180). Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

Hardenbergh, M. (2010). The Death of Television. ETC: A Review Of General Semantics, 67(2),  170-176. Retrieved May 19, 2012 from EBSCOhost.

Heider, K. G. (2008). The Indigenous Vocies: The 2007 Taiwan International Ethnographic Film    Festival. Visual Antropology, 110(4), 507-510. Retrieved July 8, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Leuthold, S. (1997). Native American Documentary: an Emerging Genre? Film Criticism, 22(1),    74-89. Retrieved August 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Salazar, J.F. & Córdova, A. (2008). Imperfect Media and the Poetics of Indigenous Video in Latin  America. In P. Wilson & M. Stewart (Eds.), Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and  Politics, (pp. 39-57). Durham and London: Duke University Press. 

Schiwy, F. (2008). Indigenous Media And The End Of The Lettered City. Journal of Latin American           Cultural Studies (13569325), 17(1), 23-40. Retrieved August 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Schiwy, F. (2009). Digital ghosts, global capitalism and social change. Social Identities, 15(3), 313-330.   Retrieved August 27, 2011 from EBSCOhost.

Wortham, E. (2004). Between the State and Indigenous Autonomy: Unpacking Video Indigena in    Mexico. American Anthropologist, 106(2), 363-368. Retrieved September 3, 2011 from       EBSCOhost.

Wortham, E. (2005). Más Allá de la Hibridad: los medios televisivos y la producción de     identidates        indígenas en Oaxaca México. Liminar. Estudios Sociales y Humaísticos, 3 (2), 34-47. San        Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico: Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas. 


personal communication


Interviews conducted for the thesis “Unshelving Indigenous Video”:


Sarai Rivadeneyra                                                                                      February 10, 2012
Member of Colectivo Yoltajol


Anastacio Aguilar                                                                                       February 11, 2012
Member of Colectivo Yoltajol


Guillermo Monteforte                                                                                 February 11, 2012
Founding Member of Ojo de Agua Comunicación


Alexandra Halkin,                                                                                     March 2, 2012
Founder of Chiapas Media Project and International Coordinator


Antonio Rodriguez                                                                                      March 9, 2012
Commision Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas
Film and Video Department


Fransico (Paco) Vazquez                                                                            March 12, 2012
Coordinator of Promedios


Please contact the author of this article, Laura Elliott, for transcripts and audio recordings of these interviews at To reference the audio interviews, written permission must be obtained from the author and interviewee.  


[1] The ‘lettered city’ is a concept coined by the Uruguayan literary critic Angel Rama, who thought of literacy as a: “practice sustaining a class of letrados (lettered men) who, at the service of the state, controlled the symbolic and discursive production of reality” (Schiwy, 2008, p. 23).

[2] Transfer of Audiovisual Media to Indigenous Communities and Organizations

[3] National Indigenous Institute

[4] National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples

[5] Indigenous Video Ceners

[6] Zapaita civlian communites as opposed to the armed Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) groups.