While L.A. native Ann Kaneko was shooting her latest documentary in 2001, she was witnessing a country gripped by terror, where those who raised awkward questions were often treated as troublemakers, traitors or worse.
But Kaneko wasn't training her lens on the post-Sept. 11 United States. She was holed up in Lima, Peru, taking the pulse of the South American country that had been torn apart by a brutal Maoist guerrilla uprising and an equally ruthless government reprisal. Her focus was four Peruvian artists whose work challenged and criticized Peruvian society by examining issues of state-sponsored violence, governmental repression and class, ethnic and sexual prejudice.
For their efforts, each of those artists paid a price, as Kaneko records in "Against the Grain: An Artist's Survival Guide to Peru." The 64-minute film, which has been screened from San Francisco to Washington, D.C, as well as in Lima and Quito, Ecuador, will be shown at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Echo Park Film Center, 6:30 p.m. on June 4 at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center, and 7 p.m. on June 7 at the Imix Bookstore in Eagle Rock.
Although "Against the Grain" clearly is sympathetic to its four main subjects, it's narrated by Kaneko in a neutral, factual manner that refuses to take sides politically. Although Kaneko hoped that her film would encourage U.S. audiences to consider how a climate of fear and the thirst for revenge within a society can lead to censorship and suspension of civil liberties, she is careful to avoid editorializing.
"A lot of documentaries, I think, try to persuade people to do something or think something a certain way," said the 43-year-old writer-director last week. "For me, I think it's just a passion of trying to understand what happened and allow other people to come to their own conclusions or form their own judgments."
A Japanese American whose parents were incarcerated in the Jerome internment camp in Arkansas during World War II, Kaneko arrived through a roundabout route at her new film's topic. While working on a previous documentary about Peruvian immigrants living in Japan, she'd become interested in exploring the legacy of Peru's autocratic former president, Alberto Fujimori. It was Fujimori who presided over the government's scorched-earth crackdown on the Shining Path guerrilla movement, a campaign that, combined with later revelations of corruption within his administration, led to the Japanese Peruvian's eventual downfall and exile.
Kaneko received a Fulbright grant to pursue the enigmatic former president, but by the time she arrived in Peru he'd fled the country. So she fastened onto four artists caught in the crossfire of those turbulent years. Through them, Kaneko felt she could penetrate the deeper story of Peru's travails.
Fujimori, shown in archival footage, becomes a kind of phantom haunting the film, a symbol of populist demagoguery run amok. "Against the Grain" captures the bizarre quality of the time, the paranoia leavened with absurdist comedy that was the daily bread of Peruvians' lives. "It's spooky and it's funny," Kaneko said. "It's such black humor."
As the movie shows, artists and the public began mobilizing against Fujimori with mass demonstrations and public-art performances, including a memorable group washing of the Peruvian flag in front of the presidential palace. Black humor was both an artistic and personal survival strategy for the artists, who were attacked for their work from all sides of the political spectrum.
Alfredo Marquez, who'd emerged through the 1980s punk underground, tweaked an image of Chairman Mao by plastering it with a set of Marilyn Monroe lips. For that seemingly innocuous gesture, among others, he was jailed for four years as a supposed terrorist and Mao supporter. He later re-created his prison experience in a performance piece.
Another artist, Natalia Iguiniz, ironically was condemned both by the conservative Archbishop of Lima as well as by some of Peru's supposedly liberal-minded feminists for her works exposing sexist double standards against women.
Adrian Arias, a native Peruvian and multimedia coordinator at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco, where the film was screened, said that "Against the Grain" reveals how art in Latin America often plays a greater political role than in the United States or Europe.
"It's an incredible movie about a pretty obscure epoch in Peru," he said. "The film has shown many things were unknown in the art world."
Kaneko said she turned to filmmaking after giving up photography because "I just tired of being in a darkroom by myself." A world traveler who lived in Japan and learned Spanish in Guatemala, she's perplexed whenever grant applications ask how her work might relate to U.S. audiences. For her, the answer is self-evident: "Shouldn't we be interested in the rest of our world?"
There's a strange postscript to "Against the Grain." A few weeks ago, Fujimori (who had returned to Peru from exile) was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses. Although not all of this final chapter made it into the film, "Against the Grain" partly anticipates the outcome -- and leaves the viewer wondering if such traumas could happen again.
"That's what makes you feel there is some value in making a film like that," Kaneko said. "There still are many people who want to forget -- and people who are powerful."
'Against the Grain: An Artist's Survival Guide to Peru'
Where: Echo Park Film Center, 1200 N. Alvarado St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: UCLA Downtown Labor Center, 675 S. Park View St., L.A.
When: 6:30 p.m. June 4
Where: Imix Bookstore, 5052 Eagle Rock Blvd., L.A.
When: 7 p.m. June 7