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On my first trip to Germany, shortly after college, I learned the power of media conditioning. I had grown up watching World War Two movies on television, filled with villainous Nazis. "You vill tell us vat ve vant to know. Ve haf our vays to make you talk " Surrounded by German speakers, whom I had only ever heard as menacing movie stereotypes, I felt my heart rate gallop.
An evening at Munich’s Hofbrau Haus, where beer drinkers hoist liter steins and occasionally break into song, felt like the ominous prelude to a putsch. Wasn’t this how National Socialism got its start? Had I visited Japan then, my reaction surely would have been the same, since two-dimensional "sneaky Orientals" were also staples of war and post-war era American movies.
Now I live in Bolivia, where the most treacherous movie villains in local films are Americans. Hollywood movies show here too, but in Bolivian productions Americans are violent and diabolical.
For instance, currently playing in Bolivian theaters is Antonio Eguino’s, Los Andes No Creen En Dios, (The Andes Don’t Believe in God), set in the mountain mining town of Uyuni in the 1920s. Germans in this film are savvy, industrious prospectors. The sole British engineer is a pompous drunk. But the Americans are rough, unshaven, gun-toting spaghetti-western thugs. Three gringos rob a mining payroll, blow up a train and shoot the passengers.
The robbery has historical resonance with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. After fleeing the United States, they stole a mine payroll in southern Bolivia and died in a shootout with Bolivian authorities in 1908. If the American desperado is one stock U.S. villain, another is the corrupt U.S. official.
American Visa, released in 2006, tells the contemporary story of a Bolivian schoolteacher named Mario who wants to go to the United States to see his son in Miami. Like many other Bolivians (and Latin Americans), Mario must endure expensive, humiliating procedures to obtain a visa.
When the U.S. consul sneeringly refuses him, Mario turns to the black market, where an illicit American visa goes for five thousand dollars. Mario pawns his gold jewelry, then desperately decides to rob the pawnshop. When he finally buys the black market visa, he is appalled to learn that the person supplying it is the U.S. Consul himself. "Don’t worry, teacher, the visa’s good," the Consul tells him. But Mario, undone by the theft he has committed to procure the visa, never goes to the United States.
"American Visa" is cinematic revenge against U.S. bureaucrats who stonewall Bolivian visa seekers in the belief that they intend to stay and work illegally. Like many developing countries, Bolivia depends on remittances sent home by nationals working abroad, legally or not. In a real-life act of vengeance, the Bolivian government recently imposed a visa requirement for U.S. citizens visiting their country.
American officials are more flamboyantly corrupt in Rodrigo Bellot’s movie, Quien Mato a la Llamita Blanca? (Who Killed the Little White Llama?).
In Bellot’s satirical road picture, the American DEA official in charge of cocaine eradication in Bolivia is also a major drug trafficker.
He hires a pair of indigenous, small-time hustlers to drive a shipment of cocaine to the Brazilian border where he intends to have them busted. This cynical, hypocritical gringo is awarded the country’s highest honor. Bellott presents the U.S. war on drugs as an elaborate American ruse to make huge profits and set up Bolivian fall guys in order to look virtuous in the process.
Though Bolivian President Evo Morales has not joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in calling George W. Bush the devil, contemporary Bolivian movies depict Americans as various sorts of demons. Such heavy-handed portrayals reflect a long-term cultural distrust of U.S. motives in South America and a frustration with U.S. attempts to dictate terms of assistance to Bolivia. Only now those sentiments are expressed in movies, not just graffiti scrawled on adobe walls.
Someday a Bolivian visiting the United States may feel nervous to find himself surrounded by the scheming, soulless gringos he knew about only from Bolivian movies.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting The Truth: The Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger, 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.