Amalia Córdova (NYU Cinema Studies, PhD 2015, Program in Culture & Media, Performance Studies, MA 2007)
Amalia Córdova is Supervisory Museum Curator and Chair of Research and Education at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She co-directs the Mother Tongue Film Festival, a project of the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative. She was a Latin American specialist for the Film + Video Center of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, served as Assistant Director of New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and taught at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her most recent essays have appeared in Media Cultures in Latin America: Key Concepts and New Debates (2019), From Filmmaker Warriors to Flash Drive Shamans: Indigenous Media Production and Engagement in Latin America (2018), The Routledge Companion to Latin American Cinema (2018), and In the Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalization (2017). She holds an M.A. in performance studies and a PhD in cinema studies from NYU. She is from Santiago, Chile/Wallmapu.
Interviewer Cara Ryan is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at NYU, and graduate of the Program in Culture & Media.
Cara Ryan (CR): I would love to know about your current work, but I would like to first find out about what drew you you to NYU. Could you tell us about what led you to the Culture & Media program?
Amalia Córdova (AC): I grew up as part of a refugee family from the dictatorship in Chile, on the border with Canada, and then spending my summers in North Carolina. I went back and forth from the U.S. to Chile a couple times until moving back to Chile to finish high school and go to Pontificia Universidad Católica, where I studied Fine Arts and Design. In that program there was a mix between theory, and because of studio art, practice. I was also interested in catching up with all the history of Latin American visuality and history that I had not grown up in. I grew up learning about Europe, England, the settlement of North America, and I really didn't have a grip on the social history of Chile, my own country. At the university I was drawn to Latin American art and colonial art classes. While taking these courses, as part of my dual degree in aesthetics, with a mention in visual art, I took a course on contemporary Mapuche culture which included videos made by a Mapuche collective and videos by anthropologists working with these communities. I also took courses on the mythology of southern Chile’s island, and film criticism classes.
Basically, with all the things that I'm doing today, there were seeds planted through this program which was at the intersection of art theory, art history, and philosophy. I came up through my undergraduate studies always doing both the theory and practice. At the same time, my teachers were sending me to The Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. This private museum had a hemispheric collection of pre-Columbian art and I had to do a crash course in pre-Columbian art for three months in order to become a docent there, which became my part-time job. Later, I would realize this was a performance-based job, as I would adjust the knowledge to my audiences every hour, figuring out how to spotlight certain parts so people would walk away with certain things. This sent me in the direction of questioning representation, knowledge, power, and issues of translation. That’s when you get really humbled and you're like “I know nothing!” and you get hungry to learn.
The biggest discovery working at the museum was the the ethnographic film collection that was established there by Claudio Mercado Muñoz, an ethnomusicologist and anthropologist. It was a haphazard VHS collection that has only gotten formalized across the years because it was very marginalized at the museum. It wasn't really a high priority for the administration, they tolerated it, but there was not support for it. During dictatorship people were collecting VHS like they were gold bars because television was state run and unreliable, or corporate. There were three channels and that was it. And there was limited circulation of any kind of alternative media, Indigenous film, or films about Indigenous peoples. Since the museum was a pre-Columbian museum, run by archaeologists and conservators there wasn't really a relationship to contemporary Indigenous peoples, except through this small library and film collection that was flooded with students who had to study the Mapuche, the Aztecs, and the Maya as part of their curriculum. Claudio held public screenings of these films at lunchtime.
Sometimes I had these interactions at the desk with Indigenous people coming in, speaking in their languages, and I was sort of like “what do I do?” We would just cut them free admission passes when we saw them come in. There were issues of access, but there were also these wonderful noon screenings that were free. Random people would show up to watch these films from Indigenous peoples in the Americas. Sometimes Claudio would be on fieldwork or would have a meeting and the need to present the films would drop to the front desk. That’s how it started; that's how I started presenting Indigenous film. I was an undergrad student with a gig at the museum and I had access to this collection. And then, by the fact of being at the museum, I was in touch with all the researchers who were doing field work with government grants.
Because they knew I could draw, the the big moment came when I got invited to go with an expedition of anthropologists to an Atacameño community in the north of Chile in the Atacama desert, to draw rock art. I would sit on a rock for hours and draw the panels that were in front of me. They taught me how some panels weren't visible at certain hours, and they taught me about the site-specific nature of the rock art—how it wasn't necessarily about which rock provided the best canvas but about how, for example, a particular rock might be chosen at the meeting of two rivers, an important and sacred place. So I kind of went into the fold of the researchers and their field work projects and, at the same time, I hit the community of Atacameño folks accompanied by this extractive project of research, and I started asking myself “What are we doing here? What are we bringing back?” And then something very interesting happened. At the end of the day the community would stop by our place and see how we were doing, bring us fruit, share something to drink, and I could show them what I had drawn that day. Later on, you read that that’s a visual anthropology technique, but I was just showing them the drawings, and they would make commentary on them, and they showed me some art that they had never shown the anthropologists. Later we thought it would be great to make a film about the stories about the rock art—a film that was more than just the documentation of the rock art—one that included all this other added knowledge. It was a very complicated affair to make this film.
We had all kinds of conflicts amongst ourselves as a team, and roles and responsibilities got blurred. And at the end of the day, we had a very imperfect video that was edited back in the city, without the community’s input. I would say it was a real learning experience that triggered me to really go deeper into issues of equity, representation, and voice. Some bridges were burned, and I learned that films have costs; film projects are fraught and complicated. Later we got a grant to go back and shoot in the community to try to insert the native voices alongside the “experts” voices. But it was imperfect, and I also knew that visually it could have been so much better. Those are some of the layers that led me to appreciating filmmaking in an ethnographic context, and never losing sight of the ultimate audiences, the source communities, and issues of representation.
After that experience, I wanted to keep helping to make films. A lot of people came to me, since we'd gotten this grant, asking how to get a grant to make a documentary about Indigenous people. I started producing filmmaking projects and I, along with friend who was a professional filmmaker editor made another documentary which won an award in Brussels. It's called Incas, It’s about the impact of the Inca on pottery. I went back to university to take some classes in anthropology and cinema, documentary, and script writing. And then a magical thing happened. A now famous director, Orlando Lübbert, was coming back to Chile from Berlin and I got word that he was going to give a documentary production workshop, which I took. Through this experience I got to actually have hands-on production experience and learn how to formally structure documentary. So, then I thought OK, I am ready to go back to graduate school. I decided to make an exploratory trip to the United States and see what schools might be offering something like visual anthropology, but I was already super invested in the idea of Indigenous people making their own films.
I ended up in New York, meeting Elizabeth Weatherford from the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) Film and Video Center. Having worked for six years at The Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, showing people around a very traditionally laid out archaeological collection, I was really struck by the insertion of contemporary Indigenous voices and contemporary artists. It just really spoke to me. I walked into the Film and Video Center as a volunteer thinking I would be there a couple days and I basically stayed there as a volunteer until the Native American Film and Video Festival of the year 2000, and then I had to go back home to Chile. Elizabeth worked really hard to get me back. I went through all kinds of visa processes until I finally was able to get my own residency and trust position at the Smithsonian. For many years, I was just here, out of my sheer enthusiasm for the work at the Film and Video Center.
CR: When you were in the Culture & Media program did you make a film?
AC: Yes. I made my Culture & Media film on First Voices Indigenous Radio, which was a radio show on WBAI that was transmitting out of Wall Street; their offices were a few blocks away from my museum, the National Museum of the American Indian. At the museum we had a collaboration with the program. There was this important outlet that I thought was so precious: Indigenous radio out of New York City run by Tiokasin Ghosthorse. I also thought this film could help fundraise for the radio station, or could also serve as a sort of introduction for people not familiar with Indigenous radio. I also wanted to highlight that it is a part of the landscape of New York City. I was working with urban indigeneity; a lot of our audiences were urban Indians, and here was the voice transmitting for that public and also for a broader audience. So, I met Tiokasin and he's a very private individual who is very self-effacing and always wants to celebrate the work of everybody else. As a radio producer he's constantly shining a light on Indigenous accomplishments and events in the area. My film ended up being a portrait of him as a multidimensional individual. I guess I gravitated towards him because he was also a practitioner of his own art, as he’s a musician. I was able to attend and film his concerts and him playing the flute at different cultural events. It was a really positive experience. For me, one of the major goals of this project was for relationships to be strengthened and not debilitated by the experience.
CR: What a difference from your first experience with filmmaking!
AC: Yeah, and like every filmmaker, I'm now trying to figure out what to do with the film. I may put it on Vimeo. I really wanted it to be of service to Tiokasin and the program and to be a kind of advocacy piece for the radio program, I don't think First Voices is being created in New York City anymore; it's moved on. But there's definitely a huge following of Tiokasin and the work that he's done through his show. Tiokasin is interested in an international Indigenity, in not only showing a US-based Native American experience. He’s always bringing the struggles of Latin America to his show and he’s spoken at the United Nations. To me, that’s very representative of the experience of being in New York City where you have international audiences and folks from all over the world.
CR: After you finished your PhD, what did you transition into next?
AC: Well I had a child while I was in the PhD program, so that shifts your financials a little bit. I also had to think about alternatives because I was seeing a diminishment of the interest in the hemispheric and the Latin American work at NMAI after a change in the administration. I was also ready to do something new. I had the opportunity to apply to be the Assistant Director at the Center for Latin American Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at NYU. I took the job at CLACS working with Jill Lane to run the Center which has over 130 affiliated professors and runs a National Resource Center grant from the Department of Education. The day of my interview there was a Quechua class happening, and they had a guest who was a Quechua singer, and they were singing in Quechua while I was waiting to be interviewed, and to me that was a really big sign. I had a major fear of leaving the NMAI; having gone through processes of exile and return in my life, the NMAI felt safe. It was a native place, run by Native Americans. It felt a little daunting to step out of that into the the bigger, broader world of the university, its global sites, and its professors from all over the world. The fact that we were teaching Quechua and had students interested in this Indigenous knowledge was really interesting to me. The position ended up being really instrumental in preparing me for the curatorial position that I later took at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritageat the Smithsonian in Washington DC . Sadly, leaving NMAI’s Film and Video Center was a smart thing to have done because the Film and Video Center diminished significantly, and the festival never happened again after 2011. The film collection later moved to NYU thanks to this triangulation with faculty like Faye Ginsburg, Jane Anderson, and Bob Stam. I was glad to have been a part of that wonderful effort of the Film and Video Center, which was the dream job. Looking back, I see that the museum didn’t value the Film and Video Center as a research site. They thought we were just renting the films. They didn’t realize the relationships we had with the community. We were the meeting point for North and South, which still has no parallel in another Indigenous film festival in North America.
CR: Tell us about the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage where you now work.
AC: I was initially brought in as Latino Digital Curator as part of an effort from the Smithsonian Latino Center to cede Latino positions across the institution. I am now Supervisory Curator, World Cultures, at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I left New York and moved to DC to do this work of contributing to film festivals like the Folklife Festival which has been running annually since 1967, and to start the Mother Tongue Film Festival. In my role I have been working to get the word out so that native filmmakers understand that this is a place for Indigenous cinema, too. I definitely feel we have contributed to helping create a more diverse understanding of Latinidad, and by the mere nature of bringing in the Indigenous languages being spoken from Latin America, we have pushed against the idea of Latino as a bound Spanish speaking community
CR: Can you tell us about the Cinemas of Abya Yala Project that you are working on?
AC: The Cinemas of Abya Yala Project became a research project that I started when I took my job in DC at the Smithsonian. When I came to DC, I started thinking about the film collection from the NMAI Film and Video Center. I started to think about if we had to prioritize digitization of certain works how would we know what's already been digitized somewhere else? In Indigenous cinema this has become a big concern and now people are thinking about it, but at the time I was thinking of how do we even just start the conversation around archiving and collecting when forever at the film festivals, yes, we would have a roundtable on archiving, but the priorities of survival—life and death situations, keeping the offices open—oftentimes made archiving the last priority. If Indigenous filmmakers barely have the funding to make their films, then forget archiving. But if you think about it, all these social justice and civil rights movements are now turning 50 and folks are retiring. People have to think now about who's going to pick up the torch and how are we going to make these works accessible. Thankfully things can now be digitized and put online, but it's a delicate process of permissions, it's a relationship with each collective, filmmaker, organization. For me the driving preoccupation is, yes, we all want to see new Indigenous filmmaking voices and visions out there, but how are these filmmakers going to tell their new stories if they don't know what their own ancestors have done? What have been the stories told about and by each community across the Americas? You need to see and hear what the filmmakers from your own community have done. The project has turned into advising and connecting Indigenous media collectives in efforts related to cataloging and digitizing their collections. [The project also asks reflective questions like:] what do we want to do with this? Who should be the authority here? Now that I see so many people and positions out there for teaching Indigenous film, I feel like there's a need more than ever for this work to really circulate. Along with the study of all these knowledges, it seems obvious that we need those films to form part of the body of knowledge for the study of Indigenous media. I'm in a research project with Queens University in Canada focused on this and I'm writing a chapter in my book about indigenous film archives.
CR: Can you tell us more about your book project?
AC: The book is basically an extension of my dissertation on the circulation of Indigenous film from Latin America. It is a study on Latin American Indigenous cinema, and it's more a panoramic study because a lot of the work done has been regional, national, or even by community, and by medium. For example, Highland Guatemalan radio or Central Brazilian Indigenous film. Because of my experience of being a curator I’ve gotten to see work from everywhere, to have a more comprehensive framework, and to set work in dialogue from the North, from the South, from the Pacific, from the Atlantic. And so, I'm taking the encouragement of Robert Stam to put myself in the book to offer a curator’s inside perspective to working with this medium and to talking about what it takes to curate Indigenous cinema. I also necessarily have to tell a little bit of the history of the emergence and the critical writing on Indigenous cinema from Latin America, and to talk about circulation and about Indigenous film’s archive crisis.
CR: Is there anything else that you wanted to share?
AC: I think that for me having gone through the Culture & Media Program gave me a place to think about all of my concerns and about my own practice. And I think that the multidisciplinary nature of the Culture & Media program is a healthy environment—a safe space to think about these things. It was also important that the Program had this practical component of making a film. You don't just write essays by yourself, you also make a film, together, with your classmates. I think that's invaluable and I celebrate that the program has this crossdisciplinary nature and this practical component. It's also a space that has received a lot of Indigenous filmmakers. Through the Program I’ve met Indigenous filmmakers like Angelo Baca and Teresa Montoya. I think the Program was essential to the formation of my ideas, and in thinking about how to apply my ideas back into my work.
This conversation was edited for length.