• Interviews

The Escape of the Soul: An Exclusive Interview with Kiro Russo, Director of El Gran Movimiento

El Gran Movimiento begins with an aerial series of manmade landscapes, moving in from great to smaller scope: the Bolivian capital La Paz, a vast mesa of cement; the gutted hillsides surrounding the city; roads and high-rises; cable cars traveling back and forth; distorted images of faceless passers-by seen through curved traffic mirrors; a torn, faded poster of a smiling face flapping in the wind, a “hidden trace of time.” The sense of suffocation is intense.

We land in the city. We see a group of workers protesting their loss of work. We suppose that this might have something to do with the title of the film, The Great Movement. We expect to enter a story about miners working in the mines, but this is not the case. Instead, we follow Elder (Julio César Ticona) and his two buddies as they roam the streets of La Paz, looking for work and for the means to survive.


A disease creeps into Elder’s body. It’s a crippling condition that is steadily worsening, preventing him from breathing freely. Trained not to succumb to weakness, he forges ahead until his body can no longer hold him upright. An elderly indigenous woman, Mama Pancha (Francisca Arce de Aro), who calls herself his godmother, comes to his rescue. She summons a shaman doctor, Max (Max Bautista Uchasara), who lives alone in the hills surrounding the city. While Western medicine cannot find the root of Elder’s malaise, Max begins an elaborate traditional treatment. 

In an interview with the HFPA at BAFICI, the Bolivian director Kiro Russo said that the title of the film refers to a wave of protests by young men who come to the city on foot, after having walked for seven days, in order to demand work. With the mines being depleted of minerals and no system to provide other job training, the newer generations of the mining families are left unemployed and desperate, a lot resorting to alcoholism. The filmmaker has devoted more than ten years to working with that community, and this is the second part of a trilogy focused on the same population.

“Everything that I do is related to the strong bonds and friendships that I have [with the miners],” he affirmed. “I’m committed to them and to the community, and I still have so many things to say about it.” Naturally, the director chose his friends to play the roles. Even Max, the shaman in the film, is cast as himself.

El Gran Movimiento, however, cannot be defined merely as a film dealing with social justice. “The film is about the mines that the miners are carrying inside their bodies in a way,” Russo observed. To him, cinema’s purpose is not just to reveal truths about issues, but also to use the language of sight and sound as a way of exploring the deeper layers underlying these issues.

“Cinematographically, I wanted to say that the city is an end in itself – a living entity – and, at the same time, I wanted to connect it with the symphonies of the 1920s, with avant-garde film and silent cinema. I wanted to recover that element of silent cinema in the 21st century, and reinterpret it as a way of critique.” If silent films embraced the idea of modernity, Russo explained, he wished to use those same techniques in order to do the opposite: to speak about oppression.

Furthermore, for him, the story is not as important as the right use of the cinematographic language. The art of film has nothing to do with either the business or the formulas of storytelling. “I’m challenging cinema itself,” he declared. “I’m constantly trying to create an experience for the audience.”

The director feels that cinema as a language is going through its own crisis. “We are in a big saturation of moving images in the history of cinema.” This is a complicated matter when you want your work to make a difference. What is the form which will offer “a new point of view” which will then cause the audience to question and think?

El Gran Movimiento serves as an answer to this burning question. “The film has a lot of layers [while] the narrative is very small,” Russo pointed out. “I really wanted people first to experience, and second – when the film ends – to have more questions than answers.”

The film is indeed successful at jolting the audience’s consciousness. For example, at about the midpoint, the characters burst into a pop-dance number. This “music video” within the film is placed at a critical point of the lead character’s arc, at the height of his helplessness. To see men and women dance to a Western song brings them immediately closer to the audience; it’s as if they suddenly speak our language.

Its various layers aside, El Gran Movimiento’s focal point from the beginning to the end, is Elder’s illness. There have been a lot of interpretations by audience members, Russo mentioned. Some think that the illness might be Covid-19, others that it is caused by pollution in the mines or the high altitude. “In the end, for me, none of these answers [are right],” he chuckled.

Russo explained that the indigenous people believe in the equilibrium of the body as the basis for health. If a body falls out of balance, it becomes ill. The reason for illness is always the same: the spirit leaves the body, a condition described by the term mancharisk’a. And so, Elder’s disease is a representation of a crisis that is personal and universal at the same time. It is a crisis that cannot be cured by antibiotics or even social justice movements. It is a crisis so vast that it requires, first and foremost, the rise of human awareness. 

The director’s endeavors to create cinematic works that function as a shifting force could draw a parallel with the work of the shaman in his film. Only the shaman – the one who is knowledgeable – seems to know how to cure Elder – and only with magical means. “it’s very important now to believe in magic again,” Russo stated, somewhat enigmatically.

“The people are lost in the system that we are living in,” he continued. “This system is everywhere now, and everybody is becoming alienated. It’s an empty world, we can say. And, at the same time, there are the workers in Bolivia or USA or wherever, who are sacrificing their bodies sustaining the system … It’s sad to say it but it is a hopeless world.”

And yet, El Gran Movimiento ends on a hopeful note. After a series of treatments in the custody of Max, Elder literally comes back to life and is resurrected by the powers of the shaman. When all seems lost, the people and the world having plunged into disequilibrium, there comes the magician figure and his white dog, a luminous animal companion, an ancient symbol of courage and healing.

“There is a huge knowledge that is lost,” Russo said about the vanishing indigenous cultures. Bolivia is one of the countries with a great indigenous population of 36 tribal nations, but without a plan to preserve these cultures. In fact, a process to Westernization is underway, and this, according to the director, can turn out to be catastrophic.

“When you are completely outside the [Western] society and the system, and you [suddenly] go in, there’s a shock,” Russo elaborated. “The shock is so great that they can become crazy.” Though there are still some tribes in Bolivia that are living in their traditional non-occidental ways, contact with the West – even if well-intentioned – can be disastrous for the native cultures. “You shouldn’t go, no one should go [to the tribal communities],” the director cautioned. Christian missionaries, for example, who are no longer allowed to proselytize in Bolivia, “were destroying them in the name of God.”

The illness which does not plague only Russo’s protagonist but the communities around him, first the indigenous and then the Western, the cities and the countries, is now understood as the “escape of the soul.” An empty world is a soulless world; a soulless world is bound to perish. It can only be salvaged by the return of the soul – the almost but not entirely impossible Great Movement.