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The Compassionate Camera

Jorge Prelorán, gifted editor and cinematographer, prolific storyteller, inspired teacher, cinematic icon in Argentina and international award winning filmmaker, is best known for his intimate, humanistic portraits of individuals.  He is credited with pioneering a sub-genre of ethnographic film, the ethnobiography.  In such films, individuals' personal stories become windows onto the communities and cultures from which they come.  For Prelorán, these films were the result of close collaborations with his subjects, collaborations that became life-long friendships. 

Cinematic Beginnings (1954-1962)

sihsfa_2007_10_07aPrelorán's earliest films reflect a young man in love with cinema.  Venganza and At Three O'Clock are fictional crime stories shot in a film noir style.  Later, while pursuing a B.A. in Film at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Prelorán made experimental films, using the medium to explore humor and morality (see, for example, Death, Be Not Proud).

In 1962-63, Prelorán shifted focus, making his first documentaries, a series on Argentine gauchos (cowboys) commissioned by the Tinker Foundation of New York.  While shooting these films, Prelorán traveled all over Argentina, discovering the cultural diversity and varied landscapes of his native country.  He was fascinated.  At the close of the trip, Prelorán wrote to his sponsor, Edward Larocque Tinker:

Getting so near the end of the venture, there is a certain feeling of pain, it was one of the most exciting experiences one can ever have … I feel that the more I know of my country, the more I should get deeper into the subject. There is a general superficiality in the whole thing, having travelled so fast throughout the country, and getting the impression at the end that it all has kept its secrets. (Prelorán 1962)

Discovering Argentina (1963-1969)

sihsfa_2007_10_16e_smInspired to make films about the remote and often forgotten peoples and places encountered on his travels, Prelorán began working for the University of Tucumán, Argentina.  His association with the university lasted from 1963 to 1969.  Under the sponsorship of folklorist Augusto Raúl Cortazar through the Fondo Nacional de las Artes, Prelorán produced a series of short films on religion, art, craft, and daily life in rural Argentina.  During this time, he made films such as Casabindo, Un Tejedor de Tilcara, and Quilino.  Reflecting on the ways his filmmaking evolved during this period, Prelorán wrote:

At first the films were simply travelogues, remote documents of places and events with no real involvement [from me]. Then slowly I seem to have lost my shyness in getting nearer to people … But the one element of profound change [in my filmmaking] was to be in the sound track. Little by little the people themselves started to talk, to share their thoughts with us, explaining how they did the things we saw, and why. Eventually, I tried to almost do away with the narrator, that outsider who with a careful script and an antiseptic voice explains dispassionately what we see, or what we are supposed to look for in the film. (Prelorán 1975, p.104)
Prelorán explains more of his filmmaking philosophy in these clips from Fermín Rivera's documentary, Huellas y Memoria de Jorge Prelorán.

The First Ethnobiography (1970)

sihsfa_2007_10_31gA major turning point in Prelorán's career came with the production of Hermógenes Cayo (Imaginero).  Before ever shooting a frame of film, Prelorán got to know Hermógenes, a religious image-maker living in the Argentine Andes, and recorded audio of interviews with him.  Then Prelorán began to shoot, inspired by Hermógenes' thoughts and stories.  Filming took place over two years, with two more years to edit.  The end result is a deeply moving film that delves into the human experience.  Hermógenes died before the film was completed, but Prelorán visited his wife, Aurelia, and their children to show the film to them and ask for their approval.  Prelorán's friendship with the Cayo family endured.  Decades later, he collaborated with Pedro Cayo, Hermógenes' son, to create a book that further explores and celebrates Hermógenes' work and life. View the book in the Reading Room.

Further Engagement (1971 - 1980)

sihsfa_2007_10_41aContinuing the ethnobiographic approach of Hermógenes Cayo, Prelorán made Damacio Caitruz (Araucanians of Ruca Choroy), Cochengo Miranda, Los Hijos de Zerda (Zerda's Children), and Luther Metke at 94 (co-directed by Steve Raymen).  Sharon Sherman, a former student and long-time friend of Prelorán, writes of these films:

Zerda's Children is a study of the Zerda's plight. One of Prelorán's desires has been to advocate for the people he films by making their needs known. He used the profits from the film to buy Zerda an engine to make his beloved truck run again, and a viewer donated a chainsaw to ease Zerda's work. For Cochengo Miranda, Prelorán documents the life cycle of a cattle rancher and former folk singer, and shows the slow transculturation that is occurring in the central area of Argentina. When the film was completed, Prelorán arranged a premiere showing at the outpost and invited the governor so he could see the film, and become sensitized to the problems Cochengo's community faces. Thanks to the showing, the government ordered the construction of a provincial road that frees the community from its isolation. The people call the road "El Camino Prelorán." (Sherman 2007, p.286)

In addition to tangible outcomes, these films also led to enduring friendships between filmmaker and subject.  Prelorán's correspondence (part of the Jorge Prelorán Collection at HSFA) contains numerous letters from Damacio Caitruz, Cochengo Miranda, and Ramon Sixto Zerda, as well as their children.  Prelorán also created books about these three inspiring men.

Zulay Frente al Siglo XXI (1982-1989)

sihsfa_2007_10_47dPerhaps the ultimate example of Prelorán's interest in collaboration and willingness to allow a film to emerge over months or even years of shooting is Zulay Frente al Siglo XXI (Zulay Facing the 21st Century).  Research, shooting, and editing for this film occurred over eight years, as the story and the relationships evolved.  In the end, the film became a true collaboration between Zulay Saravino, an Otavalo Indian, Mabel Prelorán, an anthropologist and Jorge Prelorán's wife, and Prelorán himself.  All three are credited as co-directors of this reflexive film that explores the personal experience of immigration and culture change while also addressing and exposing the very process of filmmaking.  Sharon Sherman writes:

Over a period of years, as the film is being shot, Zulay travels back and forth between Otavalo and Los Angeles, and her relationship with the Preloráns deepens. Mabel begins discussing her own anxieties about leaving her Argentine culture behind and traveling between worlds. She and Zulay sit in the editing room analyzing the interactive workprint unfolding before their eyes. Within the framework of this evolving conversation, the growing bond between the women erases any notions of Zulay as the exotic Other and Mabel as the knowing ethnographer. (Sherman 2007, p.286)

It may go without saying that this close friendship between Zulay and the Preloráns has persisted and grown since the completion of the film.  It has even inspired two new documentaries.  Sharon Sherman is producing a film that updates Zulay's story and explores her relationship with the Preloráns and the impact of Zulay Facing the 21st Century.  Also, Argentine filmmaker Fermín Rivera interviewed Zulay (among other friends and collaborators of Prelorán) for his documentary on Prelorán's life and impact on social change and cinema, Huellas y Memoria de Jorge Prelorán.

Legacy 1990-2009

Prelorán's creative energy was limitless.  When he passed away in 2009, he left behind more than 60 completed films and several works in progress, as well as a series of over 30 books.  He also leaves behind a legacy of engaged and compassionate filmmaking, based on an extraordinarily unprejudiced view of the world and an understanding of the power and value of friendship. In Prelorán's words:

I don't make films for anyone, for no audience, not for education, but rather … the films are a consequence of an experience I had with those people … I make films out of a personal need, a sort of urge to live the moment and set it on film, to convey that moment to the spectator.  I aim at giving the forgotten people of my country a chance to speak and show us what survival is all about. (Prelorán 1972)

To learn more about Jorge Prelorán, see the finding aid to the collection and explore some additional online resources.

References Consulted

Huellas y Memoria de Jorge Prelorán. DVD. Directed by Fermín Rivera. 2010; Buenos Aires.

Prelorán, Jorge. 1962. Letter to Edward Larocque Tinker, December 1, 1962. Production Series, Jorge Prelorán Collection, Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Prelorán, Jorge. 1972. Letter to Tim Asch, June 10, 1972. Correspondence Series, Jorge Prelorán Collection, Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Prelorán, Jorge. 1975. "Documenting the Human Condition." In Principles of Visual Anthropology, ed. Paul Hockings, 103-107. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.

Prelorán, Mabel. 2010. Taped interview. June 10-11. Suitland, MD.

Sherman, Sharon. 2007. "From Romanticism to Reflexivity in the Films of Jorge Prelorán." In Memories of the Origins of Ethnographic Film, ed. Beate Engelbrecht, 279-291. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

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National Museum of Natural History | Department of Anthropology | Collections and Archives Program