No one could describe the Bolivian Cinemateca as glamorous. People loiter in the lobby for the warmth, the tickets are sometimes handwritten, and it’s better not to speak of the toilets. But as cinemas in La Paz go, it’s a treasure. It’s the only place that shows anything other than Disney, Marvel or horror films, with a curious programme that combines classics from around the world with modern low-budget Bolivian films. And a couple of weeks ago it transcended its provincial status to become an unlikely microcosm of the soft-power struggle playing out across Latin America.
For months, the American embassy has been hosting free film nights at the Cinemateca. The films have been the best kind of propaganda. “First Man” celebrated the moon landing. “Milk”, gay rights. “Good Night, and Good Luck”, the free press and speaking truth to power. They played to full houses, with free popcorn and Coca Cola. Grinning embassy staff turned out in astronaut jumpsuits, or draped in rainbow flags. There was a giant inflatable moon at “First Man” and some Bolivian drag stars at the “Milk” after-party. These events have been rolling by, once a month, since I arrived in La Paz. A cultural fixture that went unchallenged – until two weeks ago, when the Chinese embassy began its own film nights at the Cinemateca.
In the space of a few decades China’s economic presence in Latin America – a continent literally on the other side of the planet – has gone from negligible to dominant. In several countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, it has usurped America as the top trading partner. Chinese banks are lending great sums of money; Chinese companies are hoovering up public infrastructure contracts. Bolivia, Chile and Uruguay are among those signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Chinese residents in Bolivia leapt from 800 to 7,000, with many new arrivals coming to work on infrastructure projects. You can see the signs of Chinese influence everywhere. Minivans with Chinese characters printed on them; adverts for Mandarin courses and Chinese companies like Huawei; countless chifas – chicken shops run by Chinese that give Andean cuisine a Cantonese twist.
But compared to America, China remains a cultural lightweight, much to the chagrin of the Chinese Communist Party. As well as encouraging its embassies to put on cultural events, it has channelled money into scholarships, sending Latin American students and athletes to China. It has set up Confucius institutes, which offer lessons in everything from calligraphy and Mandarin to economics and law, Chinese-style (just don’t talk about politics).
I arrived at the Cinemateca expecting a lavishly funded challenge to the American film cycle. But this time the ticket hall was silent. No pomp, nor embassy employees, to be seen. I got my ticket – for Screen 2, much smaller than the one used for the American film cycle. I recognised the regulars: a hardcore group of loners who haunt the Cinemateca. They watch every film but talk to no one. There were a few old men, who looked dishevelled and half-drunk. (One of them tried clambering over a chained-off staircase and had to be chaperoned into the cinema.) But the majority looked like students.
Sara, 20, confirmed that impression. She found out about the Chinese film cycle from her university, where she’s studying Mandarin. “I think most of the people here are from my course!” When I asked her why she was learning Mandarin, the answer was simple: for work. “China is the future,” she said, a little mechanically. They were here with their teachers, three young Chinese men, who were cackling with laughter at the end of the row. David, 24, had a swooping, dyed orange fringe. He was the only one that could speak Spanish – and not well. He told me they had recently arrived in La Paz to teach Chinese for two years. “Lots of people start learning Chinese here…Three months later, not so many remain.”
It was time for first of that night’s double-bill. “Lost in Hong Kong” (2015) was a riotous slapstick about a middle-aged man who once dreamed of being a painter, only to end up designing women’s underwear in his step-father’s factory. On holiday in Hong Kong, he tries haplessly to connect with his first love, who is now a famous painter herself, while his stepmother needles him for not producing children. Will he pursue his individualistic dreams or embrace Confucian responsibility? I won’t ruin the ending for you. The second film, an action-thriller called “Operation Mekong” (2016), had been dubbed into Spanish, prompting mutterings from the audience. We sat through two hours of explosions and heroic deeds, watching an elite military squad assembled from South-East Asian countries (led, of course, by China) take on a drug cartel that had massacred Chinese nationals. It was based on real events, but the jingoism fell flat with the Bolivian audience.
It’s no wonder that some people here have a negative view of China. Roger, a 29-year-old academic I met at the screening, told me afterwards that Bolivians have a word, chinito, to describe something that is second rate: “We have all these Chinese vehicles, phones, clothes, but we think they’re poor quality.” There are Chinese directors making great films; the problem is that the Chinese government often isn’t too keen on subversiveness, ambiguity or anything that can’t be used for propaganda purposes. Until the Chinese embassy has the freedom to screen films like “An Elephant Sitting Still”, a four-hour masterpiece of industrial misery (whose young director, Hu Bo, killed himself shortly after finishing it), America’s film nights will be the hottest ticket in La Paz.