Anthropology Professor's Book Inspires Oscar-Nominated Film

Harvard Associate Professor of Anthropology Kimberly Theidon had no idea that her 2004 book of essays, “Entre Prójimos,” inspired the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Milk of Sorrow” until the film started to win awards last year.

“The Milk of Sorrow,” directed by Peruvian film writer and producer Claudia Llosa, explores the tragic aftermath of Peru’s infamous “Shining Path” uprising in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The film focuses on sexual violence against women and takes its title from the Peruvian myth that the women raped by members of the armed forces during the uprising transmitted their suffering to their children through their breast milk.

After winning the Berlin International Film Festival’s highest prize—the Golden Bear—“The Milk of Sorrow” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

“I think the movie’s very powerful,” Theidon said. “It’s a very respectful treatment of an extremely difficult topic—sexual violence and its legacies. It’s not a film of gruesome images and horrific stories.”

Theidon, who first learned of “The Milk of Sorrow’s” existence last year when friends began sending her congratulatory e-mails on the film’s growing success, said she has never met Llosa in person and only corresponded with her through e-mail. Theidon also said that though she was not consulted during the production of the film, she has no complaints about the finished product and is considering a trip to Los Angeles for the Oscar party a week from Sunday.

“I was [touched] by the idea of making a movie where [the] audience would feel the burden of inheriting pain and violence,” Llosa wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson. “But at the same time, [it would] show how they are able to redeem themselves and put an end with all this sorrow.

Artistically, the film’s use of “magical realism”—an artistic technique often used to characterize works of Latin-American literature and art such as the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the novels of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez—has drawn much critical praise, including from Theidon herself.

“Yes, violence haunts the film and the viewer,” Theidon said. “But the director employed ‘magical realism’ to take real stories and symbolically transform them into powerful images and a powerful film.

“This is art as a political intervention,” she added.

“I think it’s important to understand that my book was a work of anthropology,” Theidon said. “The film draws upon my ethnographic research, and adds a powerful touch of magical realism.”

Theidon’s “Entre Prójimos” will soon be published in English under the title of “Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru.”

Llosa plans to attend a Harvard screening and discussion of her film, which will be coordinated by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies later this spring.

Anthropology Department Chair Theodore C. Bestor said that Llosa’s film illustrates the rare phenomenon of an anthropologist’s work becoming the basis of a critically acclaimed film.

“It’s a nice reminder of the way anthropology connects to important issues that people really care about,” he said.

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu

—Staff writer Julia L. Ryan can be reached at jryan@college.harvard.edu.

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