In Appreciation: Jorge Ruiz

By Amalia Córdova, New York University

On March 16, 2006 the Smithsonian Institution paid a tribute to award-winning Bolivian director Jorge Ruiz (March 16, 1924, Sucre - July 24, 2012, Cochabamba, Bolivia), the first “Latino” director to be awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. Other recipients of this distinction include George Lucas, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg.

The event showcased one of Ruiz’s most well known films Vuelve Sebastiana! / Come Back Sebastiana! (1953, Bolivia, pictured), an unpretentious documentary short-film about a young woman from the Chipaya people of the Bolivian highlands, now hailed as one of the most memorable ethnographic films produced in the last century.

In 1991 at the Festival of Three Continents of Nantes, France, Vuelve Sebastiana was recognized as the first indigenous film made in Latin America, and Ruiz was declared the “father of indigenous Andean cinema,” an extraordinary achievement for a film made with a low budget and an unlikely candidate to represent Bolivia to the world. In 2004, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive, in collaboration with the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival and California State University at Long Beach created a new 35mm print of the film with English subtitles.

Ruiz pioneered in sound and color filmmaking with his colleague and soundman, Augusto Roca. They shot Bolivia’s first talkie, Virgen India / Indian Virgin in 1949 and the film that launched the era of color for Bolivian cinema, Donde nació un imperio / Where an Empire Was Born (1949). Ruiz is perhaps the director that has placed Bolivian films in the limelights of theaters international festivals, identifying its modest film industry and reinforcing the social role of cinema, covering social reality through fiction, documentary and sheer artistic expression.

His extensive career spans over one hundred films, counting features and shorts, numerous awards, including an emeritus doctorate, and a National Culture Award from his homeland in 2001. In addition, he directed the Bolivian Film Institute in 1957. In 1958, John Grierson declared Ruiz "one of the six most important documentary filmmakers in the world." In the words of fellow Bolivian director Jorge Sanjinés, Ruiz was beyond an extraordinary cinematographer, he was also “a very simple and sensitive man, far from proud, who crafted with responsibility a pioneering work, seeking out humble Bolivians as protagonists of his numerous films and building from early on, prestige and respect for our country in this field of art and technology.”