Posted by: Ali | January 13, 2010

Movie: The Dancer Upstairs

I’ve decided to start doing Peruvian cultural movie nights every week.  Why am I doing this?  Well one of the best ways to understand a culture is to see or experience it, and sometimes it can be kind of overwhelming to get immersed without exactly understanding what’s going on.  Even though I live in Peru, for example, I only get to experience life in Lima – if I go on a trip then I am a tourist.  Even though I live in Lima I’m not sure how regular families live, since I live here with other volunteers.  Even if I could follow someone around and see how they live, it’s all in Spanish so some of the nuances are lost.

So I decided to do this weekly movie screening to help myself and the volunteers understand more about the country they are living in.  But in doing so, I discovered how few and far between Peruvian movies, and movies about Peru, are.  So I decided to blog about my movie experiences as well in case anyone wants to watch movies about Peru and doesn’t want to sift through all the bad ones.

Without further ado, I present

The Dancer Upstairs, 2002, directed by John Malcovich, originally in English

The Dancer Upstairs is an American movie that takes place in an unnamed Latin American country that is quite definitely Peru if you know any Peruvian history.  The film is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nicholas Shakespeare.  The plot follows a police officer as he investigates a local terrorist organization led by a mysterious figure known as Ezekiel, who calls himself Presidente.  Terrorist attacks and threats start off with dead dogs on display with signs and escalate to bombings of various scales including one bomb planted in the butt of a chicken (yes, you read correctly).

The movie does a reasonably good job of protraying the country’s and the president’s reaction to domestic terrorism in the early 1990s.  The president in charge of Peru at the time was the infamous Fujimori portrayed as the off-camera President Deng Xiao Ping in the film.  Fujimori is currently languishing in a Peruvian prison for crimes against humanity.  Presidente Ezekiel was Abimael Guzmán (also known as Presidente Gonzalo), a philosophy professor from a university in Ayacucho, where I visited last weekend (take a look at some of my previous posts).  The terrorist organization went by the name of Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path.  The movie’s plot unfolds fairly slowly – this is not an action movie as you might expect out of a movie about terrorism to be – but overall I would say that it is a pretty good starting point to learn a little bit about recent Peruvian history.


  1. I can recomend “Proof of Life”. This movie stars Russell Crowe & Meg Ryan and is set in “Tacala”, a ficticious Latin American country. It is the story of a kidnapping of an oil industry worker by gurillas. It was filmed in Ecuador, primarily in and around Quito, and was based on two actual events, one of a group of Canadians working for a company called EnCana, and another group who were American contractors working for a drilling company (who happened to have been kidapped from the place I worked the day after I was there).

    The movie is a stylized but reasonably accurate portrayal of kidnapping and ransom (until the end. When Crowe and David Caruso go John Wayne, it just becomes another action film). Interestingly, the movie’s release dramatically boosted tourism in Ecuador, as movie goers discovered how beautiful the place is.

    Don’t know that I would show it to your volunteers, though. It might scare the crap out of them.

    Note that the lady Alberta journalist who was kidnapped in Somalia and recently freed indicated that this movie was reasonably accurate for that incident, too (up until the stupid ending)


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