Making Films Zapatistically
People of Flour, Salt, and Water (6/9)

Making Films Zapatistically

The film director’s remarks on the guiding principles used to create recent films by Russian art collective Chto Delat.

Three films have a special place in the work of our group Chto Delat; we came up with a method in the process of creating them which now goes by the name of the “Zapatista method.” In these remarks I want to reflect on what this method consists of, and why it is so important to us.

For a long time our main source for Zapatista thought was the book by Subcomandante Marcos, Another Revolution. Its translation into Russian by Oleg Yasinsky, which came out in 2000, had a decisive influence on us. However, we only began working on creating a Zapatista approach in 2017 after our journey to the state of Chiapas in Mexico, the birthplace of the Zapatista movement. There we discovered that Zapatismo involves not only political literature but also a reality transformed by poetic imagination. 

Returning to St. Petersburg after our visit to the Zapatista communities, we decided to reread Marcos’ book together with the participants of our School of Engaged Art. It was important for us to understand whether our comrades—younger artists and intellectuals— were also interested in the ideas of the Zapatista movement as we were. 

Over the course of the next six months we read the small book by Marcos, attentively pausing at each significant point, analyzing all the poetic metaphors in order to find the basic principles, mainsprings, and mechanisms of the Zapatista movement. After that, we all lived together in a dacha for two weeks in the village of Siverskaya, where we tried to put into practice these principles that we discovered, channelling those metaphors born in Chiapas into the reality of the Russian countryside. Later, on the basis of these practices, we created our first Zapatista film The New Dead End № 17: Summer School of Slow Orientation in Zapatismo.

We made our second Zapatista film, People of Flour, Salt and Water,[1] in the summer of 2019 together with our comrades from Free Home University, who brought us to the village of Castiglione D’Otranto in the South of Italy. In this village there is an activist cooperative/cultural organization of farmers and land protectors called Casa delle Agriculture (House of AgriCultures) who practice “commoning”, a collective way of inhabiting ownership which disrupts private property.  In the everyday practices of this group, in how the members relate to the land and their culture, and how they tend to their collective subject, we found many traits that we can call zapatistic, and so working together with them in their context was extremely important for the further development of our method. In addition, we invited a group of migrants—our comrades who had been forced to flee their countries in Africa and from Kurdistan—to participate in the film. While working on the film, of course, we had no opportunity to study Marcos’ book in detail, but we concentrated on a few of his fables, and we were visited by Christian Peverieri, a Venetian activist and a member of an Italian social movement influenced by Zapatismo, who shared his firsthand experience in Chiapas with us.

These two films are of course different, but they share general semantic and formative aspects that we would also reprise in our third zapatistic film, shot in 2020 in Athens, Greece, in the middle of the pandemic crisis. About Footprints. What we Hide in our Pockets and Other Shadows of Hope was initiated in another learning space in which we collaborated with Stathis Markopoulos, a local puppet theatre master, and a group of  participants of the Open School of Piraeus (part of the Solidarity School network, created by volunteer teachers to support migrants). After the live performance, we created this montage of a film in seven portraits.[2]

Some considerations about the need and possibility of creating our own zapatistic method:

Paraphrasing Godard’s invitation to make films politically, making a film zapatistically does not mean making a film about the Zapatista movement, but instead, it means making a film that arises from the Zapatista methods themselves. 

Why does one need to learn from Zapatismo? Because the world we were used to has suddenly changed and the old ways of engaging in political struggle no longer work. We are faced with the need to search for new paths. Perhaps they start in Chiapas. 

The Caracoles (the autonomously governed villages of the Zapatistas) are full of art. They are mainly filled with paintings/political posters on the sides of houses. These murals, made both by the Zapatistas themselves and by invited artists, transform the space of daily life, enriching every minute and every inch with meaning. Sometimes the Zapatistas create rituals which we might call performances. From time to time, they conduct international festivals dedicated to the innovations of science, women’s struggles, music, and art. But although we admire the art of the Caracoles, we mean something else when we use the term Zapatista art. We do not want to copy Zapatista culture—it does not belong to us. Instead, we want to learn the spirit of Zapatismo, which belongs to all. How can we, people from Russia, learn Zapatismo and, moreover, try to create our own principles of art production, that is, how to form certain guidelines for action, based on the real life practice of a group of people living on the other side of the globe? Does this make sense? Do we have a right to do this?

The Zapatistas say: “You don’t need to go to Chiapas to be a Zapatista. You should stay in your own place and change the situation around you.” We are artists. Our responsibility is art. This is the territory we can change. This is where we develop our own Zapatista principles. 

Our Zapatista principles have no direct relation to the Zapatista demands.[3] These principles were created by us on the basis of our own reflections. We do not exclude the possibility that the Zapatistas themselves might take issue or disagree with our points.

Let us now dwell in more detail on the principles we have drawn up, and show how they are embodied in our Zapatista films.

1 Equality

The most important, underlying principle of the Zapatistas. In the Zapatista community, everyone is equal: women and men, guerrilla fighters and civilians, military commanders and children. This type of equality requires daily work, otherwise it can easily degrade into hierarchy. It is not the case that the Zapatistas simply preach equality; they practice it. This principle is at the heart of our film work. It should be noted that it was quite easy and natural for us to practice equality with the students of our school; despite the difference in our experience and maybe social status, our relations emerged through the commonality of our interests and ideals. Moreover, it is a long process that has its ups and downs. Shooting our Italian or Greek films, for example, required a different degree of engagement in practicing equality. There, our collective was made up of many people who had met for the first time. Some of us had nothing in common—neither a common experience, nor a common history or common language. Part of the group belonged to this land by birthright, another part could only dream of obtaining a temporary residence. In this situation, hierarchy and inequality arise by themselves—but if we want to practice Zapatismo then we must systematically renounce them, each day restoring a situation of equality.

2 The process is more important than the result

The Zapatistas decisively reject the argument that “the goal justifies the means.” You live your life now, in the present—not tomorrow and not yesterday… And if you act cruelly now, if you rob and kill for the sake of a great idea, then no bright future will justify this. Each day has its meaning and its weight. Therefore, we call our films, which are built on Zapatista principles, a learning film process. 

3 Anticlimax

A condition antithetical to climax. Usually we think that climax is the main thing we are striving for, in which our aspirations and wishes are realized. We think of climax as the supreme point, illuminating everything around with its light while everything else is drowned in the gloom of indistinguishable indifference. It does not work like that with the Zapatistas. Instead, they reject the culminating moment. Even at the moment of their glorious victory, on the day of the end of their campaign, when they all marched all the way from Chiapas into Mexico City and tens of thousands of people gathered to greet them in the main central square, they took the least advantageous position, in the corner of this square. And by doing so, they turned the space inside out. There is no climax in either of our Zapatista films. There are chapters, each one requires its own understanding, but at the same time, it is part of a larger process. These chapters are like beads collected in a rather random order. With The New Dead End № 17 the viewer can reassemble themselves by looking at our site—each chapter is separate there and you cannot just watch the film, but reassemble it from these fragments, stringing plots and meanings together each time anew. Each chapter is dedicated to an event in our life that we lived together with the participants.

4 The view from below

The Zapatistas believe that seen from above, the world shrinks, and nothing fits in it other than injustice. And, seen from below, the world is so spacious that there is room for joy, music, song, dance, dignified work, justice, and everyone’s opinions and thoughts, no matter how different they are.[4] From below they are what they are.

O sea que, resumiendo, visto desde arriba, el mundo se encoge y no cabe en él más que la sinrazón. Y, visto desde abajo, el mundo es tan espacioso que hay lugar para la alegría, la música, el canto, el baile, el trabajo digno, la justicia, la opinión y el pensar de todos, no importa que tan diferentes sean si abajo son lo que son.

To more accurately occupy this space from below, we made puppets (animals, objects, or little people) as some of our filmic heroes. Not only do we observe how they act but we also attempt to look at the world from their eyes. A sort of adjustment of the main Zapatista government principle, mandar obedeciendo (to govern by obeying)[5] is translated into our filmmaking practice.

5 Weakness conquers force

If one compares the strength of the ELZN (the Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the strength of the whole Mexican state, or of the corporations, it is clear which is stronger. But the Zapatistas will, all the same, be victorious. They never rely on direct force; in their case this simply would not work. They demonstrate the strength of what is considered a weakness in neoliberalism: the invisible, the unnoticed, the vulnerable, and the unwanted turn out to be the most important. Therefore, the heroes of our Italian film are made from dough (flour, salt, and water)—a fragile but very common and ever existing material.

6 Slow movement

The Zapatistas are in no hurry to get anywhere. For example, when they make decisions they need to be convinced that every member of the collective (including children) have thought things over and have given their judgement. Of course, this takes time and the main Zapatista symbol, the snail (caracol),crawls out from this. For this reason our films are long. To tell the truth, they should be even longer; each moment of our life can be meaningful and given a name, but at some point one has to decide to stop the editing process of the film. For the moment this suffices, maybe we will return to editing the film later on.  

7 Telling fairy tales

Telling fairy tales is the favourite activity of the Zapatistas (in any case that of Subcomandante Marcos). The Zapatistas believe that the word is their main weapon. From these words they create metaphors which undermine the customary structures of our world. Therefore, in our films we also strive to create the conditions in which metaphors are born, in which lullabies are sung, and new fairy tales are told. The participants of our school in Russia invented a mobile puppet theatre, whereas in Italy instead of a theatre we had a large table on which we drew rivers, seas, and mountains and created an ideal Big Earth which included some land for each of us. Each had the land that they wanted, their own land. In Greece we used the shadow theatre technique, and the participants shared stories about the objects they brought from their homes along their journeys. 

8 Land 

Para el neoliberalismo todo es una mercancía, se vende, se explota. Y estos indígenas vienen a decir que no, que la tierra es la madre, es la depositaria de la cultura, que ahí vive la historia y que ahí viven los muertos. Puras cosas absurdas que no entran en ninguna computadora y no se cotizan en una bolsa de valores.

That is, 

For neoliberalism everything is merchandise, it is sold, it is exploited. And these indigenous come to say no, that the land is mother, it is the depository of culture, that history lives here, and the dead live here. Absolutely absurd things that cannot be entered on any computer and which are not listed on a stock exchange.[6]

We only began to understand the meaning of this quote in Italy, when one part of our group was made up of people who had returned to the land they belong to, and the other part was made up of people who had lost their land.

9 Hospitality

This is maybe the principle furthest from the real life of Zapatista communities. They are not very willing to accept strangers in their caracoles, even if they came with the most zapatistic of intentions. They think that the world they are building may become disjointed by newcomers who will try to bring their own ideas into their life. Therefore, they reserve the right to shut down, to remain silent, to withdraw into their inner sphere. But we consider it necessary to depart from this Zapatista principle. Hospitality means that not only are we ready with an open heart to receive people belonging to another culture (sometimes a more totalitarian, patriarchal one, and therefore archaic) but also to understand that we will likely need to change our world and our social behaviour based on the fact that there are new members in our society. We need to build a new equality (see point 1). 

10 The Miracle

The Miracle[7] is an important component of the Zapatista method, since all the above principles, as well as many others that we have not yet discovered or understood, may go beyond the boundaries of art, and of the Zapatista Caracoles only with the help of a Miracle. However, it is an encouraging sign that the dragonfly in our film People of Flour, Salt and Water really flew by twice. The first time it danced over our table was when we were just sketching the outlines of our beautiful land to come, and then it came back to us when we lost heart and we realized that we no longer knew what to do with it.

Accompanying images: Stills from The New Dead End #17

The New Dead End #17. Summer School of Slow Orientation in Zapatismo, a film by Chto Delat (Nina Gasteva, Tsaplya Olga Egorova, Nikolay Oleynikov, and Dmitry Vilensky), 2017    
Duration: 1h 30min
Director and Editor: Tsaplya Olga Egorova
Choreography: Nina Gasteva
Costumes: Alena Petite
Scenography: Nikolay Oleynikov
Director of photography: Artyom Ignatov
Second camera: Andrey Nesteruk, Nadya Ishkinjaeva, Dmitry Vilensky
Sound: Yevgeny Petrol

Participants: Sonya Akimova, Anna Averynova, Uljana Bychenkova, Zhanna Dolgova, Irina Kudrya, Alexey Kuznetsov, Georgy Losev, Aglaya Oleynikova, Roman Osminkin, Tatayana Pilnikova, Lena Revunova, Marina Shamova, Evgenia Shiryaeva, Artem Terentyev and Asya Vilenskaya

In the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona and in other documents, the Zapatistas shared the dream of a Zapatista Embassy, a space for encuentros [gatherings, assemblies] to spread their message and connect with others struggling against neoliberalism around the world. The film The New Dead End #17 emerged from the anticipation of such ambassadors, who have not arrived in Russia, yet.

To prepare for their visit, Chto Delat has organized many gatherings to reflect on Zapatistas’ ideas, including a reading group, a Zapatista language class, and experiments of community building. This long-term and ongoing process culminated in a two-week intensive summer school with seventeen participants sharing a house and living communally in the countryside of St. Petersburg.

The film reflects the process of being together, in resonance with the Zapatistas’ way of life. How Chto Delat and the film participants—non-Indigenous people from Russia with their political and cultural burdens of their own history and struggles—could practice Zapatistas’ principles and possibly change their own lives and society, became the central question.

Realized in the Zapatista tradition of anti-climax, employing irony as one of the tools learnt from the stories of Subcomandante Marcos, the film follows the protagonists in their investigation of the notion of progress, the role of culture in building autonomy, and their aspiration of living in harmony with the Earth.

The film is inscribed in a certain tradition of European pastoral utopianism, where a group of frustrated young fellows leave the city, escaping the pressure of capitalist and urban living, and try to build different relationships away from deadlines, political oppression of the state, and depression, attempting to establish new forms of life inspired by the Zapatistas’ ideas and example.

The protagonists ask how, in their context, they could inhabit the Zapatista principle Para todoas todo, para nosotroas nada [Everything for everyone. Nothing for ourselves], or develop their own Theology of Liberation.

The film deploys another temporality: the time of the slow process which, in itself, is a result—and the specific time of the film as a media, unfolding through the montage.

The New Dead End #17 exists as an open possibility, without a definitive and final edited version, but with a range of episodes that can be assembled each time (and by anyone) differently.


[1] The title of the film recalls the way in which the Zapatistas define themselves as the People of the Color of Earth (referring to their Indigenous and brown communities in Southern Mexico) and as People of Maíz (corn), which represents the base of their subsistence agriculture system (the milpa) and their ancestral connection to the land. See the Fables of Old Antonio in The Story of Colors/La Historia de los Colores (Cinco Puntos Press, Mexico\U.S., 2003)

[2] The so-called Eleven Demands of the Zapatistas were first proclaimed in the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona by the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena/Comandancia General del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in 1996. In 2002 Manu Chao included a sample of Subcomandante Marcos reciting the demands in his live album Radio Bemba Sound System. During the process of filmmaking in Castiglione, Chto Delat made a chart with those  demands to practice multilingual, pluriversal, cross-political and cultural translation from different systems of understanding, as one of the exercises among participants. It was a way to situate and position ourselves by responding to those demands.

[3] Excerpt from How Big is the World? by Subcomandante Marcos. English translation by irlandesa originally published at 25.02.2006

¿QUÉ TAN GRANDE ES EL MUNDO? official website of Zapatistas 17.02.2006

[4] The Zapatista autonomous government is rooted in horizontal decision making through the juntas de buen gobierno  (good government councils) whose governance is based on the cargo system, where responsibilities are determined by the needs and demands of the community, expressed through the assembly, organized on a municipal and regional level. They follow the seven principles of Governing by Obeying:  to obey (to the people) and not to rule (over them); to represent and not to replace; to work from below and not to seek to rise; to serve and not to self-serv; to propose and not to impose;. (from the official website of Zapatistas

[5] Excerpt from The Fourth World War by Subcomandante Marcos. English translation by irlandesa originally published in the In Motion Magazine, November 11, 2001.

“¿Cuáles son las características fundamentales de la IV Guerra Mundial?” Published in Spanish in La Jornada, October 23, 2001

[6] The notion of the miracle as what would help us to get out of our empasses, appears in a fragment from Durito I (El neoliberalismo visto desde la Selva Lacandona) by Subcomandante Marcos first published in the newspapers Proceso, El Financiero, La Jornada, Tiempo,  on March 11, 1995  and Durito II: Neoliberalism as seen from La Lacandona, in the book Conversations with Durito: The Story of Durito and the Defeat of Neoliberalism by Subcomandante Marcos, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 2005, Page 56.

Here is the passage: 

“Al rato Durito se tranquilizó y empezó de nuevo con sus «mmmh, mmmh». Sacó unos papelitos que, según me di cuenta, parecían mapas y empezó a hacerme preguntas sobre la ubicación de las tropas enemigas. Le respondí lo mejor que pude. A cada respuesta Durito hacía marcas y anotaciones en los pequeños mapas. Pasó un buen rato, después del interrogatorio, diciendo «mmmh, mmmh». Pasados unos minutos, y después de complicados cálculos (digo yo, porque usaba todas sus manitas y patitas para hacer las cuentas) suspiró: Lo dicho: usan «el yunque y el martillo», el «lazo corredizo», la «caza del conejo» y la maniobra vertical. Elemental, viene en el manual de Rangers de la Escuela de las Américas­, se dice y me dice. Y agrega:Pero tenemos una oportunidad de salir bien de ésta.¿Ah, sí? ¿Y cómo? ­pregunto con escepticismo.

Con un milagro ­dice Durito mientras guarda sus papeles y se recuesta. El silencio se acomodó entre los dos y fuimos dejando que la tarde se llegara por entre las ramas y bejucos.”

After a while, Durito calmed down and started again with his “hmmm, hmmm.” He took out some little papers that, I started to realize, looked like maps, and began questioning me about the location of enemy troops. I answered as best as I could. With each answer, Durito made marks and notes on his little maps. He went on a good while after the interrogation, saying ‘hmmm, hmmm.” A few minutes passed, and after the complicated calculations (I say as he used all his little hands and feet to do the figuring) he sighs, “What this means is that they’re using ‘the anvil and hammer,’ ‘’the slipknot, ‘the rabbit hunt,’ and the vertical manoeuvre. Elementary, it comes from the Ranger’s Manual of the School of the Americas,” he says to himself and to me. And adds,

                 “But we have one chance to come out well from this.”

                 “Ah, yes? And how?” I asked him with scepticism.

                 “With a miracle,” says Durito as he puts his papers away and lies back down.

The silence settled down between us, and we let the afternoon arrive between the branches and vines.”

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Written by

Tsaplya Olga Egorova is an artist and film director. She is a founding member of Chto Delat and a co-founder of the historical feminist artistic duo, Factory of Founded Clothes, based in St. Petersburg.

Translated by

Artwork by

Chto Delat is a renowned Russian collective of artists, philosophers, scholars, poets and activists that has existed since 2003. Their interest is the entanglement of art, political thought, and pedagogies.

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