Pedro Susz

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1998
This description of Pedro Susz's work was prepared when Pedro Susz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Pedro Susz, who founded Bolivia's first film archive, is taking cinematic images from it into classrooms, where he uses film to train young people to think analytically and to be critical consumers of audiovisual materials. He is poised to expand into national educational television.

The New Idea

Realizing the detrimental effect that extended television viewing can have on the thinking capacity of young people, Pedro Susz has structured an innovative educational project for the formation of critical television and movie viewers. He is entering into the public education system and teaching teachers and students to analyze and critique visual images, using historical films as the basis of his program. His film curriculum helps transform children and youth into critical thinkers not only in relation to television but also to other subjects. By training teachers who will then train others and using the state television channels to transmit to schools throughout the country, Pedro hopes, by the turn of the century, to have instilled proactive behavior and critical analysis in the youth of tomorrow.

The Problem

Pedro's idea responds to two pressing needs in Bolivia and in Latin America more generally: to preserve cultural identity and collective memory, and to form a critically thinking citizenry.

According to conservative estimates, by the time Bolivia youth reach the age of eighteen they have already spent approximately 15,500 hours in front of the television or movie screens. This compares to the 9,200 hours they have spent in school, if they are fortunate enough to attend, and no more than 6,500 hours dedicated to conversation with their families. Pedro estimates that 98 percent of the population is audiovisually illiterate, meaning that they are without the tools to intelligently process the images they see. As televisions and other means of communication invade homes in the wake of technological acceleration, the problem will only worsen.

At the personal level, children and adolescents receive ideas, values, and points of view through the screen, through images of violence, sex, and propaganda, which they often absorb without a second thought. They become passive consumers of what they watch and do not possess the tools, which are absent from formal educational systems, to analyze and decipher the images in front of them, which enter their consciousness and mold attitudes. This pattern has implications for the society and the ability of citizens to determine their future development.

Bolivia's population today is predominantly comprised of young people, who are especially susceptible to styles and suggestions. Many confront severe crises of identity; many migrate from rural to urban areas, feeling a link to no one single place and losing their long-held traditions. Yet on televisions and movie screens, Bolivian youth see not images of themselves but images from other places. While the number of television channels has grown in the past decade, many are monopolized by North American production companies. Latin American production has all but disappeared from the giant screens, though Bolivia has produced numerous films in the past century.

The Strategy

The educational aspect of Pedro's work has evolved from his establishment, in 1976, of an audiovisual archive, which he envisioned as a means to provide the population with access to their historical past. In the Bolivian Cinemateca, he has archived approximately 69,000 films from the past 50 to 75 years. These include documentaries on historical events, dances, ceremonies, music, and other footage that demonstrates the country's rich cultural heritage. The Cinemateca is part of the Ministry of Culture, having been recognized in 1991 by the state. Each afternoon it shows national films for a very small fee; more than 1.5 million Bolivians have attended. Interspersed with the national films are films from other countries, focusing on the Andean region but also including historical films of other regions. Pedro has shown more than 2,700 films, representing 48 countries, including all the countries of South America. Bolivian cinema, on the other hand, has reached 23 other countries through the Cinemateca. Pedro's work is promoting an understanding of Bolivia abroad that departs from the prejudicial image of the country as only a producer of drugs and state coups.

Because the principal consumers of audiovisual communication are youth, Pedro focuses particularly on them and their formation. He reaches out to high school and college students, teaching them to reflect on the images they view. He gives courses at the university and secondary school level on topics such as "Seminar for Critical Cinematography," "Perspectives of Bolivian Cinema," "Workshop for Audiovisual

Formation," "Means of Communication and Their Role in Education," and "Critical Reading of Images" (for teachers). After viewing a film or video, students discuss it and critique the concepts covered. With this method Pedro has reached 183,000 students in more than 2,320 special sessions. Students receive packets of information and Bolivian videos, which include little-known aspects of history, geography, culture, and human reality of the country. From his base in La Paz, he interacts with all the high schools in La Paz and El Alto and in three years plans to have three schools in every department in the country implementing his alternative curriculum. Pedro implements the same program with unions, cultural institutions, and churches. He ensures that teachers effectively use televisions, VCRs, videos, and films in their classrooms through teacher training courses. He has conducted eight workshops with 240 teachers, who are now using his model in La Paz, El Alto, and Oruro.

After fifteen years of work, Pedro succeeded in helping to create a National Law of Cinema, approved in December 1990. Bolivia is one of the few countries in Latin America with such legislation, thanks to his efforts. In addition to systematizing movie production in Bolivia and requiring the state to offer low-interest loans for the production of videos, the law opens new possibilities for Pedro's work to expand. For example, laws require that the state set aside space on state channels for educational programs each day, and on channels which reach all of the country's schools and extend as far as Peru and Argentina. It also allows access to educational television from schools, changing the way in which teachers use video and film to enhance classroom learning.

Through the International Federation of Film Archives, Pedro is linked to 68 high schools throughout the world. Through the Latin American Archive of Images in Motion, which he founded, he maintains relations with various countries of the Southern Cone. Japan and Spain have also expressed interest in Pedro's model of educational reform through images seen on television and in the movies.

The Person

While exiled in Argentina, Pedro discovered the marvelous power of movies when he attended a showing of the Bolivian film Yawar Mallku. He began to understand the value of images in motion as an instrument of integration, to break prejudices, articulate national values, and explore the country's unknown realities. He also began to understand the value of audiovisual documentation as an essential component to collective memory.

In 1975 Pedro returned to Bolivia with his newfound love for cinema and his desire to bring its benefits to all Bolivians. He saw that Bolivia lacked an archive for the history of images in motion and a law to include these images in the educational process. He founded the Bolivian Cinemateca in 1976 with these goals in mind. He began with nothing more than $2,000, a loaned room of 1.2 by 2.2 meters, and a single roll of film. In addition he brought with him enormous desire, a mountain of dreams, and unlimited patience. For more than twenty years the Cinemateca has been bringing Bolivian citizens images of their history. It is a people's cinema, reaching out to all sectors of society and maintaining the support of various groups. Child street workers, for example, presented to Pedro 429 bolivianos (about US$80) for "their cinemateca," and taxi drivers have refused to charge Pedro, saying that "this is our support to your work." The government once closed the Cinemateca in an act of censorship: 60 policemen came to sign a protest book.