Meet Our Researchers: Denisa Jashari

This is the first of an irregular series where we interview researchers who use the collections from the IU Libraries’ Moving Image Archive. We hope that these interviews help shed light on the connections between researching moving images and other types of archival materials, as well as promote the incredibly interesting scholarship of the faculty and students who watch our films. Our inaugural researcher is Denisa Jashari, who is a PhD candidate in the History Department here at Indiana University.

Q: What is your dissertation about?

A: Broadly speaking, my dissertation investigates political, social, and cultural organizing in Santiago’s southern shantytowns during the civil-military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) and the decade of Center-Left democratic rule that followed (1990-2002). My research suggests that throughout its rule, the military government drew heavily on a spatialized understanding of urban geography to link shantytowns’ physical marginality with a discourse that emphasized their innate undesirability with respect to a new, “modern,” Chile. The literature on shantytowns has a tendency to present poor, urban dwellers as empty referents for all sorts of depictions, including as the lumpen of urban decay and deindustrialization, as dangerous and threatening, or as having the potential for social upheaval and political action. I engage the seemingly esoteric concepts of lumpenproletariat (the underclass) and abjection, but I unbind them from dogmatic Marxism on one hand and psychoanalysis on the other to argue that as operational concepts of elite actors at the time, these concepts reveal the processes through which the dispossessed individual has been constructed. While on one hand I trace the multiple strategies deployed by powerful actors such as the state, NGOs and political parties in their attempts to control the poor or ascribe certain qualities onto them, on the other, I showcase how dwellers’ multiplicity of protest and cultural activities forged a distinct political culture to counteract different forms of exclusion. My dissertation project combines historical methods with elements from critical geography and provides vital insights into the interplay between neoliberal governance and poor urban politics during dictatorship and democracy in Chile. Ultimately, my research engages the ways in which neoliberal governmentality has reshaped the relationship between individuals and the body politic.

Q: What’s your larger experience with archives in your dissertation research? What other archives have you consulted in your research?

A: My history dissertation combines archival and oral history research. When I am not conducting interviews, I spend most of my time tracking down archival sources from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Usually the hunt for documents takes me all over Santiago and to places such as the National Library, the Archive of the Administration (ARNAD), Catholic parishes, and the offices of various NGOs who produced lots of material on shantytown socio-cultural and community organizing. Most of my sources are “unconventional” for a historian, and given that my project deals with very recent history, including the dictatorship, the material I seek is often not in archives but in people’s homes and private collections. Some archival finds are purely serendipitous while others take a lot of time and effort, and depend on your ability to make contacts in the academic and larger community. I have had the most difficulty tracking down maps of Santiago from the 1970s and the 1980s, especially maps that actually mark the location of shantytowns (a more accurate term is the Chilean poblaciones). While some collections are digitized, most of the sources I need are not, so I have to travel to Chile often.

Q: What film(s) did you watch at the Moving Image Archive?

A: I watched Campamento, a 28-minute documentary film on the struggles to establish formal recognition of the shantytown Nueva Habana in Santiago, Chile.

Q: How did you find out about this film? How is it related to your topic?

A: Professor Jeffrey Gould, a member of my dissertation committee, first mentioned the film to me. He urged me to find it. I realized that IU had a 16mm copy of the film and I requested to watch it. Campamento is a documentary filmed between 1970 and 1972 in what was then an illegal settlement called Nueva Habana. The film explores the role of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) in dwellers’ struggles to receive legal titles to the land and to formally create a shantytown by the same name. For me, it was important to have actual visual evidence of the process by which the urban poor organize themselves and their spaces. Having access to such rich visual material from the early 1970s and being able to watch community organizing for housing rights, education, and self-government was really moving. Campamento speaks directly to my interests in shantytown organizing, community solidarity, and the role of Left parties therein.

Q: How did you find out that the Moving Image Archive had the film?

A: I initially searched for Campamento in IUCAT and discovered that a 16 mm single film reel was being held right here at IU. Once I requested the item, I received an email from Andy Uhrich, Film Archivist at IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. Andy and I set an appointment at the Moving Image Archive where he demonstrated how to use the equipment and made the whole experience of handling film much smoother!

Q: What did you learn about your research topic by watching the film? Did anything in it surprise you or reveal new aspects of your research topic? Did it open up new questions that you need to research further or answer any questions you were already thinking about?

A: Campamento reinforced my initial interest in space and how people both structure and navigate the spaces they construct as well as the larger city landscape. The footage of the process by which residents took over a plot of land and combined the populations of three campamentos (settlements) into the Nueva Habana población was particularly enlightening. The film inspired me to observe visual documents more carefully and to think about where certain institutions are located in relation to one another and to people’s homes. For example, the placement of the neighborhood council, the local parish, or the school is not accidental, neither is the naming of a certain población. The name of the shantytown, “Nueva Habana” or “New Havana” speaks to political affinities with the Cuban revolution. Shantytown dwellers continue to be stigmatized because they inhabit places that are perceived to be marginal and thus “inferior.” I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it was to actually see the tin-covered roofs of people’s homes, the dirt roads, and most importantly, the courage and dignity with which people fought for their right to live. Such observations inspired by Campamento will help me ask better questions to my interviewees.