El Alto is a working class metropolis in the highlands of western Bolivia — a young, thrumming city, grown up on the fringes of the country’s capital La Paz, mostly indigenous, built at a staggering 13,620 feet above sea level.
It is also the only place in the world to find “cholita wrestling.” Every Sunday, female wrestlers, called “cholitas” — slang for women of indigenous descent — arrive at El Alto’s Multifunctional Center to battle in layered skirts, colorful shawls, and pumps, as their bowler hats balance delicately atop their braids.
It started as a gimmick, created by a promoter hoping to draw more attention to Bolivia’s professional wrestling scene. But in recent years, it has become more: It has become a way for some indigenous women, who face heightened inequality in El Alto, to define themselves on new terms.
That’s what drew Luisa Gerstein to El Alto in 2013, the same year her indie rock band Landshapes released their first album, “Rambutan.” Hailing from the U.K., Gerstein had seen pictures of the cholita wrestlers in a photo exhibition. She was taken aback by "such a powerful image” of the cholitas, standing tall in the ring or twisting an opponent through the air.“They have quite strict parameters of what’s expected of them and they get to tear that apart, which is exciting,”
Gerstein reached out to director Ian Pons Jewell to work on shooting a video for “In Limbo,” a single off the “Rambutan” album, in Bolivia — a seemingly natural choice for a song that, with its rumbling beat and resonating guitars, emulates the scenery of the altiplano, craggy and crystal clear. In January, Gerstein flew to Bolivia and Pons Jewell met her there a week later. There, they hammered out a story together: A young wrestler's walk from her home in El Alto to a local gym, where she trains for a climactic showdown at the Multifunctional Center.
Pons Jewell already had a reputation for making music videos with powerful narratives, adding in subtle religious or political imagery and varying degrees of surrealism. But “In Limbo” took him a bit outside his comfort zone, he admits.
“It was the first time I filmed a video without it being completely controlled and planned," Pons Jewell remembers. "Usually there would be a script and a shot list and everything would be kind of planned. But this was kind of new to me."
In fact, there was no telling whether the music video would come together at all. After meeting up with Gerstein in El Alto, Pons Jewell started from scratch — through word of mouth, he was able to locate a digital camera. A producer he met through the owner of the apartment they rented helped get the necessary permits in order. They worked with a few members of the wrestling organization, who Gerstein had met the week before, to find a wrestler with whom they could work closely for the video.
They were connected with a young wrestler named Mirian Lidia Mamani. Gerstein was struck by the fact that unlike most of the wrestlers, Mamani seemed close to Gerstein in age. She stood out to Pons Jewell, too.
“We wanted her from the beginning,” Pons Jewell remembers. “We saw her and just thought she was so beautiful, and had such an incredible face."
For someone who has never acted before, Mamani tells so much of the story with her face, betraying a stoicism that barely conceals her apprehension. In the video, she passes through a colorful market, and a parade full of horns, cymbals, and women dancing in skirts and bowlers. For a moment, Mamani locks her eyes with a tourist — Gerstein, who receives some kind of shamanic blessing as Mamani looks on.
Partially, Pons Jewell says, Gerstein’s character in the video represents the gulf between the locals in El Alto and La Paz and the tourists and backpackers so prevalent in the cities.
After passing Gerstein, Mamani’s character enters a gym where she watches other wrestlers train, cracking her knuckles when one of the wrestlers throws a taunt her way. Later, the camera takes viewers inside the Multifunctional Center, a warehouse-like building, packed with spectators on bleachers. The camera surveys the crowd’s anxious faces, then turns to a closeup of Mamani peering out from backstage.
In one particularly stunning moment, the camera rotates around the spectacularly attired wrestlers, some of them cholitas, some of them male wrestlers dressed in luchador masks or demonic face paint.
Mamani enters to an apprehensive crowd and faces down a clown in shaggy yellow pants — a wrestler who happened to be Mamani's real-life boyfriend. The camera crew, with one chance to get the shots right and none of the help they’d have in a traditional studio environment, circled the ring. The video ends with Mamani's triumph, after knocking out the clown with a well-timed punch.
The video marked something of a triumph for Pons Jewell, too. He stayed in Bolivia when the crew wrapped filming, and soon was hired to direct the video for Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” That video, also shot in Bolivia, found a massive audience, earning more than 750 million views to date and giving Pons Jewell a breakout.
The “Landshapes” video also helped him develop what has become another of his trademarks — shooting videos in locales far outside the context of the original music, complicating the music’s meaning and deepening its resonance. (See also Pons Jewell’s video for L.A. producer Valentino Khan’s “Deep Down Low,” shot in a Tokyo restaurant.)
Of course, the video for “In Limbo” would not have turned out so well if Pons Jewell and Gerstein hadn’t put their trust in fate. “What I really love about that one… [is] the adventure,” Pons Jewell said. “We still work like that now — it’s always such a crazy experience and an adventure. But that one was quite special."
Gerstein continues to make music with Landshapes. In 2015, the band put out “Heyoon,” their followup to “Rambutan,” as they continued to heighten deep personal drama to the scale of faraway topographies.
She too remembers the “In Limbo” adventure fondly — the frantic making of contacts, the unlikely collaborations, the way everything came together so perfectly. “Running out and just doing something like that was really fun,” Gerstein remembers. "I loved it so much."