Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, December 14, 2009
Torquing Documentary Form
Top ten lists of commercial films, high end art exhibitions, and books from the big publishers jam the press and commercial news websites this time of year.
I devour these lists. I end up saving them for my Netflix queue and my travel reading.
That said, I find myself a lot more energized by projects that jack me into thinking about archives, history, concepts, politics, real people, real struggles and documentary practice in new ways. Sites that seduce me to keep coming back to see what’s new. Projects that prod one sentence: gosh, I wish I could think like that.
The projects on my list engage some common strategies: collaborative, interactive, merging the digital and the real, the urgent and the imaginative. These are not auteurist projects—they are convenings.
And they are in alphabetical order, in no particular ranking of importance.
A big huge shout out to the ever-inventive, open space afficionado Dewey Schott at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, who conjured up this great idea of ten best lists of the year for public media so that the mainstream press can't maintain its monopoly on curation and aggregation.
1.The Hub, by Witness (an NGO based in NYC)
A user-generated, issue-focused, easy-to-search portal for uploading videos from around the world documenting a staggering array of human rights including armed conflict, labor, children’s rights, prisons, sustainable development, discrimination, violence, health, women’s rights, humanitarian issues, justice. A model of ethical, collaborative, social media, where uploading and sharing means taking action and campaigning for real world change for real people, not avatars or products.
2. Iranian Social Protest on Facebook
The Zapatistas wrangled the internet for politics. 15 years later, the Iran protest movement has nabbed social media and grabbed attention for turning recent updates into something more than your favorite youtube video or latte hang out. Despite the US state department’s enthusiasm for toppling regimes by any digital means necessary, Facebook and blogs have rendered the separation between the local and the global inoperative. Check out the link above for news about the men in head scarves movement.
3.Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, Nunuvut, Canada
From Zacharias Kunuk and Ian J. Mauro, an exciting, interactive web project the gathers centuries of Inuit knowledge by elders and hunters on climate change in the Arctic, featuring blogs, multimedia, raw footage, live internet shows and skype. Say farewell to Al Gore and his multimillion dollar power point films.
4.Post Secret, by Frank Warren
This community art project is simple: people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard. But the results are complex: condensations of psychic fissures and social relations. Images and words are posted on the blog daily. Several books have been published from this material and hit the NYT bestseller list. But it’s still a model of engagement worth taking a look at..and, according to its own website, it’s the largest advertising free blog in the world. Send one in. Noone will know it’s you.
5.Public Secret, USA, project conceived by Sharon Daniel in collaboration with Justice Now
A massive collaboration between digital artist Daniel, the Vectors Journal at USC, Justice Now, and incarcerated women. It explores gender, family, and the prison industrial complex with an elegant, spared down design that remaps our preconceptions all the first three. It also cuts through decades of documentary debate about images, victims and ethics with more clarity than most scholarly essays on the subject.
6.RMB City, China, by Cao Fei, aka in SL China Tracy
A project spanning RL (real life) and SL (Second Life) that satirizes overdevelopment and overbuilding in China through avatars and buildings in Second Life, and a web site promoting the RMB city including press releases, city channels, manifestos, maps, city views and a blog. Strapped for cash? You might want to book your next weekend getaway in RMB City…
7.Sarai, Delhi, India
The go-to hub in South Asia for cracking open the liminal zones between the digital and the real with the edgiest new media theory around, practical and concept-changing on the ground projects mapping urbanism, and endless innovations in convening people and ideas with art shows, editable and free CDs, books, audio, free software, publications, translations and dialogue across languages (Hindi and English), and cybermohallas (you gotta love it—exploring the alley ways and corners of communities and cities.)
8.Saving the Sierra, California, USA, project coordinated by Catherine Stifter and jesikah maria ross
A compelling, elegant, clear-sighted regional project chronicling the culture, economy and environment of the Sierra Nevada as it confronts development challenging sustainability. It marshalls public media, radio documentary, citizen storytelling, and story mapping. The multiple and diverse voices in this project as a mighty and awe inspiring as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and the sequoias, the spectacles and clichés of the Sierras.
9.Soweto Uprising, South Africa, project by Ismail Farouk and Babak Fakhamzadeh
An interactive website creating a living archive and new cartography of the student uprisings on June 16, 1976 with participants and people living in Soweto, with video mapping, blogs, routes that are tagged, Flickr projects for image uploading, comments on the maps of the routes.
10. Transborder Immigrant Tool, A Mexico/US border Disturbance Project by Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, and Jason Najarro
A mind-blowing and controversy-igniting project where cell phones as digital coyotes meet phone apps meet GPS to help immigrants from Mexico cross the border. Before they’ve been built, they’ve generated a lot of blowback all ready. Start googling and find out what all the fuss is about. And then, start thinking apps and maps as a new media form.
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Dialogue on Mexico, Film Theory, Cinema, and Nation Continues
The next installment of my interview with film scholar and festival organizer James Ramey (USA/Mexico) looks at questions of nation, cross border issues, mobility studies, and organizing academics in cinema.
Patricia: What are the major debates in film theory/analysis in Mexico and Latin America? How do these debates and their contexts differ from the debates in film theory/analysis in Europe and the United States?
James: Actually, these very questions motivated me and my working group at the UAM-Cuajimalpa (Expression and Representation) to organize a film colloquium in 2008 at the Morelia International Film Festival.
We had done panels and workshops on various film-related topics over the years, but we had not made a concerted effort to find scholars in Mexico doing theoretical work on film. Since the field is still relatively inchoate here, it was a challenge to locate such people, but we decided to focus the colloquium on a debate we suspected would be widely relevant: the status of "national cinema" in Mexico.
Mexico has an extraordinarily rich film history dating to 1895, and there can be no doubt that its national culture evolved in dialogue with its film industry’s representations of that culture over the twentieth century; thus film and nation are intimately related in contemporary Mexico. Here is the description of that colloquium, which I think covers many of the salient theoretical debates in Mexico:
Nation, Image, Reading: An International Colloquium on Film in Mexico
The Morelia International Film Festival is pleased to host a colloquium on cinematic representation in Mexico.
Presentations by scholars and critics from Mexico and abroad will constitute a space in which topics of special interest to Mexican film scholarship can be addressed and questioned: When we invoke "Mexican cinema," we imply that some kind of "national cinema" exists—but what exactly is a national cinema? Is the cinema made in the United States, with its legion of foreigners working in Hollywood, a national cinema in the same way as that of Mexico? Is a film made by a foreigner in Mexico, like Henry King’s Captain from Castile (1947), part of Mexican cinema in the same way that Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter III (2004) is part of U.S. cinema (or British cinema)?
How does the reception of such transnational films differ for viewers in Mexico, the U.S., and other countries? And how do these questions, related to the festival’s "Imaginary Mexico" series, prompt further questions related to the "Cinema Without Borders" section? What does it mean for a film to cross a border? Are cinematic borders to be defined in geographical terms only, or can they also be cast in terms of gender, sexual-orientation, race, or perhaps film’s formal language, as suggested by the title and structure of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006)?
How do models of nation-representation and border-crossing relate to Mexico’s indigenous "first nations," whose concepts of nation and borders tend to differ radically from European paradigms? And how do these traditional Mexican societies come to terms with—and master for their own purposes—new media and new technologies?
The colloquium will thus focus on modalities in which an imaginary Mexico has been constructed from within and without, as well as specific strategies of cinematic self-representation by social and ethnic groups in Mexico.
This colloquium is presented by FICM and the Working Group Expression and Representation of the Humanities Department of the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa.
This colloquium in October 2008 brought together 32 professors representing 13 working groups in Mexico, as well as scholars from the United States and England. It provided an extraordinary platform for dialogue on these subjects, and led to the creation of a book of essays derived from presentations at the conference.
This book, México imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional, captures the essence of several crucial theoretical debates in Mexico today, with sections on "Nation, Representation, and History," "Ethnic and Subaltern Identities," "Gender and Nation" and "Transnational Perspectives". The authors of the essays are, in their order of appearance: David Wood, Eduardo de la Vega Alfaro, Claudia Arroyo, Aleksandra Jablonska, James Ramey, Jesse Lerner, Mauricio Díaz, Mara Fortes, Alicia Vargas, Michael Schuessler, Jesús-Mario Lozano, Lauro Zavala, and Paul Julian Smith. It will be published by CONACULTA and UAM in 2010.
The colloquium in 2008 set the stage for the Sepancine conference that you attended in 2009. Judging from that, some of the topics that seem to spur the most interest among film scholars in Mexico are: border theory and migration, mobility studies, national vs. transnational cinema, queer theory, adaptation, intertextuality, semiotics, gender studies, ethnicity (especially indigenous film issues), documentary theory, and cinematic representations of Mexican history/cultures/races/gender/nation.
Patricia: What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
James: Along with Lauro Zavala and Jacqueline Gómez, I was a member of the conference’s Organizing Committee for the 2009 conference in Morelia.
Since 2003 I have worked with the Morelia International Film Festival as Academic Adviser, so I also served as liason between the two events, which were scheduled in tandem. This all came about as a result of the Nation, Image, Reading colloquium that I organized with my UAM colleagues Michael Schuessler and Claudia Arroyo at Morelia in 2008.
In preparation for that, in order to find people working on topics related to national cinema theory in Mexico, we took recourse to a government system called "Promep" that lists Cuerpos Académicos (working groups of professors) at hundreds of Mexican universities, along with their areas of interest. Basically, we sent the 2008 conference description to 28 groups who mentioned "cine" in their online profile. We got enthusiastic responses from most of them, and discovered that none of them knew about the existence of the others.
One of the responses came from Lauro Zavala, and it was thus that we discovered, to our happy surprise, the existence of an association of Mexican film theorists: Sepancine. Lauro and Sepancine were not yet in contact with most of the 28 working groups we had found, and I think he was impressed with our outreach, so he offered to set up a special session of Sepancine during the 2008 colloquium. That was the beginning of our working relationship, and now I am pleased to say that Lauro is a member of my own working group, Expression and Representation.
I should also note that we saw the need to create a network of those scholarly groups working on film, and this network has now coalesced into something called "Red CACINE", which means "network of academic groups working on film". It has 12 members in Mexico and Argentina so far, and we think it will continue to grow (those groups, Mexican or international, interested in joining us should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Friday, November 27, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
James Ramey and Morelia
I first met James Ramey when I was invited to attend the Morelia International Film Festival in 2005. It was an absolutely heady experience: explosive filmmaking talent in fiction and nonfiction, an entire conference within the festival with Mexican indigenous filmmakers, and international players from the film industry.
When I returned this year with NAMAC codirector and documentary director Helen De Michiel to present at the Sepancine Conference, connected to the Morelia International Film Festival, that same eye-opening, attitude-changing intensity pulsated throughout. In both Mexican cinema and Mexican intellectual life, the stakes are high and the terrain is new and somewhat rocky. Ideas and people seem to connect in ways that makes new insights burst through the high desert like cactus flowers in spring.
Film scholar, festival organizer, colleague
Bilingual and living in Mexico, James Ramey was one of the Americans I met who helped to mount the festival. Gracious and collegial, Ramey is one of those people who you feel you have known forever. He always seems to be asking questions about research, about films, about filmmaking around the world, about creative economy best practices, about film theory.
James Ramey holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Film Studies from UC Berkeley, and is a visiting professor in the Humanities Department at the Metropolitan Autonomous University at Cuajimalpa in Mexico City. Among his publications are the anthology Mexico imaginado: Nuevos enfoques sobre el cine (trans)nacional (CONACULTA-UAM, 2010) and journal essays in Comparative Literature Studies, James Joyce Quarterly, and Comparative Literature. His current book project is entitled Micro-Modernism: The Pleasures of Parasitism in Joyce, Borges, Nabokov and Buñuel. He has been Academic Adviser to the Morelia International Film Festival since its inception in 2003.
Let me add one little footnote here to James' impressive credentials. I've taught Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou probably 100 times; each shot is tatooed on my brain. I didn't think it was possible for anyone to read that film in any new way. That is, until I heard James' conference presentation where he literally dissected the film, demonstrating irrefutably its links, allusions and inscriptions to insects.
Patricia: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and analysis? What are its goals?
James: Lauro Zavala and several colleagues started "Sepancine/Mexican Association of Film Theory and Analysis" in May 2005 as part of an admirable effort to solidify an academic field of film studies in Mexico and open a space for dialogue between Mexican film scholars and people working on film in other parts of the world.
It has organized five annual conferences, published several collections of articles, and has helped to create a network of national and international working groups on film studies. Main goals for the future are to start a scholarly journal of film studies and convince academic institutions in Mexico to open Film Studies departments.
Patricia: What is the role of film theory and analysis in Mexican universities? How is it developing? How is film education in film theory and analysis organized for graduate students and undergraduates in Mexico? Why is film theory and analysis necessary and urgent in Mexico?How does film theory relate to preparing the next generation of Mexican filmmakers, and the next iteration of the Mexican film industry?
James: Film scholarship has existed in a limited form for many decades in Mexico, focused chiefly on film history and historiography. Indeed, Mexican academia has produced some excellent film scholars, such as Aurelio de los Reyes, Jorge Ayala Blanco, and Lauro Zavala, who is the leading practitioner of film theory per se in Mexico.
But Mexican university administrators still tend to view the study of film as a minor subdivision of other disciplines, like communication, art history or literature. Film is also studied in an academic way (including some theory and analysis) at major Mexican film schools such as the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfico and the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos. But while those are very good film schools, they do not offer their graduates the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree (licenciatura), which means they cannot generally go on to study an M.A. at a major international film school, which is an important step in the careers of many filmmakers at that age (apparently the CUEC is seeking to grant a licenciatura, but it hasn’t happened yet).
It is my understanding that until this year there were no undergraduate or graduate programs in Film Studies per se, though students and faculty at many universities have skirted this problem by allowing students in related fields to focus on film in their thesis or dissertation projects.
My understanding (and I would be happy to be corrected) is that the first undergraduate program in film studies was opened October 2, 2009, in Morelia, during the Sepancine conference, at the new Instituto Mexicano de Investigaciones Cinematográficos y Humanísticos (IMICH). This government-authorized institution, headed up by the talented Dr. Alba Estrada, offers the equivalent of a U.S. liberal arts degree with a major in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production, and has a very good, ecumenical course program (disclaimer: I helped design it). It also offers a master’s degree in Film Studies and Audiovisual Production.
At Sepancine, a group of professors from the University of Guadalajara announced that they are starting a similar degree program, and I know Lauro Zavala is proposing to create an M.A. in Film Theory and Analysis at the UAM-Xochimilco in Mexico City. It is our hope that this new trend will catch on, since that would enable the academic "supply" in Mexico to meet the strong demand.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Rerouting Our Vectors
The Sepancine Film Theory and Analysis Conference at the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico underscored for me in very bold and startling ways just how euro-centric and global north-located so much of what we consider film theory has become, despite its embrace of interrogations of :
While sitting in the Palacio Clavijero lecture hall with the elegant, sweeping, baroque fountain sprouting water outside the door, I heard brilliant analyses about films I didn’t know about. I listened to debates that never migrate el norte. I met passionate scholars mining the theoretical complexities of Mexican and Latin American cinemas beyond the confines of national identity formation. It was exhilarating. I loved being thrown into a place where I didn't have any of the usual coordinates.
Larger Conversations beyond El Norte
Sitting there drinking endless limonadas (a mix of freshly squeezed lemon, seltzer, salt and some sugar—organic , non-corporate Gatorade!) to fortify myself against the high altitude and dry desert climate, I realized how vitally important it is to reroute our vectors as intellectuals, programmers and cultural activists to enter into larger conversation.
This strategy is especially urgent when we as film theorists and historians are located deep in the intestines of the most powerful transnational film industry the globe has ever seen. It rules the world through the soft occupations of this mega-industry called:
In the open air café where strolling guitarists played at my table while I furiously typed notes and ideas on my blue Asus netbook, I thought about how urgent it is at the current moment of panic and fear to open our own spaces to debates and ideas beyond our own training and comfort zones.
Meet Dr. Lauro Zavala, Universidad Metropolitana (UAM), Mexico City and Sepancine
And I wondered, who is behind this gathering bringing together film scholars from Mexico with scholars from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa? Someone had the vision to pull this off.
I searched. The answer: Lauro Zavala.
So I contacted Dr. Zavala in the hopes he would share his ideas about Mexican film theory with a North American audience, so that those vectors could bend, shift, and maybe point in another direction. And open up space for some transnational dialogue between scholars, film programmers, and students.
Dr. Zavala is on the faculty at Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) at Mexico City,where, since 1984, he has worked on intertextual semiotics. He is the autor of the only textbook on film analysis in Latin America, Elementos del discurso cinematográfico, which won the Textbook Award at UAM, and has been reprinted several times. Of Universidad Metropolitana (UAM) is the second most important university in Mexico, after the National University. He holds a Ph.D. in literary theory from El Colegio de México. He serves as editor of El Cuento en Red, a refeered scholarly journal focused on short story theory, created 10 years ago. http://cuentoenred.xoc.uam.mx
Incredibly prolific, Dr. Zavala has written a dozen books on narratology in film and literature. He’s also written a dozen books on other subjects such as semiotics, scholarly publishing, museum theory. And, he has served as editor of a dozen literary anthologies, published in different universities. These are significant achievements since scholarly publishing in Mexico is extremely difficult.
In 1998, Dr. Zavala initated the International Conference on Short Short Fiction (Minificción). This compelling conference is held every other year in European and Latin American universities. Minifiction is the most recent genre in literary history, and its extraordinary growth in Latin America (in the writings of Borges, Cortázar, Arreola, etc.) has produced the first literary theory in the Spanish language. As an extension of this theorizing, he is also working on a semiotics of audiovisual minifiction (trailers, spots, credits, videoclips, etc.).
Dr. Zavala’s research interests focus on producing models of analysis in narrative theory, aesthetics of film and related fields. Some of his books are devoted to the theory and analysis of irony, metafiction, short fiction, post-modern narrative (from a formalist perspective), and intersemiotic translation. As measure of his influence, he has supervised over 200 dissertations on film and literary analysis.
The Interview, Part I
PRZ: Can you describe and explain Sepancine? Why was it formed? What purpose does it serve in the development of Mexican film theory and? What are its goals?
LZ: Sepancine is the Mexican Society for Film Theory and Analysis. Its name means Seminario Permanente de Análisis Cinematográfico. It was created last year (2008) with the purpose of promoting the construction of a strong humanistic scholarly tradition on film theory and analysis in Mexican universities. Whereas the prevailing approach in cinema studies in Latin America is focused on social sciences, Sepancine holds a humanistic approach, focused on the viewer and his/her aesthetic experience.
The main goal of Sepancine is contributing to the creation of film theory and analysis in the region. This means the creation of graduate programs, scholarly journals, international conferences, collective books, public film archives, digital video discs with simultaneous comments from experts, and other similar projects.
Sepancine holds a permanent seminar for the discussion of film theory, which meets every month since 4 years ago. So far we have produced three journal issues, four collective books, and five scholarly conferences. Also, we have been participating in institutional projects, such as the creation of the National Museum of Film (Museo Nacional de Cine en México, to be opened in 2010), and the creation of a national and international net of research groups, especially with our colleagues in Argentina (ASAECA), Brazil (SOCINE), Spain (AEHC), and France (AFECCAV).
During the Morelia conference (held in October 2009), we presented the translation into Spanish of the most recent book by Robert Stam, The Theory and Practice of Adaptation (a coedition between Mexico National University and Sepancine). Now we are translating the most recent book by Michel Marie, about cinema studies in France. Last year we had Warren Buckland as our conference keynote speaker, and we produced a subtitled DVD with his lecture and film clips.
PRZ:What has been your role in the organization of Sepancine?
LZ: I am the founder of Sepancine, and have been the president since its creation. Of course, there is also a directive committee, and we have an assembly every year. I usually make the calendar of activities for the following year, and I organize the working sessions at the international conference. At this moment there are over 50 active members of Sepancine, most of them holding a Ph.D., or preparing a dissertation on cinema studies.
In 1996 I organized a national conference on film teaching and research, as a celebration for the first 100 years since film arrived in Mexico. Ten years later I created a national conference on film theory and analysis, which has been held every year since then. Last year (2008) the conference became international. In 2009 we had papers from a dozen countries.
PRZ: What are the major debates in film theory/analysis in Mexico and Latin America? How do these debates and their contexts differ from the debates in film theory/analysis in Europe and the United States?
The main debates in film theory and analysis in Latin America are related to the overall project of having cinema studies acknowledged as a relevant field worth being taught from elementary to grad school. I understand this is not necessarily so in the US or in Europe, or even in some Asian universities. We are involved in what we call an audiovisual alphabetization process, which enables every citizen of a democracy to be able to read critically the products of audiovisual media. And this involves not only the perspective of social sciences, but the semiotic, philosophical and aesthetic dimensions of watching a movie. This is the main debate.
Another important difference with film research in Europe and the US are our working conditions. There is no Mexican university holding a Department of Cinema Studies. There is no Mexican (or Latin American) Institute of Film Analysis, or even a scholarly journal devoted to cinema studies. In contrast with this, every university in Latin America holds a Department of Literature, and there are magnificent centers for literary research. Many of us hold a Ph.D. on Literature (or on any other field), because there are no graduate programs on Cinema Studies in any Latin American university.
Finally, film research is based on film archives. Here we have an important difference too. There is an urgent need to promote the creation of public film archives available in every city in Latin America, and a need to have access to films that are being produced. We do not have access to films produced in the rest of Latin America at all. Over 90% of all Mexican screens are showing US movies. This was stated by Sepancine during the recent Iberoamerican Cultural Summit, held in Mexico in October 2008.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I dare you: Imagine a world where innovative documentaries tour around a country in major cineplexes with state of the art digital projection and THX sound.
No, not the next Michael Moore sardonic-missionary-I’m-gonna-teach-you-about-America’s-problems doc. No, not the next-big-budget –genre-pix-hipster-white-dudes-with-a-purpose theatrical docs like Food Inc, The Cove, Chicago 10.
Imagine yourself going to a multiplex theater with a rooftop bar and seeing films like Natalia Almada’s El General, a feature length, epic, experimental essay ruminating on one hundred years of power in Mexico, or Alexandra Halkin’s Migrar y Morir, an expose of transnational agribusiness exploitation of workers and the environment in Sinaloa.
Now, remember this name and repeat after me: Ambulante.
Ambulate is a traveling documentary film festival in Mexico that brings new long form documentaries pushing the edges of the genre to 12 cities around Mexico, spanning Monterrey, Tijuana and Leon in the north, Morelia, Mexico City and Puebla in central Mexico, and San Cristobal and Oaxaca in the south. The screenings fill the house.
“There are no opportunities to distribute documentaries in Mexico,” explained Elena Fortes, the feisty, focused, and ferociously sharp director of Ambulante. “ There is basically no educational market for documentary like in the United States, plus, very few independent art houses exist.” Fortes, 30 years old, is also one of the documentary programmers for the Morelia International Film Festival. Her twin sister Mara Fortes, a PhD student in film theory at the University of Chicago, also works at the festival.
In 2005, movie stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna (who first came into prominence in the 2001 breakthrough Mexican new wave narrative Y Tu Mama Tambien directed by Alfonso Cuaron) devised a plan to produce low budget films to counter the caricatures and stereotyping of Mexicans in commercial Hollywood films. To address this issue as well as the bottleneck on distribution and exhibition, they created Ambulante to promote the screening and production of documentary in Mexico.
Ambulante carves out space for documentary in an economic context offering very few openings for independent Mexican cinematic visions to blossom. Transnational Holllywood films from TriStar, Universal, Warner and Columbia dominate 92% of Mexican screens. 87% of television is controlled by two broadcasters.
Through a partnership with the Morelia International Film Festival and Cinepolis, the largest motion picture exhibitor in Mexico and Latin America and the fifth largest in the world, Ambulate programs Mexican and international documentaries for theatrical exhibition. With its stadium seating, state of the art projection, excellent sight lines, and surround sound, Cinepolis removes some of prejudice against documentary in Mexico, where it is often confused with news or broadcast fare.
In the United States, it’s hard to imagine a major exhibitor partnering with a nonprofit to get demanding and aesthetically sophisticated documentaries into theaters. But with very few art cinemas left in Mexico, Cinepolis is the only game around. Plus, the CEO of Cinepolis, Alejandro Ramirez, is a movie mogul cut from a different cloth than his counterparts el norte: as well known internationally as an exhibitor as a human rights activist (he worked on poverty for the United Nations Development Program), he is committed to documentary and nurturing Mexican film.
“Develar realidades, confrontarlas, inventarlas, criticarlas, transformarlas” (unveil realities, confront them, invent them, criticize them, transform them) is the mantra of Ambulante. Ambulante, according to Fortes, does as much work programming as it does building audiences. It works: their screenings at the multiplexes are jammed.They are bringing documentaries to different regions and audiences in Mexico, not waiting for audiences to find them.
For their 2009 season, Ambulante programmed a gutsy mix of international and Mexican documentaries. Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008), Emerald (Apichatpong Weerasethal, Thailand, 2007), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, US/Germany, 2007) and Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin, Singapore, 2007) suggest the range of styles and approaches, from compilation to observation to reenactment to meditation. Mexican documentaries included Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez, Mexico, 2009)which questions the legal system and rules of evidence in Mexico, Those Who Remain (Juan Carlos Rulfo, Mexico, 2008), an exploration of the impact of immigration on families, and Voices Silenced (Maria del Carmen de Lara, Mexico, 2008), an expose into the question of civil rights and freedom of speech in Mexico.
At this year’s Morelia Festival, Presumed Guilty not only grabbed a long standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” but nabbed the top prize for documentary.
“The 60s and 70s filmmakers were heavily influenced by film movements in Argentina and Cuba as well as the international student movements of the period,” observed Fortes. “Their works were much more interventionist than the documentaries we see today, which have a new form, often more observational or using different forms.”
In Mexico, a new wave of documentary has blossomed beyond the more typical stories of immigration, in such collaborative poetic films like Flores de Diesierto, made with the Huicholes people, hybrid experimental, meditative documentary essays like El General , and La Cuerda Floja, a Spanish produced acutely photographed observational film about a traditional circus family. All of these films screened at the Morelia International Film Festival this year.
But there’s a rather disturbing gender divide in Mexican film production. Most of the Mexican narrative features and shorts at this year’s Morelia International Film Festival were directed by men. With its smaller budgets and crews, documentary has been more accessible. Lucia Gaja, Natalia Almada, Alejandra Sanchez, Daniela Ludlow, Guadalupe Miranda, and Eva Andjis are important figures in Mexican documentary with international visibility.
But Elena Fortes foresees some possibility for change. In 2008, the Mexican government inaugurated a tax incentive to stimulate the Mexican film industry. Still, most production is concentrated in Mexico City and Quadalajara, where the major filmmaking schools are located.
Despite the challenges of the gender divide, transnational corporate control of product, and the documentary moniker stigma, Ambulante has done something hard to imagine anywhere else in the world: they’ve connected necessary and urgent documentaries, a major multiplex and large engaged audiences.
They’ve dared to make the unimaginable possible. Ambulante. Remember the name.