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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:54PM   |  3 comments
Image of Plutarco Elias Calles, President of Mexico, from Natalia Almada's El General

Narcotrafficantes, U.S. State Department travel advisories, and swine flu.

That’s the incantation I’ve heard repeatedly when I mention to friends and family that I am traveling to Mexico for a film theory conference and an international film festival.  Be careful, they warn. If you don’t get abducted, you’ll be stopped at a roadblock, machine guns rammed up your armpits. If you don’t get slammed with swine flu, the narcos will get you.

But another trio populates my cinematic landscape.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alfonzo Cuaron.

These three directors broke open the Mexican New Wave in the early 2000s, a gritty, passionate, violent, visceral,  neorealist style mixed with complex –to-the-edge –of-discomfiting acting,  with films like Amores Perroes (Inarritu), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Cuaron)  and Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro).

The industry trade paper Variety has pointed out that Mexico’s cinematic resurgence and seemingly endless innovations in documentary and narrative films of the last decade did not just hatch from the minds of artistes suffering alone. This movement has been fueled by a convergence of what Variety has euphemistically dubbed “protracted political, social, and economic crises” since the 1990s, the disturbances of the Free Trade agreement, and the shift  from one party to a sputtering, troubled democracy.  Recently, the Mexican government has provided tax incentives for production.

When  I attended the Morelia International Film Festival in 2004, a conversation I had with a Hollywood entertainment industry  insider underscored for me the intricate connections between a vibrant film culture and  politics.  This industry player joined me for breakfast in our classic colonial hotel on the plaza next to the magnificent cathedral.  He wanted, he said, to hang out with a “real film theorist.”

Of course, I was instantly flattered even though I knew that schmoozing people up is hard wired into the software of the entertainment industry. I never have minded this—I am often charmed by its civility since it is about as opposite of academia as I can imagine.

In Ithaca, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone exclaim, “gee, I’d really really like to talk to a film historian and theorist. Really, I would. Really. No lie..”   So  I asked Mogul X why. He said, “why not?"Then he let out a big chortles. "It’s a film festival," he explained. " You get to talk to people you wouldn’t normally meet and learn new concepts and words you can toss around at pitch meetings.” 

I shared that I usually don’t have breakfasts with movie moguls from Hollywood back in upstate New York,  since our commercial film industry went under almost a century ago in the late teens.

I asked Mogul X  why he was in Mexico.  “Talent raids,” he calmly replied.  “When you have political destabilizations, poverty, violence, huge international issues, uprisings, demonstrations,  passion,  and guts to do something new with narratives and camera angles and actors, you have a recipe for great filmmaking.”

I must admit, I really liked this guy. His honesty utterly engaged me.  He cut through the hype and the buzz that infects even the most serious festivals. There, at breakfast, was the history of Hollywood—always mining the globe for talent and markets, a practice that originated in the studio system of the 1920s with moguls like Carl Laemmle who journeyed back to Germany to pick up talented directors and actors for Universal Studios.

Talent raids and moguls aside, another trio actually resonates for me more deeply—and with greater anticipation-- as I wait at Newark International Airport,  sipping bad coffee from MacDonalds and typing on my new blue Asus netbook on the Boingo international wireless network used by transnational airport denizens. Around the corner from me is a Juan Valdez Café, with a large line drawing of what I guess is Juan the man himself, topped off by a sombrero.  Mexico for export.  Mexico shorn of its problems, its specificities and its images in a place-less transnational airport zone.

But then, there's a counterattack to the neutralization of Mexico for export: Natalia Almada, Dante Cerano, and Daniela Michel. 

These are the three people I’m looking forward to seeing in Morelia. 

Almada is perhaps one of the most talented documentary filmmakers in Mexico, exemplified in her film about narcocorridos and immigration, Al Otro Lado (screened with Natalia at FLEFF 2005) She’ll be at the Morelia Film Festival with her stunning new epic, El General, an evocative and probing feature documentary poetic essay on the Mexican Revolution and her family’s relationship to the complex political legacy of Mexico. 

Dante Cerano is one of the most original indigenous filmmakers in the world. A P’urhepecha from Michoacan state, his films opened my eyes to the variety of works--poetic and political and environmental--produced by indigenous makers.  We’ve programmed indigenous works at FLEFF ever since. 

And Daniela Michel is the effusive, gracious and cuttingly brilliant director of the Morelia International Film Festival who has the vision and the moxy to mix Hollywood movie stars, art films from Cannes,  indigeneous works, experimental cinema, and political documentaries together to rusrtle up a combustible brew.

This year, she’s done something that literally stopped me in my tracks: she’s programmed 20 Romanian films, contending that Mexico and Romania share some similar trajectories. Christian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days was probably the most powerful and disturbing film we programmed for FLEFF’s 2008 edition.  It’s a rigorous, disciplined style of filmmaking that captures the intensities of being pregnant—and not wanting to be—in communist Romania before the fall.

Groundbreaking cinematic New Waves have erupted in both countries  with some of the most riveting, gut wrenching, disturbing, stay-with-you-for weeks films.  I am intrigued to see more and to figure out the connections between these big three.

No, not narcotrafficantes, travel advisories, or swine flu. I’ll leave those overwrought sensationalized beats to Fox and CNN.  I’m resolved to be “al otro lado”, working on figuring out a different triad: international feature films, Mexican political documentaries, and indigenous media.

More on-the-ground reports from Morelia to come.




Digging deep into the darkest hours of people living in a country during times of struggle, rebellion, depression....leaves fimlmakers with great material and talent, I can see that. It also leaves them with a huge responsibility in telling those stories. I wonder to what degree the film makers are drawn into the actual conflicts and turmoil that they're trying to bring across in their film. It must be really haunting for them. Some films leave me dazed for weeks by simply viewing it. I cannot imagine how emotionally draining it would be to work on a project born of such dire circumstances. This must be why film making is left to the artists, the passionate. Mexico sounds like the perfect place for you to be right now, besides, I hear the coffee is better there than in Newark. Just remember to support shade-grown coffee whenever you can!

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