Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio: (Non-)Professional Acting and Authenticity in Mexico

I have been thinking a lot about performance – of the self, gender, on screen, online – in recent years. Most recently, this led me write about performance and authenticity in Amat Escalante’s work as a way into thinking about his work as prestige productions. To situate this discussion and to give a sense of typical/atypical careers for actors in Mexico, I looked at Diego Luna and Yalitza Aparicio. He is a well-established actor, whilst she falls under what is called a non-professional actor.

Although particularly successful in that his trajectory is representative of other, perhaps less well-known actors, Luna crosses over between commercial and arthouse cinema. He began with small parts in Mexican television telenovelas (soap operas), such as, Ángeles sin paraíso (1992), El abuelo y yo (1993), and La vida en el espejo (1999), alongside occasional small parts in low-budget Mexican films.  Mexican telenovelas tend to be of fixed duration and are produced quickly with an emphasis on exaggerated gestures and close-ups on the characters’ emotional responses. With Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000) Luna took his first English-language role and shortly thereafter took a lead role alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Gael García Bernal, in Y tú mama también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001). Subsequently, this has led to numerous film and television roles in Mexico and abroad including arthouse films such as, Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), high-profile roles in the Star Wars franchise film Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and a lead role in the Netflix TV series Narcos: Mexico (2018-). Luna’s performances cross-genres, media, and platforms. He is a highly mobile translational star acting in Spanish and English and has worked as a director and producer. Across his multiple roles, his acting style conveys a “realistic portrayal of characters through in-depth psychological analysis and bodily transformation” that demonstrates he has acquired the cultural capital to conform to Hollywood and arthouse acting styles (Leung 2009, 20). However, his tendency to be stereotyped in English-language roles that require him to act Latino encourage excessive movement “focused on the surface such as facial expressions that look[ed] good in close-up” typical of television acting (Leung 2009, 21). An example of this can be seen in the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018). Luna’s move between styles of acting and across genres is a particularly successful iteration of what it means to be a Mexican transnational film star. He demonstrates range and a capacity to adapt his style as required with a primarily realist approach.

Luna’s professional career trajectory contrasts with that of the non-professional actor, as a recent example reveals. In 2019 he interviewed Yalitza Aparicio, the protagonist of Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018), someone whose foundational narrative resembles that of many of the actors in Escalante’s films, I will discuss in my forthcoming book. She is a non-professional who expresses a desire to return to Central Mexico to fulfil her previous ambition to become a teacher (Luna 2019). Although, she often mentions it in interviews, it is seldom commented that she comes from a family of performers and has had experience on stage. Aparicio describes Alfonso Cuarón’s direction as similar to that of Escalante’s in that she was not shown the screenplay, a decision which was intended to provoke instinctive responses to other (non-)actors (Luna 2019). In interviews, Escalante has discussed this same process with the actors across his films. Considering how this method changed in the making of the horror film La región salvaje reveals much about his previous approach. La región salvaje “was the first time I gave my actors a screenplay. In previous projects, since the cast were not interested in being actors, we would work in the moment and they wouldn’t read the screenplay because I didn’t want to confuse them with a lot of information” (Aguilar 2017). For him, this directorial style results in spontaneous performances born of minimal knowledge of the narrative arc and is integral to working with nonprofessional actors. In Los bastardos and Heli Escalante elicited subtle low-key realist performances that, combined with an audio-visual style using long wide shots and close-ups conform to the aesthetics of arthouse cinema aiming to convey authenticity.

In my chapter, I will be looking at Escalante and how his work is read in terms of taste and consider the idea of the authentic and natural in relation to the non-professional actor. For me, the non-professional actor as a concept is under-explored, in particular in relation to recent thinking around authenticity. What’s here is a working through of something and little of the above will be in the book, but it was a way into the issue for me.

Reading

Aguilar, Carlos (2017) “Pleasure and Pain in Guanajuato: Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is an Unusual Sort of Creature Feature” Movie Maker, 1 August, https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/tentacle-love-amat-escalante-on-creating-the-creature-in-the-untamed-and-filming-in-his-native-guanajuato/

Luna, Diego (2019) “Diego Luna Interviews ‘Roma’ Oscar Nominee Yalitza Aparicio — Exclusive”, Indiwire Feb 13, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/02/diego-luna-roma-interview-yalitza-aparicio-1202043684/

Leung, Wing-Fai W. (2009) “From Wah Dee to CEO: Andy Lau and Performing the Authentic Hong Kong Star”, Film International(40): 19-28.

 

Review: Los cárteles no existen – Oswaldo Zavala

Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.

Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.

For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile.  This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).

Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.

Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).**  However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.

*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.

 

 

Presentation Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria

This is the presentation I gave at UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies in advance of the screening of Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria, 16 October 2018.

I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the events leading up to the massacre on the 2nd of October 1968. So, you will not need me to rehearse the frequent marches, the long history of workers protests, the student dissatisfaction with failed government promises, the international context which empowered young people to stand up and demand civil rights and a fairer future. From Derry to Prague, Paris to Chicago, London to Mexico City, young people, often supported by a wider movement stood up and marched for a better life.

The Mexican armed forces acting against those students were not uniquely violent, but their response was under scrutiny as a consequence of being on a world stage because of the Olympics held that October in Mexico City. The subsequent vilification by the government of the protestors is also not unique, but the continued silence over the exact events is now an outlier. There are still only guestimates (anywhere from 44 to 400) about how many were killed and how many disappeared. This is where the visual archive matters. The image of shoes left behind at the scene and the bloodstained Tlatelolco Square of the following morning retains its poignancy and emotional weight because they evoke absence and loss.

https://aristeguinoticias.com/0210/kiosko/5-peliculas-sobre-el-2-de-octubre/

There is an extensive audio-visual archive that runs to 8 hours of film and has been reproduced repeatedly. The first and most famous use of the footage was El grito (1968) directed by Leobardo López Aretche. Collectively made by the students who were given lightweight cameras from the recently founded Film school, they shot what they witnessed. This audio-visual material has helped recall the events. They are a testament to the gaps in history.

Some of the archive has appeared in fiction films, such as the docudrama Canoa (1976) by Felipe Cazals and El bulto (1992) by Gabriel Retes. Footage has been picked over and used time and again in what has become the life work of the documentarian, Óscar Menéndez in his successive films: Dos de octubre, aquí México (1968), Historia de un documento (1971) and México, 68 (1992). Another who has used this material over and again is Carlos Mendoza in films such as Operación Galeana (2000) and Tlatelolco, las claves de la massacre (2002).

The series organised by UNAM, UK focuses on non-fiction film and I want to draw attention to the fiction films, which are worth seeking out to get a deeper understanding of this moment and reveal ever-evolving attempts to understand 1968. As well as the famous first fiction film, Rojo amanecer (1989) by Jorge Fons there are two other notable fiction films: ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? (1981), a 35minute film directed by Maryse Sistach made while she was a student in London, and the Mexican-German-Spanish co-production, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? (2002) by Eva López Sánchez. All notable attempts to understand the past from the perspective of those with little power.

My work has considered these films (Thornton, 2013), but I am also interested in those films ostensibly about the Mexican Revolution, but where 1968 emerges as a means of working through this moment in films as varied as Reed, México Insurgente (1970) by Paul Leduc, the big budget Emiliano Zapata (1970) by Felipe Cazals, De todos modos Juan te llamas by Marcela Fernández Violante (1975), and the 1976 adaptation of Los de abajo by Servando González. Leduc, Cazals and Fernández Violante all merit analysis (Thornton, 2017) and have received varying degrees of attention, but I want to briefly consider the unusual case of the last of these, Servando González. His career was marked by 1968 because he was employed by the army to shoot film on their behalf. This was material he claimed to have fully handed over to them and to be innocent of its later use. His reputation never recovered and his later career was spent justifying and exploring this legacy.

To turn to Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarría. Echevarría is a filmmaker with foothold in the recent and distant past. Memorial del 68 was a film he made as a result of an invitation by the Museo Memorial del 68 in the Centro Cultural Universitario de Tlatelolco de la UNAM on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary. So, it is very fitting to look at it again in the light of the 50th anniversary. It has been played on a loop in the museum for visitors to pause and listen to the testimonies of those who were witnesses to the events. It has been distributed via festivals and shown on television. The Mexican academic, Diego Zavala Scherer, praised the film for this capacity to move across different spaces because its intention is to tell the story of what happened to the widest possible audience and to give an accurate historic account of the events.

The film makes strong use of testimonials through straight to camera interviews. There are 57 testimonials in all. Testimonials are key to events where the historical truth has yet to be acknowledged by the authorities. By speaking to notable figures and witnesses to the events, including activists Raúl Alvarez Garín, Luis Tomás Cervantes Cabeza de Vaca, Pablo Gómez, and writers José Agustín, David Huerta, Carlos Monsiváis, Andrea Revueltas, Nacha Rodríguez, and Elena Poniatowska, Echevarría is building a full picture and loading up evidence where justice is still absent.

Sergio Raúl Arroyo, director of the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, described Memorial del 68 as

“un trabajo que tiende a extenderse, cuyo sentido principal es crear una memoria audiovisual que nos permita acercarnos al 68 como fenómeno central en la historia contemporánea de México,”

[a film that pushes beyond its limits, whose primary aim is to create an audio-visual memorial that lets us get closer to 68, which was a central event in contemporary Mexican history”]

What is clear is that it is a respectful memorial that is constructed out of multiple perspectives that merit our attention.

This memorial is a radical act of remembrance and bearing witness. The late intellectual and essayist, Carlos Monsiváis, who wrote about 1968, stated that “The massacre is so monstrous that there is no way to approach it”. Echevarría’s attempt is one of pushing back and broaching an overwhelming need to tell the impossible. Memorial del 68 is born of an urgent need to gather stories before the protagonists are gone and to help uncover the truth behind a terrible event.

 

Thanks to Axel Elías for organising this event and to Adrián Guillermo Aguilar and Ana Elena González of the UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies for inviting me.

Reading

Thornton, Niamh. “Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking: the case of Marcela Fernandez Violante” in Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw eds., Latin American Women Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.

—. Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Cinema, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Zavala Scherer, Diego (nd) “El memorial del 68, (Nicolás Echevarría, 2008): Recuerdo vivo, forma expandida”, El ojo que piensa, http://www.elojoquepiensa.cucsh.udg.mx/assets/ojo01/4Elmemorial.pdf

Podcasts on migration, asylum and border crossing

The following are a selection of podcasts that help understand migrant issues, asylum seeking and border crossing. Some look at the macro and others consider individual stories.

 

Immigration and Asylum

Bureaucratic war cracking down on immigration and asylum seekers to the US “Let Me Count the Ways”, This American Life, 14 September 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/656/let-me-count-the-ways

A case study of a poultry town, precarious employment, and migration: “Our Town the Economists Report”, This American Life, 8December 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/extras/our-town-the-economists-report

How it is complex to expel individuals: “Send in the Gowns”,This American Life, 19 January 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/636/i-thought-it-would-be-easier/act-one-2

How an image of Spanish-African border in Melilla was used by Trump: “Melilla, Mexico and Trump”, This American Life, 21 March 2018,  https://www.thisamericanlife.org/extras/melilla-mexico-and-trump

*The high price of PTSD: “A la distancia”, Radio Ambulante, 28 November 2011, http://radioambulante.org/audio/a-la-distancia

Crossing the Guatemalan-Mexican border and the awareness of the nature of privileged border-crossing: “El vacío”, Radio Ambulante, 10 January 2017, http://radioambulante.org/audio/el-vacio

The challenge of border crossing: “The Port of Entry”, Latino USA, 31 July 2018, https://latinousa.org/2018/07/31/theportofentry/

 

Child migration and separation of children from their parents

Valeria Luiselli “The Questionnaire”, This American Life, 6 October 2017, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/627/suitable-for-children/act-three

*Numbers of child migrants in detention and their consequences: “Tolerancia cero”, Radio Ambulante, 22 June 2018 http://radioambulante.org/audio/tolerancia-cero

Family separation: “Torn Apart I: Sign Here”, Latino USA, 14 August 2018, https://latinousa.org/2018/08/14/tornapart1signhere/

Parents trying to stay as close as possible to their children: “We Keep the Walls Between Us as We Go”, This American Life, 16 March 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/641/the-walls/act-two-10

*Why young people are leaving Honduras: “No es país para jovenes”, Radio Ambulante, 27 February 2018, http://radioambulante.org/audio/no-es-pais-para-jovenes

Parents trying to find out the truth of their children’s disappearance in Long Island. It considers the way young people get caught up in violence committed by the MS13 gang and the consequence if “under- and over-policing Latinos” : “The Runaways”, This American Life, 21 September 2018, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/657/the-runaways 

 

Violence

*The dangers of being a journalist in Mexico: “Fue el estado”, Radio Ambulante, 23 January 2018, http://radioambulante.org/audio/fue-el-estado

 

*Poppy farming and its consequences on those who live among it: “Flor del diablo”, Radio Ambulante, 7 March 2017, http://radioambulante.org/audio/la-flor-del-diablo

 

*Programmes by Radio Ambulante have transcripts in Spanish, some also have transcripts in English.

Outsider Insiders: Francis Alÿs and Melanie Smith at the Liverpool Biennial

There are two artists who moved from Europe to Mexico exhibiting their work as part of the Liverpool Biennial 2018: Francis Alÿs at the VG&M and Melanie Smith at the Bluecoat. Alÿs from Belgium and Smith from the UK. As a country more associated with departures than arrivals, especially with the current US President, Donald Trump’s, emphasis on wall-building and keeping out migrants, this is a good moment to consider Mexico as a place which has a long tradition of being open to receiving outsiders. There have been key periods for growth in immigration to Mexico: the 1930s, when Spain was in the throes of its Civil War, there was an open invitation to those wanting to flee the conflict; welcomes were extended to those fleeing World War II in the 1930s and 1940s; in the 1950s others escaped McCarthyism and the US fear of the ‘red peril’; and so it has continued throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries. Amongst these numbers were a large number of artists, filmmakers, and writers including individuals as varied as the Spanish director Luis Buñuel, US novelist and screenwriter John Steinbeck, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the US author and activist Audre Lorde, and the Chorley-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington. Added to this distinguished list are Alÿs and Smith. Both of whom are purported to have found in Mexico a space to find themselves as artists and leave behind the politics of home.

I am not yet familiar with Alÿs’ work, but I had the opportunity to see Smith’s work whilst in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) [Modern Art Museum of Barcelona]. There she had a larger retrospective and it included the recent work being exhibited at the Bluecoat. She uses a variety of different media in her art. Her work portrays humanity set against the backdrop of large scale natural or manmade spaces. It is often dramatic, yet also affecting. Much of her work has been carried out in Mexico, although she has also work in Peru, Brazil and, most recently, Chile. Examples of these are her audio-visual recordings of the British collector and artists Edward James’ jungle space in Mexico in Xilitla: Dismantled 1 (2010) and Henry Ford’s failed experiment in the Brazilian forest in Fordlandia (2014) are expressions of the folly of individuals attempting to control and contain nature as well as subtle commentaries on colonialism.

Her work being shown at the Bluecoat is a video installation, María Elena (2018), named after the town and salt mine owned by the Guggenheim family. María Elena is set in the Atacama Desert in Chile resonant for many reasons and has elements of the significant recurrent themes in her work: labour, nature, and the effects of late capitalist economics on the landscape and people. To understand the significance of the Atacama Desert and as a useful companion piece, it is worth watching Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, 2010) in which he juxtaposes the grandeur of the space and its significance for international astronomers with the terrible legacy of Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared political prisoners during his dictatorship. The Atacama Desert is also rich in copper and nitrates, a significant source of income for Chile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth century and a space of much human exploitation. Previously, at the Bluecoat the Catalan artist, Xavier Ribas’s show Nitrate, explored the significance nitrate mining by British firms in the Atacama Desert. For these and other reasons, this work is highly evocative, captures the scale and drama of this landscape, and suggests at the particularities of its history. In her move from the UK to Mexico, it is clear that Smith has immersed herself in Mexican and Latin American culture, focused on the encounters between outsiders and established communities, and, as a consequence, creates highly nuanced and allusive work.

Having seen the work in Barcelona, in an open gallery space with beanbags as seating and other visitors moving through the space to see other parts of the exhibit, all of which was distracting. Therefore, getting to see it at the Bluecoat has distinct advantages. It is shown in an enclosed gallery space, albeit with some sound leaking from neighbouring installations. The seating is on a plush rug at a curious (and uncomfortable) slant, that vibrates when you see and hear the explosions in quadrophonic sound. The space gives it an immersive feel and makes it easier to spend time with the video. It is non-narrative and multi-layered in its referencing of different times, themes, and concepts. I would recommend going to see it, reading more about the locale and its history to get a deeper understanding, and then, returning to see it again.  Or, just enter into Smith’s evocative dreamscape that is both affirmative and chilling and see what that brings.

Coincidence and Curation Part II: The Liverpool Biennial, HUO and Agnès Varda

On Friday 13th July, I had the privilege of seeing Agnès Varda being interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO). The interview is now available online. They are both seasoned interviewer/interviewees and this was evident in the interaction. She is delightful, highly articulate, and gave fascinating responses to the questions. He was warm, careful, and attentive in his questions. In advance, I was curious as to how HUO, a big name in curatorship, would be with Varda, an artist and filmmaker of considerable reputation and skill. My concern was that he would be egotistical, whereas he was a generous interviewer, who facilitated Varda throughout. Later the same evening, I heard her interviewed on BBC4’s Front Row, where she proved herself a more difficult interviewee. In that case, the presenter, John Wilson, is soliciting  more news-ish questions, such as Varda’s attitude to the MeToo campaign. Through no fault of Wilson’s, because of the format and the need for brevity, it was a choppier piece. At FACT, HUO was soliciting a more wide-ranging conversation and could allow her space to respond, prompting her for clarification and following up, where needed. Watch the video for Varda, but also to get a sense of HUO’s skilled interviewing techniques.

Coincidence and Curation: The Liverpool Biennial, HUO and Me (or, at least, what I’m reading)

Curationism Buch jetzt portofrei bei Weltbild.de bestellen

I am finalising a book proposal, which means that I am avidly synthesising and summarising my ideas so that I can pitch it succinctly and clearly to a future publisher. The book is on tastemakers and tastemaking and will draw on some ideas around curation. For this, I have been reading Curationism (2015) by David Balzer, amongst other works. In this, he makes much of the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (often referred to as HUO), whose career up the point of writing, he summarises and critiques “[a]s the world’s most famous contemporary-art curator” who “sets a remarkable precedent, acting as the archetype for the professionalization and domination of his field” (Balzer 2015, 11). Prior to reading this book, I was not aware of HUO, so it came as a pleasant surprise to happen upon the announcement that HUO will be interviewing Agnès Varda at an opening event as part of the Liverpool Biennial on Friday 13th of July and I have managed to get tickets. She was the primary draw for me, but to see HUO will be an added attraction having read Balzer’s book.

In Curationism, Balzer dedicates a prologue to HUO seeming to both admire and decry his presence in the art world. He describes his busyness and industry, his connections to key players in the art world and celebrity (Kanye West, amongst others), and as “the typification of the curationist moment” as well as “its natural harbinger” (Balzer 2015, 21). HUO, for Balzer, is exemplary of a phenomenon that came out of three significant shifts in the art world: performance art, de-professionalization (or de-skilling) of artists, and decreased government funding which has made museums and galleries dependant on visitor numbers. Curation has become both highly specialist, idiosyncratic, and professionalized in the figure of HUO, and distributed, generalized, and amateur, as experienced by all of us in our everyday from online selves to real, lived experiences. We are, in Balzer’s words, living in a “curationist moment” (2015, 2). So, it is a fascinating moment to see one of the most (in)famous curators, HUO, speak to an invited curator-artist-director (celebrity curator, in Balzer’s terms), Varda, at a moment when public, gallery, and ad hoc pop-up spaces throughout the city of Liverpool will be carefully and artfully curated for the Biennial.

Reading

Balzer, David (2015) Curationism: How Curating Took Over the World, the Art World and Everything Else (London: Pluto Press).

Sea Birds, Liverpool, Clipperton and the Mexican Revolution

A recent art piece on the waterfront in Liverpool reminded me of the different possible approaches and modes of reflecting on a place and its inhabitants. This bird is a blue-legged Masked Booby who are primarily found on Clipperton, a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I have just finished editing a chapter on two novels Isla de pasión (1989) by the Colombian Laura Restrepo and Isla de bobos (2007) by the Mexican Ana García Bergua set on this atoll once occupied by Mexico where the birds are significant to the inhabitants.

Kings Dock, Liverpool

I am not a bird watcher, so recognizing such a distinctive breed was a novelty. Researching these novels required a multidisciplinary approach and meant drawing from theoretical approaches in literature, film, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and history. That these have more in common than differences is evident when I found myself making the shift to reading material from the sciences for this chapter to learn about Clipperton.

I found a very brief entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names that scarcely hints at the awful activities that took place in Clipperton. It is described as ‘[a]n island in the Pacific named after John Clipperton, an English mutineer and pirate, who used it as a base in 1705. It was annexed by France in 1855’ (Everett-Heath 2014, np). Clipperton was used as a landing post by the pirate because of its strategic location where he and his shipmates would stopover to avoid capture. Their smaller and sleeker vessels could traverse the tricky waters whilst the larger cargo vessels could not. In later centuries other nations (Great Britain, France, US, and Mexico) claimed the territory because of Clipperton’s strategic location.  As well as reading (more detailed) historical accounts, I had to turn to scientific research. The diver Michel Labrecque describes Clipperton as follows,

[t]hroughout the globe, many destinations can be described as unique or remote but only one deserves the title of the most isolated atoll in the world. Clipperton Atoll is located 870 miles (1400km) south of the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Far off in the Pacific Ocean, its latitude is equal to that of the northern portion of Costa Rica (Labrecque 2016, 44).

As described by Labrecque, Clipperton is still difficult to access, is occupied by millions of land crabs, surrounded by a healthy coral reef, nursery to Silvertip sharks, and home to unique fish species (the Clipperton Angelfish, Gregory and Grouper) (Labrecque 2016, 45-6). Although called an island, it is in fact “the only coral atoll in the eastern Pacific” (Charpy et al 2010, 771) and is ring-shaped surrounding a lagoon. An atoll is a circular coral reef and Clipperton is the result of volcanic activity and the residues and sedimentary deposits of organic matter from animal and plant life. The precise position is described as follows,

“This volcanic headland, rising only 29 m above sea level at its highest point, is located 1,280 km off the west coast of México, at 10° 18′ N and 109° 13′ W” (Fourriére et al 2014, 375).

In sum, it is a desirable yet challenging location for human habitation because of its isolation and geophysical make-up.

While its location has been important, for a time its wildlife made it valuable and a significant reason for contested occupations. García Bergua calls her novel La isla de bobos after the Brown Boobies and blue-legged Masked Boobies, seabirds who proliferate on the island and as an evaluation of the human inhabitants of that island (bobo = foolish). The nitrogen-rich guano of these seabirds was an important source of fertilizer until the advent of artificial fertilizers.

Clipperton was occupied by Mexican forces in the opening decades of the Twentieth century, at the outbreak of the 1910 Revolution the army men, their wives and children and workers as well as the people attached to the guano trade were abandoned by their government during the political turmoil. A place with little vegetation and resources, distant from accessible sources of food other than the seabirds and crabs that proliferate, the inhabitants soon suffered extreme and, sometimes, deadly cases of scurvy and died. For a short time, I found myself investigating scurvy. Although it did not make it to the last draft, the fact that men more readily succumb to death or madness with scurvy was a piece of information that was both illuminating and signaled why so many died whilst the women survived and suggested why the surviving men inflicted terrible trauma and harms on the women and children.

Restrepo and García Bergua’s novels recount the individual crimes that took place: murder, theft, assault, rape, army desertion, and kidnap. They explore the motives of the perpetrators and the contexts in which they took place. It is clear that the crimes were serious and had significant and long-term consequences on the survivors. Neither condones the actions of the individuals who committed the acts, instead they foreground the challenges involved in ascribing individual blame. They get to a partial truth behind the salacious details that were reported in the press at the time.  Whilst told using different stylistic and generic conventions, Restrepo and García Bergua hold individuals responsible for their actions and call the state and society to account for rendering women, children, and people of colour as inferior to men of European origin. Neither condone nor naturalise this individual violence, instead they lay it bare and make systemic violence culpable for what took place on this remote atoll.

The seabird on the Liverpool waterfront is more than just an unusual species, it is one that has considerable resonance for those who understand the history of Clipperton.

 

Selected reading

Charpy, L, M. Rodier, A. Coute, C. Perrette-Gallet, C. Bley-Loëz (2010) “Clipperton, a possible future for atoll lagoons” Coral Reefs 29:771–783

Everett-Heath, John (2014) The Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names (3 ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fourriére, Manon, Héctor Reyes-Bonilla, Fabián A. Rodríguez-Zaragoza, and Nicole Crane (2014) “Fishes of Clipperton Atoll, Eastern Pacific: Checklist, Endemism, and Analysis of Completeness of the Inventory Pacific Science”, vol. 68, no. 3:375–395 doi:10.2984/68.3.7

García Bergua, Ana (2007) Isla de bobos México: Seix Barral.

Restrepo, Laura (2005) La isla de la pasión New York: Rayo.

 

Central American Children and the Mexico-US border: Learn More

Teens on La Bestia

Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009)

The uproar surrounding the detention of children at the Mexican-US border has brought attention to the migration of Central Americans to the US.

‌The majority are from what is called the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – and are seeking asylum because of increased violence in their home nations. Many of these take a long, dangerous, and harrowing journey through Mexico, which is also tasked to police their transit through agreements with the US.

On arrival, they have the right under international law to request asylum in the US. This issue came to the public attention in the US when, in April 2018 for safety reasons 150-200 Central Americans travelled as a group through Mexico to get to the US border to petition for asylum.

Whilst many of these cases are being muddled with anti-immigration rhetoric by the current US government, there are complex historic and geo-political reasons for this current movement of people across borders.

Many of these reasons go back to US interventionist policies during the Cold War and have been aggravated by the increased militarization of the US-Mexico border since the Clinton presidency.

It’s important for us to look back at the events of the past that have lead up to this point, so that we have the full context when looking at today’s headlines.

Find out more

To get some further insight into the causes of the movement of so many, here are some recommendations for reading, listening and viewing:

  • In Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017) the New York based Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli writes of her experiences navigating the bureaucracy of the immigration system as a privileged, bilingual individual and sets it alongside stories of children and young people she encountered whilst volunteering for a translation service helping undocumented Central American children facing deportation. It is a short and moving reflection and analysis of the experience.
  • Part of the National Public Radio (NPR) stable, Latino USA regularly addresses issues related to migration, as well as other features including portraits of well-known Latinos, such as Luis Fonsi and Alaska. A May 31 2018 episode took a look at how the US immigration system lost track of about 1,500 minors, which gives a sense of the possible fate of the children whose parents are not able to accompany them.
  • Three of the many recent films that specifically consider the reasons, experiences, and consequences of movement across borders are: Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009), La jaula de oro/The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Díez, 2013), and Who is Dayani Crystal? (Mark Silver, 2014). Sin nombre and The Golden Dream are about teens fleeing poverty and gangs in their country of origin and make the perilous journey through Mexico. Part of their journey is on top of the infamous and very dangerous ‘La Bestia’ (the beast) freight trains that traverse Mexico. Who is Dayani Crystal? is a documentary featuring Gael García Bernal that is an investigation into the identity of a dead migrant discovered in the Arizona desert whose tattoo “Dayani Crystal” serves as the only clue to his identity.

These are only a starting point, given the complexity and historical reach of this issue.

*This blog was cross-posted on the University of Liverpool Modern Languages and Cultures site.

Mariana Chenillo: A Brief Introduction

In 2010, Mariana Chenillo was the first female director to have won an Ariel for her opera prima. The award for first film is technically for direction, but is distinct to that of direction. Established in 1947, Ariels are the Mexican film academy awards and a woman has yet to be awarded specifically for direction. There are always hopes that this will change. In the past, there have been many deserving contenders, but there is a current upsurge in the numbers of female directors getting international attention, which may result in a win for a woman.

Source: http://remezcla.com/features/film/mariana-chenillo-female-directors-expected-look-pretty/

Chenillo has directed two features to date. Cinco días sin Nora (2009) is about Chenillo’s grandmother’s suicide and the subsequent family fallout. Unexpectedly, it is humorous. Dark humour characterises her work. So, too, does the way women in her films have non-standard and disruptive bodies that present challenges to the social constructions of wellness and women’s agency.

As well as Cinco días sin Nora and Paraíso: ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? (2013), Mariana Chenillo’s recent short film work gives an insight into her idiosyncratic position in Mexican film. In 2010 she made two shorts that formed part of anthology films: “La tienda de raya” [company store] made in response to the commemoration of the 1910 Revolution, Revolución [Revolution]*, produced by Canana; and “Amor a primera vista” [Love at first sight], distributed as the anthology film, Sucedió en un dia [It happened one day], and was part of the Primer Rally Malayerba PRO challenge asking ten directors to make a short in twenty-four hours. In Revolución her work sits alongside names that are well known internationally including, Fernando Eimbcke, Amat Escalante, Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo García, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo, Rodrigo Plá, Carlos Reygadas, and Patricia Riggen. This is an entrepreneurial group who have portfolio careers primarily as actors and/or directors and, more latterly, also known for their work as producers through the arthouse and film festival circuits. Whilst in Sucedió en un dia Chenillo is alongside a group of directors who have had a consistent output and some circulation internationally, but are more embedded in the national film market. These include, Daniel Gruener, Beto Gómez, Julián Hernández, Gustavo Loza, Alejandro Lozano, Issa López, and Ignacio Ortiz. To have created work for both of these anthologies reveals her unusual position amongst contemporary Mexican filmmakers, she is both part of a select group of transnational arthouse filmmakers and embedded in the national film and television industries.

My chapter “Paraíso ¿Cuánto pesa el amor? (2013): Challenging the Neoliberal in Mexican Cinema” will be published in Carolina Rocha and Claudia Sandberg eds., Resisting Neoliberalism: The State of Contemporary Latin American Cinema (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2018).

 

*I wrote about Revolución in Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film.

 

Further Reading

As well as the hyper-linked citations, I read the following to help me formulate my ideas around the neoliberal in Mexican film:

Couldry, Nick. 2010. Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism Los Angeles & London: Sage.

Sánchez Prado, Ignacio. 2014. Screening Neoliberalism. Mexican Cinema 1988-2012 Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

In addition, I found this text a useful exploration of neoliberalism in reading and academic process:

La Berge, Leigh Claire and Quinn Slobodian. 2017. “Reading for Neoliberalism, Reading like Neoliberals.” American Literary History, vol. 29, no. 3: 602-614.