1976: Haunted by 1968

I have spent much of the last few weeks drafting and re-drafting a chapter for a forthcoming edited collection on Memory and Trauma in Mexican Visual Culture, a project I am co-editing with Miriam Haddu. My chapter considers three films released in 1976 that I contend are all haunted in different ways by the ghosts of 1968 that, in turn, is haunted by the iconography of the Revolution. The chapter is informed by writing on Mexican film, but also on archive and memory study work as a way of finding my way into understanding the use of archive material in the films. I compare Los de abajo by Servando González with two other films from 1976, Canoa and Los Poquianchis, both by Felipe Cazals

Soldier directing the camera in Canoa

I discovered González’s work when researching adaptations of novelas de la Revolución, that is, a large selection of books set during the Revolution. First published midway through the bellicose period of the Revolution in 1915 Los de abajo is generally counted as the first novela de la Revolución. González’s adaptation is the second, the first was in 1939 by the Golden Age filmmaker Chano Urueta. Perplexed by the fact that González’s name barely graced the literature in the field, I looked into his biography and discovered the clear reason why. He was employed by the government to film the student protests in 1968, for which he was shunned by many of his contemporaries. Thus, he had become implicated with the brutal repression and murder of students at a moment that continues to be an unresolved moment in Mexican history. As someone who has researched 1968 and its aftermath I had a visceral response to his decision to film the students, that can only be a fraction of what his compatriots must have felt. I understand their decision to ignore his work in favour of giving attention to others with whom they shared fellow feeling. But, his work and his decision continue to haunt me. I chose to venture in, a choice that is afforded me as an outsider.

In order to understand González’s work and to explore how to conceptualise it, I compare it to two films by Cazals, a director at the centre of a group of filmmakers, writers, and critics known as the Nuevo cine group, named after a short-lived, yet highly influential, film journal. They used journals, prizes, curated events, and colloquia and other public fora to publish, discuss, disseminate, and promote each others work and that of their predecessors. This group saw themselves as distinct to the studio system directors and wanted to foment a culture of auteurist filmmaking. Their writing continues to frame much of the discussion of Mexican film.

I look at extracts from Los de abajo, Canoa and Los Poquianchis where archival footage is used in the understanding that, as Dagmar Brunow expresses it, “The archive is not a space in which facts remain unchanged, but a process in which knowledge and facts are continuously recreated and transformed” (2015, 37). By extension, archival material is neither stable nor fixed and can be deployed for multiple ends. There is much work done on this in relation to photographic material, and a growing number on film. I also explore how these films use footage that carries the aura of what Jamie Baron calls “the archive effect” (2014). The material is deployed by Cazals and González as a means of exploring how the representation of violence on screen implicates the filmmaker in a system that has traces of perpetrator violence. They navigate this differently because of the historical events they portray and how their biographies are understood in relation to their work.

Something I don’t have space to explore in my chapter, but want to note here is that whilst I am carrying out an auteurist reading of both González and Cazals, it takes many to make a film. For my purposes, this is how both are framed and it is possible to trace such patterns in their work. However, I want to note, in particular, the collaboration between Cazals and Tomás Pérez Turrent, an academic, screenwriter, actor and director, who wrote Canoa. Los poquanchis was co-written with Xavier Robles, another notable screenwriter whose credits include an adaptation of an Albert Camus play as Bajo la metralla (Felipe Cazals, 1983) and the first fiction film about 1968, Rojo amanecer (Jorge Fons, 1989). In addition, there is an extra on the DVD version of Los de abajo where the actor, Eric del Castillo, who plays the protagonist, talks about how he workshopped the play (the novel was adapted for the stage several times) and he asserts that his input is integral to the film adaptation. This is an interesting assertion of creative control and complicates any auteurist reading of the film. It is possible to speculate on other motivations for this extra. It might be a way of encouraging those put off by González’s past to watch the film or for del Castillo to position himself as a serious actor rather than as a telenovela (soap opera) actor for which he is famous.

Bibliography

Baron, Jaimie (2014)  The Archive Effect Oxon & New York: Routledge.

Brunow, Dagmar (2015) Remediating Transcultural Memory: Documentary Filmmaking as Archival Intervention Berlin & Boston: de Gruyter.

 

 

 

Access, distribution and research: Marcela Fernández Violante

As part of a project on Latin American women filmmakers (mostly directors and producers) I will be writing about Marcela Fernández Violante. She has been at the centre of Mexican filmmaking since the 1960s. She was one of the generation of first filmmakers who were educated in film school and later she became the director of the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográfico as well as the first female chair of the Mexican guild of screenwriters. You can find a brief bio here from the New York Times, which describes her as “as one of Mexico’s best filmmakers”, there is more detailed information, here, here and here, in Spanish and an open source text which contextualises her work in relation to her contemporaries, here.

Despite being at the forefront of Mexican cinema, having won multiple awards her work is difficult to obtain. One of the few films that can be found is Cananea (1976), an excellent film about a mining strike which was one of the events that led up to the Mexican Revolution. I wrote about it in my book, Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film. Some clips and supporting material can be found on YouTube. For example, in this video there is an interview with her and several others involved in the production as well as critical reflections on the political relevance of Cananea. Here are the list of participants and the credits of the makers of this short documentary:

 

 

 

 

 

 

An interview can also be found with Fernández Violante on her work on Misterio (1980), a film that can be purchased in a Mexican chain retailer.

There are three brief interviews to be found, the first in English of her talking about screenwriting in Mexico, the other two are in Spanish: a news segment at a Film Festival in Tuxtla and another is a phone interview accompanied with images.

The lack of detail, analysis of her work, and even access to her films is frustrating given that she is recognised as an influential and important filmmaker. It is a zero sum game, which means that: her work is not seen; she is occasionally interviewed, albeit mostly for her assessment of the industry; and her films are not getting the attention they deserve because of lack of distribution, therefore,her work is in danger of being ignored and her role will be read as solely one of mentor and teacher, but not creator.

In this era where there is much talk of ready access to all materials and information, the inability to source a renowned filmmaker’s work is deeply frustrating. The lack of access to such films has profound implications in terms of who and what gets studied on University curricula, and who those who acts as the cultural curators of cinema can study. It’s not that we academics are lazy. We have limited resources (time, finance, energy) to constantly chase up all of those whose work is out of distribution, inaccessible and unavailable. Sometimes it’s an impossible task. The most frequent conversation I have with other Latin American cinema specialists is, “how do you access material?”, and often we are not talking about secondary sources, it’s the primary texts that are hard to find. The response is often generous in its honesty, frequently a story of navigating a way through particular conditions, and sometimes, an account of pure happenstance.

If we are only studying what is readily available internationally, transnational corporations become the gatekeepers of knowledge. Here, I want to emphasise that those films that do get international distribution deserve attention, and those who study them are not taking an easy option. It is important work. But, it is also vital that other films and filmmakers, -the hard to locate, the ones with minimal distribution, the other key figures who have not made films that the international marketplace is interested in – must be studied.

In the meantime, if anyone can suggest to me sources where I can get Fernández Violante’s films, I would love to know.

 

Revolución online, on demand and on DVD

Here’s a link to a short description of Revolución [Revolution] (2010) made by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal’s company Cananea: Curt Hopkins (2010) “The (Mexican) Revolution Will be Televised – But on YouTube, and 100 Years After it Began” Readwrite, November 5th, http://readwrite.com/2010/11/05/the_mexican_revolution_will_be_televised_-_but_on. It includes a short video interview with the filmmakers.  The film was first released online on YouTube to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of the Revolution, then through an on demand site, and more recently on DVD.  It consists of a series of themed shorts many of whom have a tangential link to the Mexican Revolution.

Wordle of Continuum book

http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/revolution-and-rebellion-in-mexican-film-9781441168122/

Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film

Filmoteca and the Mexican Revolution

I have just discovered this resource by the Filmoteca de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: http://www.cineyrevmex.unam.mx/home.seam.  I have yet to fully explore it.  It looks like a good starting point. But, at a glance I can see that the bibliography is not up to date.  Missing are some recent books I reviewed here, as well as my recent publications on the area. I plan to return to it in the future, but I think that it’s worth sharing.

The Mexican Revolution on Film – some recent books

Thanks to the 2010 commemoration of the centenary of the Revolution, its representation on screen has garnered reknewed attention. This is welcome after many years of comparative neglect. As, apart from a select number of supposedly exceptional films,  ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (Fernando de Fuentes, 1936) and the auteurist films by Emilio ‘El indio’ Fernández, they had been largely overlooked. Zuzana M. Pick (2010) provides an invaluable analysis of the iconography of Mexican Revolutionary film, taking in the films of Villa on both sides of the US-Mexico border, Dolores del Río’s star text, violence as spectacle and a comparative approach to Paul Leduc’s Reed, México insurgente (1971). Eschewing the tendency to read Mexican film purely as a construct of competing political disourses she has “considered cinema’s alignment with the visual vernacular of Mexican modernity” (217) and carries out a close textual analysis of the films. Fernando Fabio Sánchez and Gerardo García Muñoz (2010) have also edited a volume of essays on the films of the Revolution, La luz y la guerra: el cine de la Revolución mexicana [Light and War: the Cinema of the Revolution]. This important text provides a productive overview of the films of the Revolution from the early newsreels and documentaries of the Revolution during the bellicose period, returning to Villa as a key figure, de Fuentes’ trilogy, Fernández’s films, María Félix’s star text, the US films of the Revolution, the censorship of films, Echevarrista films, and Zapata on film. These touch on some of the films I discuss in my forthcoming book and therefore, my discussions will carefully dialogue with these essays. The Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía [Mexican film insitute] published another collection of essays on the Revolution entitled Cine y Revolución: La Revolución Mexicana vista a través del cine [Cinema and Revolution: The Revolution Seen Through Cinema] (2010), which has some overlap with Fabio Sánchez and García Muñoz. Intended as an accompanying catalogue to the film series shown at the Cineteca in Mexico City, the essays complement the choices of films. These were a selection of films that the Nuevo Cine group would have approved of, and the essays in this glossy text display some of that bias. However, rather than an auterist approach the essays consider the tropes, style, and aesthetic techniques employed in the films, which is a reflection of the development of Mexican film analysis. Given the volume of Revolutionary films made, which run into the hundreds, these recent studies are the foundational texts of an area that merits further research.

 

Fabio Sánchez, Fernando and Gerardo García Muñoz eds. (2010), La luz y la guerra: el cine de la Revolución mexicana. Mexico City: CONACULTA.

Garza Iturbide, Roberto and Hugo Lara Chávez (eds). (2010), Cine y Revolución: La Revolución Mexicana vista a través del cine. México: Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía/Cineteca nacional.

Pick, Zuzana M. (2010), Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution: Cinema and the Archive. Austin: University of Texas Press.