June 2017, arsenal cinema

Porous Boundaries: New Paths Through Mexican Film

LAS LETRAS, 2015

Few countries in the world have enjoyed such a lengthy filmmaking boom as Mexico. Since the government passed a law in 2005 giving generous tax breaks to film production, there's been a veritable explosion in the number of films being made, accompanied by a wave of new film festivals that have sprung up across the country to both showcase this filmmaking surge and fuel film culture in general. The jump in quantity has gone hand in hand with increasing cinematic finesse, which also hasn't gone unnoticed internationally. Several Mexican directors now call Hollywood their home, while others have made the breakthrough to truly global acclaim.

Mexican films have thus become a fixed presence at the most significant international film festivals, where their innovative ideas and desire to experiment attract ongoing attention. Rather than foregrounding generic images and clichéd depictions of drugs, violence and corruption, many of these films find new ways of viewing the country, undermine standard media representations, and shine a light on regions and themes often otherwise ignored. Even when painful stories of injustice, brutality, and turbulence rear their head, they are inevitably approached in unconventional, deliberately oblique fashion, with the focus less on leading viewers by the hand than encouraging them to think for themselves, whereby the resonance is all the greater. The rich complexity of life in contemporary Mexico is reflected in the broad spectrum of different moods and ideas these works employ: it is a cinema of striking freedom happy to draw on sensual and the experiential, a cinema as interested in exploring class relations, senseless killings, hip hop, indigenous realities, and bureaucracy as it is in delving into landscapes, literature, the gentle rhythms of the everyday, geometric forms, and extended periods of silence.

As these filmmakers belong to different generations and often work in very different contexts, they do not form a single movement or school. What their hugely diverse films have in common, however, is their interest in porous boundaries of all kinds. The boundaries between the individual Mexican states which break down the country into center and periphery are crossed at will, as everyday reality in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez to the north, Chiapas and Oaxaca to the south, and Merida to the west is no less representative of the country as a whole than the stories that emerge from the teeming metropolis of Mexico City. The flow of people, commodities, and culture across the much-debated border between Mexico and its neighbor to the north equally forms a reference point, a murky liminal zone that nourishes fictions of all kinds. At a formal level, these filmmakers happily disregard the boundaries that usually separate fiction, documentary, essay, and experimental film, thus creating their own variants on what is a major tendency in recent international cinema. And as is now the norm in the era of globalized film production, the very category of “national” cinema is called into question, as Mexican filmmakers live, study and collaborate across international borders, just as directors from the entire surrounding region come to Mexico to study or seek inspiration. Charting a path through current Mexican cinema can just as easily lead into the country as back out of it again: “Mexican” films also emerge from Canada, Japan, the Dominican Republic, France or the US.

Apart from the numerous titles shown in recent years at the Berlinale Forum, this cinema has made few inroads into Germany. With this in mind, the film series "Porous Boundaries: New Paths Through Mexican Film" curated by James Lattimer offers Berlin audiences the unique opportunity to get to know the striking breath and innovation of current Mexican film and discover its unconventional perspectives on the country. It consists of 15 feature-length, medium-length, and short films across 12 programs that have received considerable acclaim and attention on the international festival circuit. The series is screening many of these works in Germany for the very first time and includes established names such as Nicolás Pereda, Natalia Almada, Tatiana Huezo and Pedro González Rubio together with prize-winning emerging talents such as Ricardo Silva, Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez, and Pablo Escoto. The screenings will be complemented with Q&As with selected filmmakers, with additional context to be provided in introductions by two experts: film scholar, curator, and festival director Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria, whose article on Mexican cinema was published in the Berlinale Forum magazine in 2016, and Eva Sangiorgi, director and founder of the Festival Internacional de Cine de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FICUNAM) film festival in Mexico City, which has emerged as a significant showcase for local and international cinema alike.

EL PALACIO (The Palace, Nicolás Pereda, Mexico/Canada 2013, 2.6., with guest Nicolás Pereda & 20.6.) A large house with a garden in the middle of the city: a dog chained up in the yard; a donkey that wanders through the rooms undisturbed; 17 women. They brush their teeth, cook, run the household - everything together. But what appears like an offbeat community at first glance is actually a bizarre training facility for prospective housemaids. Realistic and surreal in equal measure, Pereda's medium-length film is a mysterious portrait of those whose work is supposed to remain invisible and throws up the provocative question of whether servitude can be learnt.
MINOTAURO
(Minotaur, Nicolás Pereda, Mexico/Canada 2015, 2.6., with guest Nicolás Pereda & 20.6.) Hard work is a foreign concept for the young, hip protagonists of a sizable city apartment, even if they seem just as mysteriously trapped in their home as the denizens of EL PALACIO. They order pizza or drugs, read novels out loud, and constantly drift off into slumber – are their dreams of labyrinths? "MINOTAURO takes place in a home of books, of readers, of artists. It's also a home of soft light, of eternal afternoons, of sleepiness, of dreams. The home is impermeable to the world. Mexico is on fire, but the characters of MINOTAURO sleep soundly." (NP)

LOS AUSENTES (The Absent, Nicolás Pereda, Mexico/Spain/France 2014, 3.6., with an introduction by Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria and a Q&A with Nicolás Pereda & 14.6.) An old man lives alone on the southern Mexican coast in a ramshackle hut close to the beach. After a court hearing determines that he doesn't officially own the land it’s built on, the prospect of having to move triggers thoughts of the past, just as a younger man arrives and takes up residence in the cabin seemingly unnoticed. An intruder, an apparition, or a merely a flashback to younger, happier days? Pereda's enigmatic exploration of displacement and memory pares dialogue and plot development down to the bare essentials in order to bring atmosphere to the fore. The excellent camerawork drinks in the quiet beauty of hut, forest, beach, and landscape with true grace, keeping in constant, often barely undetectable motion to discover new, seemingly unimportant details of the surroundings: the layout of the seaside settlement, the occurrences out on the street beside the courtroom, the children winding their way through the trees to reach the sea.  

TODO LO DEMÁS (Everything Else, Natalia Almada, Mexico 2016, 4. & 22.6.) Doña Flor's daily routine is almost aggressively unspectacular: she wakes up in the drab apartment she shares with her beloved cat, takes the metro to work, pedantically checks the validity of the documents handed to her at her dull public administration job, and spends her evenings cataloging the day's clients as the television blares in the background. She tries to ensure that everything’s in its right place, but the outside world won’t play along, whether the clients that use the wrong ink or scrawl outside of the box, the television reports that overflow with social disorder, the attacks that suddenly explode out on the streets. When her cat suddenly dies, Doña Flor’s hermetic existence quietly splinters. This first feature by acclaimed documentarian Natalia Almada retains the keen observation and precise framings of her previous work as well as her knack for funding unusual angles to explore her country: bureaucracy is just another form of violence, one that merely exacerbates all the others.

AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN (Mexico/USA/United Kingdom 2016, 5. & 24.6.) One of the most talked-about short films of the last year, Mexican visual artist Manuela de Laborde’s thesis film at the California Institute for the Arts is a mysterious exploration of colors, textures, and forms shot on 35mm and 16mm, at once mathematical and deeply sensual.
SANTA TERESA Y OTRAS HISTORIAS
(Santa Teresa and Other Stories, Nelson de los Santos Arias, Mexico/USA/Dominican Republic 2015, 5.6., with guest Nelson de los Santos Arias & 24.6.), is another CalArts graduation film, an experimental, associative adaptation of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño's 21st century masterpiece "2666", which circles around the still unexplained string of real-life female homicides in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez on the US border by way of its fictional counterpart Santa Teresa. True to the spirit of equally free the novel, Dominican director De los Santos Arias channels a wildly heterogeneous mix of elements into an atmospheric, elusive, essayistic whole: religious ceremonies vie with dance parties, digital black and white images with passages on shot on vivid celluloid, stunning landscape vistas with silent interiors, extracts from the novel read in voiceover with monologues delivered direct to camera.

TE PROMETO ANARQUÍA (I Promise You Anarchy, Julio Hernández Cordón, Mexico/Deutschland 2015, 8. & 23.6.) Miguel spends most of his time drifting through Mexico City by skateboard, car or metro, hanging out with other skaters, smoking pot, listening to hip-hop or watching his buddies rap. His life would be entirely carefree if it weren't for the twin pressures of money and love: the shady scheme whereby he persuades his friends to give blood in exchange for cash and his on/off affair with the unpredictable Johnny, his mother's maid's son who isn’t willing to leave his girlfriend. When increasing amounts of blood are needed and the drug gangsters behind the scheme show their true colors, Miguel realizes that ignoring the truth is often easier than confronting it. In his first feature to be shot in Mexico, Cordón sets energetic tracking shots to a pulsing soundtrack in order to tell a tale that zig-zags between a coming of age story, a gay romance, and an understated crime thriller, equally functioning as a potent illustration of how class and privilege can make you blind to what’s right in front of you. 

LAS LETRAS (The Letters, Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez, Mexico 2015, 9.6., with guest Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez & 21.6.) In June 2000, a police patrol car was ambushed in the hills of Chiapas, southern Mexico and the officers inside were shot dead. With a scapegoat needed, a Tzotzil professor named Alberto Patishtán was accused of committing the crime and sentenced to 60 years in prison. In approaching this glaring injustice, biologist turned filmmaker Chavarría deliberately eschews explanation or interpretation in favor of a more sensorial, experiential approach, having his endlessly mobile camera rove the landscape or wandering after Patishtán's children as they grow up without him. Drawing variously on contemporary dance, close-ups of faces, natural textures, and impressionistic reconstructions of prison life, it's Patishtán's titular letters from jail that are the glue that holds Chavarría's ambitious documentary together: deeply moving expressions of love and solidarity.

INORI (Pedro González-Rubio, Japan 2012, 10. & 29.6.) Following the international success of his first feature "Alamar", González-Rubio was invited by prize-winning Japanese director Naomi Kawase to make a documentary in her home country. The resulting portrait of a remote mountain village threatened by demographic change builds on the same qualities with which González-Rubio impressed with his feature: patient observation, an instinctive grasp of visual composition and editing, a wonderful tenderness towards his subject. Sequences that captures everyday tasks and ruminations about the past are interrupted again and again by ravishing, almost meditative images of pine forests, rushing rivers, plumes of white blossom floating on the wind, and steep mountain slopes. Although the local inhabitants complain that their village is being swallowed up by nature, it merely feels as if one stage is ending and another is beginning.

PACÍFICO (Pacific, Fernanda Romandía, Mexico 2016, 10. & 29.6.) A house is being constructed on the coast of the Pacific, whose smooth concrete walls and modernist style seem a far cry from the more rustic charms of the surrounding area. A seven-year-old girl named Coral keeps coming to the building site to play and frequently gets chatting to one of the workers, a wannabe poet named Oriente with a nice line in Cervantes quotes. The house gradually takes shape and a delicate friendship strikes up between these two imaginative outsiders, as the everyday routines of the coastal town unfold around them: boat trips, breaks on the building site, lazy afternoons on the beach. A serene, understated portrait of life by the sea where the invented gently rubs up against the documentary, with striking camerawork (including by Pedro González-Rubio) that quietly registers the subtleties of light and structure.

CIUDAD MAYA (Andrés Padilla Domene, Mexico/France 2016, 15. & 28.6) brings modern technology to bear on ancient traditions. Produced at prestigious French film school Le Fresnoy, Padilla Domene's short is an atmospheric, science-fiction tinged exploration of Mayan culture past and present in Merida, eastern Mexico.
LA BALADA DEL OPPENHEIMER PARK
(The Ballad of Oppenheimer Park, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, Mexico 2016, 15. & 28.6.) is a deeply empathetic documentary dedicated to the daily reality of indigenous people elsewhere in North America. The film is a portrait of those that make use of the titular park in central Vancouver, an area that was once a Native American burial ground and is now the center of a huge, unofficial reservation. In lengthy, sun-dappled shots, Sepúlveda observes the difficult everyday existence of the local inhabitants, many of whom are homeless and addicted to drugs, alcohol or both, and gives them the space to express their feelings they are otherwise denied. When the director introduces artefacts from the past – arrows, wagons, headdresses – to the setting, it offers them a playful opportunity to celebrate their heritage on their own terms.

TEMPESTAD (Tatiana Huezo, Mexico 2016, 16.6., with guest Tatiana Huezo & 25.6.) A woman is heard in voiceover, describing how she left prison and travelled the entire length of Mexico to return home, talking both of the mixture of corruption, cartel power, and bad luck that landed her in jail in the first place and of the violence and depravity that characterized life. Although the images that accompany her story don’t directly reference it, they evoke its mood nonetheless: impressions of a cross-country coach journey, checkpoints, travelers’ faces, the passing landscape through steamed up windows, darkening skies. Without warning, one account is interrupted by another, the tale told by a middle-aged woman who works as a clown and appears in full view of the camera, telling of life in the circus, of the birth of her daughter, of truly indelible memories. Tatiano Huezo's radical documentary inserts one story of suffering into another, relying on the viewer to make the connection between them and augment them with all the images the film itself chooses not to show.

NAVAJAZO (Ricardo Silva, Mexico 2014, 17.6., with an introduction by Eva Sangiorgi & 30.6.) Although the opening sequence of home movies brims over with warmth and nostalgia, the titles that appear on screen already talk of the slow progression of a cancer. The brief portraits of bizarre, often troubled characters that follow equally suggest that the border city of Tijuana is hardly in the best of states: the local hoodlums eager to fight each other for money, the American producer wanting to spice up the porn industry with a sprinkling of true love, the homeless drug addicts who shoot up on camera, the keyboard-playing goth who swears the city is doomed, the collector of old toys whose vast stock resembles a graveyard. Yet as the presence of the camera is referenced again and again and the protagonists repeatedly clap their hands together at the start of scenes like an improvised clapper board, it becomes clear that much of what's being shown may well be mere performance. Provocative, raw, and often grotesque, Silva prize-winning debut feature creates a vision of Tijuana deliberately located in the grey area between real life suffering and external clichés. 

RUINAS TU REINO (Ruins Your Realm, Pablo Escoto, Mexico 2016, 17.6., with an introduction by Eva Sangiorgi & 30.6.) A fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico: piles of shrimp and bloodied fish being sorted into baskets on deck, cords and cables, the tipping prow, the passing landscape, the ever-changing hues of the sky and rippling water, sun on bodies and sails, a snoring fisherman and his dream of life underwater, lightning in the night sky. A woman left onshore: quiet interiors, a wander through the forest at dusk, chirping crickets and birdsong, torchlight against green leaves. Marked by a restless camera and an eye for abstraction, this first feature-length documentary by 20-year-old talent Escoto is an experiential, wonderfully intuitive study of all the sounds, textures, and associations conjured up by life at sea, with the fuzzy digital images augmented again and again by maritime quotes from the work of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Jules Michelet, Francis Jammes, and Raúl Zurita. (jl)

The program was made possible with funding from the Capital Cultural Fund and curated by James Lattimer. With thanks to Hanna Keller, Dane Komljen, and Carlos A. Gutiérrez.

September '17