Creative Writing

Bodies at the Edge of the Possible: The New Mexican Cinema

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Essay about the new mexican cinema, and how they deal with the porno-misery expectations from european audiences to find their own voice. Written for the Berlinale Forum Magazine. February 2016.
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  11–21 FEB 2016   ! # $ % & Berlinale FORUM / FORUM EXPANDED  1    '()*+ ,- .,/0+/01 2 3+ 4*1, 5+(6 7,+819 $ Curating a lm programme means discussing, making as : sociations, giving shape to things. This magazine, which  we are publishing for the rst time this year, is not about presenting our programme. Instead, it’s supposed to offer some spontaneous impressions of the wealth of references that came to mind during the selection process. The different pieces chosen to this end are not about attempting to show the whole picture, just as these notes to accompany this table of contents are not meant as a foreword, but rather as a few scattered thoughts. !  The !"#$% lm sheets used to be typed out by hand and passed around at every screening; later they were combined to form a catalogue and can now be downloaded on the Internet as PDFs. Since the very rst edition of the !"#$%   in 1971, they’ve included comprehensive texts aimed at placing the lms in the programme within a broader aesthetic and political context. ; Far too often, documentaries misuse images to illustrate texts and misuse texts to comment upon images. Nu : merous lms in this year’s programme do the very opposite, disassociating text and image to create unique narrative forms and open up visual spaces for reality’s unheard stories. %  Jia Zhangke’s debut lm    '()" *$ +,(-./"-.012  was the spark that ignited a new Chinese cinema beyond state structures and received its world premiere at the 1998 !"#$%  .  Just four years later, we showed a total of 13 independently produced lms from Mainland China. Yet today, commercial cinema is increasingly threatening to swallow up artistic lm.  Jia Zhangke continues to resist this tendency as both a direc : tor and a producer. <  The   !"#$% has been committed to the idea of expand : ed cinema since its very foundation. In 2006, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and Anselm Franke brought the !"#$%  34/)5606   programme into being, which has a new theme ev  : ery year. Helmut Draxler will talk about this year’s theme in a keynote lecture, with a summary appearing here as a preview. $$  The  ,"7(1(8$0 609 )$10$#9   places individual lms within the context of an entire oeuvre. But does that only apply to directors? Aren’t actress Kate Lyn Sheil and cinema : tographer Sean Price Williams just as much the authors of their works? A conversation about images and creative scenes. $!  The !"#$%   and Arsenal don’t just form a unit in organisational terms; the possibilities of the one are realised within the context of the other. The outline of a lengthy history. $;  The !"#$%   continues to occupy that sweet spot “Between the Barricade and the Ivory Tower”, as the title of the book published for its 30th anniversary would also have it. We don’t just watch lms, we also read poems. $= It’s hard to remember another year when cinema from the Arab world was so strongly represented in the !"#$%    (/6   !"#$% 34/)5606   programmes. We would like to have shown the lm  Jellyfsh   by Berlin-based Syrian director Khaled Abdelwahed, but were unable to do so in order to protect his protagonists. The artist describes an absent work. $%  An archive can also exist in the mind, as a possibil : ity, or in the memory. This is the case for the lm archive set up under British colonial rule in Lagos, of which little else seems to remain other than tin cans containing lm rolls that have already chemically decomposed. $>  You can’t plan a programme focus in advance and proportionality is not a good counsellor for an in : ternational programme. Alongside Portugal and Israel, it was Mexico that really stood out this year. !#  The Arsenal archive at the 9(7051 :#005 .$71$#8$)#1; (0#   in Wedding houses around ten thousand lm prints, many of which were shown during the !"#$%  ’s early years. At the Berlinale, it will be possible to unearth some of these treasures, with the current programme functioning as a map of sorts. !! It’s not about making political lms, but rather making lms politically. A well-worn adage per : haps, but how does a lmmaker explain to those holding the purse strings that the best thing for his lm is to defy their expectations? Philip Scheffner dared to do precisely that for his lm <)=)#(0  . 23 One lm from Mexico and another from Sweden show the idyllic capitalist world beginning to splin : ter. Certain images reveal their full impact via comparison. !;  We discovered this sign hanging on the door of the recently opened Cimatheque in Cairo and saw something of ourselves in it (both in the motto and in the Cimatheque itself). ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? C h r i s t o p h T e r h e c h t e  Die deutsche Fassung dieses Inhaltsverzeichnisses nden Sie auf Seite 24.    ! # $ % & Berlinale FORUM / FORUM EXPANDED  17    As I write these lines, the media is awash with news of the umpteenth capture of “El Chapo” Guzman, perhaps the greatest Mexican drug trafcker, head of the Sinaloa cartel and responsible for some of the most incredible escapes in history.  As I write these lines, or rather as I let some recent Mexican lms pass through my mind, we’ve been having discussions at home about the video of El Chapo’s latest capture, which  we’ve been playing on loop: a fteen-minute sequence shot in nearly a single take, lmed with a camera mounted on the helmet of one of the soldiers who arrested him. The video is entitled “Operation Black Swan” $  and has rapidly gone viral, gaining hundreds of thousands of views in just a few days. Moreover, it is already the subject of parodies !  that ridicule its cinematic qualities while sowing doubts whether conscious or unconscious about the veracity of these images and the entire police, government and media operation. There is no doubt that the real is always an invention, and that cinematic stag  ' ing is the perfect vehicle for propaganda. Whether the video is true or a new propaganda operation, the gure of El Chapo and everything that surrounds him has all the ingredients of the sort of generic Latin American productions eagerly sought by the most prestigious lm festivals worldwide: violence, sex, ery women, poverty, drugs, rural settings, semi-illiterate and impoverished extras (whom the critics refer to as “non-pro ' fessional actors”) and the constant, not so subtle hint that the Mexican state is a rotten and corrupt extension of the drug cartels. Or, to put it another way, it contains all the necessary el ' ements for viewers with a supercial sense of awareness and a somewhat racist core to subconsciously reafrm their post-co ' lonialist worldview, while simultaneously satisfying what Mike Zryd has called the “documentary fantasy”: “the idea that we solve the problems in the world just by watching documenta ' ries about them”. 3    This fantasy is particularly present in the viewer’s relation ' ship with more traditional documentary cinema and foc-   Bodies at the Edge of the Possible:  The New Mexican Cinema   srcin, portraits imposed upon them and directed by the First  World.  This spectre of poverty pornography, the taste for the sordid and auteur cinema’s trade in the misfortune of others is one of the great debates facing the whole of contemporary Latin  American lmmaking (if you can forgive the generalisation). It is necessitated by the major European festivals as a means of validating, legitimising and conferring the auteur status that grants entrance into the industry and the markets: a vicious circle of dependence and intellectual and economic domina ' tion. Cinema from this continent is at the same time struggling to nd forms of self-representation that escape the poverty acionado’s gaze which Europe imposes upon the impossible grouping that is Latin America. Perhaps because of the strength of its production, its diversity and its recent exponential growth, Mexican cinema provides one of the best examples of these tensions and contradic ' tions: purely industrial lmmaking that looks enviously to Hollywood; name directors who play the exoticism card to penetrate the North American movie industry; an auteur cin ' ema entirely dependent on the international festival circuit. For some years now and more or less in parallel with the ex ' plosion of digital technologies, Mexico has been undergoing a cinematic revolution that is confronting the denition and relationship of North-South dependency in clear, political fashion. This revolution also questions structures of central ' ity and marginality, whether through the work of lmmakers not resident in the country (such as Nicolás Pereda, who emi-   by Gonzalo de Pedro Amatria uses on the issue in question and its severity, while serving to silence the guilty conscience of audiences in rich coun ' tries. Yet it can also be applied to the relationship we establish  with feature lms, especially those from poor or developing countries, which only reproduce our imagined stereotypes of the Global South. Argentinian critic Roger Koza has ref-erred to such lms as a “school of the sordid”: primitive, uncharted, violent societies, dominated by primary instincts at once exotic and dangerous, capable of awakening the desire for adventure, compassion and solidarity in us, together with a surface indignation that is immediate, innocuous and entirely interchangeable. In some way, the circuit of festivals, critics, programmers, spectators and the media merely reproduces a vicious circle of what you might call poverty pornography in a seemingly innite loop, a vicious circle denounced back in the seventies by Colombian lmmakers Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo: “Poverty became an important issue and therefore an easily saleable commodity, especially abroad, where poverty forms a counterpart to consumerist afuence. If poverty was able to serve independent lm as an element of condemnation and analysis, commercial desires turned it into an escape valve for the very same system that generated it. This thirst for prot left no room for a method that might discover new premises according to which poverty could be analysed; on the contrary, it created demagogic blueprints that advanced to the status of a genre we could term miserabilist cinema or poverty pornog  ' raphy.” (  This cycle of poverty pornography, the buying and selling of images produced in the Global South to satisfy the industry and audiences of the northern hemisphere, images that are devoid of any critical and political discourse, has also taken on the more prestigious guise of auteur cinema. It is this brand of cinema which is the main guilty party in creating the sort of false self-portraits that certain lmmakers in emerging countries are creating about themselves and their countries of ➵  Maquinaria Panamericana by Joaquín del Paso  18   Berlinale FORUM/FORUMEXPANDED | ! # $ %   ! # $ % & Berlinale FORUM/FORUMEXPANDED 19   »  "#$%&'# () *)(+# ,-&.+/&  is a university professor, lm critic, festival programmer and artistic director of the lm festival margenes.org . »    Andrea Bussmann and Nicolás Pereda‘s  T  ales of Two Who Dreamt  , Joaquín del Paso‘s  Maquinaria Panamericana (Panamerican Machinery) '() Tempestad   by Tatiana Huezo are all receiving their world premiere at this year‘s !"#$%  . »    Joshua Gil‘s La maldad (Evilness)  premiered at the !"& #$%   in 2015.   ! # $ % & Berlinale FORUM/FORUMEXPANDED 19   grated to Canada, or Pedro González Rubio, who emigrated to France), those working at a signicant remove from the centres of power (such Pablo Chavarría or Diego Amando Moreno, two directors whose cinematic practice stems from the resounding solitude of the Chiapas jungle), or those who directly inhabit the anarchist spaces offered by networks, such as the Los ingrávidos collective. This question of centrifugal movement at a physical level, which imposes a distance from the centre of identity, blurring its borders and suggesting new images for this contested identity, is accompanied by a cen * tripetal movement at a thematic level, which brings with it a rethink in terms of how such themes are presented: the fur * ther they are from the centre in all senses of the word, the more concerned these lmmakers seem to be with the devel * opment of their country and the search for ways of thinking about Mexico in political terms via cinema. Take, for example, Las letras (2015), which premiered at CPH:DOX. This lat * est lm by Pablo Chavarria, a biologist and self-taught lm-   maker who reinvents himself with every work, was lmed in extended tracking shots that almost seem to oat, like mo * ments from a slumber punctuated by nightmares. It tells the story of Alberto Patishtán, an indigenous activist imprisoned  without trial for thirteen years and later pardoned by the gov  * ernment, which acknowledged having violated his rights. The lmmaker avoids any temptation towards explanation or con * demnation, opting instead to create a work bordering on the surreal to portray the country as a state of mind and to de * pict the struggle for civil rights as the conclusion of one of the long, hovering tracking shots that accompanies a group of children on their wanders through the forest. Filmed in a Tzotzil (Maya) community, the lm does not translate the  words spoken by its protagonists, thus renouncing the impos * sible task of explaining the country, making a sense of culture shock apparent and proposing a dialogue via cinematic form documentary do not dodge the debate on violence or margin * alisation but rather confront it head on by portraying bodies at the edge of the possible, the real, the socially accepted and the usually represented: pensioners, prostitutes, junkies. These protagonists are direct, human, perverse, and tender. Such tensions also run through the three Mexican lms show  * ing at this year’s Berlinale !"#$%  , with all three of them draw  * ing on a range of different means to confront this debate on the representation and construction of the country and its national cinema.  Tales of Two Who Dreamt  , the new work by Andrea Bussmann and Nicolás Pereda which was made entirely in Canada, is a depiction of a housing block mainly in * habited by Hungarian Roma immigrants that moves between the unreal, the dreamt and the imagined. Fleeing standard ethnography (or rather embracing a kind of experimental ethnography), Bussmann and Pereda invent stories with their protagonists, listen to those they tell or have them overlap  with those they imagine; a lm of layers, unnished journeys and processes of transformation: metamorphosis (with Franz Kafka lurking in the distance). Pereda has always worked  with the idea of the foreign: the out of place, that which ar * rives, repeats itself, changes and remains. This collaboration  with Bussman directly addresses the unreal state that is living abroad, waking up in a body and a place that is not yours, both being and ceasing to be at the same time. Joaquín del Paso’s Maquinaria Panamericana   deals with a similar feeling of fragility in a very unique way, the feeling of always being on the verge of rupture, of fragmentation. By means of the ctional story of a machinery manufacturer governed by a paternalistic, patriarchal and omnipresent owner whose un * expected death plunge the company’s employees into chaos, Tempestad by Tatiana Huezo Las letras   by Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez Tales of Two Who Dreamt   by Andrea Bussmann and Nicolás Pereda La maldad by Joshua Gil $  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_wkhJSupwE (accessed 13 January 2016) !  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pITaoYfCMWk (accessed 13 January 2016)3   Mike Zryd, Irony in documentary lm: Ethics, forms, and functions, conference, New York University, 1999.  +  http://search.proquest.com/docview/304515322/abstract, accessed 22 January 2016) ,  Luis Ospina, Carlos Mayolo, ¿Qué es la porno-miseria?, París, 1979. http://www.luisospina.com/archivo/grupo-de-cali/agarran * do-pueblo/ (accessed 22 January 2016) - http://losingravidos.com (accessed 17 January 2016)  %  English translation from http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2014/11/17/the-words-of-the-general-command-of-the-ezln-presented-by-sub * comandante-insurgente-moises-concluding-the-event-with-the-caravan-of-the-families-of-the-disappeared-and-stu * dents-of-ayotzinapa-in-the/ (accessed 20 January 2016) that permits an understanding of diversity and shows pride in challenging the futility of a cinema that aims to represent complex realities in unambiguous terms. The work of the Los ingrávidos -  collective, which is made up of an indeterminate number of lmmaker-activists, is another of the more inter * esting and revealing elements of this “other” Mexican cinema.  Their work equally avoids ofcial forms and discourses in or * der to apply a critical gaze to reality and how it is presented and, where applicable, distributed. The collective’s lms are always shown on the Internet, thus even questioning the valid * ity of standard systems of cultural legitimisation and electing instead to present knowledge and have it acknowledged in a  way that is both horizontal and decentralised. One of their latest short lms Triptych   (2015) suggests a link between three political gures from the history of the Mexican resistance: the  (")*+*,#+  , the -+.+/01/+  , and the  2"#%+)01/+  , which coexist and overlap in the collective imagination and manifest them * selves in the everyday life of a people silently resisting the war organised by those with the power. Eva Villaseñor’s  3,%"& #0+ "4$)/+ (2014) is the investigation of an episode of amnesia experienced by the director herself following a trauma and is another lm that can be read in national terms. It comes across as a proposal for a necessary exercise in collective memory in order that empty spaces in the Mexican past and present can be revisited. Alongside these lmmakers, other names like Joshua Gil with La maldad  (2015) and Ricardo Silva with  Navajazo  (2015) are also taking part in this collective rethinking of Mexican national cinema and its relationship to the landscapes of the violent and the sordid. La maldad  '()  Navajazo  are of particular relevance here because their respec * tive strategies of blurring the boundary between ction and fear and madness, del Paso constructs a tragicomic and met * aphorical fable at once surreal and hyper-real about an entire country unable to distinguish whether it is on the brink of madness or mired in it completely. And  Tempestad , the new  work by Mexican-Guatemalan Tatiana Huezo, is the lm that most directly addresses and confronts the construction of a sordid Mexico: the central thread of this seemingly de-drama * tised road movie is the account of a woman accused, without evidence, of human trafcking. After a year in jail, she must cross the country to meet her young son. The lm is an exam * ple of how to portray impunity, fear and despair, of how to make political cinema – in short, how to avoid the traps of the obvious, the sordid and the poverty-stricken. The voice of the protagonist is accompanied by a variety of anonymous women  who appear backlit. In the lm’s revealing last shot, her voice is placed over footage of a journey through the sane everyday Mexico depicted by Los ingrávidos, Pablo Chavarría, Ricardo Silva, Joshua Gil and Diego Amando Moreno: workers, land * scapes, exhausted men and women defeated by dreams, by the minimum wage, by impunity, injustice, violence; men, women, and children walking, resisting, building their lives from each day to the next. The same words echo through all the Mexican cinema that moves away from the sordid and the pornography of poverty and escapes from uncritical images of violence, the words the Zapatistas dedicated to the parents of the stu * dents killed in Ayotzinapa: “We don’t care about the bickering, the agreements and disagreements, among those above who  will be in charge of the machine of destruction and death that the Mexican State has become. We care about your words.  Your rage, your rebellion, your resistance.” %  Your words, your images. Words and images, for everyone. ➵ Eine deutsche Übersetzung dieses Artikels sowie den spanischen Originaltext nden Sie auf der Seite   http://www.arsenal-berlin.de/de/   berlinale-forum/magazin/neues-   mexikanisches-kino.html
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