Documentaries at the XVIII Guadalajara International Film Festival

in 18th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Howard Feinstein

“Fuck the guys who are filming,” sings a musician in the Mexican documentary “La Cancion del Pulque” (“Pulque Song”), by Everardo Gonzalez.

“Making a documentary is absolutely useless,” says the subject of “Un Hombre Aparte” (“A Man Aside”), by the Chilean documentarians Bettina Perut and Ivan Osnovikoff.

Such hostility toward docs by some in front of the camera was not shared by the critics, jurors, and a surprising number of local spectators at the XVIII Guadalajara International Film Festival (March 21-27, 2003), many of whom not only feel that documentary directors are good people and that docs are useful, but also that these works were among the best offerings at the event. They garnered many prizes at the closing ceremony, including Best Mexican Film from the FIPRESCI jury (Marcela Arteaga’s “Recuerdos”/ “Remembrance”) and, ex-aqueo, from the main Mexican jury (“Remembrance” and Mercedes Moncada’s “La Pasion de Maria Elena”/ “The Passion of Maria Elena”), while “Pulque Song” took multiple awards. By the way, all three of these are first feature-length documentaries.

The significance was not lost on Mexican fiction filmmakers in competition, who were visible angry after the awards. Four docs and 11 fiction films were included in the Mexican competition. (The fourth was Luis Kelly’s “Alex Lora, Esclavo del Rocanrol”/ “Alex Lora, Rock ‘n Roll Slave,” a portrait of a rock star that took no prizes.)

Festival director Kenya Marquez is one of the few programmers who blurs the line between fiction and documentary, at least in the national section. The Iberoamerican competition had no docs, but a program of eight non-competing Iberoamerican documentaries was presented-lending credence to the widely circulated rumor that a large part of the reason for the inclusion of docs in the Mexican competition was on account of the dearth of good new fiction features.

First, something about the impressive Mexican documentaries. The exquisite “The Passion of Maria Elena” recounts the tragic story of a 23-year-old divorced Raramuri Indian woman who, after leaving her community in the Sierras and moving for purposes of work (and to escape what she deems fear of husband wrangling among women in her tribe by unmarried women) to a city in the state of Chihuahua, loses one of her two young sons, three-year-old Jorge, when a young reckless woman-white and daughter of a landowner-runs over him in her truck. The driver agrees to attend a tribal trial, at which she expresses her sorrow and begs forgiveness. In the later city trial, she recants.

Maria Elena desires only acknowledgement of responsibility from the young woman. She is not looking for restitution, and this reflects the cultural gap between the indigenous people and the ruling whites. Her tribe has shared communal values. Many in her tribe, including her ex-husband’s family, blame Maria Elena herself for the loss; after all, she has abandoned the community and moved to the city. She is persistent in her search for justice and admonition. She discovers that the police have redrawn the original diagram from the site of the accident in order to clear the driver. This shy woman not only uncovers such corruption, but she also discovers hypocrisy at the Human Rights Commission that has promised to help her. In what would be in fiction a deux-ex-machina, Maria Elena bears a third son, whom she believes to be something of a reincarnation of Jorge; she finds peace.

The film is much more than the story: It is astute ethnography; it is an unusual view of horrid urban life as well as seductive mountain beauty; and it is a brilliant example of finding the perfect form for particular content.

In order to make “Pulque Song,” Gonzalez gained incredible access to the lives and communal spirit within one of the vanishing pulquerias (only 60 remaining out of thousands), bars that serve only the highly alcoholic white drink drawn from the also vanishing maguey cactus. The director covers all bases in this astonishing film. Several of the drunken, toothless men tell their personal tales, as does one old lady from the neighboring Woman’s Department.. A maguey grower explains the process of extricating aguamiel, the liquid that is then processed into pulque-a procedure which results in the premature death of the cactus itself. We learn that drinking pulque was part of a religious ritual for Indians, and we even see today’s distillers praying after completing the manufacture of a new batch. And in an especially poignant-and necessary-scene, one of the pulqueria regulars explains that all of those that frequent the establishment know that others look down on them, that they are considered poor lowlifes.

Arteaga’s “Remembrance” is more of a docudrama. She completes the filming of footage shot by the late, colorful Luis Frank who, at 90, had tried to finish films from decades past. Frank was a Lithuanian Jew who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, survived a concentration camp, and ended up in Mexico. The film is an intelligent, if sometimes pretentious, study of the concept of memory, with a subtext of the death of idealism.

A very different kind of man is the elderly Ricardo Liano, the focus of the straightforward Chilean “A Man Aside”, from the official Iberoamerican Documentary section. Liano is absolutely crazy, but in a grandiose manner that defies categorization. He drops names, but was in fact at one time a well-known boxer. Now he is so unkempt that even his own family has rejected him. He comes up with the idea of the First Worldwide Anti-Drug Campaign and some of the important people from his past humor him by attending a failed press conference. Even more important than the crusade is the idea of having a film made about his life. The film-within-the-film takes a downward turn, much as Liano’s own life, when his screenwriter advises him that it might be better to make a film about a loser than a winner.

The Brazilian director Eryk Rocha weighs in with a doc, “Rocha que Voa” (“Stones in the Sky”), about a charismatic character with exceptional talent: his late father, filmmaker Glauber Rocha, who died way too young. Rocha fils focuses on the years 1971-72, when Rocha pere lived in exile in Cuba. He uses abundant footage shot at the time, as well as his father’s own voice on much of the soundtrack. The polemics Rocha espouses are somewhat dated now, and even though the film is very well made, it seems mostly of interest to cinephiles.

Another film of interest to film nuts, but of more interest to the general public, is an amazing labor of love, Gregorio Rocha’s “Los Rollos Perdidos de Pancho Villa” (“The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa”), a Mexican work on Beta that was shown in a contemporary art museum so unofficially that it was not even listed in the catalog. This Rocha is also thorough, showing himself obsessively combing archives and conducting interviews all over the world (one is with Kevin Brownlow) in his search for footage deemed lost of the legendary bandit/revolutionary. The work is chock full of archival footage of Villa himself, much of it staged; one sequence is from a film in which the young Raoul Walsh portrays Villa. Although Rocha discovers loads of film in old cans, he never does find the reels that are the object of his quest. Nevertheless, the old footage, much of it tinted, that he does uncover is fascinating, as are such revelations that Villa made a deal with the American Mutual Film Company in 1914 to restage some of his forays-for a 20% share of the box-office take. A shrewd militant, that Villa.

Yet another fascinating person in a festival full of docs about extraordinary people is the subject of the Spanish-Cuban production “Galindez”, by the Spanish director Ana Diez. Like Luis Frank, Basque activist Jesus de Galindez fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. On March 12, 1956, he disappeared from his downtown New York City apartment, and the police list him as a missing person to this day.

Even if it is not a formal masterpiece, “Galindez” is a model of investigating reporting. With extensive archival material, diagrams, and authoritative talking heads (including the now-retired New York detective heading the case in the ’50s), Diez proves that Galindez wore several hats, among them anti-Trujillo activist, head of a Basque government-in-exile, and FBI informant on his own fellow leftist exiles. The Trujillo connection appears to be the one that lead not only to his kidnapping and probable torture and murder in the Dominican Republic, but a chain of cover-up killings that created an international scandal. Evidently, the U.S. government had ordered Galindez to make a pact with Franco’s military to enable the Americans to have bases in Spain, and Trujillo played some part in the deal. The director offers ample evidence of some CIA involvement in Galindez’s demise: They saw him as a potential traitor who knew too much. Nevertheless, as one Dominican woman says, “The death of Galindez was the beginning of the death of Trujillo”.

Spain provided the festival with two other find documentaries. The strongest of the bunch is Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech’s “Balseros” (“Rafters”), the follow-up to Bosch’s 1994 doc of the same title about desperate Cubans who risked their lives on poorly constructed rafts to get to the promised land of Florida. The co-directors revisit several of the original subjects who survived the journey six years after their arrival. Almost all of them are living in various parts of the U.S. in circumstances as terrible in their way-lost, alienated, addicted–as the harsh economic conditions that had provoked their departure from their homeland. The most successful one dons an apron at a Home Depot.

The other Spanish doc, Andres Linares’s “Alzados el Suelo” (“Higher Than the Floor”), is a disciplined study of a major strike by workers in Madrid that were fired without compensation by the bankrupt company Sintel, a part of Telefonica, which has a loose connection with the Spanish government. The heads of Sintel left with huge amounts of money. For 11 months, the 2,000 strikers lived in a harmonious community of shanty huts they built directly across the street from government offices. Ultimately, in part out of desperation, the workers settled, even receiving pay for the months out of work.

Unfortunately, the film is, at 80 minutes, way too long and redundant. Linares could learn from the Mexican films “The Passion of Maria Elena” and “Pulque Song”, each of which reveals a font of information in just one hour. Less in Guadalajara was certainly more.