Mexican Cinema: Filmmaking Against All Obstacles By Chiara Arroyo Cella

in 9th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Chiara Arroyo Cella

The Rio International Film Festival means a lot to Carlos Reygadas, although he has yet to attend it.

The director’s work has been internationally recognized from his very first feature: Japan (Japón) won the FIPRESCI award in 2002. Three years later the FIPRESCI award was bestowed on his second film, Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el Cielo) in Rio. This year, his new work Silent Light (Stellet Licht)competed in the Rio’s Latin American section and won the FIPRESCI award for Best Feature Film.

While this is, of course a great coincidence, it’s also a consequence of the quality of his films. But this scenario is not new for the Mexican filmmaker: Something similar happened at Cannes, where he received a Special Mention Camera d’Or for Japan. Two years ago, Battle in Heaven was in competition for the Golden Palm. The picture was successful and controversial, and of particular fascination to the French media. And this year, Silent Light shared the Jury Price with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Persepolis.

So far, the steps taken by this 35-year-old director have been firm and clear since he abandoned his career as a lawyer specializing in armed conflicts for the European Commission nine years ago.

Silent Light, which Reygadas also wrote and produced,is an unusual old German-language Mennonite love story: Johan, a married man, transgresses the teachings of his religion by falling in love with another woman. The film tells a universal story that goes beyond the parameters of the closed and very specific community in which it is set: The characters are archetypes who are conflicted emotionally between internal desire and external obligation, as is most of humanity.

Fascinated by Mennonite aesthetics and the beautiful countryside of Chihuahua, north of Mexico City, Reygadas moved there with a tiny crew of just eleven people last summer. They shot for three months, using only natural light. The result, as interpreted by the cinematographer Alexis Zabe, is unbelievable.

The actors were not professionals; they were members of the Mennonite community, and it took Reygadas quite a lot of time to find them. He spent a year making the right connections within the community and he and his crew also encountered many rejections. In Mennonite society, television and cinema are strictly forbidden; even the reproduction of the human figure isn’t allowed. Thus, Reygadas had to spend time explaining the project to the community, leading them to understand that it wasn’t disrespectful.

Silent Light shouldn’t be controversial at all — or at least not as much as Reygadas’ other films have been. Indeed, it’s a very well-done work that shows the sensibility of its director.

The Renaissance of Mexican Cinema

Carlos Reygadas is not the only talented Mexican director. He is part of a new generation of filmmakers playing an important role in the renaissance of Mexican cinema. In fact, the Mexican production of films is growing. Almost 45 films were shot last year, including feature films and documentaries.

At the beginning of the 21stt century, the films of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro focused international attention on Mexico. Since then, there has been a remarkable flowering of Mexican talent on the international festival scene. However, something has changed. “Los Tres Amigos” had to leave their country to continue their careers. The new generation of filmmakers such as Carlos Reygadas have not. They stayed, and are working successfully out of Mexico.

A very good representation of this young talent was screened in Rio. Ten of the 38 films of the Latin Section were from Mexico. All but Silent Light were first features.

Aarón Fernández’ Used Parts (Partes Usadas) tells the story of an adolescent who turns to crime to pay a smuggler to take him to the U.S. The film, whose main characters are very well realized by non-professional actors, won the First Mexican Feature award at the Guadalajara Film Festival, and was submitted for Golden Globe consideration to the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Ernesto Contreras’ Blue Eyelids (Párpados azules) follows the romance of two lonely strangers. This dark drama with fantastic music is reminiscent of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s world. It took top prizes at Guadalajara, was screened at the International Critics Week in Cannes, and won a Special Mention at the San Sebastian Film Festival (Horizontes Latinos) some weeks ago.

Cochochi is by far one of the most interesting Mexican films, because it paints a very good picture of the new trends in cinema. Written, photographed and directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and her husband Israel Cárdenas, the film explores the life and culture of the native Tarahumara Indians through a particular event in two young brothers’ lives – the search for a missing horse, which is their most valuable possession. The film is spoken in the melodic Raramuri dialect and was shot in Tarahumara Sierra, Chihuahua. Cochochi — a Raramuri word meaning “place of pines” — won the Diesel Discovery Award in Toronto.

With Two Embraces (Dos abrazos), Mexican director Enrique Begne shows how interactions with strangers can sometimes help bring people through a rough time. The direction of the actors stands out. Two Embraces had its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won the Best New Narrative Filmmaker Award.

Despite the explosion of young Mexican talent and its repercussions on the international festival scene, a closer look reveals several problems of the Mexican film industry. Most of the movies that play the festival circuit don’t make money at home, so they need to be exported to succeed. For a number of reasons, this situation remains stagnant.

One reason that makes it extremely difficult for Mexican productions to recoup their money domestically is that their box-office take is not fairly divided: 60 percent go to the exhibitors, and 40 percent to the distributor. Going to see a movie in Mexico is extremely expensive, when one factors in the cost of living: The minimum daily wage is 4.50 US Dollars, while a movie ticket costs 5 US Dollars. The average budget for a feature film ranges from 1.5 to 2.3 million US Dollars.

The lack of distribution opportunities frustrated many producers and directors. Additionally, there is no law that protects national features from competition with more attractive Hollywood product, and the state tax incentive for investors has not yet been confirmed by the new government. Domestic pictures also need a more level playing field in broadcast television: The most important networks, “Televisa” and “TV Azteca”, control about 95 percent of Mexico’s commercial stations and pay just marginal fees for feature-film broadcast rights. Include endemic piracy, and the situation becomes even more difficult.

But putting this discouraging overview aside, what is important is that filmmakers like Reygadas, Fernández, Contreras, Guzmán-Cárdenas and Begne overcome their obstacles and give the world’s audiences insight into their reality. Their projects try to honestly show the values of Latin America without falling into commonalities and stereotypes.