NAFTA and Mexican Cinema at Los Cabos International Film Festival

in 4th Los Cabos International Film Festival

by Lucy Virgen

The official sections at Los Cabos include films from Canada, the United States of America and Mexico, the three countries that signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1984.

A festival like this, with countries linked not by the geography but also by commerce, sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? But Los Cabos has only celebrated its fourth edition. Why is that?

NAFTA began almost 22 years ago, so most of Mexico’s population—the median age is 26—doesn’t even remember any other trade relationship with our neighbors to the north.  National cinema, alas, was considered part of the balance trade, not a cultural product that must be protected. Protection is required because, as everybody knows, Hollywood cinema is not only stronger—it also refuses to play nice.

The first direct effect of the treaty on Mexican cinema was that its reserved screentime in the whole country diminished from 30% to 10%. Additionally, the great Hollywood Studios paid fewer taxes, so they had more screentime with less money to pay. In 2003, during the Fox administration, Congress approved a law to use one peso of each ticket sold—aproximatley 3% of the price—to support the production of Mexican cinema. Jack Valenti, the then-president of the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), sent a letter to President Fox warning him about the “negative” effects of this law. All major distribution companies began a legal battle; some lost and some won, but six month later cinema tickets in Mexico became more expensive and Mexican productions no longer received the frozen funds.

In subsequent years Mexican Cinema has learned, little by little, how to defend itself. The international success of Mexican directors and cinematographers puts the country in the spotlight, even if the productions awarded on account of their contributions are predominantly American. Mexican filmmakers apply—almost routinely now—for international funding and co-productions; laws that give the chance to use tax money in film support productions at all levels; democratization and transparency in government resources helps to broad the style of productions while, in theory at least, the competition improves the quality.

Distribution and exhibition—the eternal bottleneck of any national cinema—remains the main challenge. Film festivals in Mexico, whose number has doubled in the last five years, have been a great support. With the notable exception of Guadalajara, almost all of them have one or more section reserved solely for Mexican cinema.

Los Cabos International Film Festival in its fourth edition is a very welcome addition to Mexican festival landscape. Its competition is not just for films but also for projects at various stages of production. The festival programmers have the good sense to choose films for their artistic value and to take advantage of the presence of stars from all three countries in North America.  To have Jared Letto, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Atom Egoyan, Jean Marc Vallé and Rodrigo García, among others, in attendance ensures press coverage and benefits the films in competition.

The section “Mexico Primero” has six national productions in competition. Three of them—I Promise You Anarchy, The Chosen Ones (Las elegidas) and Warehoused—have good chances of maming an impression on the international scene; the other three with good commercial chances, either as theatrical, cable or internet releases. Since this is almost the end of 2015, it is possible to deem this selection as a fair sampling of the year in Mexican film production. It is also possible to suggest that this selection represents current key themes for younger directors.

The six films—besides those mentioned above there is also Semana Santa, directed by Alejandra Márquez, You’ll Know What to Do with Me (Sabrás que hacer conmigo), directed by Katina Medina Mora, and Charity (Caridad), directed by Marcelino Islas Hernández—are honest narratives of everyday life in Mexico. The personal matters—love, mourning, deception, disabilities—mixed with social problems—drug dealers, prostitution, corruption illegal blood traffic, unemployment—provide a personal feeling with topical and very depressing implications. Most interesting of all is the fact that young filmmakers find ways to imply violence without showing it explicitly onscreen. The filmmakers are not on denial regarding violence in Mexico—not when we are talking about the kidnapping of teenagers for prostitution, or “disappearances” in hands of drug dealers—it’s just that they are using subtler ways to convey that violence. The stories are about people of all ages, and from all over the social spectrum, mixing, just like in real life.

Mexican cinema is still in a difficult position. Laws and regulations that aid distribution are badly needed, and more funding for production is urgent. But our national cinema has a voice, and in Los Cabos it was heard—not necessarily loud, but very clear.

Edited by José Teodoro