New Trends in Mexican Cinema? By Annemarie Meier

in 23rd Guadalajara Film Festival

by Annemaria Meier

A film festival like the one we just had in Guadalajara lends itself to taking the pulse of the national movie industry, to diagnosing the current state of Mexican cinema and to discerning new trends. It is especially interesting to take a close look at the directing debuts among the films that were shown. What new visions are taking shape in Mexican film? What kinds of stories are being told? What topics are being addressed? What narrative styles are being repeated, renewed, announced? Moviegoers taking their seats in a theater, about to see an author’s first fictional feature-length film, cannot help but feel a sense of anticipation. Will this be an important discovery? Will we emerge thinking that a new creative talent has appeared on the scene, not just to enrich Mexican cinema but to break new ground?

In the Festival’s Mexican fictional feature-length film section, a selection of directing debuts was shown. Some of these creators had participated in earlier festivals with short films or documentaries. Such was the case of Juan Carlos Martín, who won the prize for Best Mexican Film a few years back, with his documentary Gabriel Orozco. In his first fictional feature-length film, 40 Días (40 Days), we once again encounter his interest in describing characters in movement, capturing moments and situations that shed light on characters’ emotions and doubts by showing us how they react to their surroundings and interact with others. With the eye of a documentary filmmaker, Juan Carlos Martín offers a precise description of the different stages of a trip from the U.S.-Mexican border to New York and back by way of California. The camera focuses on the wide-open spaces and factory complexes with the same obsession for detail as on the texture of soil, sand and rocks. Moviegoers will not connect in the same way, however, with the characters who discuss their positions on the relationship between Mexico and the United States, and who confess their own personal conflicts and struggle through emotional and existential crises. The influence of Gabriel Orozco, the visual artist, can be felt in the humorous scene where the travel companions take their leave of New York with a kind of installation on the floor of their hotel room, forming the Manhattan skyline with tourist brochures, maps and admission tickets to museums and galleries.

Aurora boreal (Aurora borealis), by Sergio Tovar Velarde, tells the story of a teenager who uses his video camera to film both nature and his family surroundings, while at the same time interviewing children, young people and adults about their reasons for living and not committing suicide. We find out that the main character does not have merely a passing interest in suicide, but has actually decided on the day and the hour he will commit suicide himself, as a way of atoning for an act of carelessness that caused harm to his little brother. The film combines scenes that move the plot forward with video images recorded by the main character, his off-screen voice, and the answers of the interviewees. The main character’s relationships with his little sister and an older friend who collects cassettes are interesting, but overall, the story is rather flimsy, and not developed enough to keep the audience in suspense.

Telenovelas, or soap operas, the industry that produces them and their importance to popular culture are central to the film It’s Better If Gabriela Doesn’t Die (Mejor es que Gabriela no se muera) by Sergio Umansky. This is a topic and a cultural phenomenon worth exploring, inasmuch as Mexican telenovelas are followed by millions of fans around the world, and are broadcast in Latin America, Asia and Europe. The film’s characters include both creators and viewers. We have on the one hand the tormented television screenwriter who does not have a regular income but is rather paid per script; his existence comes to a crisis when the lead actress decides to quit the show. On the other hand, there is the policeman who is addicted to the soap opera and refuses to accept the change to the plot. The comedy does not work well, however, because it is painted with such broad strokes. Comedies make us laugh when they depict human beings with all their foibles. If the characters are clichés and the situations become repetitive, we have trouble identifying with them and the laughter dries up.

Emilio Porter’s film Meet the Head of Juan Perez (Conoce la cabeza de Juan Pérez) also draws on the telenovela, at least as far as the cast is concerned, while the story pays tribute to Tim Burton, Hitchcock and Fellini. The circus of life and the circus as a metaphor for society, with clowns and magicians as main characters, are a frequent conceit in cinema. In Meet the Head of Juan Perez, the circus, its performers and intrigues are visually attractive and entertaining, but they do not manage to coalesce into a story or convey exactly what they want to tell and say.

How Could I Not Love You (Cómo no te voy a querer), by Víctor Avelar, on the other hand, conveys its message loud and clear. Maybe too loud and clear, because the story of two young people in Mexico City who try to find their way in the midst of existential, family and sentimental crises breaks down under the weight of excessive dramatization and overly explicative dialogue.

Do these directing debuts at the Festival really point out new trends in Mexican cinema? There certainly was “a little of everything,” and as one of the judges commented during the Festival, that’s the way it ought to be if Mexican filmmaking hopes to become an industry once again. There are films that aim for broad box-office success, and films aimed at specific audiences. One thing that stood out for me was the fact that, unlike films made in other parts of Latin America, Mexican movies do not take violence as their topic. What I’d like to see, however, in new Mexican cinema is more substantial plots, more complex characters and bolder narrative and aesthetic proposals.