The Healthy State of the Mexican Documentary at Guadalajara

in 30th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Joel Poblete

While the films that our jury in Guadalajara watched included a couple of fiction titles that may work very well on the festival circuit (Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles, already awarded at the Berlinale, and in commercial and public appeal terms, Celso García’s The Thin Yellow Line), it was the documentary field that showed the greatest interest and depth among the new Mexican films. The fiction films, though, were in the majority; of the 21 titles included, only eight were documentaries (originally there was a ninth, but Beyond My Grandfather Allende, by the granddaughter of the late Chilean president, Marcia Tambutti, was not finished on time, so it was included as part of the work-in-progress productions).

That the documentaries were the most interesting and distinctive of the Mexican films should not be surprising. In the past decade Mexican cinema has become one of the most potent in Latin America thanks to names that join others from older generations such as Arturo Ripstein: González. Iñárritu, Cuarón, Del Toro, Reygadas and Escalante are among those that now are an important part of the international scene, and every year new filmmakers are considered as possible successors, such as Fernando Eimbcke, Nicolás Pereda and Matías Meyer, and last year Alonso Ruiz Palacios with Güeros, awarded at the Berlinale, Tribeca and San Sebastian. It’s true that all those names originally come from the fiction side, but it’s worth remembering that in the past decade the documentary field has been getting more interesting in Mexico, winning awards in important international festivals thanks to names such as Juan Carlos Rulfo (In the Pit), Everardo González (Drought) and Natalia Almada (The General).

Six of the eight documentaries in the Guadalajara Mexican official selection were world premieres. Of those, only one was under the general level. The bland and reiterative Shih, a first feature by the Argentinian Bruno Zaffora and the Mexican Rafael Ortega, focuses on a girl who travels to Taiwan to try to rebuild her relationship with her Taiwanese father after two decades of separation. The film’s unnecessarily long 107 minutes are full of trivial moments that don’t help to make the account more moving, deep or interesting. Toward the end you keep waiting for some revelation or change that makes the documentary worth watching. It never arrives.

Another film, The Empty Classroom (El aula vacía), was also disappointing, but at least it gives the audience some good and striking moments. Produced by the Inter-American Development Bank and formed of ten short films directed by eleven filmmakers, it deals with the reasons nearly one out of every two students in Latin America never graduates from high school. The social importance of the subject is undeniable, but as often happens with features made of short films directed by different filmmakers, the project, with Gael García Bernal as one of the producers and also as creative director, lacks unity, and some of the shorts even seem to miss the point of the subjects they are purportedly dealing with. Even including filmmakers with names as respected on the international circuit as the Argentinian Lucrecia Martel, this tour around the educational troubles in seven Latin American countries is overlong, mostly monotonous and fails in go into the depth deserved by its material.

The rest of the documentaries selection was better and more interesting. Even if it’s very traditional and predictable in its formal approach, Behind Nazarin (Tras Nazarín: El eco de una tierra en otra tierra) is a warm, insightful and enjoyable work that explores the Mexican locations where the remarkable Nazarín, one of the masterpieces by the great Luis Buñuel, was filmed five decades ago. Directed by the Spaniard Javier Espada (who previously made a good documentary about the legendary Spanish filmmaker in his 2008 debut. The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel, co-directed with Gaizka Urresti), the film includes interviews with film personalities such as Carlos Reygadas and Jean-Claude Carrière, and mixes old pictures of the locations with how the places look today.

Also traditional in their styles, but very entertaining, were a couple of films about musicians. In Con el alma en una pieza: la leyenda de El Personal, filmmaker Jorge Bidault tells the complex and sometimes disturbing story of El Personal, perhaps the most popular and influential band of the last three decades in his native Guadalajara, whose musicians challenged the conservative and sometimes homophobic social standards of their period. And in the poetic and touching The Nightingale and the Night: Chavela Vargas Sings Lorca (El ruiseñor y la noche: Chavela Vargas canta a Lorca), Rubén Rojo Aura explores the strong connection between the renowned Mexican singer  — made internationally famous by Almodóvar’s use of her melodramatic songs about love in the soundtracks of some of his films — and the work of the emblematic Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, concluding with the famous 2012 Madrid recital that ended her legendary career (she died, 93 years old, almost one month later). Both documentaries are truly enjoyable, even if they are not really innovative in any aspect; of course audiences will like them depending how much they value the work of the musicians.      

Besides the awarded Suspended Time (see the film review by Godfrey Cheshire), two other documentaries were interesting and remarkable in different ways. In the funny and moving Made in Bangkok, filmmaker Flavio Florencio follows the odyssey of the charming Morgana, a transgender singer who in 2012 travels to the capital of Thailand to represent Mexico in Miss International Queen, an international transgender beauty pageant; she hopes to win and raise enough money to pay for the surgery that will complete her sex change. Filming and accompanying his charismatic lead character, the filmmaker portrays her carefully and with true affection, letting her to display all her spontaneity, humility and sense of humor, as a vivid testimony to a society that is changing its social conventions.  

And in Juanicas, director Karina García Casanova shows a heartbreaking reality that she documented over almost a decade: the mental decline of her brother Juan. He and their mother suffered bipolar disorder almost all their lives. In her youth the filmmaker had to tolerate and try to overcome many difficulties, and when Juan agrees to travel to live with the mother in Quebec, in hopes of making a new start, things grow even worse for the Mexican immigrants. We have seen many documentaries about characters with troubled minds, but even if here some areas of the story remain too opaque or ambiguous – for example, the real personality of the mother — the film is very revealing and leaves the viewer with an unavoidable sadness and a troubled feeling that not all the documentaries reach in such a genuine way.

Edited by Godfrey Cheshire