Three Essential Documentaries

in 32nd Guadalajara Film Festival

by André Roy

The competition at the Guadalajara International Film Festival, which took place from March 10 to 17, included 21 feature films, equally divided between fiction and documentary. The selection’s diversity posed a challenging task for the members of the FIPRESCI jury: Xavier Danielg (from Catalonia), Pablo Staricco (from Uruguay), and myself (from Québec). Our jury, after a long discussion, finally decided to award the prize to The Blue Years (Los añosazules) a fiction film, and the feature debut of Sofia Gómez Córdova. The choice does not mean that no documentary film was unworthy of the prize—on the contrary.

Here are three documentaries that we would like to see widely viewed. These films managed to avoid the format that television imposes on documentaries. Such a format amputates essential elements of the documentary as a genre.

It is with great relief that the panel noticed, on the very first day, that it was possible to circumvent the television hydra, a fact proven by While Waiting (Mientras se espera), a film by Paola Villanueva Bidault. Her first documentary, While Waiting concerns what women do in a retirement home, where the cinematographer has documented their last days. In spite of their poor health, the day-to-day behavior of these old ladies remains undisturbed. They continue to strive, or they struggle along, as if there were no end to their lives. Never does the anguish related to death or its fears cross their minds. It is that slow daily routine that Villanueva Bidault demonstrates in vivid detail. These women share everything, including the deficiencies. The author has no condescending attitude towards these women. The camera wanders around the house, dwelling on a few of the women, like Lola, 83, who relentlessly tries to reach her mother on the phone without losing hope; and everyday she waits for her deceased husband to come out of the house on the other side of the street. Through the endearing Lola, it is the worthiness of life that we share emotionally.

The Gaze of the Sea (Los ojosdelmar) also held the attention of our jury. It is the work of José Alvarez, a filmmaker who won the 2012 FIPRESCI prize for Canicula. His third documentary is about the tragedy of death, the disappearance of corpses that will never come back. The camera follows the footsteps of Hortensia, from Tuxpan, who undertakes a journey on a ship to reclaim the memory of six crewmembers who perished at sea five years before near Veracruz. They were not properly buried, there was no mass, no ritual to commemorate their death. The loss of loved ones leaves a great void, an emptiness that Hortensia wants desperately to fill. She visits the families of the missing men and collects objects they left behind. She then puts her findings in a casket and sinks it at the exact spot where the shipwreck happened. We learn a great deal about the culture of Mexicans, the bond they share with Death, known as the national totem of Mexico. What the filmmaker tells us through such magnificent scenes is that the sea, like death itself, is mysterious, boundless, terrible, undisciplined.

A third documentary, Devil’s Freedom (La libertad del diablo), the work of Everardo Gónzales, describes the daily violence that plagues Mexico, a country so imbued with violence that we tend to equate it with the culture of Mexico itself. An unfortunate reflection of its soul! To show how violence is part of the subconscious and why it takes the shape of fear and cruelty, the author adopts a stylized approach like the one used by Avi Mograbi in Z38, where the face of the witness is hidden from the viewer. Mograbi made use of a digitalized mask while Gonzales adorns the faces of his witnesses with knitted ones, the victims (those who were close to the extreme violence) as well as the perpetrators (those who committed the fatal blows). His method of interviewing the witnesses in such a disguise arouses in the eyes of the viewers, drawing our attention to the trauma and horror provoked by the drug traffickers. The witnesses, from one side or the other, become the players in the exploration of the depth of a terror that appears impossible to root out. The result is a shocking view of Mexican street violence. The film is a remarkable metaphor of a crisis that involves more than 400 000 Mexicans. It is gut-wrenching, salutary and timely.

Edited by José Teodoro