Monthly Archives: May 2012

Don’t Forget Mexico

I’ll be honest. When I said I wanted to participate in a blogathon to support film preservation, I envisioned writing a thoroughly impassioned and well-documented account of the challenges faced by those who were trying to preserve Mexican cinema. I’ve been writing about Mexican films for over a year now, and during that time I’ve reached two conclusions:


Mexico has produced a lot of great movies.


A lot of them are really hard to see.

Up until a few years ago, I was pretty much completely ignorant about Mexican film. I’m still pretty ignorant, but I realize now what an amazing cinematic tradition the country has. I get the sense that most Americans are in the same place I was a few years ago. People talk about films from France, Denmark, Iran, Azerbaijan and Croatia, but I never hear anybody talk about films from Mexico. Sure, you can point to the buzz about del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón, but the fact is that none of them are making films in Mexico any more.

So when I was offered the opportunity to participate in a blogathon devoted to film preservation, I decided this was my chance to let everybody know how rich Mexican cinema is, and how important it is to preserve that heritage. Unfortunately, after a week of scouring the net for information, I haven’t come up with a lot of hard data.

The good news is that Mexico seems to have the largest film archive in Latin America, and also seems to be a leader in the preservation of Spanish language films. The Filmoteca at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the Cineteca Nacional have thousands of films in their archives, and have a fair amount of funding to pursue their work. Within Mexico, there is widespread recognition of the importance of conserving the country’s cinematic tradition.

The bad news is that, just like in every other country, there are a lot of films that are neglected, forgotten, or just plain gone. Here’s my imperfect, inadequate, but still impassioned account of some of the challenges that face those who are working to preserve Mexico’s film history.

It won’t surprise anybody that many of the films made during the silent era in Mexico are gone. But in reading about some of the lost films from that period, I came across the name Elena Sánchez Valenzuela, who starred in La luz, tríptico de la vida moderna (1917). Not only was Sanchez Valenzuela one of the first stars of the Mexican film industry, she was also one of the first people to understand the importance of preserving cinematic history. In the 20s she wrote about film for for a daily newspaper, and later Sánchez Valenzuela helped lay the groundwork for the Cineteca Nacional, which today plays a leading role in film conservation. Back when most people saw movies as cheap entertainment, Sánchez Valenzuela understood their importance in the larger culture.

If I tell you that El anónimo (1932), directed by Fernando de Fuentes is considered lost, you may not get too worked up about it. But imagine that Howard Hawks’ first feature was gone forever, and maybe you can understand how sad this really is. If you haven’t seen Vamonos con Pancho Villa or El Compadre Mendoza, you have no idea how important Fuentes was to the history of Mexican film. I wouldn’t want to push the Fuentes/Hawks comparison too far, but this director had a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the Mexican Revolution, and did not shy away from the scarier aspects of the country’s culture of machismo.

Some of you may be familiar with Maria Candelaria (1944), one of the more famous films directed by Emilio Fernandez. However you may not be familiar with the ongoing struggle to return the film to its original form. When MGM bought the rights to distribute Maria Candelaria in the US, for some reason the original negative was shipped to Hollywood. There it was cut by more than 20 minutes and the film was dubbed into English. While the Filmoteca/UNAM was able to reclaim the negative, the soundtrack has not survived. So at this point, there is no way to restore Maria Candelaria to its original form.

It’s difficult to find information on more recent movies, but I can tell you I’ve had a hell of time tracking down many titles. I should emphasize that I’ve had to watch all of this stuff on DVD. Nobody in the LA area is showing Mexican films on the big screen, and as far as I can tell that applies to the rest of the US. It’s disturbing enough that many of the films I’ve purchased are cut rate releases that use degraded prints. It’s even more disturbing that a number of works by established directors aren’t even available on DVD.

I wish I had more information to pass on. But I’ll close by saying that if you haven’t seen anything by Fernando de Fuentes, Emilio Fernández, Arturo Ripstein or María Novaro, you’re missing some of the most beautiful and interesting films ever made.

And if reading this makes you want to throw a few bucks at film preservation, follow this link….

El jardín del Edén [The Garden of Eden] (1994)

You could take El jardín del Edén as a meditation on borders.  Not just the boundaries that separate nations, but also the lines we draw between ourselves and even the barriers we create inside ourselves.  Most of the film is set near the border between Mexico and the US, in and around Tijuana.  This is a place where different cultures come together, sometimes merging in a happy chaos, other times grinding against each other and shooting off sparks.  Labels like “Mexican”, “American”, “Indigenous” start to lose their meaning.  It all depends on your perspective.

The film centers on three women who have come to Tijuana, each for different reasons.  Liz is a Mexican-American woman working on an exhibition about cultural identity.  Her friend Jane is Anglo and speaks almost no Spanish, which doesn’t stop her from trying to be friends with everyone she meets.  Serena is a single mom who is struggling to make a living and trying to deal with her teenage son.  The script, by director María Novaro with Beatriz Novaro, doesn’t try to fit these women into a standard dramatic framework.  The film isn’t about drama.  It’s about people trying to find a way to live their lives.

Novaro seems to be as interested in the place as the people.  She takes the time to dwell on details that give us a feel for the city.  The cinematography captures the tacky beauty of the border, the dusty landscapes and cheap hotels.  English and Spanish collide and mutate in garish neon and hand-painted signs.  While the movie doesn’t have a traditional score, we hear music all over the place, in dance halls, border camps, and on the street.

References to Eden and paradise come up throughout the film.  Is paradise across the border?  Is it right here inTijuana?  Or does it exist on some other plane?  Novaro doesn’t answer these questions.  Instead she follows these people who want to find that perfect place, but don’t know how to get there.