The rise of female documentary makers in Mexico

Mexico may not be the easiest country in which to be a woman, and its cinema’s pecking order is as macho as most. But at this year’s Ambulante touring documentary festival, half a dozen strong female-directed finds show the country’s subordinate sex finding its voice.

☞  The new guard: an interview with the new heads of Sheffield Doc/Fest

Neil Young

Web exclusive

Tempestad (2016)

Tempestad (2016)

For women in 21st century Mexico, every day is the Day of the Dead. The term ‘Feminicidio’ was coined to describe a wave of killings – involving the deaths of adults and children alike – which was first noted in the Texas-bordering province of Chihuahua in 1993. Statistics compiled by the National Citizen Femicide Observatory – a coalition of 43 groups chronicling the crimes – suggest an average of six women and girls are murdered every single day, with the ‘narco-states’ of the north and the area surrounding the capital particular black spots. Seldom can there have been such an urgent need for women’s voices to be heard in the world’s eleventh-biggest nation – a country of more than 122 million people, according to official estimates.

It’s ironic, then, that the current sky-high international profile enjoyed by Mexican filmmakers should be so conspicuously male-dominated. The last three Best Director Oscars have all been won by Mexican men: Alfonso Cuarón in 2014, followed by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s double-header (coinciding with Emmanuel Lubezki’s unprecedented AMPAS cinematography hat-trick). Carlos Reygadas took the equivalent trophy at Cannes in 2012 with Post Tenebras Lux; likewise his countryman and protege Amat Escalante (for Heli) 12 months later.

But Google ‘Mexican film directors’ and the names and faces of no fewer than 16 men are displayed before the first woman appears – and she is actress Salma Hayek, whose sole feature-length directorial outing remains 2003 TV movie The Maldonado Miracle. Female Mexican directors have made intermittent international impact – Elisa Miller even won a Palme d’Or at Cannes for her 2007 short See Rain (Ver Llover), but her subsequent projects have been relatively low-profile. No woman has ever been named Best Director at the Ariel awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars, and only three have been nominated (across 41 possible mentions) in the past dozen years.

The gender balance is, however, much more healthy in terms of documentary: in the Ariels’ feature-documentary category eight women have been nominated in the current decade alone; in 2012 The Tiniest Place (El lugar más pequeño) actually won the prize for the El Salvador-born Tatiana Huezo.

The Swirl (El Remolino, 2016)

The Swirl (El Remolino, 2016)

This prominence is reflected in and showcased by the nation’s biggest festival devoted to the format, Ambulante, which for two months each spring since 2005 has toured several provinces across the country. This year’s event, the eleventh, kicked off in the capital on the last day of March and wraps up in Veracruz at the start of June – with week-long stints in Oaxaca (the section I attended), Puebla, Coahuila, Michoacan, Jalisco and Baja California along the way.

Documentaries from all over the world are shown at Ambulante, including several well-travelled festival-circuit favourites, but a sizeable chunk of the programme is home-grown and home-focused – with a scattering of world premieres. The most notable of the latter this year included The Swirl (El Remolino) by Laura Herrero Garvin, a sensitively observant portrait of an oft-flooded hamlet on the banks of a wide river in the southern state of Chiapas. It focuses on two protagonists, Pedro and Esther – belatedly revealed as brother and sister – who literally navigate their way through the harsh challenges imposed by their geographical and socio-economic environments.

Esther, whose dreams of becoming a teacher were stymied by a woefully inadequate education system – many children in this area leave school at 12 or even 11 – clings to fragile hopes that her own young daughter may have brighter prospects. As well as interviewing Esther, Herrero Garvin interpolates extracts from her home movies depicting and analysing earlier flooding incidents – their catastrophic impact largely a consequence of industrial deforestation. The implication is clear: under fairer and more propitious circumstances, Esther could perhaps have forged or found her own platform as a documentary filmmaker; now she stands as an rueful exemplar of unrealised creative potential.

Tempestad (2016)

Tempestad (2016)

In some ways, however, Esther could be regarded as one of the ‘lucky’ ones – especially in comparison with the two women at the heart of the aforementioned Huezo’s outstanding sophomore picture Tempestad, which premiered at the Berlinale’s Forum in February and comes to Sheffield Doc/Fest this June. Huezo patiently alternates between the narrated testimonies of two (mostly unseen) interviewees, whose experiences encompass wrongful arrest, rape, kidnapping, state oppression and Kafkaesque prison conditions.

Lena Esquinazi’s soundscape subtly emphasises the nightmarish aspects of tales whose consistent references to confinement and constriction build a picture of Mexico as a bewilderingly complex series of traps from which its citizens often feel hopeless to escape. Images of a beautiful, diverse country blighted by insensitive architecture, unfailingly defective infrastructure and a menacingly militarised police force (enmeshed in unwinnable ‘wars’ against drugs and crime) build into a kind of kaleidoscopic dystopia. This is an environment in which the strong and resilient can hope to prosper or even survive, and where solidarity between women is a crucial sustaining force.

Plaza de la Soledad (2016)

Plaza de la Soledad (2016)

The latter is also central to Maya Goded’s Plaza de la Soledad – another Doc/Fest selection – which focuses on veteran sex workers in one particular corner of Mexico City. Cuevas, who initially chronicled these women and their lives as a photographer, has obviously earned the intimate trust of her protagonists, and while occasionally there’s a sense that she’s sometimes a little too close to her material – forfeiting a measure of objectivity along the way – the warmth and empathy of her approach is persuasively palpable.

Plaza de la Soledad would make a stimulating double-bill with a glimpse into a very different stratum of Mexico City society, María José Cuevas’s Beauties of the Night (Bellas de noche), in which the director catches up with several ‘showgirl’ celebrities of the 1960s and 70s after they enjoyed the national limelight. Potentially melancholic Sunset Blvd undertones are downplayed in favour of a buoyantly upbeat, even celebratory mood – of all the Ambulante world premieres this year, Beauties of the Night is probably the one which will (aptly enough) show the sturdiest ‘legs’ on the festival circuit.

Beauties of the Night (Bellas de noche, 2016)

Beauties of the Night (Bellas de noche, 2016)

Each of these films is notable for the space and time allocated to women to talk about themselves, their backgrounds and their experiences – a welcome trait also discernible in more expansive and geographically adventurous enterprises such as Teresa Camou’s Sunú (already seen at Doc/Fest in 2015). Like Ambulante itself, this quietly accomplished debut by professional puppeteer Camou visits several different states – including Oaxaca – in its mission to examine the crucial importance of agriculture, specifically grain, to the local and national economy, and the challenges presented by corporate globalisation.

A government spokesman comes across, worryingly, as a complacent, incompetent buffoon; in contrast, grain-farmer Josefina Santiago makes an inspiring and stirring impression with her clear-eyed cynicism, voice-of-reason articulacy and impassioned attacks on multinationals such as Monsanto. Mexico, Santiago avers, faces “huge environmental problems” because of these corporations’ short-sighted practices: “It’s horrible to put money before everything else.”

Sunú (2015)

Sunú (2015)

Mexico obviously needs strong, sensible women like Santiago in positions of authority – but in terms of political power, women are as under-represented as they are in the upper echelons of filmmaking. The country comprises 31 states plus the quasi-state that is Mexico City; in the current century only two women have served as state governors, including the current incumbent of Yucatán. This imbalance is obviously the result of complex and interlocking processes, which will take years – even decades – to redress, presuming there’s sufficient will to acknowledge and counteract the underlying prejudices. Film festivals can make a small but important contribution towards education and awareness-raising, and Ambulante also deserves commendation for taking practical steps to increase access to cinema – not just in terms of widening audience opportunities (on each ‘leg’, screenings are organised in small communities as well as large cities) but also in terms of allowing marginal voices to be heard.

The festival’s Ambulante Beyond initiative concentrates on “marginalised communities”, encouraging the production of short films intended to (as their website puts it) strengthen identities, defend rights, “break stereotypes and transform negative social assumptions.” A selection of the Ambulante Beyond films joins the touring programme each year; the 2016 standout was the 27-minute Refugio, co-directed by Mayra Caal Gaspar and Eloi Chávez.

Refuge (Refugio, 2016)

Refuge (Refugio, 2016)

A 20-year-old whose family fled war-torn Guatemala, Caal Gaspar has been involved in Ambulante projects since she was a teenager. In Refugio, she soberly conjures the grim experiences of her family and neighbours, contrasting the atrocities they suffered in their homeland with the bucolic calm of their current banana-farm surroundings in the state of Campeche. Credited solo as editor, Caal Gaspar displays an impressive, unfussy grasp of poetic montage via close-up shots of insects, animals and foliage. Her flair for shot-selection and juxtaposition, along with her screenplay’s precociously mature philosophical assessment of the various meanings and implications of ‘refuge’, indicate a potentially bright filmmaking future – hopefully, on both sides of those enticingly porous Mexico/Guatemala and fiction/documentary frontiers.

  • Women on Film – all our coverage

    Women on Film – all our coverage

    A window on our ongoing coverage of women’s cinema, from movies by or about women to reports and comment on the underrepresentation of women...

See all our coverage

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top