The Guadalajara International Film Festival
by Dennis West
The thirty-first edition of the annual International Film Festival in Guadalajara (FICG) unfolded smoothly in Mexico’s second largest city March 4–13, 2016. The only glitch blew in toward the end of the event when a severe cold snap—with reports of snowflake sightings—sent participants scurrying for coats and mufflers and motivated them to rethink their daily schedules by cutting back on outdoor activities, such as open-air screenings.
History, in a celebratory sense, loomed large at this year’s edition; and festival guests received a complimentary copy of a beautifully produced tome, Land of Visions: 30 Years of Mexican Cinema in Guadalajara, which, via personal recollections and lavish illustrations, traces the history of Mexico’s largest and most important film festival. I had attended many early and some later editions, so with great interest I reviewed the historical trajectory of the event, noting in particular the ever-changing obstacles confronting organizers in the challenging socioeconomic and political landscape of a developing nation. The festival premiered in 1986, when filmmaker Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, University of Guadalajara administrator Raúl Padilla López, and other interested parties organized a noncompetitive event showcasing recent Mexican film production. Indeed, the first editions were dubbed muestras (showcases), and only Mexican work screened. The nation’s cinema in the 1980s was undergoing a profound artistic and economic crisis, and the festival was established in part to help lift the industry out of its doldrums. Today the event has evolved into a major eclectic and competitive international film festival though recent Mexican cinema remains a primary focus as does Ibero-American production—films from Portugal, Spain, and Latin America.
Land of Visions was published by the University of Guadalajara, as was That’s Life, a fascinating series of in-depth conversations with the articulate and multitalented Mexican cineaste Alfonso Arau, probably best known to American filmgoers as the director of the 1991 culinary-revolutionary blockbuster Like Water for Chocolate. But, as many commentators point out, the university’s support for the festival extends across the decades and goes far beyond the realm of publishing to include financial and moral support for a vast array of activities. This unwavering backing by a prestigious university has set FICG apart from other film festivals and lent the event a notable aura of cultural and intellectual distinction. And the key to all this, according to most accounts: Raúl Padilla López, a cultural visionary and administrative sparkplug widely credited with keeping the festival advancing and growing even as directors have come and gone.
In his public pronouncements, the current director, Iván Trujillo Bolio, stressed organizational changes aimed at bringing the festival more directly to the local audience—the five million residents known as tapatíos. The much maligned mega event center Expo Guadalajara, the site of previous editions, was abandoned in favor of numerous exhibition sites in the historic downtown area, such as the University of Guadalajara’s hospitable Film Forum. These venue changes produced the desired results; and at festival’s end Trujillo Bolio proudly announced that more than 121,000 spectators had attended the thirty-first edition, an increase of 11,000 over the previous year.
A vast and diverse selection of 246 films from forty-two countries awaited this year’s spectators, who made selections from programs ranging from Japanese Erotic Cinema 1974–1988 to the home-grown Perlas Tapatías, Pearls from Guadalajara. All the options were attractively laid out in a magnificently designed and produced 350-page bilingual catalogue, whose last leaf sports a “climate neutral” symbol and a gloss identifying the vegetable-oil base of the ink used within. The festival’s exceptional concern for ecology was further reflected in the Films 4 [sic] Climate selection, part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness about urgent environmental issues. And according to Trujillo Bolio (who hails from a background in biology), the festival administration now routinely takes measures to promote a greener film industry.
Ecological concerns represented but one facet of FICG 31’s impressively progressive sociopolitical and artistic agenda, which also included the competitive screening in the Maguey selection of fourteen new international fiction and nonfiction features exploring issues of sexual diversity. The Maguey Award went to the French Theo and Hugo in the Same Boat, written and directed by veterans Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Marteau. The Maguey program in addition featured special presentations, such as a screening of the 2015 American feature documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. The former matinee idol himself appeared on stage to appreciative applause.
Human rights frequently held center stage during the festival. According to a recent report by the International Federation of Journalists, Mexico ranks as the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, with 120 murdered in the last twenty-five years. Some journalists have fled Mexico for their lives and journeyed to El Paso, Texas, to seek asylum. Their personal situations, including immigration status, are movingly examined in Everardo González Reyes’ feature documentary El Paso, which captured the Press Warrior Prize awarded by a Mexican journalists association.
The festival scheduled several major activities to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of Felipe Cazals’ now classic feature Canoa. This artistically innovative film, which features a strong script by Tomás Pérez Turrent, powerfully re-creates the incendiary atmosphere surrounding the real-life lynching in 1968 of several innocent young men—university employees—deemed “outside agitators” by the suspicious and ignorant townsfolk in the remote village of San Miguel Canoa. In a heavily attended round table discussion in the University’s majestically domed paraninfo or main hall—under the stern gaze of José Clemente Orozco’s “Man the Creator and Rebel”—distinguished Mexican critics and intellectuals stressed this message: the human-rights atrocities depicted in Canoa continue in Mexico, with impunity, to this day.
A single screening of Canoa occurred, in a packed venue seating 1,800. Before the projection, Mexican cineaste Dana Rotberg took the microphone to announce an urgent international campaign to protect from deadly violence proindigenous activists working in Honduras. After the projection, many hundreds remained to witness celebrity transnational director Alfonso Cuarón conduct a lengthy interview with Cazals. In his remarks, the latter stressed the thematic relevance of Canoa today as well as the remarkable artistic innovation that his work represented at a time when the nation’s dismal motion-picture industry routinely spewed out run-of-the-mill comedies for practically nonexistent audiences. Cuarón underscored Canoa’s timely originality and artistry and contended that his generation of Mexican filmmakers is beholden to Cazals.
Young people predominated at this broadly publicized affair, which appeared to represent an effort to educate up-and-coming generations regarding this dark chapter in the nation’s history. A warm round of applause swept through the theater when Cuarón signaled the presence in the audience of a survivor—who remained anonymous—of this historical incident; and, as clapping died down, Cazals dramatically thundered, “Ayotzinapa will not be forgotten.” Thus, no audience member could fail to grasp the disturbing parallels between the grisly crimes committed in San Miguel Canoa and more recent occurrences, such as the forced disappearance and presumed extrajudicial execution in 2014 of forty-three unarmed students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, and the shocking aftermath: a widely perceived governmental cover-up and the nation’s greatest human-rights crisis since 1968, the year of the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City—another colossal whitewash. Information circulating at the festival indicated that Canoa, which had garnered the Silver Bear at the 1976 Berlinale, will soon appear in DVD format in the prestigious Criterion Collection.
FICG constitutes the place to stay abreast of current happenings in the Mexican motion-picture industry. As part of this effort, the festival in the aforementioned paraninfo sponsored a public session to present and comment on the findings of the Statistical Yearbook of Mexican Cinema: 2015, which was published by the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE), a state corporation. Crucial numbers emerged from the commentary by Professor José Woldenberg of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). First and foremost shone the figure of 140 feature films produced in Mexico in 2015—the greatest annual total in the history of the industry. According to Woldenberg, this figure is particularly noteworthy when compared to the situation fifteen or twenty years ago, when annual production ranged from nine to twenty features. However, that old bugaboo remains: the distribution and exhibition of quality Mexican cinema. Figures relating to the marketing of cinema in Mexico in 2015 reveal the following: 84% of ticket buyers viewed American products, while only 6.1 % of spectators purchased tickets to domestic films. Furthermore, forty-three Mexican features were screened by fewer than ten thousand spectators each.
The interpretation of these sobering statistics ignited considerable debate and pessimism. For instance, the well-known film critic of La Jornada newspaper, Carlos Bonfil, trumpeted a severe crisis in his nation’s cinema and deplored the “infantilization” of a filmgoing public that purchases millions of tickets to frothy Mexican commercial fare, such as the animated blockbuster A Rooster with Many Eggs. [For a recent exception to this trend, see “A Perfect Dictatorship: Political Satire in Contemporary Mexican Cinema” by Carmen Irabien Chedraui in the print edition of our Summer 2016 issue.] The economic and cultural stakes involved in marketing are high, since Mexico boasts the fifth-largest moviegoing audience in the world and the largest Spanish-speaking market. The Statistical Yearbook of Mexican Cinema: 2015 now appears online.
I dedicated most of my viewing time to the Made in Mexico program, which presented nineteen new Mexican features, both fiction and nonfiction. The big winner in this category was co-screenwriter, co-producer, and director Joaquín del Paso’s accomplished Panamerican Machinery, which captured both the FIPRESCI or International Critics Prize and the Mezcal Prize for best Mexican feature. The latter award (worth 500,000 pesos) was bestowed by an international jury of film and communications students from diverse educational institutions in Ibero-America, Canada, and Europe.
Panamerican Machinery is unusual for having been produced in 35mm and for its status as a Mexican-Polish co-production—del Paso lived for six years in Poland, where he studied filmmaking at the National Film School in Lodz. In interviews, he has referred to his Mexican childhood amidst heavy-construction and earth-moving equipment, a family business for decades. These drably yellow behemoths from his childhood represent essential motifs in the superb art direction—by Lucy Pawlak and Paulina Sánchez—of Panamerican Machinery. Del Paso’s first feature represents a worthy continuation of the tradition of black satire in Mexican cinema best exemplified by Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Luis Alcoriza’s National Mechanics (1971).
Del Paso launches his narrative with this disturbing question: what happens when the coddled employees at a decades-old and behind-the-times capitalist enterprise—a construction machinery sales and repair outfit—suddenly learn one morning that the corporation’s bighearted long-term president has unexpectedly expired back in a warehouse? In addition, it is quickly revealed that the enterprise has actually gone bankrupt. Sealing off the company grounds from the outside world and “freezing time” seem to provide the answer; but (need it be said?) the disturbing patterns of human behavior that subsequently emerge lead to an unsettling denouement. Del Paso’s measured visual style frequently mesmerizes: slow camera movements and long takes combine with deliberate editing rhythms to instill a sense of claustrophobia and doom even as the tone varies from the absurd and surreal to flat-out black humor. Given the unsubtle deployment of the Mexican flag in one key scene, Panamerican Machinery will be read by many as a dark allegory relating to the status of Mexican capitalism today under the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in 1992 with those powerful trading partners to the north.
Noteworthy documentary features appeared in the Made in Mexico program. In her debut work, The Good Christian, the young Guatemalan screenwriter–director Izabel Acevedo explores the implications of the following infamous motto championed by former military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, a self-declared born-again Christian: “A good Christian packs the Bible in one hand, a submachine gun in the other.” The former Guatemalan generalissimo, who is now eighty-nine years old, was recently tried in his country on charges of genocide and human rights abuses. These atrocities took place during a period in 1982–83 when he served at the behest of the U. S. supported anticommunist military both as President of the Republic of Guatemala and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. In this authoritarian position, he routinely launched savage counterinsurgency initiatives such as “scorched earth” military campaigns, the systematic extrajudicial execution of noncombatants, and the annihilation of hundreds of indigenous communities in the countryside.
Azevedo’s principal approach follows Ríos Montt’s 2013 trial in Guatemala City in the First Criminal Court of First Instance for Criminal Justice, Drug Trafficking, and Environmental Crimes, where a diverse array of witnesses and experts—including the accused himself—testify. The director appears to have enjoyed total access to these courtroom proceedings, which end with Presiding Judge Iris Yassmín Barrios Aguilar condemning the accused in the strongest possible terms. Unfortunately, Azevedo’s “follow-the-trial” approach only partially succeeds, since a clear framework of information is lacking. Viewers who are not themselves lawyers or cognoscenti will at the end remain in a legal fog: will Ríos Montt serve a sentence in jail or is he almost concomitantly being somehow freed on a procedural technicality in another court, the Court of Constitutionality, the proceedings of which have appeared only very tangentially in The Good Christian?
Another of Azevedo’s approaches consists of a riveting gallery of collaborators, apologists, and supporters of the Ríos Montt regime. In talking-heads format, they discuss their support for a racist national security doctrine that considered indigenous groups, such as the Maya Ixil, as the “internal enemy” to be annihilated as social organizations. These interviewees reveal how in rural areas specific ideological constructs, policies, and programs—“beans and bullets,” civil self-defense patrols, etc.—ripped apart Guatemala’s indigenous social fabric and cultural values. The Good Christian breaks no new ground esthetically; but it illuminates the specific mechanics of genocide as well as the ideological worldview of the first genocidal head of state in modern history to be formally brought to justice before his own nation’s judicial system. The film very appropriately captured the prestigious FEISAL Prize awarded by the Federation of Audiovisual Schools of Latin America.
Two other memorable documentaries in the Made in Mexico selection stood out, in part for the debates they ignited amongst critics. The Uruguayan Emiliano Mazza de Luca wrote and directed the ambitious Nueva Venecia, which paints an impressionistically magical realist portrait of a colorful but poor and underdeveloped Colombian village perched atop piles in the Santa Marta Marsh on the Caribbean Coast—García Márquez territory. Ricardo Restrepo’s dazzling cinematography—much of it shot from within precarious canoes—offers up shimmering reflections linking the inhabitants with the watery world they colonize. Is such a notable artistic effort valid or does it serve to exoticize, idealize, or beautify poverty? In El Charro de Toluquilla, tapatío director and screenwriter José Villalobos Romero seeks to discover the ways in which the cocky mariachi singer of the title, who has AIDS, is not merely one more tired reincarnation of the swaggering, womanizing charro stereotype dating back in Mexican cinema to the 1940s. But is Villalobos Romero with his documentary simply offering his braggadocio protagonist one more platform on which to shamelessly act out his gaudy show-business shenanigans? The town of Toluquilla is an easy horseback ride away from Guadalajara, so “native-son” favoritism may have helped El Charro de Toluquilla garner the Infinitum Prize awarded by the public. In addition, the film took the award for best Ibero-American documentary.
Those muestras of yesteryear offered an unforgettably warm, intimate hospitality. In the thirty-first edition, the renowned hospitalidad tapatía remained warm; but intimacy had yielded to glamour and hoopla, such as the running of the red-carpet gauntlet. Runners included Ibero-American and American stars Marisa Paredes, Ron Perlman, Ofelia Medina, Antonio Banderas, Alfonso Arau, Assumpta Serna, Danny Glover, Victoria Abril, and Eduardo Noriega, among others. Full-dress galas abounded, though the movies selected for this treatment at times misfired. None more than Fernando Lebrija’s raunchy, set-in-Puerto Vallarta spring-break comedy Sundown, whose original title reads, straightforwardly and tellingly, GUATDEFOC [sic]. No spectator slept through this memorable screening since the pumped-up volume of the soundtrack caused the floor of the venerable Diana Theatre to literally shake at times—perhaps an overt reminder that the movie’s protagonist aspires to DJ-dom. In its thirty-first edition, then, FICG had clearly matured into a flashy, big-time film festival.
Dennis West is a Cineaste contributing editor.
For more information on the Guadalajara International Film Festival, visit here.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 3