The Guadalajara International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Dennis West
The thirty-third edition of the Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara (FICG) unfolded in the capital of Jalisco—in Western-Pacific Mexico—March 9–16, 2018. In his words of welcome in the festival’s four-hundred-page catalogue, president of the board Raúl Padilla López stressed two major news items: the inauguration of the festival’s new home base in Guadalajara’s still-under-construction Centro Cultural Universitario and the presence at this year’s edition of native son, festival co-founder, and recent Oscar recipient Guillermo del Toro (born 1964). During the festival, the implications of these far-reaching news items frequently seemed to overshadow the actual movies unspooling on screen.
With the construction of the Centro Cultural Universitario, Guadalajara’s urban planners are betting on culture to lead the way in providing this rapidly growing metropolis of five million with attractive spaces for tapatíos to reside, create, recreate, and work. In addition, the cultural center spearheads Guadalajara’s current drive to position the city as Mexico’s gateway to the Pacific Rim.
The Centro Cultural Universitario is located on the northwestern edge of the Guadalajara metropolitan area; access will be provided via the elevated light rail and subway lines currently under construction. The center’s master plan calls for a museum of environmental sciences, a contemporary arts space, and an industrial-scientific complex to house University of Guadalajara research teams exploring fields such as molecular biology and bioinformatics. Construction of 4,700 residential units is envisioned as well as commercial spaces such as hotels, shops, and restaurants. Three major complexes are now completed and functional: the Telmex Auditorium, which seats 11,500; the Juan José Arreola Public Library of the State of Jalisco, which aspires to a collection of two million volumes; and the Scenic Arts Complex, which boasts four auditoriums, the largest, named Plácido Domingo, seating 1,800.
One wing of the Scenic Arts Complex houses the Cineteca FICG de la Universidad de Guadalajara, which itself boasts five screening venues. In its official press releases, the cinematheque emphasizes its goal of promoting Mexican cinema via, for example, the restoration and exhibition of classic works, such as the cabaret melodrama Salón México (Emilio Fernández, 1948), and legendary masked wrestler Santo’s very first movie Santo vs. the Evil Brain (Joselito Rodríguez, 1958). Both these features, digitally restored, screened at FICG 33. Other goals of the cinematheque: finding and archiving—digitally in the case of film—material relating to cinema in the State of Jalisco; becoming an associate member of the International Federation of Film Archives; providing a “meeting point” for enthusiasts of international film; and the consolidation of an audience in western Mexico committed to screening Iberoamerican cinema. In addition—and perhaps most importantly—the cinematheque is assuming the management of the FICG, which is now widely regarded as one of the very top film festivals in Latin America. The cinematheque’s director is Iván Trujillo Bolio, who has for years served as director general of the FICG.
The cinematheque heralded its 3-D projection capacity; but the only such screening I attempted to attend—of Wonders of the Sea 3D directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jean-Jacques Mantello—was inexplicably cancelled at the last minute to the dismay of long lines of prospective spectators. I experienced a couple such logistical glitches during the festival—the sort of growing pains to be expected in the trajectory of an annual cultural event that has grown exponentially in the twenty-first century and now settles into a vast, just completed facility. This venue is architecturally magnificent, but its internal operating systems are still not broken in.
A highlight of this year’s festival was the inauguration of the cinematheque’s largest screening room, dubbed the Guillermo del Toro Auditorium. The famed transnational director himself attended the event; and his words—roughly translated here—are prominently engraved in the auditorium’s façade: “In my view cinema, considered as fabulation, represents an extension of life. Cinema is the possibility of deepening our understanding of what we are, where we are, and the reasons behind it all.” These emblazoned words seem to represent something of a gloss on del Toro’s career, which had taken off a quarter-century earlier, when he premiered his first feature, the horror film Cronos, at the 1993 edition of the Guadalajara Festival. The University of Guadalajara had been one of the producers of that feature, now widely hailed as a cult classic.
Del Toro-mania swept FICG 33 since, in the days immediately following his March 4 triumph at the ninetieth Academy Awards ceremony, he was, as the Mexican press incessantly trumpeted, “el mexicano del momento.” He had agreed to offer a free master class entitled “From Geometry to The Shape of Water” in the Plácido Domingo Auditorium, but festival staff were quickly overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of requests to attend that they had received. He graciously agreed to impart two additional free sessions in an effort to placate his hosts of fans and interested parties. According to press reports, total attendance at his master classes exceeded 13,000.
I indeed considered myself lucky to manage to attend the initial class thanks to my press pass and a VIP ticket guaranteeing a reserved seat. The show began with del Toro bursting onto the stage to a standing ovation while holding aloft an Oscar in each hand—his “twins” as he called them. He proved extremely agile on his mental feet and quickly established a strong rapport with the enthusiastic young audience as he discussed the creative process leading to the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. One specific topic discussed, for instance, was the importance of color in The Shape of Water even though he had initially conceptualized the project in black and white. The session ran well over its allotted time; and at the end screaming fans persisted in attempting to pass gifts for del Toro over the heads of audience members—T-shirts and dolls, for example. This first master class was broadcast live on a local TV channel; it live streamed on Facebook; and it played on a huge video screen mounted on the façade of the Scenic Arts Complex. According to festival publicity, more than six million viewed the class on TV and the Internet. I have attended dozens of international film festivals in my lifetime, but never before had I encountered the extraordinary level of high regard for a filmmaker that attendees at FICG 33 showered on del Toro.
His support and generosity toward prospective young filmmakers was not limited to his giving of his time and effort in these master classes. At the festival he also announced the establishment of the Mary Jenkins-Guillermo del Toro International Film Scholarship, which will award $60,000 per year to a qualified Mexican student interested in attending a renowned film institution abroad. The lucrative scholarship covers four years of study including tuition, living expenses, health care, and transportation between Mexico and the foreign institution.
Although the multitalented del Toro is probably best known as a director, a screenwriter, and a special-effects makeup designer, he is also a prolific producer. He and his longtime and influential associate Bertha Navarro, and others, co-produced the documentary feature Ayotzinapa, the Turtle’s Way. In its official credits, the cast of this film appears simply as “parents, relatives, and compañeros of the disappeared”—forcibly disappeared that is. On the 26th and 27th of September, 2014, forty-three unarmed students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Normal School in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, were “disappeared” and presumed to have been extrajudicially executed. To this day most of the bodies remain missing and many of the perpetrators at large. These events and their aftermath represent the greatest human-rights crisis in Mexico since the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City in 1968.
Enrique García Meza, the director/screenwriter of Ayotzinapa, the Turtle’s Way uses a stylistically conventional made-for-TV approach; but his film very valuably offers perspectives that were underreported in international press accounts at the time. For instance, classmates of the disappeared contend that this type of normal school—founded during the Cárdenas Administration—represents a continuation of the principles of the Mexican Revolution in offering poor, rural, and frequently indigenous students the opportunity to participate at no cost in higher education. Perhaps, then, the modest social standing and the leftist political leanings of these disappeared students cause their fate to be of scant interest in the corridors of power at the national level. The documentary openly denounces the Mexican government for whitewashing this human rights tragedy and specifically raises the controversial question of the possible participation in the atrocities of the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Army, which was stationed nearby.
In the after-screening session, audience members, filmmakers, relatives of the disappeared, and one survivor participated in a wide-ranging and emotional discussion concerning the troubled status of human rights in Mexico today. Ayotzinapa, the Turtle’s Way garnered the Prize of the Public and also the Press Warrior Prize awarded by a Mexican journalists association. Speculation ran rampant during the festival concerning the specifics of del Toro’s backing of this documentary. It is public knowledge that he himself had fallen victim of a violent episode in Guadalajara in the late 1990s—the kidnapping and holding for ransom of his father. And in interviews he has cited the implications of that heinous crime—lack of safety and security for his family—as a reason for having left Mexico in favor of residence elsewhere.
Shockingly, the forced disappearance of students continues to this day in Jalisco. On March 22, mere days after the end of the festival, the Cineteca released the following statement regarding the disappearance of three film students: “The Cineteca FICG of the University of Guadalajara condemns the violence that the State of Jalisco is presently suffering and laments the disappearance of the students from the Audiovisual University…The cinematheque joins in solidarity with the university community and the families of the disappeared students and demands that those students be returned alive. The cinematheque further demands a punctual response from the authorities in relation to the real situation regarding the happenings in Jalisco.”
My harried schedule during the festival and the challenges of accessing far-flung screening venues meant that I was unable to see all the features in the principal competitions. Notes appear below on a couple memorable competition features that I did catch up with.
The Guadalajara Festival is well known for its meaty selection of new Iberoamerican fiction features in competition. A highlight of this year’s selection was the Peruvian Wiñaypacha, written, directed, and photographed by the young Óscar Catacora, who self-identifies as Aymara. He filmed in challenging circumstances on location in the rugged, wind-swept Andean highlands of Puno, Peru. Much to his advantage, he conceived of the project as a family affair, since he was inspired by his own experiences living as a lad with his Aymara-speaking grandparents. In addition, his uncle, Tito Catacora, served as producer and his mother, Hilaria Catacora, as art director.
Wiñaypacha’s two—and only—actors, both octogenarians, are not professionals; they are native speakers of Aymara. In interviews, Óscar Catacora has claimed that specific words for the concepts “cinema” and “acting” do not exist in Aymara, and that his two amateur thespians had never before seen a film—nor had they acted. Because of its seldom-seen focus on the indigenous peasant lifestyle and its hardships in the remote highlands, and because all its dialogue is in Aymara, the film is being hyped in Peru as a major cultural event—the first Peruvian feature spoken entirely in Aymara. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture supported the production via a grant.
The plot of this two-hander is simple: the day-to-day activities—weaving a poncho, chewing coca leaf, repairing the roof, tending the fire—of an octogenarian married couple who survive thanks to their livestock (a few sheep and a llama), their sturdy house of stone, and nature’s bounty in the high mountains. The couple long for their son, who evidently has long since migrated to the big city, forgotten his parents and their language, and lost his cultural identity. And then bad omens do indeed herald tragedy for the couple. The themes unfold inexorably—the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of aging, and the implications of living a life at the margins of society because of one’s ethnicity and a poverty-stricken rural lifestyle.
Catacora’s greatest success is his rigorous and riveting approach to cinematography and mise en scène: long takes filmed by an unflinching stationary camera. Exteriors, which are often classically composed, record the diminutiveness of human activities within the majesty and awesome power of nature. The exteriors often play out as episodic tableaux. Interior shots—making use of the light of the fire—are warmer with the camera frequently positioned lower as if from a child’s point of view. Catacora’s visual aesthetic appropriately draws on the early history of cinema in order to realistically depict a preindustrial way of life that is on the verge of disappearance. As part of his realist approach Catacora rejects nondiegetic sound in favor of, as he puts it, “the melodies of nature.” The director’s artistic approach is so successful that a few spectators I encountered during the festival had concluded that Wiñaypacha was indeed a documentary. In an impressive coup, the film captured these prizes: Best Photography, Best Opera Prima, and the prize awarded by FEISAL, the Federation of Schools of Image and Sound in Latin America.
Another unusual and noteworthy fiction feature exclusively using nonprofessional actors is Mexican screenwriter/director Jorge Pérez Solano’s La negrada, which screened in the competition of new Mexican features. Pérez Solano reveals his activist agenda in titles appearing at the end of his film: approximately 250,000 slaves were transported to Mexico from Africa during the viceroyalty period; their 1,380,000 descendants currently represent 1.2% of the population of Mexico. The titles further contend that Afro-Mexican communities are not recognized as such by the Mexican government as they do not officially constitute an ethnicity, nation, or cultural entity. With La negrada, then, Pérez Solano seeks to draw attention to this underrepresented group; and he champions his work as the first Mexican feature to depict the Afro-Mexican community.
Pérez Solano employs ensemble acting, on-location shooting, crisscrossing narrative threads, and self-reflexive poetic ruminations in order to sketch an engrossing and colorful mosaic of life in a small Afro-Mexican working-class community on the Pacific Coast of the State of Oaxaca. The center of attention, first glimpsed, tellingly, relaxing in a hammock, is the community patriarch—a self-engrossed polygamist who endlessly bikes from one rendezvous to another. He has little time to dedicate to the members of either household. When queried about the ages of his own children in his mistress’s home, he, in between sips of beer, lamely admits that he has no clue since he has never been interested in the question. The director claims that polygamy is common in Afro-Mexican communities (and throughout Mexico); and the social world he explores in La negrada reveals the negative impact of this widely accepted practice on relatives, friends, neighbors, and the community in general.
In interviews, Pérez Solano has labelled his work a costumbrista drama; and he succeeds in amply revealing the customs, work habits, and hardscrabble lifestyles of folks who eke out an existence by stitching together family fishing operations, small business practices such as barbering, occasional poaching, and service work in the tourist industry. La negrada is a modestly funded and produced work which cannot hide its limitations—such as the by-the-numbers performances turned in by some of the nonprofessionals. Nevertheless, Pérez Solano succeeds in interesting us in the fate of these folks just getting by on the beach.
La negrada’s strongest suit is its cinematography, which strikingly showcases the key colors and images of this vibrant coastal society. For his efforts, César Gutiérrez Miranda was awarded the Mezcal Prize as best cinematographer. In interviews, he has spoken of his interest in weighing documentary approaches against more poetic influences. He fruitfully combines both in La negrada. We will not soon forget those Dutch-angled shots up through the racks on which split-in-half fish lay drying in the sun—nor the plays of light and sunsets on the beach.
Several noncompetitive sections at FICG 33 testified to the event’s progressive reputation. For instance, the Film 4 [sic] Climate: A Showcase of Socio-environmental Films celebrated its tenth anniversary as an integral part of festival programming. According to the festival catalogue, these works address “the convergence of ecology, culture, and social justice.” The catalogue further boasts that this showcase is the oldest of its kind in Mexico.
I screened two new documentaries in this selection. Both effectively used conventional documentary approaches to explore pressing socioenvironmental issues. In Colombian screenwriter/director Germán Ramírez’ La tía Rica, the ancestral medicinal and nutritional uses of Andean coca are examined as well as the destabilizing and violent socioeconomic changes that occurred beginning in the 1970s when the crop became subject to dispute because of the increase in the international cocaine traffic.
Director/screenwriter/cinematographer David Jaramillo’s Cuatro Ciénegas examines a unique ecosystem in the Chihuahuan Desert, in Coahuila, Mexico. There multicolored pools of water—remnants of an ancient sea—contain live stromatolites and marine micro-organisms that have survived unscathed for hundreds of millions of years. These unique micro-organisms contain clues concerning the origins and evolution of life on our planet, yet their habitat has been rapidly disappearing in the last century due to gypsum mining, ejido (communal) farming, large surface water diversions, overextraction of water by agribusiness, and other human endeavors. Because of her own personal commitment to save this ecosystem, famed Mexican actress Diana Bracho led discussion of the pertinent issues after the film’s screening.
Guillermo del Toro was not the only cineaste offered a tribute at FICG 33. Other honorees included veteran Catalan filmmaker Ventura Pons, Mexican actor José Carlos Ruiz, and Spanish auteur Carlos Saura (born 1932). The latter offered a master class; and his latest feature, La jota, was screened. In addition, the festival programmed a new feature documentary, Saura(s), which explores the famously reticent director’s life, art, and world view. In his press conference, the film’s director, Félix Viscarret, mentioned that in an early meeting Saura had rejected the notion of conducting a conventional interview. Viscarret’s innovative solution, which contributes significantly to our understanding of Carlos Saura, was to film the maestro in free-wheeling and intimate dialogue with his seven adult children.
Space limitations prevent me from detailing FICG 33’s many other activities ranging from massively attended red-carpet galas to an exposition of photojournalist Héctor García’s photographs of legendary Mexican diva María Félix. This year’s edition of the festival ended with announcements concerning next year’s, which del Toro will attend in order to inaugurate his biographical exhibition Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, which has already run successfully in locations in the United States and Canada. In addition, at del Toro’s request, FICG 34 will offer a prize for the finest feature-length animated film in competition.
Dennis West is a Contributing Editor to Cineaste.
For further information on the Guadalajara International Film Festival, visit here.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 3