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Cinematic Insurgencies: Notes on the cycle Insurgent Imaginaries for the Cineclub Bizalú

Author: Salvador Amores

Of all the identifiable genealogies in the 130-year history of Mexican cinema, perhaps one of the least explored—for its heterogeneous, multiple, diffuse and sometimes even contradictory character—is also one of its most important: that which uses insurgency as its historic and aesthetic engine. There’s no scarcity of valuable monographs on the long relationship between Mexican cinema (particularly in its classic phase) and revolutionary ideology, but the purely historicist approach of those texts, most of them originating in academia and squabbling over time periods, prevents from imagining the ludic possibilities of a more panoramic and trans-historical vision. A curatorial approach, on the other hand, in its relative freedom and porosity, in its dependence on the fragmentary and associative, can trace that line with a pulse whose very unsteadiness lends it greater suggestive power. Recently, a more-or-less related, albeit sporadic, attempt has emerged in the principle exhibition spaces of the West,1 though often inflected with the typical colonial desire of the neo-liberal curator to “discover” works lost to the “oblivion” that is, for him, the collective memory of audiences in the Global South. As its name (“eye” in the Mixtec language) suggests, the Bizalú Film Club proposes an act of subversive viewing in which the history of Mexican cinema is imagined as the history of a revolutionary will in perpetual transformation. In that search, that history tends to condense, dissipate and vanish only to reappear, more concentrated, more expansive, more all-encompassing than before, in a constant updating of questions, horizons of enunciation and formal investigations. As a result, this historiographic exercise is governed by a preoccupation with the forms taken by utopic desire—the final aim of any insurgency—in the making of Mexican cinema. It is devoid of the colonialist desire to build a sterile base of knowledge and to “discover” exotic works and replaces those impulses with a simple and direct will to communalize the distinct and complementary forms of struggle registered or imagined in our national cinematographic production.

Let us return, in the first place, to the inexhaustible source that is the soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisentein’s experience in Mexico—a fertile starting point, the only one possible. As an unfinished film, ¡Que viva México! (1930-1932) can branch out almost infinitely, existing as it does in a state of pure potentiality (its incompleteness), which allows us to think of it as a kind of conceptual machine spreading seeds that developed into diverse lines of Mexican cinema over the following century. In that sense, one of the strengths present in Eisenstein’s film has to do precisely with the line of inquiry that occupies us here: How else can we think about a film whose goal was to cover thousands of years of history—a history, moreover, as indescribable as Mexico’s, condensed into a filmic structure whose formal dialectic was itself a form of historical thought—but as a true call to Utopia?

Within Eistenstein’s film, the well-known episode titled “Maguey” depicts a peasant uprising against an Hacienda-owner; another segment which was never filmed, called “Soldadera” (or “female camp follower”), would have shown a woman involved in the revolutionary fight of 1910, illustrating both the triumph of the revolution and the possibility of happiness derived from feminine emancipation.2 The question of a revolutionary cinema, whose themes and forms respond to an insurgent will with its eyes set on utopia, could not, then, begin in a clearer way, even if the “cursed” condition of the film—perhaps the most celebrated incomplete cinematic project of all time—is also revelatory, in various ways, of the difficulties confronted by Mexican cinema when it reaches such magnitudes of ideological lucidity.

To that conceptual machine advanced by the Soviet filmmaker in the early 1930s (a formative work for a diversity of cineastes like Arcady Boytler, Adolfo Best Maugard or Emilio Fernández), I would add, almost immediately, Redes, directed by Emilio Gómez Muriel in collaboration with the Austrian filmmaker Fred Zinneman, shot by the celebrated American photographer Paul Strand and with music by Silvestre Revueltas. _Redes _was developed as early as 1932 as a commission for Strand by the Secretary of Publication Education, but it was not realized until 1934. Widely described as “socialist,” the film tells a typical story about the experience of a marginalized worker in Mexico. Raquel Tibol summarizes it this way:

There are groups of workers, there are necessary leaders segregated from within those groups, there’s a political candidate looking for votes among the poor and the alms of the rich, there’s a profiteer who brings about misfortune, there’s a mother who loses her child because she can’t buy him medicine in time, there’s dissatisfaction, protest, strike, conflict between groups, the death of the most clear-eyed of the workers, and there’s a union, in the end, that emerges from the death of the just, demanding justice.3

In Redes, then, there is an attempt at a rebellious cinema that would correspond to the ideology of the regime without giving up its ferocious political demands and formal audacity. A long time passed before Mexican film returned so clearly and directly to the subject of insurgency motivated by injustice and marginalization without the modulations of melodrama to smooth over the political urgency and distract the attention of the viewer, and corresponded it with justice in the cinematographic forms chosen to show it, as did happen in these two films.

That melodramatic tenor was precisely what Emilio _El Indio _Fernández incorporated into the insurgent imaginary of cinema, opening a digression in the genealogy that he would vitiate for decades. On the one hand, in the opinion of his critics, he was precious and sentimental—a quality reinforced by the photography of Gabriel Figueroa—which falsified his films’ proletarian (in this case, specifically indigenous) realities;4 on the other, some might say this approach allowed audiences in Mexico’s cities and the rest of the world to appreciate with greater sensitivity the problems and social temperament of that world. (The films of El Indio, at least in the 1940s, were the branch of Mexican film most widely celebrated abroad and were guaranteed box office hits at home.) _Río _Escondido from 1948, one of the most emblematic films for both the director and his collaborators (María Félix, who plays the part of a rural teacher, and Gabriel Figueroa, who achieves some of his most iconic images in high moorlands that lend the picture its atmosphere of intrigue), is a symbol of his ambition; it also captures a progressive vision pushed by the president’s cabinet that still saw development in the most marginalized communities—in this case in terms of education and hygiene—as a conceptual space to demonstrate the possibility of integrationism and the societal improvements it could bring. The film includes a credit sequence illustrated with ten linocut prints by Leopoldo Méndez and a celebrated scene in the Palacio Nacional where one of Diego Rivera’s murals speaks in first person to the protagonist, there for a personal audience with President Miguel Alemán, in whom Emilio Fernández had invested great faith; it also set off several controversies due to its openly anti-capitalist content.5

_Rio Escondido _is perhaps, in that sense, the quintessence of an insurgent imaginary insofar as it could be understood through the relatively simplistic official political imagination, and it would be replicated in many of Fernández’s subsequent films as well as those by some of his contemporaries. That one-dimensional vision, described by Emilio García Riera6 as that of “a left that Stalinism had distanced from the dialectic,” would persist with few major changes—at least in fictional cinema—until 1965, when Luis Alcoriza made _Tarahumara (Cada vez más lejos) _in which he addresses head-on the problematic relationship between the observer (the anthropologist) and the observed (the indigenous person).

In the genealogy we are attempting to trace out, Alcoriza’s film represents an inflection point. For some years, the indigenous subject had become the centre of gravity for the insurgent imagination as understood from the perspective of government-approved cinema. From Alcoriza’s film forward, as economic exigencies forced that cinema to set its sights on cities and urban issues, the indigenous world would become fertile territory for a new generation of ideologically committed filmmakers who also understood cinematographic modernity as a form of insurgency in itself. The insurgent would continue to appear sporadically in commercial cinema as a central theme (as in Cananea by Marcela Fernández Violante) or as a backdrop for various allegories (Rojo Amanecer—Red Dawn—by Jorge Fons, for example). But it was Alcoriza’s film, which questioned assumptions about indigenousness as anachronistic or outdated, that truly revitalized that imaginary in Mexican cinema, by advocating for explorations that are not only thematic but conceptual or formal. In the following years, the relationship between the anthropologist and indigenous communities so central to Alcoriza’s films would cease to be a subject for fiction—though it would reappear with great relevance and lucidity in 1978’s _Cascabel _(Rattlesnake) by Raúl Araiza—and become instead, in the coming decades, a question articulated by the methodological practice of the documentarians associated with the filmmaker and anthropologist Alfonso Muñoz at the National Indigenous Institute (ini).

The production of documentaries at the ini began in 1953 and saw its highest concentration between 1977 and 1995, when the Ethnographic Audiovisual Archive, or aea, was active within the larger institution. Those documentaries, evidently informed by advances in the field of anthropology produced by the Institute, openly stood in opposition to the integrationist vision that the government had to that point embraced and that studio films had illustrated largely through rural melodramas. Instead, many of the films, produced by documentarians who had attended film school and studied modernist works by the likes of Jean Rouch, proposed a more conscientious and purposeful approach both to the “ethnographic” film and to the protest documentary that would ultimately result in one of the most important—and curiously unknown—bodies of documentary work in the history of Mexican cinema.7

Films like La tierra de los tepehuas (Alberto Cortés, 1982), about the agrarian struggle of the Tepehua community in Veracruz; _Laguna de dos tiempos _(Eduardo Maldonado, 1982), which takes on the damage provoked by the Minatitlán Petrochemical Complex in the nearby Nahua region; or Jornaleros (Eduardo Maldonado, 1978), which focuses on labour and living conditions of peasants from various parts of southern Mexico, constitute privileged examples of the aea’s productions in the sense that they demonstrate both the cinematographic modernity and authorial intent of their creators,8 the new documentary ethic demanded by modern anthropology and the political denunciation against the conditions to which many communities had been subjected due, in large part, to the integrationist policies of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri). Here we see once again the insurgent will of Mexican cinema expressed with unusual force due to the fact that—maybe for the first time since Eisenstein and likely thanks to the relative permissiveness of the aea as compared to the exigencies of the traditional studio system—it traded the last tinge of academic aesthetics for a rebelliousness manifest as much in process of making the films as in their final form. That attempt would not be repeated until the present day, when some adherents of avant-garde cinema have once again incorporated certain historical and political preoccupations into their investigations of the medium.

The aea would ultimately result in the first Taller de Cine Indígena (Workshop of Indigenous Cinema) coordinated by Luis Lupone in 1985 and would transcend its origins in some of the first films made by indigenous people about their own customs and struggles (Leaw amangoch tinden nop ikoods, made in 1985 by Teófila Palafox, is the most celebrated example).9 The aea also turned out to be fundamental for the hundreds of films made both by Mexican and foreign cineastes in the mountains of south-eastern Mexico during the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and in the _videomachetes _made by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ezln)10 itself. It would later play a part in the current production of indigenous cinema from a diversity of regions including the Mayab, Oaxaca and Chiapas, among others, and promulgated by initiatives like the Taller de Cine Hecho en Casa (the Homemade Cinema Workshop), the Campamento Audiovisual Itinerante (the Itinerant Audiovisual Camp) or Ambulante Más Allá (Wandering Beyond), to name just a few. Insurgency here is no longer an object to be observed: Seen from within, it can show its internal dynamics without losing an iota of the rage that motivates it, often with a vision for the future that is diametrically opposed to that of white or mestizo filmmakers.

Parallel to that body of work exists the wave of aforementioned contemporary filmmakers, adherents to the tradition of experimental cinema, who have likely been invigorated by the growing popular interest in such expressions that screenings around the country have manifested.11 Improbable descendants of such strange filmic phenomena as the work of Rafael Corkidi, or of unclassifiable fables like _Piowachuwe: La vieja que arde _(Juan Francisco Urrusti, 1985), which fall somewhere between the anthropological and mythopoetic, bodies of work like those developed in recent years by Colectivo Los Ingrávidos (Weightless Collective) or by Pablo Escoto incorporate and reconfigure mythic tales, sometimes formative elements of our national identity, in an exercise of political and aesthetic questioning that provides a glimpse into what a new insurgent filmmaking might be. In Toda la luz que podemos ver (Escoto, 2020), all the battles that gave us our nation, from the Independence movement to the Zapatista Uprising, collide in a palimpsest of national history comparable in its ambition to that attempted by Eisenstein nearly 100 years ago. It reminds us, beginning with its title, of the latent utopic hope that persists in the veins of Mexican cinema and that returns every so often—herculean, potent, vital—in the form of an insurgent cinema in perpetual renewal.

  1. Cycles and retrospectives that propose a revisionist history of Mexican cinema have been realized through such important institutions as the FIDMarseilles festival in France (“Une autre histoire du cinéma mexicain,” curated by Michel Lipkes in 2007); the Museo Reina Sofia in Spain (“México inminente. Imaginarios de la insurgencia en el cine mexicano contemporáneo,” curated by Antonio Zirión and Mara Fortes in 2013); and more recently at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland (“Spectacle Every Day — The Many Seasons of Mexican Popular Cinema,” curated by Olaf Möller and Roberto Turigliatto—German and Italian, respectively—in 2023). ↩︎

  2. Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman, eds., Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making and Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico! (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), 150. ↩︎

  3. Raquel Tibol, 1954 ↩︎

  4. The films of Emilio Fernández would be at the forefront of incorporating the indigenous world into Mexico’s national cinema. Many of his films were developed in that context and you could say that his preoccupation with the oppression exercised over the dispossessed was quite lucid, if also lightly dogmatic, in the sense that there was no space within it for distinctions between class and race. It’s worth mentioning, due to what it reveals, the answer that Adela Fernández says her father gave to Luis Zamora when questioned by modern anthropologists about his vision of indigenous people: “I am a Kikapú Indian and I know about traditions, things of the spirit, of different ways of being. Don’t come to me with stories about how I distort the image of the Indian. I see them in a different way from how you see them. I see them from within, not like you students of anthropology that spend your time classifying them and labelling their features and customs. For me, the Indians are not guinea pigs, objects for the laboratory or images of folklore. I detest the word folklore because it substitutes what is essential. […] Have you not understood my cinema? It’s a cinema of truths that speaks of the beauty that exists in Mexico and that denounces exploitation […] You know that life is hard for them, that there are still caciques, that exploitation continues and that the Indians are beautiful and so is the landscape that surrounds them.” Adela Fernández, El Indio Fernández. Vida y mito (Mexico City: Panorama Editorial, 1986), 126-128. ↩︎

  5. _El Duende Filmo _(Ángel Alcántara Pastor), reactionary critic, wrote: “It is understood that we all have the freedom to do what we like up to the point that it harms another. In this case, the other is Mexico, because the films made by Emilio Fernández paint Mexico in false colours, or at least in very exaggerated colours. The revolutionary radicalism of these two men, exemplified on screen in films that are indisputably good from a cinematographic standpoint, and that, thanks to their dramatic realization, leave a deep imprint on those who see them, turn out to be no less dangerous that the communism that they are eradicating from Hollywood.” El Universal, February 13, 1948. ↩︎

  6. Emilio García Riera, Historia documental del cine mexicano, volume 3: _1943-1945 _(Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara 1992), 203. ↩︎

  7. For a broader view of the productions realized by the Archivo Etnográfico Audiovisual, see Antonio Zirión (ed.), Redescrubiendo el Archivo Etnográfico Audiovisual (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana/Elefanta Editorail, 2021). ↩︎

  8. The somewhat negative statement that Alfonso Muñoz himself would later make on the aesthetic preoccupations of the filmmakers commissioned for these projects is relevant here: “There was a moment in this country when there were funds to make ethnographic cinema and an institution that had all the necessary contacts with indigenous communities. Unfortunately, they brought people that hadn’t the least anthropological knowledge, but rather who were filmmakers, pure and simple. Good ones, if you like, good sound engineers, good cameramen, good directors, but who, for the most part, lacked sensitivity and understanding toward the indigenous communities.” Cited by Zirión (ed.), Redescubriendo el Archivo Etnográfico Audiovisual, 87. ↩︎

  9. Lilia García Torres and Lourdes Roca Ortiz, “Mirar en clave ikoots. Lecturas etnográficas del primer taller de cine indígena,” in Zirión (ed.), Redescubriendo el Archivo Etnográfico Audiovisual, 333-361. ↩︎

  10. A guide to the relationship between the Zapatistas and video can be found in Eduardo Makoszay Mayén, “El pilar de la autonomía, Los Tercios Compas y el cine Zapatista,” _Revista de Antropología Visual _29 (Chile, 2021): 1-16. ↩︎

  11. Some outstanding examples include the Injerto portion of the festival Ambulante, pioneer in screenings of experimental cinema in Mexico, as well as the Centro de Cultura Digital de la Ciudad de México whose program Cine Más Allá was dedicated from the beginning to the cinematic vanguard. More recent initiatives, like the Festival Fisura, founded in 2020, and the Umbrales section of the Festival Internacional de Cine unam (ficunam), constitute the principle venues for showing this kind of cinema. ↩︎

Translation: Michael Snyder
Proofreading: Jaime Soler Frost