Filmmaker Sebastian Diaz On Why He’s Bringing Mexican Indigenous Films to New York

If you visited the famed Maysles Institute and Cinema in New York City this past spring during the Proyector series’s first program, Micro-Symphonies, the Films of Axolote Cine, you no doubt got a chance to see yet another facet of the always booming Mexican film industry. Focused on the Axolote troupe of filmmakers, the screening series spotlighted independent directors who offered up contemporary visions of Mexico that shined through films that blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

For its second installment, Digging the Roots of a Denied Civilization, series curator Sebastián Díaz has assembled a group of films that explore the indigenous populations that are so integral to Mexican culture, and which so rarely get to take center-stage in internationally renowned cinema. Concerned with nature, identity, and family, these films hope to craft a mosaic vision of Mexico’s indigenous cultures.

Ahead of the Program 2 screenings which kick off this weekend, we sat down with Diaz and talked about how he hopes to expand our notion of what constitutes Mexican cinema, all the while honoring the diversity of indigenous cultures that populate the country south of the border.

On the Origin of the Film Series

“I realized that I felt like a foreigner in my own country when I would go to visit indigenous communities.”

I wanted to bring films that I feel are great – quality films that are doing [well] in the festival circuit and had gotten good reviews, but that just don’t get enough exposure beyond a festival circuit. Few screenings here and there. They’re independent films. They’re documentaries. Or fiction hybrid films. Independent and low-budget. I had the idea that here, as an independent filmmaker with a good network in Mexico, it was like a very obvious thing that I could do, being here in New York. To take advantage of that position to promote Mexican films that perhaps aren’t being shown.

On Proyector’s Program 1 Back in the Spring

It was great. For the most part it was full house. It’s an intimate setting at the Maysles Cinema, which is very nice. We had great conversations at the end. And people really enjoyed the Q&A sessions after the films. In general, the response was great. I was actually sometimes worried for some of the films because they’re not necessarily easy films. They might be a little slow, with very little dialogue in some of them. So I was actually curious to see people’s reactions, and then I was very happily surprised that people liked it. I did talk to some people that were like, “maybe this film didn’t say that much to me,” but everyone seemed grateful to have the opportunity to see something like that. Something different. Something they haven’t been exposed to.

‘Silvestre Pantaleón’
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On the Community-Building Aspect of the Screenings

I tried to make every screening be an event. So that besides the film, we definitely always have conversations with the directors or someone from the production there. And if not, via Skype. That went really well. Some people were really excited to have a chance to make that connection. There was one screening that was very nice. The subject matter is a taxi driver in Mexico City, so I invited – along with the director who Skyped in – a [Mexican] taxi driver from here, from New York. And he talked about his experience here with the subject of the film, and his story. And at the end we had food and a mezcal tasting. That was something that got very good feedback. People really enjoyed it. It became sort of like a mixer.

On Titling This Series Digging the Roots of a Denied Civilization

“It’s a civilization that is at the origin, at the foundation of our culture. And yet it’s sort of denied.”

It just came to me because I feel like – me, as a Mexican and having worked on one of the films on the program, which is Brilliant Soil and focuses on an indigenous pottery maker – I realized that I felt like a foreigner in my own country when I would go to visit indigenous communities. And there’s so much knowledge in those communities. So much artistry and creativity and wisdom and color. And just so many amazing layers that I just felt shocked – like being Mexican and not even having an idea of how separated we are, [ranging] mestizo Mexicans from indigenous Mexicans. So it’s what it sounds like. It’s a civilization that is at the origin, at the foundation of our culture. And yet it’s sort of denied.

‘Brilliant Soil’
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On What Audiences Will Take Away From These Films

I think there will be a “breaking the paradigm” of what you might already think of the indigenous people from Mexico. And how much more complex it is. And when I say “breaking the paradigm,” I mean because, for example with Cuates de Australia, that broke my paradigm of the indigenous people, what indigenous Mexico is. These are cowboys, really, featured in this film. But they have to migrate each year. They’re semi-nomad because of water. So it was just very interesting to see people who, being cowboys, were still as indigenous as any of the other cultures, just with different traditions and ways of doing things. So that mosaic of what constitutes indigenous people from Mexico? It’s not just one. There’s so many languages. And with those languages come different ways of seeing the world. Different traditions. Different rituals. There are connections, for sure, between the many indigenous groups, but the Purépecha people featured in Brilliant Soil are different from the people in Oaxaca in Silvestre Pantaleón. So just that diversity and opening your idea of what “indigenous” is.

On Cultural Pride

The pride that these people have of their culture – of their roots. That was something so beautiful to experience, personally doing Brilliant Soil. It was sort of contagious. I almost envy the pride Herlinda, the main subject, [has] of her roots. Because I don’t think I have that strong of [Mexican pride]. Because my identity is much more complex. It’s made of different backgrounds even as [a] Mexican. Whereas she’s Purépecha. That’s very clear. And she’s proud of that.

The Proyector series plays weekly at the Maysles Cinema on Sundays throughout November and December.