Mexico’s Top Directors Weigh In: During an Era of Extreme Violence, Should Films Reflect Reality?

It’s no secret that Mexico is a nation racked by violence: from state-sponsored massacres in Ayotzinapa and Apatzingán, to rampant femicide spreading alarmingly across the country, and of course, the daily spectacle of narco-violence broadcasted to middle-class living rooms every night. It’s a state of affairs that weighs heavily upon the national consciousness, and over the years it’s only natural that local filmmakers have offered up their own, personal explorations of this particular brand of brutality. Yet while festivals have lauded the efforts of these artists and creators, Mexican audiences have bristled. Why should they be exposed over and over to the violence that besieges their country? Why can’t directors just make something more pleasant to watch?

Well, last week the Guanajuato International Film Festival brought together a handful of Mexico’s most important working directors – all of whom have taken on the difficult subject of violence in Mexico – to discuss issues of representation and ethical responsibility in film. The title? “Apology or Combatting Crime in Cinema.” The filmmakers? Luis Mandoki (Voces inocentes), Amat Escalante (Heli), Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala), and Carlos Bolado (Tlatelolco, Verano del 68). The stimulating conversation that ensued covered topics ranging from telenovelas to social media, but from all of the directors’ diverse and profound points of view, one conclusion clearly emerged – film may not change the world, but its importance to a society dealing with trauma cannot be overstated. Here are some highlights from their chat.

Luis Mandoki. Photo by: Montserrat Roma/Indie Rocks
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“Cinema opens a window so that the spectator can share – from a close distance – the struggle and the lives of other human beings living in much different conditions.”

Luis Mandoki on the Power of Cinema

“Cinema opens a window so that the spectator can share – from a close distance – the struggle and the lives of other human beings living in much different conditions.”

Carlos Bolado on Reality vs. Fiction

“Reality is worse than fiction. In my screenplay, I had torture. I had all those things, but I realized it’s ineffable. And people still tell me that the torture in the film is violent, but every time someone tells me that I say, ‘No, read the books, see the photos, read the descriptions.’ But I also tried to contain the violence, to look for something more psychological, because [as a filmmaker] you can’t compete with violence.”

Amat Escalante on the Difference Between Cinema and Journalism

“Above all, I’m a cinephile. I’m not a sociologist, nor am I a reporter. I am passionate about film. I use my indignation and my desperation with what I see around me as material to make movies. And that’s how Heli and my two other films came about – to explore these themes in a way that we’ll never see in the news.”

“I use my indignation and my desperation with what I see around me as material to make movies.”

Luis Mandoki on Using Film to Express Social Trauma

“Films with true meaning have the function of opening up and connecting the spectator with a necessity within the filmmaker. And in the case of Mexico – a country that is living this shock, this trauma – that reality finds different forms of expression.”

Gerardo Naranjo on Escapism in the Media

“Audiences always prefer the message that everything is alright, that we’re a big happy family, that there’s a way out of poverty, that the absolute injustices that we live every day aren’t actually so bad. So they don’t see violence. And I say, ‘There’s violence everywhere! How are you not going to see it?’ But how do you tell that middle-class woman who’s just out running errands that she shouldn’t be watching telenovelas because some day reality is going to blow up in her face, and by that time it will probably be too late?”

Amat Escalante on Changing the World with Film and Bush’s Second Term

“I’ve never thought a film, or at least a narrative feature, could make some great changes in the world. Maybe documentaries – I have more faith that documentaries can effect some change. But in the case of one of my films, where maybe 100,000 people go to see it, it’s nothing. I don’t think I’m going to change how people see things. It’s not possible, even [with] a film that everybody sees, like in the U.S. with the Michael Moore film Fahrenheit 9/11. I thought there was no way Bush would win again. And he did!”

Amat Escalante. Photo by: Montserrat Roma/Indie Rocks
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Gerardo Naranjo on Making Films, not Pamphlets

“What’s the responsibility of Mexican filmmakers with respect to the violence that we live? That depends on each person. Honestly, the most difficult period of my life was when I had to talk about the film Miss Bala outside of Mexico, because everyone asked me, ‘What can be done? How do you fix Mexico?’ I don’t know! I’m just telling a story about someone and I’m expressing other things. It’s a story, something that’s representative. In no way is it a guide or a method. I’m not proposing any solutions… Obviously, it’s important not to extol the criminals. That’s very important. Not trying to say that they’re really badass, because they’re not. When we really see them, we see that they’re just deeply ignorant people who are gambling their lives.”

Carlos Bolado on Real Solutions

“Poverty is violence. And if in this country this there isn’t enough education, we’re never going to break the cycle of poverty.”

Carlos Bolado. Photo by: Montserrat Roma/Indie Rocks
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Luis Mandoki on One of Those Moments that Makes it All Worthwhile

“I was at a screening of Voces inocentes in Los Angeles, and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Señor Mandoki, can we sit down for a coffee?’ And I said, ‘With pleasure, give me your number and we’ll get together.’ And he says, ‘No, finish your autographs, it has to be tonight.’ So I got a little nervous and told my assistant, ‘Please, don’t leave me alone!’

Finally we went to a café and I said, ‘What’s so urgent?’ And he tells me, ‘I just wanted to share with you, I’m the same age as the character in your film, but my story was a bit different.’ And I said, ‘How so?’ And he says, ‘During the Salvadoran Civil War my mother was a prostitute. She died in a shootout and they recruited me for the guerrilla, while my father was a soldier in the army. In every battle, I lived with the fear that I would run into my dad and have to kill him.Finally, I managed to escape and I came to Los Angeles where I joined the Mara Salvatrucha.’

So I asked him, ‘When does it stop?’

He said, ‘It stopped tonight when I saw your film, señor. And I wanted to say thank you because your film changed my life. I’m leaving. If I stay, they’ll kill me. And I wanted to say thank you and bid you farewell’ He shook my hand and left.”

These quotes were translated from Spanish. Watch a video of the panel.