Death as a Business: How Documentaries Have Captured the Dangers of Being a Mexican Journalist

'The Man Who Saw Too Much'

Enrique Metinides, known in the foreign press as the “Mexican Weegee,” is the 82-year old patron saint photographer of the Mexican “nota roja” (crime beat). Alejandro Hernández Pacheco, a 46-year old former cameraman for Televisa in Torreón, has the dubious distinction of being one of a handful of Mexican journalists who have received political asylum abroad. Besides a love of the camera, little would seem to link the two. But as featured in two separate films in the traveling Mexican documentary film festival Ambulante, which kicked off its annual tour this month, both men’s stories underscore one of the most insidious effects of the country’s widespread violence in recent years. With more than 50 journalists murdered or disappeared since 2007, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

From its retro jazzy score, to its Hitchcock-evoking title, Trisha Ziff’s The Man Who Saw Too Much is an elegy to a bygone era, when a man like Metinides could chase the night in a suit and tie while cradling his Brownie Junior camera. The opening sequence cuts between tabloid papers being cranked off the presses, dripping as much with blood-filled headlines as with fresh ink, and plastic-wrapped caskets coming off the assembly line. Death, after all, is a business.

The film is a character study of the man as well as a survey of his long career, from his precocious start as a 9-year old photographer of the local police precinct to his late-life discovery by the art world. The movie depicts both his idiosyncratic collections of frog statuettes and action figures, and his most iconic photographs. Subjects ranging from newspaper hawkers and shoe shiners to curators and collectors contextualize his work by expounding on the perennial appeal of the tabloid.

Metinides admits that the violence has become so frightening that “if they published everything you wouldn’t want to live here…it’s better not to know.”

In one interview, Hollywood director Dan Gilroy theorizes that a country’s reality can be understood by “its approach to news, and Mexican news is historically more graphic and lurid.” Following this thought to its logical conclusion leads to the contemporary world of Everardo González’s El Paso, which portrays the lives of two Mexican journalists who fled their country after suffering threats and violence in reprisal for their coverage of organized crime. Lacking the prominence of national reporters, Hernández and reporter Ricardo Chávez Aldana felt the only safety for their families was a life of uncertain exile in Texas. Interwoven between shots of the drab El Paso landscape are scenes laying bare the consequences of this decision: long days working menial jobs in fast food and vain attempts to glimpse the homeland through Google Maps and telescopes. For Chávez’s family, whose asylum application is still pending, it also implies the endless purgatory of the United States immigration system.

Though neither movie delves deeply into the reality of Mexican journalism today (for that see Bernardo Ruíz’s Reportero), both reference the press freedom crisis. Hernández and Chávez discuss widespread self-censorship as a means of survival and the epilogue to The Man Who Saw Too Much recounts one of the grimmest moments of the past year: the brutal and unsolved July murder in Mexico City of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa after he fled threats in the dangerous state of Veracruz.

After surveying decades of Metinides’ images of murder and mayhem — including his 1940s portrait of a policeman clutching a severed head, foreshadowing the gruesome iconography of today’s drug violence — the viewer might be tempted to think “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” But as the film progresses, Metinides morphs into a once-visionary figure now adrift in a world in which he no longer fits. Bystanders document car accidents on smartphones, the cops whose action figures he collects are no longer revered as heroes, and the dangers photographers face include assassins as well as collapsing buildings.

In the final devastating sequence, Metinides admits that the violence has become so frightening that “if they published everything you wouldn’t want to live here…it’s better not to know.” Much as Hernández and Chávez mourn their abandoned homeland, as Metinides stares at the camera from his seat in an empty theater, eyes watering, there is an unspoken lament for journalism itself.

Ambulante runs in Mexico City through April 15 and tours other cities in Mexico throughout the summer.