The Huichol Asked This Director to Make a Documentary About the Fight to Save Their Sacred Land

The Huichol, or Wixáritari as they call themselves, is one of the indigenous cultures in Mexico that continues to preserve its cultural identity — its language and cosmogony, or how they see the world. The documentary Huicholes: los últimos guardianes del peyote (Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians) portrays the challenges the Wixáritari face in the 21st century, as mining operations in their sacred land of Wirikuta threaten the survival of their ancient culture.

Structured around the yearly pilgrimage the Ramirez family takes to pay tribute to their gods, Hernán Vilchez’s first feature film is tightly packed with different points of view on the problematic surrounding the coexistence of the ejidatarios and the Huichol. It examines the mining history of the region, the technology of mining, the international solidarity movement, Mexico’s international trade agreements, environmental concerns, unemployment in the region, and more.

Vilchez and his team did a commendable job, working for free for more than three years at the request of the Huichol, who wanted to share their plight with the world. Vilchez was born in Argentina, and he studied film at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. He visited San Francisco, California recently accompanied by Enrique Ramírez, one of the protagonists in the film, to present his documentary to a full house. We got a chance to talk to him about the power of documentary to inform, influence public opinion, and bring about change.

“As humanity we have to start asking ourselves how we are working with nature – how we are listening to the ancestral messages from people like the Huichol.”

How did the idea of making Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians come about?
While working for television in Munich, Germany, we traveled through India, Australia, the Amazon, and also Mexico, where we met with the Wixáritari people, the Huichol. I met the Ramírez family, who would be the protagonists of my film. They told us about the problems they had with the mining companies and the drought their community was suffering in La Laguna, Jalisco, in the Sierra Madre. The community wanted us to make a documentary to tell the world about their fight to save their sacred place, Wirikuta, where the peyote grows.

What is the message you want to communicate with your film?
The message is that there are places that should not be touched. Wirikuta is a center of energy, a powerful place. If you go there and listen and live and participate in the ceremonies, you realize that it is a crucial spot on this continent, a spot of great biodiversity where a big spiritual work has been taking place since time immemorial. The Wixáritari people and their advocates do not speak directly against mining; they say that there are places where you cannot perform certain activities, because the destruction of those places constitutes an irreparable loss for all humanity. As humanity we have to start asking ourselves how we are working with nature – how we are listening to the ancestral messages from people like the Huichol. So the message is: what are each of us, our communities, our people, our nations doing to respect the basic principles of life on the planet?

The documentary presents a very complex problematic. Was it difficult to find a focus and decide on the audience you wanted to address?
We knew that in order to appeal an audience we needed to approach it from an ethnographic point of view — the journey of a Huichol family, their pilgrimage from time immemorial to Wirikuta to the Sierra del Catorce, asking gods for new crops or for another fruitful year, asking for their lives and the planet’s. The pilgrimage is the thread we chose to build on. Then [we] present the discourse – the different points of view – for and against mining in the area of Wirikuta. It was almost intuitive, and we felt it would appeal to the different audiences we wanted to speak to. Some approach the film from an ethnographic or cultural point of view; others from the use of the peyote, which some think is hallucinogenic and brings other states of consciousness; others are interested in the people’s struggle to defend their sacred place; others in the environmental aspects; even miners find appealing how the documentary presents their activity.

“At all times, we understood that we needed their support to carry out the shooting, while they needed us to tell their story.”

How long did it take you to complete the film?
It was a pretty long and fragmented process: from January 2011 until May 2014, nearly three and a half years. The filming of the pilgrimage and the interviews with key players in the conflict was done in March 2012. The great prayer in the Cerro del Quemado attended by 600 Huichol, the Wirikuta Fest in May 2012, the visits to the mine…were all important moments of filming. I do not live in Mexico, so I had to plan out my trips. José Andrés Solórzano, my Mexican cinematographer and friend, would sometimes shoot on his own. No one earned any money in the crew; we did everything pro bono. The process was very difficult because it was all self-funded.

The documentary presents two very different worlds, the spiritual and the mercantilist.
Even though the backbone of the film was going to be the cultural aspect, it was also essential to talk about what the mining extractions in the area meant. There is a huge mental and cultural gap between what it means for an ancestral people to walk, as they have done from time immemorial, to that place to pick up the jicuri, the medicine, the peyote in the desert, so that they can connect with the deities; and the vision of the mestizo, the white people in our society who see it as a place for just financial gain and extraction of a mineral. The challenge was to jump in the story from this spiritual way of understanding the world to the vision of our modern society, that loses the primary connection and focuses only on the profit.

You interviewed many people. How did you choose them?
We met people like Carlos Chávez, who leads the Wirikuta Defense Front, or Santos de la Cruz, from the Regional Wixáritari Council, almost by chance during the filming of the pilgrimage. I believe there was an aura of energy surrounding the production of this film. Without realizing it, we followed the path that fate had set for us, we kind of got involved, perhaps, in how the Huichol view the world. But I must highlight the work of Paula Stefani as producer of this film. She helped a lot in finding specialists in various topics and she helped us piece together the puzzle of voices and opinions that the film is.

“If you do not have two hours to pay attention to something as important as the destruction of a sacred place and an emblematic culture, then you are not the audience we are interested in.”

Was it hard to gain the confidence of the Wixáritari?
Our interest, our respect, our appreciation of ancient cultures, and our willingness to learn from them opened the door to film this documentary. At all times, we understood that we needed their support to carry out the shooting, while they needed us to tell their story. Always with respect, like knowing when to stop filming [during] strong moments of the ceremonies. It is a sensibility you need to develop in documentary filmmaking: when to shoot and when not to. There was an agreement to move forward and get to show unprecedented images, such as the initiation of children eating peyote in the sacred place of the ceremonies. During the filming, it was difficult with women, as they are quite reluctant to talk on camera or communicate with people who are not from their community, as they have been long closed to the outside world. With the Ramirez family we are progressing on our mutual trust, as I am touring in the U.S. and Canada accompanied by the protagonist Enrique Ramírez.

Some mining extraction plans in Wirikuta have been put to a halt. Did your documentary contribute to it?
The credit for the suspension of the licensing for mining extraction goes to the people of the Wirikuta Defense Front, who fought it from a legal standpoint. Since the inauguration of the new President Enrique Peña Nieto in December 2012, Wirikuta and the Huichol were set aside from the front pages of the media. The film is helping keep the topic in the limelight, both in Mexican society and internationally, as it draws the attention of the public so that people put pressure and a wider debate is generated — not just in court corridors or political circles, which do not represent the will of the people. The documentary also helps to provide information about how the mining extraction was going to be, since neither the public nor the people living in Wirikuta knew much about it in detail. The Universe project, which was given almost half of the protected area in the desert to do open pit mining to extract gold, has recently pulled out. During our December visit to Vancouver, Canada, we visited First Majestic Silver Corporation’s headquarters, and handed them a letter from the Regional Council of Wixarika Authorities asking them to do the same and withdraw the concessions they have near Cerro Quemado in the area of Real del Catorce.

Two hours is a bit long to distribute a documentary. How’s it going with the exhibition?
Yes, two hours is long for any movie and more for a documentary. It is difficult to hold people’s attention, especially when it is in Spanish and subtitled in the U.S. or Europe. People watch it because they are interested in peyote, in indigenous cultures, or in the conflict itself, but their attention fades as time passes. We know that, but it is a very complex issue. But if you do not have two hours to pay attention to something as important as the destruction of a sacred place and an emblematic culture, then you are not the audience we are interested in. We tried to make it as short as possible but it is not that easy. Not everything is a video game or made to fit a slot in theaters or television. Sometimes you need more time to develop the topics and explain how issues are.

Huicholes is available for streaming on Vimeo On Demand.