La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: film

Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

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Mexican movie is 'censored'



The documentary “Presumed Guilty” (“Presunto Culpable” link in Spanish) has received accolades far and wide, from human rights groups, audiences and Mexican legislators. It is a damning look at the Mexican judicial system that hastens to put a man in prison on the flimsiest of evidence.

 That same judiciary this week ordered the movie pulled from theaters. The reason? One of the prosecution witnesses in the case claims he never gave permission for footage of him to be used in the film.

Backers of the film were having none of this. The witness, Victor Reyes Bravo, was taped while in public hearings and no special permission was necessary, the makers of “Presumed Guilty” say.

 “We see this as an attempt at censorship, an attempt to block the exhibition of a movie that all Mexico must see,” the film’s director, Roberto Hernandez, said in a radio interview (link in Spanish).

 The movie recounts the conviction of Antonio Zuniga on a 2005 murder charge, which is eventually overturned.

 Both federal and local governments say they don't agree with the court's ruling (link in Spanish). Theaters are vowing to continue showing the important film.

 --Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City


Photo: Antonio Zuniga is shown behind bars. Credit: El Universal.












Hit movie depicts violence in Rio slums as Brazilian military mounts major anti-gang operation

A new film depicting violent conflicts between gangs and police over control of the slums above Rio de Janeiro is breaking box-office records in Brazil. "Tropa de Elite 2," or "The Elite Squad 2," is a sequel to a 2007 film about military police special forces in Rio state known by the acronym BOPE, or also, the Skulls.

Directed and co-produced by filmmaker Jose Padilha, the film revisits the original "Tropa de Elite" story of a Skulls commander named Nascimento (played in both films by Wagner Moura) as he battles gangsters entrenched in Rio's favelas. By late November, "Tropa de Elite 2" helped push box-office receipts in Brazil 18% above the total from 2009, Bloomberg reports.

You can see the trailer here. Readers are warned that it contains some graphic images.

The movie's release in October came a month before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva authorized a military-led invasion of the Complexo do Alemao slums, sparked by a series of attacks against police stations. Fifty people died in the siege, including three police officers, Marcelo Soares and Chris Kraul reported in The Times. Here's an Associated Press video report on the raid.

Brazil, which is scheduled to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, is under pressure to regain control of large sections of territory in its second-largest city that have long been ruled by powerful gangs. From the Times story:

Violence had swept over many of Rio's slums the previous week after state police established units in a dozen favelas, a challenge to the impunity with which many of the drug gangs had operated. The units are seen as the first step toward establishing a stronger state presence in the slums, an effort that will include more schools and health clinics.

Much of the enforcement action is directed at the city's most powerful gang, the Red Commandos, formed in 1979 in prisons, where political prisoners taught common criminals guerrilla tactics.

There are economic implications for Rio as well, Reuters reported, as the city's high crime rate costs it as much as $100 billion a year. Police and soldiers are now in control of Alemao, and services are slowly trickling in to residents. The government announced it would keep soldiers in the slums for at least six months, The Times reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: A trailer for the film "Tropa de Elite 2." Credit: YouTube

Messy Mexican election reemerges in leaked cables

Congress mexico 2006 election calderon amlo reuters

The controversial 2006 presidential election that brought Felipe Calderon to power in Mexico reemerged in the secret U.S. diplomatic cables released this week, sparking a fresh controversy on Friday involving -- of all other world leaders -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, dated October 2009, President Calderon is described as telling the former U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, that he believed Chavez had "funded" his top opponent and nemesis in the race three years earlier, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Calderon ran with the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, while Lopez Obrador ran with the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The campaign was characterized by many at the time as the first "U.S.-style" race, with unprecedented levels of television spots. Some Calderon television ads in 2006 directly compared Lopez Obrador to Chavez, calling the leftist a "danger to Mexico."

From the cable:

Calderon emphasized that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is active everywhere, including Mexico. He went out of his way to highlight that he believes Chavez funded the PRD opposition during the Presidential campaign nearly four years ago. Chavez uses social programs, including sending doctors, to curry political influence, and there are governors in Mexico who may be friendly to him. Calderon said that Mexico is trying to isolate Venezuela through the Rio Group. Calderon also commented that he is particularly concerned about Venezuela's relations with Iran, and that the Iranian Embassy in Mexico is very active. Calderon underscored that Iran's growing influence in Latin American should be of considerable concern to the United States, and Chavez is doing all he can to aid and abet it.

Iran maintains an embassy in Mexico City, and its presence in Latin America is a point of concern for the United States, other leaked U.S. documents show, but other claims attributed to Calderon in the October 2009 cable were not immediately verifiable.

Calderon eventually won the 2006 race by less than 1% after a partial recount, a result which Lopez Obrador and his most ardent supporters refuse to recognize to this day. Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki later released a documentary film called "Fraude" on the 2006 race and the social movement that followed that sought to declare Lopez Obrador the "legitimate president."

Violent scuffles, as seen above, gripped the Mexican lower house of Congress in the days leading up to Calderon's swearing in, as some legislators attempted to physically block his ascendance to office. Days after assuming the presidency, Calderon dispatched the Mexican military to confront the country's drug cartels.

Late Thursday, via Twitter, Lopez Obrador demanded that Calderon prove Venezuela's Chavez financially supported his 2006 campaign (link in Spanish). The president's office has not responded.

In other portions of the leaked cable, Calderon requested that the U.S. create a more "visible presence" in Latin America overall.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Conservative PAN and leftist PRD legislators scuffle over control of the podium in the Chamber of Deputies in the aftermath of the disputed 2006 election, Nov. 28, 2006, in Mexico City. Credit: Tomas Bravo / Reuters

Morelia Film Festival: Notes, reflections and winners

Morelia film festival posters plaza

As a first-time visitor to the Morelia International Film Festival, I got more than a full dose of what contemporary cinema in Mexico looks like these days. Indeed, I might have overloaded.

Over the course of 5 ½ days at the festival last week, I managed to watch, by my count, 23 short and feature-length films. Even so I felt like I had only scratched the surface, missing several films I was told were  "must-see." (And in a couple of cases, I admit I stepped out of the theater before waiting for the end of particularly poor flicks.) Below, a few notes and reflections on the Morelia fest.

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Morelia Film Festival: Danny Trejo and 'Machete' draw raves

Danny trejo morelia

Actor Danny Trejo received perhaps the wildest celebrity welcome so far at this year's Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. Trejo appeared at the festival for the premiere of "Machete," the Robert Rodriguez-directed pulp-action flick about an ex-cop from Mexico who leads an uprising against immigrant-bashers in Texas.

Throngs of fans crowded along the red carpet at the cineplex in central Morelia and inside the theater where the film screened. Moviegoers were packed along the aisles, sitting and standing, for the film and the question-and-answer session that followed. 

"Machete" was not in competition nor having its world premiere at Morelia, yet it drew the most buzz on social networking sites and among the many Mexican and foreign journalists who seized on Trejo's personal history of overcoming odds to become a Hollywood star. The movie's depiction of the immigration debate in the United States -- including a conspiracy to demonize immigrants for the purposes of drug-smuggling, and an underground network of immigrant advocates led by a figure named She -- also drew cheers and applause.

"I think being an action hero implies the responsibility to help your compatriots, telling kids to stay away from drugs, to not take steroids," Trejo said in an interview with the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish). "What I like about Machete is that he's a common man, he could be the mechanic on the block or whoever. I like that he assumes that responsibility. I love this character."

Trejo, who showed up along with his son (who also appears in "Machete"), announced after the screening that a sequel is on the way (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Actor Danny Trejo signs autographs Wednesday night in Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Morelia International Film Festival

Morelia Film Festival: A filmmaker revisits punks after 20 years, finding a slum transformed

Nadie es inocente punk still morelia

More than 20 years ago, an aspiring filmmaker named Sarah Minter found her way to Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a notorious slum outside Mexico City popularly known as "Neza." She befriended a group of young punks -- they were teenagers, disenchanted and rejected by just about everyone -- and began filming their lives.

The documentary she released in 1986 about the Neza punks, "Nadie Es Inocente," became an underground classic.

Filmed with a now-ancient 3/4 U-matic camera, Minter's film displayed a crumbling, polluted world populated by Mexico's legions of forgotten poor. In such an environment, a punk culture seems to emerge naturally; the boys she followed form quasi-gangs who hang out in trash dumps and abandoned buildings, attend out-of-control rock shows and defend their turf against enemies and outsiders.

Two decades later, Minter decided to seek out the same punks in Neza and update their lives for the documentary screen. Her new film, "Nadie Es Inocente: 20 Años Despues," or "No One is Innocent: 20 Years Later," premiered this week at the Morelia International Film Festival.

In the new film, Neza is seen as a maturing community, with electricity, paved roads and industry. (Minter told La Plaza that back "in that era there weren't even telephones in Neza.") The punks she followed back then are radically different as well. One has become an author of books on various subcultures. Another is an ardent Christian. One former punk dedicates himself to painting. Another is trained as a full-on classical dancer.

"Maybe the thing that binds them all is that most of them are interested in culture, and I think that has a lot to do with the experience they had with the [first] movie," Minter said in an interview in Morelia.

"I do believe that being filmed transforms you. You realize that you manage your own image, how it is handled, how it's reflected."

The film is also a testament to a documentarian's deep commitment to her subjects. Minter's connection with the Neza punks shines through in practically every scene.

Regarding one of the punks, Minter recalled, "Rafa was respected even among his enemies. We were actually in a bunch of fights between gangs, hundreds against hundreds, and I would get in, 'How dare you hit my boys?!'''

"They would right away become like an army around me," she said. "The truth is, all of Neza respected us."

"Nadie Es Inocente: 20 Años Despues" is not just a tale of a happy reunion. Several of the punks who appear in the original film are dead. Minter's main character in the first film, a punk known as Cara, is among those who did not survive the darker aspects of 1980s urban life in Mexico.

In the original film, he wanders away from Neza and boards a train heading north. He is the only punk in Minter's original film whose thoughts are transmitted in voice-over. Cara was special, a unique personality, Minter said.

"The last time I saw Cara, he had gotten out of prison. In fact, he came looking for me because he wanted us to do something else together," Minter recalled. "I found out Cara had died once we had already started filming. I went to look for him where he used to live. And that's where his cousins told me he was dead.... They don't know if he died drunk, or if he was killed."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: The Neza punk known as Cara, in a still from 'Nadie Es Inocente,' the 1986 Sarah Minter documentary. Credit: YouTube

Morelia Film Festival: A dancer in Tijuana tells her own tale

Aidee gonzalez tierra madre

In real life and on screen, Aidee Gonzalez is a dancer at a strip joint in Tijuana. She's raising kids in the town of Tecate, east of the city, working to make them a better home and supporting her girlfriend, who wishes to become pregnant. Suffering a betrayal, Gonzalez descends into depression but eventually picks herself up.

Her story is depicted in "Tierra Madre," a feature film in competition at the Morelia International Film Festival.

"Tierra Madre" blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction in a rare case of storytelling where the subject appears to have complete control and agency over how her story is told. Gonzalez plays herself in the film and also co-directed and co-wrote it with New York-based filmmaker Dylan Verrechia. It was made on a true shoestring budget -- $2,000 and a "crew of one" -- and features all non-actors, mostly Gonzalez's friends and family.

Here's the trailer.

The filmmakers were on hand at the premiere screening in Morelia. Gonzalez was received with cheers and applause, with several audience members congratulating her for "bravely" demonstrating her truth as a woman, lesbian, stripper and native of the Tijuana border region.

"People only hear about the bad side of Tijuana," she said. "I wanted to show there is beauty there, hard-working people, who are concerned about their children."

Gonzalez, dressed elegantly in a black dress and pearls, said she was moved by the experience of watching herself on screen. "I have no words, I come to the movie theater, and see myself up there, and I can't believe it, honestly."

The filmmakers said "Tierra Madre" will be screened at future festivals in Europe and the United States (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: Aidee Gonzalez in the film 'Tierra Madre.' Credit: Verrechia Films

Morelia Film Festival: Collection of shorts looks at Mexican Revolution through contemporary lens

Revolucion still seventh alvarado

One film is about a woman who is so desperate to get cosmetic dental surgery that she sues her supermarket employer because she is paid partly in vouchers she can only redeem at her job. Another is about a young Mexican American woman who must find a way to "repatriate" her dead father back to his small village in Mexico, as many migrants do in their passing.

Another film -- by filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia, son of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- is a simple, surreal panorama: Revolution-era rebels on horseback riding in slow motion through the iconic crossroads of immigrant life in Los Angeles, often contested, 7th and Alvarado streets.

"Revolucion," a collection of 10 films each under 10 minutes long, by 10 young and up-and-coming Mexican filmmakers, is a meditation on a pertinent theme in today's Mexico. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution, a conflict that sought to free the poor from exploitation and disenfranchisement under the regime of Porfirio Diaz.

One hundred years later, these shorts seem to say, the situation isn't much better for millions of Mexicans who live below the poverty line, or the millions more who have abandoned Mexico altogether to seek economic opportunity in the United States.

After the North American Free Trade Agreement, after the fall of one-party rule, after that exodus, what does "revolution" look like today?

The collection is a collaborative production by Canana, the company founded by actors Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal. It had its world premiere earlier this year at Berlinale 2010 and premiered in Mexico on Sunday night at the Morelia International Film Festival. The filmmakers who were asked to participate in the project were given a single task: Make a film that expresses what "revolution" means to you.

The result is a wide array of styles and stories, yet each is told from a perceptively personal angle. That was the idea, Luna said during a news conference in Mexico City Sunday morning.

"It's time to give it a personal touch, because for too long they've imposed upon us what the revolution means, and very few times are we given a space for personal expression," the actor said.

Luna and Garcia both offer shorts in "Revolucion," as does Carlos Reygadas, acclaimed director of "Japon," and Amat Escalante, director of "Los Bastardos."

In the short "Lindo y querido," by Patricia Riggen, Elisa is a Mexican American girl whose father's last wish before dying was to be buried in his hometown in Mexico. She resists the idea at first, but the prodding of an aunt, and the powerfully symbolic heirloom of a revolution-era pistol left in her family, cause Elisa to reconsider.

"I live in Los Angeles. When they ask what revolution means for me, well, it means a bunch of Mexicans living in the United States, no?" Riggen said an interview with La Plaza. "And I ask myself, Why? Why there are so many Mexicans there? Did the revolution triumph or fail?"

Riggen's most recent major feature, "La Misma Luna," also deals with the pressures applied on families by borders and migration. This time, she said, she's looking at "those who return."

"I've realized that Mexicans, despite the fact that they spend an entire life in the United States, they wish to return to Mexico to be buried," she said. "What power does that land have, that they wish to return to a country that did not support them, that did not give them many of their fundamental rights? That's where my story comes from."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: A still from 'La 7th Street y Alvarado,' by Rodrigo Garcia. Credit: Canana films

'Biutiful,' a stark look at the lives of migrants, opens film festival in Mexico

Biutiful morelia set joseharo

The Morelia International Film Festival opened here Saturday night with a lavish inaugural screening and the Mexican premiere of "Biutiful," the new film by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu that is picked to represent Mexico at the 2011 Academy Awards.

The latest feature by Inarritu, director of "Babel," is another sobering look at the struggles of migrants in a globalized world. "Biutiful" stars Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem as Uxbal, who lives in a poor Barcelona neighborhood where he handles money and illegal work for African and Chinese migrants. Bardem's character, who also lives with the ability to communicate with the recently dead, must suddenly confront his own imminent passing.

The story, characteristic of Inarritu's other films such as "Amores Perros," is violent and filled with human despair.

That "Biutiful" was not filmed in Mexico, does not take place in Mexico and is a co-production with companies in Spain has sparked debate over whether it was a suitable choice to represent this country at the next Oscars. Inarritu, addressing reporters at a news conference Saturday afternoon, said his film is a story about a man and his love for his two children, as well as a journey toward death, therefore making it a universal film that transcends conventional borders.

He also compared his work to that of legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"Sixty years ago Bunuel came to Mexico and filmed 'Los Olvidados' ['The Forgotten Ones'], and now I get to go to Spain and film the forgotten ones, who are the migrants," Inarritu said.

The Morelia festival, now in its eighth year, has quickly built a profile as the most prestigious and sought-after platform for new cinema in Mexico. This year's invited special guests include celebrated filmmaker Terry Gilliam. Morelia, the capital of Michoacan state, has a sparkling colonial core with 17th century churches and lush plazas and parks. The festival is packed with screenings, round-table events, exhibits and parties, and runs through Oct. 24.

Check out the program here and live reactions at Twitter with the hashtag #FICM. La Plaza will be here all week, checking out new Mexican features and documentaries and bringing you daily updates.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: Actor Javier Bardem, seated, and filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, standing at right, on the set of the film "Biutiful." Credit: Menage Atroz films


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson