GUADALAJARA’S MEXICAN PROBLEM
By Robert Koehler
Sure enough, as Guadalajara wound down, Lake Tahoe was one Mexican film in the competition that mattered, and as the paltry and fairly pathetic lineup played out, proved its value as a way out of the dead-end of what often passes for “comedy” in Mexican film….even if, as I noted before, Eimbcke’s film isn’t properly a comedy. (His ability to shift from comedy to tragedy only demonstrates Eimbcke’s confidence in his own comic abilities; oddly for a young man, like late Chaplin, he has the toolkit firmly in hand so that when drama and even tragedy is required, humor isn’t forgotten.) But Lake Tahoe wasn’t all by its lonesome. Rodrigo Pla’s The Desert Within (which I’ve reviewed for Variety) proved to be another Mexican film that will travel, and actually was preferred in some circles to Eimbcke’s. (A few festival goers even claimed that it was the best film they had seen so far this year, period.)
So, Mexican cinema wasn’t a total loss at Guadalajara, but it wasn’t a pretty picture either. This happens every year here, and it stuns visitors coming for the first time. Nobody warns them (OK, I will) that the Mexican sections here literally comprise what’s available; that’s to say that any new feature narrative or documentary that’s done and uncommitted to premiering future festivals (think Cannes) is placed in the lineup, with the exception of the most nakedly commercial product, which is consigned to the hell that is “out of competition.” (I’ve never met a soul who’s gone to those screenings.) These aren’t curated like the festival’s Ibero-American sections, and it behooves the visitor to know this ahead of time. I’m still recovering from the shock in 2006 (when I was a GDL virgin) of plunking myself down in a seat on the festival’s second day to see something called Los pajarracos, only to witness reels of garbage masquerading as a spoof of border culture and politics. Right then and there, I was disabused of the notion that what was premiered in Guadalajara was the best new Mexican cinema. It was ALL the new Mexican cinema, available in the spring each year, that could be run through a projector or played on a deck.
But here’s a contradiction to chew on: It’s actually not all of the new films. Guadalajara has done its part in putting Mexican film on the international map, but much like Fajr festival did for Iranian film (pre-Cannes), it has lost premieres to other places. Some docmakers now consider waiting to first show their work in Morelia, which has quickly caught on as one of the best doc festivals in captivity. Others have become attracted to FICCO (Mexico City, running just prior to Guadalajara), with its “Mexico Digital” section of new video-shot work. Others–like Amat Escalante, with his latest and highly anticipated Los bastardos–are waiting word from Cannes, and the siren call of “Palme d’Or/Certain Regard/Quinzaine/Semaine.” (Mexico was all over Cannes last year, and there’s every expectation that it will be again.) A victim of Mexican success, Guadalajara is being passed over by some–not by Pla, significantly, even though he’s just off of a completely undeserving Venice prize for his lousy debut, La zona and, thus, presumably on the European festival fame train. The resulting basket of movies the festival has to work with doesn’t mean a daily dosage of crap–well, some are, and just too sad and bad to even mention here–but it does mean that the result is an oddly skewed perspective on the Mexican film scene. This is especially the case since it’s a program that continues to be dominated by films funded largely or in part by IMCINE, the government film funding body that casts a giant shadow over the country’s cinema, even as it’s never touched the likes of Reygadas, Escalante, Eugenio Polgovsky and several other independent filmmakers who’ve carved out alternative means of funding and promotion.
It’s this independent sphere where Mexico’s film-video future lies, not in the institutional brand of movie that sticks to conventional treatments and modes. (To get an idea, look no further here than so-called “popular” comedies like Know the Head of Juan Perez, also in competition right alongside a Lake Tahoe.) The institution-to-independence pattern has been breaking out across Mexico for the past decade-plus, ever since Mexico wisely ended its closed economy, signed up to NAFTA (a profound boon to the country’s economy and vibrancy, regardless of whatever nonsense you may have heard lately) and freed itself from the political monopoly of the PRI party which governed Mexico for generations. Like the old politics, the old kind of movie–still loved by a good deal of filmgoers and movie renters here–is cracking up. If the visitor squints really hard, that nice bit of news is visible in Guadalajara. It would be even nicer if no squinting were required.