Guadalajara Film Festival: Three Visions About Mexico
(Chavela, Devil’s Freedom, I Dream in Another Language)
“When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it.” ~ George Steiner
María Isabel Anita Carmen de Jesús Vargas Lizano was born in 1919, in San Joaquín de las Flores, Costa Rica. Her conservative parents never accepted her “manly” style, leaving her in an uncle’s house and later getting divorced. After suffering poliomyelitis, teenage Isabel decided to emigrate to Mexico City to pursue a singing career.
Mid-century Mexico City was a booming cultural hub. After the collapse of the Porfiriato dictatorship and a revolution, the country’s art sphere was mainly concerned with consolidating a national identity, often subsidized by the government. The lack of stability in other countries allowed local industry to export its bucolic cinema and ranchera music to unimaginable overseas markets.
Isabel Vargas started performing surrounded by machos. Despite being undeniably beautiful, she couldn’t succeed in a time when most women were secondary characters whose careers were limited to their younger years (not that it has changed a lot). Her reputation as a closeted lesbian was not helping either. Isabel became Chavela. Her voice turned rougher, more honest. Her outfits and haircuts, androgynous. Her cry, hardened by tequila, became a soulmate for the ever-heartbroken ranchera tunes.
Octavio Paz published The Labyrinth of Solitude in 1950, forty years before winning the Nobel Prize. The essay is still the most respected dissertation on Mexican identity. Its second chapter, Mexican Masks, explores the hermetic nature of local culture, the fear of being regarded as weak after opening up emotionally. The result is a perpetual sentiment of loneliness, and it is only through festive rituals, through ceremonies and alcohol, that Mexicans show their true selves.
After decades of weekend-long gigs of never-ending booze, Chavela was enduring severe alcoholism. She moved to the town of Tepoztlán and retired from music. Living in a small house, she would wake up and talk to the Chalchi, the mountain her house faced and a sacred Mesoamerican site. After 12 years of isolation, Chavela slowly reconciled with showbiz. A series of small concerts in Mexico City eventually took her to Spain and France, finding major success.
Through most of the twentieth century, the cultural identity the government supported barely considered the preservation of Mesoamerican heritage, including 68 indigenous languages and around three hundred dialects. The original people were often forced to use Spanish in schools, and their use of native dialects resulted in discrimination from several sectors of society.
Around the turn of the century, Mexico shifted to a neoliberal economy, and achieved political alternation for the first time in eighty years. Since 2006, the government of Felipe Calderón has started an unprecedented offensive against drug cartels. His strategy was controversial – to say the least – but not even his most passionate supporters can deny the attempt to dismantle cartels unleashed an unparalleled wave of violence around the country.
Guadalajara Film Festival, 2007. Ernesto Contreras premiered his first work, Párpados Azules (Blue Eyelids). The awkward love story became the biggest hit of the festival, winning Best Film. That same year, Everardo González’s fascinating second feature, Old Thieves, won Best Mexican Documentary. Both filmmakers were soon regarded as among the most promising directors in the country.
In 2010, the Ayapaneco language received unusual press attention. Articles from The Guardian and El País reported only two speakers were alive, and they wouldn’t talk to each other after an unknown conflict between them. The old men would carry their tongue to the grave, and therefore the cosmogony of their people. The story was proven wrong, as a dozen other speakers appeared, but it inspired Sueño en otro idioma (I Dream in Another Language), the fourth feature by Ernesto Contreras.
Martín is a young linguist trying to rescue, or at least register Zikril, a fictitious tongue from the Mexican tropics. Isauro and Evaristo are its last speakers, but they stopped talking to each other decades ago. As Martín insists on arranging a series of conversations for his research, he discovers the origin of their brawl. Their bond is much deeper than expected, and they seem forced to confront it in order to keep their language alive.
Contreras makes an interesting effort of intuition to build a story that could’ve originated Ayapaneco’s (distorted) anecdote, but what starts as an agile introspection on language extinction, loses strength as it rambles around repetitive and somehow predictable subplots. The film finds strength in its well-balanced cast and an adequate use of magical realism, that perfectly fits its idyllic Latin American setting. Already an Audience Award winner at Sundance, I Dream in Another Language should find international success through its appealing topic and visuals, yet it will leave an impression of being a wasted opportunity to become Contreras’s most elegant and ambitious work to date.
A couple of years ago, Catherine Gund recovered a 1991 interview she had with Chavela Vargas in Tepoztlán, and teamed with Daresha Kyi to develop a documentary to honour the singer. The couple employed footage and interviewed some key characters to narrate her career, love life and origins. The result is a standard, derivative documentary that, however, manages to become an incredibly inspiring one.
Chavela thrives as the filmmakers surrender to an almost-mythological character like Chavela Vargas: the outcast girl, the immigrant, the irresistible lesbian, the feminist, Frida’s lover, José Alfredo’s partner, the woman who talked to Mesoamerican deities, the voice of a stoic culture. Her life is a tale of loneliness, sorrow and catharsis that embodies the soul of Mexico.
Vargas passed away in 2012. Thousands attended her funeral in Bellas Artes, the most respected venue in the country, and a stage that took her decades to conquer. By then, same-sex marriage was performed in Mexico City, and traditional music was commonly performed at high-end venues. However, that same year the country shifted back to PRI, the political party that ruled for most of the previous century. Their campaign heavily relied on criticizing the civil violence the country faced. Under Peña Nieto’s rule, the conflict has only worsened.
For La Libertad del Diablo (Devil’s Freedom), Everardo González interviewed a dozen Mexicans whose lives have been deeply affected by cartel-related violence. The subjects range from relatives of the victims to former policemen and teenage hitmen. They’re all wearing masks. They could be anyone. We can only see their eyes and mouths, and through them, the pain, the rage, the regrets. Their accents reveal they come from all over the country. It’s a nationwide issue.
This is González’s boldest, most powerful work among his impressive filmography. None of its 74 minutes is gratuitous, none of its subjects fails to deliver a devastating quote at some point in their interviews. The protection given by their masks allows them to confess, to cry, to protest. What Octavio Paz wrote in 1950 prevails. Our masks are no longer ritual or festive, but those that cover our scars and burns.
A country like Mexico, chaotic, formalist and surreal, is unsurprisingly a fertile subject for documentaries. Sadly, several world-class documentaries released in the past decade have failed to reach international audiences. González’s latest effort, victorious at Berlinale, may give Mexican documentaries a deserved spotlight.
The native name for the Ayapaneco language is Numte Oote, and it means true voice. A voice doomed to disappear. May this country find other voices to unmask us, to confront us with our grief, to redeem us.