Mexico’s Underrepresented Gain a Voice

Eight of the 10 directors in the Morelia Festival’s main Mexican competition are women, led by two of the biggest Mexican fest hits of the year,“Robe of Gems,” Natalia López Gallardo’s Berlin Special Jury laureate, and “Huesera,” from Michelle Garza Cervera, a double Tribeca winner.

Features with Indigenous or Black Mexican protagonists have shot up in Mexico, from 14 in 2019 to 31 in 2019, according to Imcine’s Mexican Cinema Yearbook.

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In 2017, Mexico’s biggest homegrown hit was Nicolas López’s “Do It Like an Hombre,” a merciless taunt of a Mexican macho’s helpless homophobia, which grossed $11.0 million in the country.

For centuries an entrenched bastion of machismo, in film terms, the dial is finally moving on diversity.

“When I started out, like 20 years ago, I could count with my fingers the female directors I knew in Mexico; and today, there are almost 100,” says Natalia Beristáin, director of 2017’s Morelia Audience Award winner “The Eternal Feminine,” a portrait of major Mexican writer Rosario Castellanos, and now the Netflix-backed “Noise” (“Ruido”), which world premieres at this week’s San Sebastián.

“The push for diversity is “starting, it’s definitely something that as a filmmaker I sense every more and more,” Beristáin adds.

“When I was growing up, you could catch LGBTQ films by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo and Julián Hernandez, but there wee very few films, you had to watch them almost hiding and then wait months for the next LGBTQ movie to be released,” remembers Bruno Santamaría,  a Gold Hugo best doc winner at the 2020 Chicago Festival for “Things We Dare Not Do.”

Now, in contrast, a significant percentage of Mexican movies explore sexual identity, he adds.

Why is another matter.

Diversity is “definitely on the agenda of Imcine,” says Beristáin, says of the Mexican Film Institute, noting it “is trying to push funds to the people that they didn’t usually get them.”

Xun Sero, Natalia Beristain, Bruno Santamaria
Xun Sero, Natalia Beristain, Bruno Santamaria

The Imcine-backed ECAMC has financed over 50 productions. Imcine’s new Foprocine fund boasts bonus incentive points to  films directed by women or titles from community, Indigenous and Black filmmakers.

“The government wants to create a sense of Mexico opening up to its LGBTQ population,” says Santamaría. But any opening must also be traced back to a years-long battle waged by Mexico’s working classes for rights, such as to a public health system. “Cinema’s now benefitting from that struggle.”

Films being made, by female, queer, Indigenous or other formerly underrepresented groups are also among the most exciting of the year, judged by the festival hardware they’re collecting.Morelia’s competition features“Robe of Gems,” Natalia López Gallardo’s Berlin Special jury laureate, and “Huesera,” from Michelle Garza Cervera, a double Tribeca winner.

“Women directors are walking a path first traced by prior generations,” says Beristaín.

Many titles also grapple with Mexico’s hearts of darkness, such as the wholesale slaughter of young women, across all social classes, who suddenly go missing.  Xun Sero, director of “Mom,” which played Hot Docs and Guadalajara, sees himself on a mission, breaking down barriers. “For me cinema is a political act. I want to take films and filmmakers to places where nobody thought we’d get, to say to those who have grown up in the same situation that we can also achieve this.”

A sense of involvement, and of urgency to films which push diversity is almost inevitable.

There’s also the question of originality.

“What I think is really important is that I do believe that we’re looking for different narratives. We haven’t been part of the status quo in a way and – I’m talking about myself – I just want to be part of something else,” says Beristáin. Her “Noise” weaves near documentary elements – a San Luis Potosí abduction fiction search party made up of its real life members – and dream-like sequences, capturing Julia’s sense of rage, impotence and some kind of hope.

Likewise, Xun Sero sees “Mom” as cliché busting. “The image of Indigenous people for many years have been of pain, sadness, suffering.”

He adds: “Women suffer from machista violence, yes. But it’s experienced in different ways and my mother had the strength to rise above her circumstances like other women all over the world.” In this sense, the film “recognizes the diversity of people on this planet.”

The best of Mexico’s community, Indigenous or Black Mexican movies are, moreover, no anthropological snore fests, but sophisticated and entertaining works of art.

In “Mom,” working through filmed conversations between the filmmaker and his mum and narrative voice over, Sero deftly delays a full reveal of his mother’s achievement, and how she got there, plus the collateral damage: His memory of childhood, he confesses in the film, is of his brother and him being left alone as his mother looked for work.

“They Made Its the Night” lifts off scene-setting, with a multi-layered soundtrack and energetic editing, even in the most banal of settings, – a farmyard scene for instance –  proving a sensual delight.

Spirited doc feature “Negra” turns on what it means to be Black in Mexico today. It kicks off with the Black upper-class protagonist asking a street vendor if there any Black people in Mexico. “Down on the Costa Chica,” he replies, diplomatically – but his diplomacy is a form of racism, declining to point out that his questioner is Black herself.  

In “Huesera,” Michelle Garza Cervera subverts one of the basic tenets of genre to telling effect, underscoring that the real horror for the protagonist, a married mother-to-be, lies elsewhere.

Mexico still has a lot of ground to make up. Features directed by women spiked 50% in 2021 to a remarkable 66, 50% up on the 2017-19 average. That figure, however, still represents just 25% of the 256 Mexican movies classified last year, driven by a slew of debuts and docs.  

Sero resists calling his film “Indigenous.” “It’s Tzotzil. Cinema for me is a tool which helps me in our native peoples’ struggle for recognition of their roots and richness of their cultures, which is my case are Mayan Tzotzil.”

The latest Pride march was the biggest in history, emblazoned by  marketing from big corporate brands supported by the government, Yet, “there wasn’t one call for justice after the murder of trans victims just a few weeks before, or demands for more [subsidized] antiretroviral medicines,” Santamaría recalls. “There’s an opportunity to make films which impact the broadest of audiences, but total inclusion has yet to happen,” he adds. 

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