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Natalia Almada’s Borderlands: Life, Death, and Mexico’s Drug War

By Jeremy Meckler

Fifty thousand people or more have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006. And while northern Mexico, along the US border, is a focal point of this conflict, its impacts are felt farther south. In her new documentary El Velador (The Night Watchman), Natalia Almada focuses on her home state of Sinaloa and the main cemetery in Culiacán, Jardines de Humaya, the final resting place of some of Mexico’s most notorious drug traffickers. Amid opulent mausoleums—some air-conditioned, others equipped with sound systems playing fallen cartel members’ favorite ballads—overnight caretaker Martín quietly does his work as revelers visit to mourn their dead. The film addresses the violence without depicting it: it has already happened, or it’s about to. Straddling a border of her own—she was born to an American mother and a Mexican father—Almada says that while the film is nearly wordless, it has a voice. “Imagine,” she says in a new interview with the Walker’s Jeremy Meckler, “if we had these 60,000 people killed and had no books or music or movies or art made in response.”

Jeremy Meckler

Can you talk about the political moment you’re trying to be a part of with El Velador?

Natalia Almada

What I wanted to look at was, “What does it really mean to live in a situation of violence?” On the one hand, I wanted the viewer to essentially be in the cemetery and to imagine what it would be like, and for that reason it’s a deliberately slow film. The thing about the cemetery that really caught me was that you always feel like you’re suspended between these two moments of violence. The violence has just happened, because you have all the deaths, but you also have this feeling that it might happen again. So there’s this constant feeling of anticipation.

I wanted the viewer to live in that space, on the one hand, and then I was also interested in making a completely unsensational film that would look at the socioeconomic situation behind the violence. Paying attention to class, here’s a construction worker who lays bricks in the hot sun for less than $20 a day, making a mausoleum that’s worth more than his house. It’s not hard to understand why he could be tempted to do a little trafficking on the side.

In the film, I deliberately stayed away from the big drug dealers who are buried there rather than looking at who they are and profiling them as a centerpiece of the film.

Meckler

The film reminded me of Roberto Bolaño’s book 2666, which focuses on the same inherent violence present in the drug war but also talks about the serial murder of women that began in Juarez in the early ’90s.

Almada

That reference has come up before and I’ve read part of [Bolaño’s] The Savage Detectives, but I’ve never actually read 2666. I think what happens in Juarez is unique, because you have a convergence of the border, the maquiladoras, the feminicides, and then the drug cartels. So all these things collide and become a kind of violence that goes beyond the drug trafficking thing—it’s not any one thing, it’s all of it together. Sinaloa is quite a bit south. It’s still northern Mexico, but it’s an 18-hour drive from the border so you don’t have some of the same dynamics. But historically, it’s the place where a lot of the big drug dealers were born, so it’s where they are buried.

Meckler

So Sinaloa, in a sense, could be the source of violence that is happening closer to the border.

Almada

Yeah. And the Sinaloa cartel is one of the biggest cartels, so a lot of the drug violence is organized through it.

Meckler

I think what’s remarkable about El Velador is that you get this very intimate portrait of someone who is not really a part of the drug violence but is impacted by it.

Almada

Yeah, and I think that’s what most of the violence is—that’s the real violence going on. I was just interviewed by Huffington Post and they were so interested in talking about legalizing drugs as the solution, and the cartels, and the war between the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas. Of course all of that exists, but I think that there is a real human side that gets lost. For me, when I heard that they found a severed head in the cemetery, I thought imagine if you were a worker and that was what you faced as a possibility when you went to work every day. That’s a real violence against your human rights. We always focus on all the big dealers and all the money and all the drugs, but there’s a whole other side that just gets lost.

Meckler

As a filmmaker, a big section of your work is about this violence. Do you feel like this is the same violence acting on you in your life and work, forcing you to center some of your work on it?

Almada

No. With the violence in Mexico, it seems if we didn’t talk about the violence, we’d have a bigger problem. Not in terms of creating more violence, but imagine if we had these 60,000 people killed and had no books or music or movies or art made in response. So you look at the work of someone like Teresa Margolles. Her exhibition in Venice was called What Else Can We Talk About? She’s kind of saying, look, we have to look at what’s happening. And I think, when you live in a country and you make work about your country and something like this is happening, it’s very hard not to talk about it.

On the other hand, everyone thinks there is censorship in Mexico and there is corrupt government and all these other things, but isn’t it great that all these people are actually looking at things critically? Doesn’t it speak well, actually of the situation? There is almost a debate going on.

Meckler

Do you see yourself in that niche as a public figure to spark that debate? Obviously you’re an artist, too, but do you use your art position to talk about the violence?

Almada

No. I think I’m in the same position as Teresa Margolles, or … well Bolaño is a much more famous person but, what is 2666? It’s a book about violence. So I don’t think that Bolaño or Teresa would think of themselves as activists, but they are making critical work about the reality that they know and live in.

Meckler

In a sense, El General, which you brought to the Walker two years ago, is also about the institutional violence that exists in Mexico and your relationship to it on a more personal level. I thought it was both fascinating and courageous to be delving into your own family history and relating it to these more public images of history.

Almada

That whole project came out of the tapes that my grandmother made me—well, made and I took. I have decided she made them for me even though she didn’t actually make them for me. So I don’t ever think of it as a courageous thing to have made this film, but when you’re given something like that and you’re a filmmaker, it’s a natural thing.

Meckler

So you wouldn’t have been able to not make that film in a sense?

Almada

[Laughs] Yes, I guess.

Meckler

So, what is the experimental film scene in Mexico nowadays? Your films sort of manage to not be unobtrusive but to completely duck narrative and documentary conventions.

Almada

I’m struggling a bit to understand all of these definitions myself. I’m not really an experimental filmmaker like, say, Stan Brakhage. We usually think of experimental film as sort of that far end of filmmaking—not having narrative, or barely having narrative, or scratching on film, or doing crazy things with the image, which I don’t do. So on some level, I’m not so interested in making conventional TV documentaries, yet my films have all broadcast on [PBS’s] POV.

What I’m finding more and more in Mexico is that you have commercial cinema and you have more art cinema. And in the art cinema group, where I’d put myself, you have fiction and documentary sort of mixing together. So you have a filmmaker such as Pedro González-Rubio, who did Todo El Negro and Alamar, who has totally straddled that border of documentary and fiction. So in my work, I feel like El Velador is almost a fiction. I’m very interested in making a fiction that’s also a documentary. I feel like it’s more about the intention and position of the maker than it is about a genre.

Meckler

You’re making some bold artistic choices. Can you tell me about your decision to have almost no dialogue in El Velador?

Almada

It’s two things. It became an artistic choice, in the end, but when I started filming I quickly realized that there’s a sort of code of silence. You can’t really go around asking people questions about who’s buried where and what the different mausoleums are worth. You need to respect this code of silence and not talk directly about the drug trafficking or directly about the violence. When you do, I feel like the answers I would get from people were kind of packaged. They would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. In that context, gesture and action became much more revealing than dialogue.

Meckler

Yes, and I think a lot of your long close-ups have the result of bringing us a lot closer to the daily activities of your characters.

Almada

What fascinated me was the futility of many of the things they were doing. Like Martín going and watering the dirt in front of that tomb every day, which is a completely futile activity.

Meckler

I wondered about that. Was the intent of that to keep dust down?

Almada

Yes, but it’ll keep the dust down for 10 minutes and then it will dry and be just as it was. And for him, he gets a little money for it, so for him that’s his motivator. But to me, the violence we’re experiencing has that same quality. It just keeps happening and happening and happening, and you can’t really see the purpose or the point or the solution. It has that sort of feeling of futility.

Meckler

Can you talk a bit about Al Otro Lado and All Water Has a Perfect Memory, which we are also screening at the Walker this month?

Almada

All Water was my grad school film that I made at RISD. It’s made from audio recordings from my father, mother, and brother about the death of my sister, and that was a more experimental film. Then Al Otro Lado looks at immigration and drug trafficking from a main character, a 23-year-old corrido composer from Sinaloa, which is where I’m from—the same region where the cemetery is. So I wanted to look at this kid who knows he won’t be able to make a living as a fisherman and is stuck between deciding if he should traffic or he should cross over to the other side. The music, which is this 200-year-old genre of music, is kind of a musical newspaper or troubadour style—the songs are based on reality. So I used the music in place of narration, so they sing songs about crossing the border or taking a shipment to the other side.

Meckler

That’s interesting, since I feel like in El Velador you’re using the ambient sound of the cemetery in the place of narration for a lot of it as well.

Almada

I work with a great sound designer. He’s my closest collaborator, Alejandro de Casa, and he did the sound for El General and El Velador. We talked a lot about that because when the film is so sparse, you really need the sound to create the narrative and rupture. For example, you can have such stillness until the sound of a car door slamming shut wakes you up. You’re working much more with a music model of narrative in terms of how to create tension and release or to lull the viewer into a space and then make them react. It’s weird because I haven’t been able to see it with the nice surround sound yet.

We also did a lot of foleys [everyday sound effects created in post-production], which were done in Argentina. That’s because basically I was working alone: I was at the cemetery with this man I’ve known my whole life who was my bodyguard/tripod carrier/driver, but he’s not a film guy. So I was doing all of the sound and image work on my own.

Without the foleys, we would have a hard time getting emotional closeness. In the opening shots, there is a close-up of Martín smoking, but you couldn’t hear him. Hearing him inhale his cigarette, or breathe, or hearing his clothes moving make you kind of identify with this character who doesn’t speak. And you need that intimacy.

Natalia Almada

Natalia Almada, El Velador, 2011

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, El Velador, 2011

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, El Velador, 2011

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, El Velador, 2011

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, El Velador, 2011

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, El General, 2009

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, Al Otro Lado, 2005

Courtesy of Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, Al Otro Lado, 2005

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, Al Otro Lado, 2005

Courtesy Altamura Films

Natalia Almada, All Water Has Perfect Memory, 2001

Courtesy Women Make Movies