Director Marcela Arteaga relies on desert imagery to convey the loss experienced by people displaced by violence | Provided photo
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
There are a few reasons why I have a soft spot for the Watsonville Film Festival. First, Consuelo Alba, the festival’s co-founder and I have a lot in common: We’re both from Mexico living the transnational dream; we were both born in the most revolutionary of years; we both love good music, good food and good company.
Having so much in common with this amazing mujer, it should only follow that we would have similar taste in films. And we do — and that’s another reason to like the festival. The movie selections Alba and her team always put together are *chef kiss.* Sweet. Poignant. Challenging. Sweeping. Toss one hundred adjectives in the air and one that describes the festival’s films will surely land on your screen.
Where else will you see an Ariel-winning documentary along with student-produced films about the pandemic? A wide variety of films about indigenous communities in the Americas? Real women with real lonjas dancing without a care in the world? Alba puts together a world-class event that will make you cry, laugh, and make you feel connected.
But perhaps the biggest reason I’m such a huge fan of the festival is because it remains the “little festival that can.” Since its inception, the WFF folks have dealt with challenge after challenge, one setback after another, mostly because the festival does not have a permanent venue. Last year, when the pandemic hit, not having a venue became the understatement of the year.
And yet, here it is.
“After cancelling our annual festival in 2020, two days before opening night because of COVID, we decided to go online,” Alba said in an email. “We have been presenting films virtually since last April, including a five-day Day of the Dead celebration in the fall. We were able to double our audience reach, and we received wonderful feedback. People told us that our program made them feel connected, so we decided to go for it and present our usual number of films for WFF 2021.”
From March 5 to March 13, the WFF will present 20 films anyone will be able to see from the comfort of their homes, free of charge and free of COVID-19. It’s an offer nobody should refuse.
Voices of Monterey Bay has sponsored the festival in the past, and this year, we’re presenting two of the films: “The Guardian of Memory” and “Corazón de Mezquite.”
As part of the presentation I interviewed Carlos Spector, an attorney who for more than three decades has represented Mexicans seeking political asylum in the United States. Film director Marcela Arteaga met Spector when she was researching organized crime and the trail of death it leaves in its wake. Spector became the subject of “The Guardian of Memory,” and through him, Arteaga explains the concept of “authorized crime” — completely new to me.
“It’s not well known, I myself didn’t know there are Mexicans seeking asylum,” Arteaga said. “To seek asylum is (to think of) war and nobody has thought about this in terms of war. Not war the way (former President) Felipe Calderón used to define it, but more like a civil war. We had to choose just one place to portray this the best way possible, and most Mexicans in exile are from Guadalupe.”
The term “authorized crime” describes the forces pushing people out of their communities: cartels, organized crime terrorizing the community.
In 2008, when the Mexican government sent an army to the Chihuahua border near El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking, Guadalupe had a population of 17,000 people. Today there are only 1,000 people living there. Spector, himself from Guadalupe, is a proponent of the term “authorized crime” to describe the forces pushing people out of their communities: cartels, organized crime terrorizing the community. But when the Army was sent in to fight against those cartels, the results were even worse: further community destruction, but Guadalupe’s residents have no recourse, nobody to defend them.
Arteaga’s profoundly touching film (winner of 2020 Ariel for best documentary, Mexico’s highest award) succeeds not just for the story itself, but for the poignant art installations that pepper the film, intended to recreate the life the exiles leave behind: the abandoned bicycles, the burning clothes on a clothesline, the empty houses with nothing but photographs on the walls. They evoke feelings of abandonment, of profound loss, much more powerfully than words ever could.
But there’s power in remembrance and both Spector and Arteaga hope the movie will lead some action or at the very least maintain the memory of the disappeared alive.
“What we want to do is to leave models of how to fight,” Spector said. “We have created an organization (Mexicans in Exile) that can still receive activists. The solution is binational, it lies in demanding and fighting for democracy in Mexico and fighting for our rights in our country. Our contribution has to be our story, that’s what we leave behind. In that sense, we’re the guardians of memory.”
The second movie Voices of Monterey Bay is presenting is “Corazón de Mezquite.” While on its surface it has nothing to do with “The Guardian of Memory,” you could say it’s a narrative on the other side of the spectrum. It’s fiction, and has nothing to do with cartels of organized crime. But it was the authorized crime that Spaniards committed against indigenous people of Mexico for centuries, leading to their near extinction. “Corazón de Mezquite” takes place in the heart of Yoreme country, home to a little known indigenous group in northern Mexico.
Film director Ana Laura Calderón decided to make the movie when visiting the community with a group of anthropologists. And while she learned a lot about the Yoreme, also known as Mayo in Mexico, she said she learned more about humanity during the process.
“I learned a lot about the Yoreme, in particular I learned about their generosity. We worked in their homes, with their clothing, with their traditions. The celebration we have in the film, we had no money to recreate it, so we asked for permission to film the real one. They were happy to contribute. The talent they have is wonderful. They threw their heart into everything we were doing,” she said in Spanish.
Calderón believes it’s important for everyone to learn more about the indigenous cultures that have survived more than 500 years of invasion because they are a direct link to our past.
“They are our identity,” she said. “They are our ancestral past, they are our cultures. It’s important to rescue these traditions. Also, stories that are more particular tend to be more universal. You can see this story in China or in India and they’re going to see what we have in common. Everything is connected, so it’s important not to forget the past. For many years we have said ‘I’m not indigenous’ and I think that’s terrible. We have to recognize it and give it its proper place.”
And perhaps that’s the biggest reason why I’m so fond of the Watsonville Film Festival. Within its mission of bringing people together through film there’s room for so much more: for rescuing traditions, for remembering the past, for recognizing who we are and giving our roots their proper place. Because this little film festival is so much more than that.
The Watsonville Film Festival runs March 5-13, online only. Twenty films that range from an Ariel-winning documentary to local high school productions. Donations accepted. To register, and to view all the films available, click here.
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