This is the presentation I gave at UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies in advance of the screening of Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarria, 16 October 2018.
I’m sure that many of you here are familiar with the events leading up to the massacre on the 2nd of October 1968. So, you will not need me to rehearse the frequent marches, the long history of workers protests, the student dissatisfaction with failed government promises, the international context which empowered young people to stand up and demand civil rights and a fairer future. From Derry to Prague, Paris to Chicago, London to Mexico City, young people, often supported by a wider movement stood up and marched for a better life.
The Mexican armed forces acting against those students were not uniquely violent, but their response was under scrutiny as a consequence of being on a world stage because of the Olympics held that October in Mexico City. The subsequent vilification by the government of the protestors is also not unique, but the continued silence over the exact events is now an outlier. There are still only guestimates (anywhere from 44 to 400) about how many were killed and how many disappeared. This is where the visual archive matters. The image of shoes left behind at the scene and the bloodstained Tlatelolco Square of the following morning retains its poignancy and emotional weight because they evoke absence and loss.
There is an extensive audio-visual archive that runs to 8 hours of film and has been reproduced repeatedly. The first and most famous use of the footage was El grito (1968) directed by Leobardo López Aretche. Collectively made by the students who were given lightweight cameras from the recently founded Film school, they shot what they witnessed. This audio-visual material has helped recall the events. They are a testament to the gaps in history.
Some of the archive has appeared in fiction films, such as the docudrama Canoa (1976) by Felipe Cazals and El bulto (1992) by Gabriel Retes. Footage has been picked over and used time and again in what has become the life work of the documentarian, Óscar Menéndez in his successive films: Dos de octubre, aquí México (1968), Historia de un documento (1971) and México, 68 (1992). Another who has used this material over and again is Carlos Mendoza in films such as Operación Galeana (2000) and Tlatelolco, las claves de la massacre (2002).
The series organised by UNAM, UK focuses on non-fiction film and I want to draw attention to the fiction films, which are worth seeking out to get a deeper understanding of this moment and reveal ever-evolving attempts to understand 1968. As well as the famous first fiction film, Rojo amanecer (1989) by Jorge Fons there are two other notable fiction films: ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? (1981), a 35minute film directed by Maryse Sistach made while she was a student in London, and the Mexican-German-Spanish co-production, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? (2002) by Eva López Sánchez. All notable attempts to understand the past from the perspective of those with little power.
My work has considered these films (Thornton, 2013), but I am also interested in those films ostensibly about the Mexican Revolution, but where 1968 emerges as a means of working through this moment in films as varied as Reed, México Insurgente (1970) by Paul Leduc, the big budget Emiliano Zapata (1970) by Felipe Cazals, De todos modos Juan te llamas by Marcela Fernández Violante (1975), and the 1976 adaptation of Los de abajo by Servando González. Leduc, Cazals and Fernández Violante all merit analysis (Thornton, 2017) and have received varying degrees of attention, but I want to briefly consider the unusual case of the last of these, Servando González. His career was marked by 1968 because he was employed by the army to shoot film on their behalf. This was material he claimed to have fully handed over to them and to be innocent of its later use. His reputation never recovered and his later career was spent justifying and exploring this legacy.
To turn to Memorial del 68 by Nicolás Echevarría. Echevarría is a filmmaker with foothold in the recent and distant past. Memorial del 68 was a film he made as a result of an invitation by the Museo Memorial del 68 in the Centro Cultural Universitario de Tlatelolco de la UNAM on the occasion of the 40 year anniversary. So, it is very fitting to look at it again in the light of the 50th anniversary. It has been played on a loop in the museum for visitors to pause and listen to the testimonies of those who were witnesses to the events. It has been distributed via festivals and shown on television. The Mexican academic, Diego Zavala Scherer, praised the film for this capacity to move across different spaces because its intention is to tell the story of what happened to the widest possible audience and to give an accurate historic account of the events.
The film makes strong use of testimonials through straight to camera interviews. There are 57 testimonials in all. Testimonials are key to events where the historical truth has yet to be acknowledged by the authorities. By speaking to notable figures and witnesses to the events, including activists Raúl Alvarez Garín, Luis Tomás Cervantes Cabeza de Vaca, Pablo Gómez, and writers José Agustín, David Huerta, Carlos Monsiváis, Andrea Revueltas, Nacha Rodríguez, and Elena Poniatowska, Echevarría is building a full picture and loading up evidence where justice is still absent.
“un trabajo que tiende a extenderse, cuyo sentido principal es crear una memoria audiovisual que nos permita acercarnos al 68 como fenómeno central en la historia contemporánea de México,”
[a film that pushes beyond its limits, whose primary aim is to create an audio-visual memorial that lets us get closer to 68, which was a central event in contemporary Mexican history”]
What is clear is that it is a respectful memorial that is constructed out of multiple perspectives that merit our attention.
This memorial is a radical act of remembrance and bearing witness. The late intellectual and essayist, Carlos Monsiváis, who wrote about 1968, stated that “The massacre is so monstrous that there is no way to approach it”. Echevarría’s attempt is one of pushing back and broaching an overwhelming need to tell the impossible. Memorial del 68 is born of an urgent need to gather stories before the protagonists are gone and to help uncover the truth behind a terrible event.
Thanks to Axel Elías for organising this event and to Adrián Guillermo Aguilar and Ana Elena González of the UNAM, UK Centre for Mexican Studies for inviting me.
Thornton, Niamh. “Re-Framing Mexican Women’s Filmmaking: the case of Marcela Fernandez Violante” in Debbie Martin and Deborah Shaw eds., Latin American Women Filmmakers: Production, Politics, Poetics, London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.
—. Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Cinema, New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Zavala Scherer, Diego (nd) “El memorial del 68, (Nicolás Echevarría, 2008): Recuerdo vivo, forma expandida”, El ojo que piensa, http://www.elojoquepiensa.cucsh.udg.mx/assets/ojo01/4Elmemorial.pdf