Traces of the Aftermath: Uses of the Perpetrator Archive in Mexican Film

Some thoughts in preparation for a paper based on my chapter in a book.

Proposal: This paper considers the integration of real footage or hyper-realist representations of death in three distinct Mexican films that challenge the viewer to consider their implication in the use of perpetrator footage: Los de abajo/The Underdogs (Servando González, 1976), Los Poquianchis (Felipe Cazals, 1976) and Canoa (Felipe Cazals, 1976). All released in the same year and heavily influenced by the 1968 massacre yet set at different moments in the past, this paper considers how each film deals with traumatic death and its display. The films stand as examples of filmmakers grappling with what Marianne Hirsch describes as ‘an aesthetics of the aftermath’ (2014: 334). All three films employ archival footage and documentary elements which ground the films in reality. With the ghosts of 1968 haunting the films as well as the spectres from the distinct events they portray, Cazals and González’s specific uses of the archive become an exploration of the audio-visual techniques utilised by perpetrators. This paper will explore how the films navigate this controversial terrain in ways that uphold and disrupt the perpetrators’ position.

In order to talk about memory and trauma you have to find a moment and a case study (or several related ones) to focus your thinking. The problem is that both memory and trauma defy narrative and derail chronological thinking. More recent research also encourage us to think beyond boundaried locales (Bond et al 2016 and Bond 2018). Storytelling, spatio-temporal rules, and nation-space are all troubled and collapse when you think about memory and trauma. And yet, we get lost without something, somewhere and sometime on which to hang our thinking. As a specialist in Mexican culture, this is the culture I am considering and the place I am bounded by to think through these issues. There are particularities to this focus, historical factors that need to be attended to and production contexts that I have had to be mindful of when writing. But, there are also wider areas of thinking and theoretical approaches that inform our way into this singular place.

As I have been preparing to draft this paper I keep circling back around a definition of what perpetrator footage is. All three films were released in 1976. Of the three films, Canoa is the one that clearly uses footage shot to document violence enacted by those in control of the camera, Los Poquianchis draws on found footage and attempts to critique news media obsession with extreme acts of violence, and Los de abajo is a reflection by a director on his implication with perpetrator filmmaking.

Just last week as part of the 2021 Birkbeck University’s online edition of the Essay Film Festival I watched Cabra marcado para morrer [Man Marked for Death/Twenty Years Later] (1984) by the Brazilian filmmaker, Eduardo Coutinho. It’s a metatextual and even palimpsestic film in which Coutinho returns to the space and people in 1981 about whom he was making a fictional film in 1964 based on the army killing of João Pedro Teixeira, a leader of the Ligas Camponesas in Pernambuco, Brazil. In Cabra marcado para morrer I was struck by the use and re-use of a photograph taken by the army after Teixeira was murdered. This form of death mask is forensic, for the family and movement it is evidence that he is dead, it is indexical in that it captures the moment of death and the power of the government and its army (Torchin 2012), and it conjures a Christian iconographic tradition of devotional images (Noble 2010). For the Teixeira family it is proof of his death. But, it also a grotesque image of a man with bullet wounds and covered in blood who appeared in other photographs and artistic reproductions. It is worth noting that the other photograph that is repeated is of his wife, Elizabeth Teixeira, and their 11 children, João Pedro is absent from this frame. His spectre haunts the image because the focus of the documentary is the consequences of his death on the family unit (see Ribas-Casasayas and Petersen 2016, on haunting). The repeated use of the photo evokes a tension between the necessary evidence of the killing – as opposed to being disappeared or other forms of unseen violence – and the repeated use of perpetrator image that is central to my reflections in my paper.

Andrea Noble (2010, 131-135) has written about memory and forgetting as an integral feature of this use and re-use of photographic images of death. Her case study in this instance is the death mask of the Mexican Revolutionary leader, Emiliano Zapata, whereby what was forgotten was the manner of his death and, instead, the photograph became a means of mythologising him as a revolutionary figure. Like Teixeira, Zapata is a named individual. In contrast, the photographs and moving images that I consider are mostly of unnamed individuals whose temporal attachments are poorly defined. This anonymity creates greater challenges in the comprehension and ethical dimensions of these audio-visual images. Who were they, why were the images captured, and who are we complicit with in their audio-viewing? The perpetrator? The director? And, whether our role in this as an audience can be described as being complicit?

This is where the issue of who the filmmakers are matters. But, as with much in this account of memory making and understanding trauma none of that is as clearcut as may first appear.

There are three films mentioned in my proposal: Los de abajo/The Underdogs (Servando González, 1976), Los Poquianchis (Felipe Cazals, 1976) and Canoa (Felipe Cazals, 1976). All released in the same year and heavily influenced by the 1968 massacre yet set at different moments in the past.

Los de abajo is set during the Mexican Revolution, but it has been my contention that it’s really about the director’s troubled relationship and compromised decisions related to the workers and student protests and then massacre in Mexico City in 1968. Mid way through what is an arthouse war film, he pauses the action of this fiction feature to show found footage of the corpses of people and animals from the Mexican Revolution. These are edited in a way that foregrounds their different sources. The shots do not match, the cameras move in different directions, the cuts are hard. He accompanies it with a slowed-down version of the normally lively corrido, ‘Si Adelita se fuera con otro’ [If Adelita were to go with another]. This director was someone who was out of favour because of his decision to work for the government at a time when his contemporaries allied themselves with the students and workers. And yet, the footage makes for a powerful statement against violence and warfare.

Los Poquianchis is an intervention into a story about the mass murder of sex workers and an attempt to counter the salacious tabloid coverage of their deaths. A novel, Las muertas, by the crime novelist and satirist Jorge Ibargüengoitia published in the same year was from a perpetrator’s point of view (see, Wolfenzon 2016). The use of found footage in Los Poquianchis is as a commentary on the political situation where the fictional elements focus on the women’s stories. In a film about women’s murders the social conditions of rural male labour force is foregrounded through footage of rallies in town squares and bureaucratic queues for aid.

Canoa is the story of the lynching of young university workers mistaken for students in a Mexican village in 1968. Guillermo del Toro described it as “a political horror masterpiece” and “a truly great, brutal, precise piece of filmmaking” (2017). In its pre-credit sequence Cazals uses footage directed by the army of unnamed men who have been assaulted. The camera person is clearly compromised in their filming, which is a commentary on and a sign of complicity with the violence that follows. That Canoa was criticised for making the villagers and not the army culpable for the violence further complicates any celebratory reading of the film and the footage it uses.

Both Los Poquianchis and Canoa are made by a highly venerated director, Felipe Cazals, whose place in the cultural firmament is solid, unlike his contemporary, Servando Gonzalo. Two questions I keep reflecting on are: 1. Should Gonzalo’s work be forgotten because of his controversial decision to work on behalf of the government? He filmed the protesting students and workers being murdered on behalf of the army and the government. 2. How do we assess found footage that is employed as commentary when it is sometimes ambiguously that of the perpetrator?

Much of the challenge in discussing the audio-visual images used by these directors is that the found footage used does not always convey what Avery F. Gordon (2008) called “complex personhood” whose lives Judith Butler has described as being grievable. That is, a measure of whether they fit within a recognisable frame of reference and have lives that we can apprehend. My key concern in examining these films has been: should lives be presented – such as they often are by news media -as instances of violence that merely fit with prior understanding of them as reduced to otherness and object or can violent death and assault be merely reproducible to advance an argument or for creative expression?

Bibliography

Bond, Emma (2018), Writing Migration Through the Body, London: Palgrave MacMillan

Bond, Lucy, Stef Craps, and Pieter Vermeulen (2016), ‘Introduction: Memory on the Move’, in Lucy Bond, Stef Craps, and PieterVermeulen (eds), Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies, New York & Oxford: Berghan Books, pp. 1–26.

Butler, Judith (2009), Frames of War: When Life is Greivable, Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Gordon, Avery F. (2008), Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Hirsch, Marianne (2014), ‘Connective Histories in Vulnerable Times: MLA Presidential Address’, PMLA, 129:3, pp. 330–48.

Noble, Andea (2010), Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ribas-Casasayas, Alberto, and Amanda L. Petersen (2016), ‘Introduction: Theories of the Ghost in the Transhispanic Context’, in Alberto Ribas-Casasayas and Amanda L. Petersen (eds), Espectros: Ghostly Hauntings in Contemporary Transhispanic Narratives, Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Torchin, Leshu (2012), Creating the Witness: Documenting Genocide on Film, Video, and the Internet, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Wolfenzon, Carolyn (2016), ‘Las muertas y los relámpagos de agosto: la violencia como esencia de lo mexicano en la obra de Jorge Ibargüengoitia’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies, 93:5: pp. 859–75.

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