"Nobody's Women" See the Light

Mexican Women Film Directors Series

by Charles Ramírez Berg

The obvious question raised by this month-long, eye-opening retrospective of films by Mexican women directors (every Thursday night throughout October at the Dobie Theatre) is: Why don't we know more about these talented women filmmakers? But that only begs the larger question: Why don't we know more about Mexican filmmaking - period?

Quick! Name five Mexican films other than Like Water for Chocolate and Los Olvidados. Name three Mexican directors other than Luis Buñuel (who was, after all, a Spanish exile living in Mexico). Name three Mexican actors other than Cantinflas and Ricardo Montalban (nope, Raul Julia was Puerto Rican and Antonio Banderas is Spanish). Name three Mexican actresses other than Dolores Del Rio (sorry, Sonia Braga is Brazilian). If your response to these questions is, "Who were Cantinflas and Dolores Del Rio?" you are, like many other American filmgoers, largely in the dark so to speak, when it comes to Mexican cinema.

Why is that? If Mexico's were an anemic cinema with an erratic output, that would be one thing, but the history of Mexican cinema celebrates its centennial next year. And for much of this century, Mexico has been the leading producer of Spanish-language films in the world. During the 1940s and into the '50s, the output of the Mexican film industry numbered over 100 films per year. If its filmmaking was unoriginal and uninspired, there would be little reason for the Mexican cinema to be known or appreciated, despite its wide circulation. But anyone familiar with this national industry knows that Mexico's cinematic tradition encompasses a rich treasury of films made by world-class filmmakers of whom Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) is only the most recent example.

Naturally, most Mexican-Americans of my parents' generation knew Mexican cinema intimately and follow it passionately (they would have made a perfect score on the above Mexican film quiz). But apart from them, how could it be that most American moviegoers - even the rabid ones - know more about Japanese, Italian, and Swedish film than about the national cinema of our next-door neighbor?

If you will allow me a brief, three-paragraph rant on the subject, the answer is, in two words, ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism. To begin with, we Americans like our movie entertainment home-grown. By and large, foreign films are shunned. This is an easy out - no subtitles to read, no awkward dubbing to contend with.

If, however, there manages to be a popular foreign (most likely Western European) film with a marketable story line, then Hollywood does (for Hollywood) the next most sensible thing: It produces a remake which corrects the film's major flaw - the fact that none of the actors speak their lines in English. Thus, The Return of Martin Guerre (French, 1982) becomes Sommersby; Three Men and a Cradle (French, 1985) becomes Three Men and a Baby; Profumo di Donna (Italian, 1974) becomes Scent of a Woman; The Vanishing (French-Dutch, 1988) becomes The Vanishing, and so on.

There is one more way for a foreign film to gain attention in this country, and that is to garner solid critical approval. But for that to happen, the film must be anointed by media critics who are based in New York and Los Angeles and have little or no exposure to Mexican cinema. "Poor Mexico," Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz was said to have once mused. "So far from God and so close to the United States." In terms of Mexican film, that might be rephrased, "Poor Mexican cinema, so far from the critical gods (in New York), and so close to a region of the U.S. (the Southwest) generally ignored by the rest of the country." So, despite the fact that during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, Mexican films did lucrative business in Spanish-language theatres throughout the U.S. (not just along the border, but in Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago), they were largely neglected by Hollywood, New York, and the rest of the United States.

Thanks, I feel better now.

To answer my original question, the reason we don't know Mexican women filmmakers is because we don't know Mexican film. Thanks to the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria and an impressive list of supporters of Austin's film culture (Austin Community College's Radio-Television-Film Department, the Southwest Alternative Media Project, the Austin Film Society, Austin CableVision, The Austin Chronicle, and the Department of Radio-Television-Film at UT-Austin), we have a chance to begin to rectify that cultural deficit via this impressive series of films that spans nearly 60 years of women's Mexican cinema.

The series receives its name from the title of pioneering actor-director Adela Sequeyro's film, Nobody's Woman (1937), which opens the series (Oct. 5). Interestingly, that title can be understood in two ways. First, "nobody's woman" could refer, at best, to an unattached woman, at worst, to a woman alone in the world, an orphan or outcast. But secondly - and importantly because it sets the tone for this series - it also means an independent woman who doesn't feel the incessant need to be some man's woman. The films in this series, then, are products of women filmmakers who were determined and talented enough to go it alone in Mexican cinema's male-dominated world.

The films span the work of Mexicana directors from the 1930s to the present, and include both features and shorts. Actually, women's participation in Mexican film goes all the way back to the origins of the nation's narrative cinema.

1917 proved to be a key year in Mexican film history, a year when Mexico's film production dramatically shifted from documentary to story films. An enterprising stage actress, Mimi Derba, took it upon herself to produce, write, and star in Mexico's third narrative film, En Defensa Propria (In Self Defense). The indefatigable Derba went on to write, co-produce, sometimes direct, and usually star in four other films that same year. Unfortunately, all of those films are lost, so the "Nobody's Women" series begins in the mid-1930s, when another iconoclastic writer-actress-director, Adela Sequeyro, came on the scene.

Nobody's Woman, Sequeyro's second film, is the story of a young woman (played by Sequeyro) who escapes her abusive father and is found and taken in by three artists (a poet, a musician, and a painter) who all proceed to fall in love with her. On the one hand, it's a charming, guileless piece of filmmaking and, in its opening sequences, a powerful indictment of abusive machismo. On the other, it's a sort of feminist fantasy which finds the positive side of Mexican maledom to be peopled by sensitive - if childlike - artists. Also on the program is Luz Eugenia (Busi) Cortés' first film, the short Las Buenromero (1979). Cortés, who studied and now teaches at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica in Mexico City, would go on to direct the critically acclaimed feature and winner of an Ariel (Mexico's equivalent of an Oscar), Romelia's Secret (1988), based on Rosario Castellanos' novel, El Viudo Román (Roman the Widower).

Angustias the Black (1949), the second feature in the series (Oct. 12), is directed by Matilde Soto Landeta, Mexico's most internationally recognized woman filmmaker. It tells the story of Angustias, who defies tradition and becomes a colonel in the revolutionary army. It is accompanied by Matilde Soto Landeta (1992), a short documentary on the life and career of Landeta, directed by Patricia Martínez de Velasco.

Marcela Fernández Violante became, in 1975, the first woman to join (and be allowed to join) the Mexican film directors' union. Her distinguished films include Cananea (1977), a historical drama that relates the tragic events of a miners' strike in Cananea, Sonora, Mexico in the early years of this century, and Misterio (Mystery, 1979), an eerie psychological thriller about a soap opera actor who can't find his way out of his role and back to his real life. Stroke of Luck (1991), Violante's sixth feature film and her most successful and popular one, is the third film of the series (Oct. 19). It's an ironic tale of a middle-class government worker, Jeronimo, whose stroke of good fortune - getting a loan to buy a house - turns into a disaster. It is paired with Violante's Frida Kahlo (1971), her fascinating, award-winning short (only 13 minutes long) on the life of the Mexican artist.

The final program (Oct. 26) is comprised of two examples of the younger generation of Mexican women filmmakers. Ana's Steps (1991), directed by Marisa Sistach, is the story of Ana, a 30-year-old divorced mother of two who is committed to media. She works as an assistant director by day, and video-records her encounters with men by night. Eva Lopez Sanchez's short, Lost Objects (1991) ends the series. It tells of the meeting of two travelers, Pilar and Juan, whose relationship takes an interesting turn when they discover that each is mistakenly in possession of the other's luggage.

What viewers of the series of women's films will discover is not so much a different, oppositional, or difficult cinema. Rather, they will see women directors who, for the most part, use a traditional narrative style to look at things from a feminine perspective. In so doing, they will linger on themes and images felt to be unimportant by male filmmakers. Viewers familiar with Maria Novaro's Danzón (1991) know how delightful such cinema can be. But the other, sharper side to the films in this series results from the fact that these filmmakers can't help but investigate machismo. As they do so, they reveal - sometimes playfully, sometimes caustically - machismo's underlying contradictions, inanities, and inconsistencies. n

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