A Place Called Chiapas
1998, NR, 93 min. Directed by Nettie Wild.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 9, 1999
With all due respect to Gil Scott-Heron, today's revolutions are not only televised but Webcast as well, complete with streaming audio of guerrilla leaders' fiery stump speeches and links to Trotsky's The Permanent Revolution at Amazon.com. Canadian filmmaker Wild, an obvious old-school activist who's also blessed with a cultural critic's sharp eye, sees how the game has changed in the Nineties and uses those observations to enliven her award-winning 1998 documentary. (A Place Called Chiapas won the Audience Award at last year's Los Angeles International Film Festival.) Her subject is the long struggle between poor subsistence farmers, government forces, and sundry irregular factions, both pro- and anti-government, in the Mexican province of Chiapas. The troubles began when the government abandoned its policy of distributing land to peasants for their ownership and use. This move was not only unpopular but inexplicable because, as Wild points out, the tiny plots in question comprise some of the nation's least desirable land. Protests by the farmers eventually led to violent clamp-downs by the army and a group of allied paramilitary thugs with the bitterly ironic name, Paz y Justicia. The peasants' main ally is “Marcos,” a ski-masked, pipe-smoking academician who leads an indigenous guerrilla force called the Zapatistas. Like Fidel Castro and the Ortega brothers before him, Marcos shrewdly courted international policymakers by appealing to their intellectual vanity as well as their consciences. Media-savvy to an almost self-parodic extent, he posed for photo spreads in a French fashion magazine, decorated his (largely English-language) Zapatista Web site with trendy Dia de los Muertos artwork by Jose Guadalupe Posada, and convened a Woodstock-styled multinational gathering of lefty revolution buffs. While I personally question the tendency of some fellow liberals to seemingly reserve extra moral zeal for human rights struggles that occur in exotic foreign settings and feature flamboyant leaders with a gift for poetic oratory, Wild argues very effectively for the universal relevance of this localized struggle. Present here in especially clear relief are the classical elements of conflict between the powerful and the weak, and between social policies driven by moral and economic imperatives. One of the people we meet is a peasant boy named Clinton, whose hardships are due, at least in part, to government actions influenced by his American namesake's economic policies. But policy arguments aren't the focus of A Place Called Chiapas. Instead, Wild consciously zeroes in on aspects of the Chiapas tragedy that are specific and personal rather than dogmatic. This is a surprisingly beautiful, even lyrical, movie that appeals far more to the heart than the head. For example, Wild states in passing that the Chase Manhattan Bank pressured the Mexican government to quash the Zapatista rebellion, yet offers no elaboration upon this devastating charge. Wild's calculatedly emotional approach may cost her film some credibility with the serious folks who like to talk global politics over breakfast at Las Manitas, but it may also enhance its effectiveness with the rest of us. And as all good revolutionaries know, you can't subvert the dominant paradigm without first getting the rabble roused. See www.austinchronicle.com/issues/vol18/issue32/screens.chiapas.html for interview with the director.