An Indomitable Culture
Maureen Gosling on the Zapotecas of Juchitán and 'Blossoms of Fire,' the Documentary She Made About Them
Their progressive social structure has intrigued intellectuals. Artists and filmmakers revel in their joyous embrace of color and unconventional concepts of beauty. Writers and songwriters have expounded on their grace and power. They are the Zapotecas of Juchitán, one of the few surviving indigenous cultures of Mexico. With so many people writing and talking about the Zapotec women, it was inevitable that some things would trickle back to the small city, located in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Oaxaca, Mexico. What was perhaps not expected was that the Zapotecas would talk back.
In 1994, British journalist Jocasta Shakespeare wrote a damaging story about the Zapotec women for Elle magazine. She called the Zapotecas "red-hot mamas" and described a culture in which hyper-sensual women rule their hen-pecked husbands, take teenage lovers at will, and live to dance, drink, and make money. When news of the Elle story reached Juchitán, it not only led to a legal suit, but it also launched an angry public discussion in the town -- from intellectuals to market sellers -- about whom to trust and how to make sure their story was handled with care and respect.
So when Maureen Gosling embarked on her study of the Zapotec women of Juchitán, it was not easy for her to gain entry. But Gosling had spent 28 years working with respected documentarian Les Blank -- on acclaimed projects like Del Mero Corazón, about Tex-Mex border music, and the award-winning Burden of Dreams, examining the obstacles faced by German director Werner Herzog in the making of Fitzcarraldo, his film set in the Peruvian Amazon -- and she understood first-hand the responsibility of a filmmaker representing marginalized cultures. The result is Blossoms of Fire, the documentary Gosling brings to Austin this week for a limited run at the Dobie Theatre. Made over a 10-year period, the film is decidedly less sensational than the Elle article and is instead a careful study of an indomitable culture. But it also offers discussion on the tension between the modern world and the Third World, the power of the written word, and challenges the first world to re-evaluate assumptions about power, beauty, truth, and progress.
Austin Chronicle: You quote Miguel Covarrubias, Elena Poniatowska, and Sergei Eisenstein on their impressions of the Zapotecas of Juchitán. What was it that drew you to them, and to eventually make Blossoms of Fire?
Maureen Gosling: The film was begun by [co-director] Ellen Osborne. While she and her husband were traveling and studying Mexico, they stopped for lunch in Juchitán. Immediately, they noticed something different. The women were more outgoing than other indigenous women in the area, and there were lots of them, all friendly, talking with them, and they just got a kick out of them. Ellen found they had a reputation as a matriarchal society. She started the whole film project and got me on as an editor. Funding dropped off in '91, and she asked me if I wanted to share [producing] responsibility. Gradually Ellen got out of producing. I wasn't happy she didn't want to produce, but I couldn't abandon the project. The subjects, the topics, the themes were too important: gender relations, women and the economy, political empowerment, indigenous people, the acceptance of homosexuality. The more I did my own research, the more I was fascinated.
AC: Why did the film take 10 years to make?
MG: Funding. At the beginning, I paid myself for editing but had to give that up because I couldn't get funding. It was hard to get funding in the States, but in Mexico, it was better. We also raised money from a painting an artist donated that we sold for $10,000. Call it creative fundraising. So in addition to benefits, and several small grants in this country [including one from the American Film Institute], we got the film made. I'm tickled to have gotten money from director John Sayles. I was so pleased to know that someone in his position was so kind and so unassuming.
AC: Blossoms of Fire begins with the reaction of the Zapotec women to that Elle article by Jocasta Shakespeare and the problems it caused. Did the problems fade over time?
MG: I recently found out that Shakespeare has a Web site where she gives women tips on traveling [www.journeywoman.com/traveltales/red_hot.html], and her article is still there! Ellen and I both wrote letters to Elle and to her, telling them about the affect of the article on the people and on our film. I sent the letter four places -- the Elle offices in Mexico, the U.S., and France, and to the writer. There was no word from any of them. I recently ran into a young woman in France who's also trying to do a film in Juchitán. She said the article still has an effect.
AC: The state of Oaxaca sued Elle magazine -- do you know what became of that?
MG: No, I don't. But it wasn't the state, it was an official organization in the city of Oaxaca. I think it's great that someone came to their rescue. The women in the article really got hit in their community. The inscription under the photo [in the Elle article] said the woman had 16-year-old lovers. It was really damaging to them. The whole article was really off. The writer said things like the women had gold coin jewelry and it represented their lovers. It's really their dowries from their grandmothers, for Christ's sake! But actually, people were almost more upset with statements that the men didn't work. There weren't even that many people who read the article, but the rumor mill spread the word.
AC: Besides causing distrust, what other ways did that article affect your project?
MG: It was so obviously off about the culture. They got mad, but not just mad, they got hurt. One day, we were filming traffic, and this man ran up to me and asked, "Are you with Elle magazine? Tell me the truth!" He was almost crying. It just killed me because we did such work, doing research, getting permission, and this woman's irresponsibility really put us on the spot a lot. In fact, I wish I could have gone into it more in the film. We got into all these panel discussions on TV with intellectuals on how to deal with outsiders: Who should be allowed to tell their story? I've made a real point of communicating with [the individuals in the film and the local production manager]. I've had friends who've gone down there with letters and photographs and copies of videos, because I didn't want to be like so many other people.
I'm sure [Shakespeare] figured they'd never read her article and didn't even worry about it. It shows her own prejudice. It certainly makes me feel more vigilant. You've got to leave a little room for critiques. That's the way I always work. When I worked with [documentary filmmaker] Les Blank, we always wanted to be careful about how we dealt with people. And most of the time, they were happy with the outcome, which is a good testament. For a film made in Cajun country, some of the elite, upper-class types didn't like it because it was about the poor people, but the poor people loved it. Often times, it's very emotional for them to see the film because they see family members who are gone, kids that are grown up. It's a record for them.
AC: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the people featured in Blossoms of Fire?
MG: I took a work-in-progress down in '97 and some people saw it and really liked it and gave some feedback. Right after I'm in Austin, I'm taking it to Mexico. The first stop is in Juchitán. I want to try to show it in Juchitán's central plaza as well as at their cultural center.
I feel there's enough research for them to see I really tried hard to include references to their artistic culture. I tried to get a variety of music. They should be able to see I made it with a lot of care. But they're also a very opinionated people, so who knows?
AC: Tell me about working with Les Blank. You had a long working relationship with him.
MG: I started out doing sound recording and assistant editing. In the late Seventies, he let go of the editing and let me slide into place, so that's what I mainly do. I continue to do sound recording because I really enjoy going on the shoots. You get the continuity, you get an affection for the people when you're on shoots, and I liked that. At a certain point, [the weight of the equipment] was killing my body. There was no break-up, I just sort of phased out. I'm very proud of the work we did together. Now I work independently.
AC: Now that the film is finished, are there some postscripts you'd like to add?
MG: One thing that is kind of interesting is the new political situation with President Vicente Fox and the PAN party that's come to power, and how they've become more involved with the indigenous movement [the Zapatistas]. The development in the Isthmus region is bound to build with Fox -- the megaproject, as the locals call it -- a huge project they've tried to get going for a long time that deals with housing, transportation, natural resources, tourism. In the film they say, "We don't mind development, but we want to be included." To arm people with knowledge to confront and demand that they be included in the conversation, rather than bring people from outside, and to consider the locals -- that's a really important development since the film.
AC: I'm so curious to know how the Juchitánas will react to the film.
MG: Well, if they don't like it, I'll just tell them, "Okay. Well, you make the next one!" There's room for more films for all the stories they have. And I hope they will. I'd like to see what they come up with.
Blossoms of Fire runs May 4-11 at the Dobie Theatre. Maureen Gosling will conduct a Q&A following the Friday and Saturday evening screenings. See "Film Listings" for showtimes and the film's review.