Mexican filmmaker Jaime Hermosillo puts his demons to good use
Homosexuality. Transsexuality. Religious hypocrisy. Fratricide. Pornography. Incest. Bigamy. These are but a few of the controversial subjects that have been vividly depicted in the films of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, one of Mexico's finest and most thought-provoking directors. Sometimes attacked in his own country, consistently honored in Europe and Canada, and virtually ignored in the United States, the openly gay filmmaker has made a career out of debunking bourgeois myths. But in the midst of all the hissing serpents that writhe behind the well-carved doors of the middle class are Hermosillo's beautiful dreamers -- a mother who arranges a traditional marriage for her son so he can be with his male lover, a woman who loves each of her five husbands on separate days of the week. The title of his latest work, eXXXorcismos, best reveals what Hermosillo has been up to with 21 feature films and seven shorts. Almost without exception, all of his films have been "very personal projects" through which he could "exorcise [his] personal phantoms" -- sexual and emotional desires repressed by a chilly, tradition-bound, maximum-security society, themes that will be on display in a new retrospective of the director's work, co-presented by the Austin Film Society, SXSW, and Cine las Americas. The program, titled "Sexuality, Hypocrisy, and Obsession: The Films of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo," begins Sunday, Feb. 24, with the screening of Matinee, and runs through the middle of April.
Born in the conservative Mexican town of Aguascalientes in 1942, Jaime Humberto Hermosillo was pushed toward a career in accounting. He moved to Mexico City to seek his fortune but was quickly relegated to a soporific office job. The 17-year-old studied Eugene O'Neill and pursued the only dream he could imagine at the time: to become a playwright.
In the 1960s, the Mexican film industry was in great upheaval. The old guard was still very much in power, but younger cineastes were knocking impolitely on the doors of the nationalized studios. In 1961 a film magazine, Nuevo Cine, gave voice to a new cinema movement, in much the same way Cahiers du Cinema had crashed over France with a new wave of critic-filmmakers. An issue of Nuevo Cine dedicated to Luis Buñuel inspired in Hermosillo a new and even more improbable dream: to become a filmmaker.
The Universidad Nacionál Autónoma de México opened a film studies department in 1963 and provided Hermosillo with a means of studying the history and aesthetics of films, both Mexican and foreign. Keeping his day job, he attended classes at night. Eventually he bought a 16mm camera and made a short film, Homesick, in which a mother kills one of her sons. This celluloid calling card opened no doors in a Mexican film industry reluctant to take chances. Hermosillo explained in a 1986 Film Comment interview: "At that time the industry was dominated by a lousy unionized in-group of directors who excluded the new generation of directors. Our Nuevo Cine group of young directors planned films only marginally connected with the existing industry."
Hermosillo wouldn't be able to make his second film for another four years. All student "intellectuals" were under surveillance by a nervous government, which had slaughtered students, children, women, and workers in the Tlatelolco neighborhood right before Mexico City was to host the 1968 Olympics. But by 1972, the Mexican studio system knew it had to open up to younger filmmakers and to more modern subject matter. Initially welcomed into the powerful fraternity, Hermosillo was able to make five films with sufficient funding and technical support. But then he decided to make a film about a transsexual. Suddenly the bank vaults were locked, the studio doors closed in his face. Undaunted, he picked up his 16mm camera and made Appearances Are Deceiving with private funding. Although the director usually secured enough funding for 35mm, he sometimes resorted to 16mm, even video, and he is now a strong proponent of the artistic and financial freedom afforded by digital video.
Hermosillo began to move toward the idea that smaller is better -- a small group of characters (sometimes just two) emotionally chained together within an apartment, on a rooftop terrace, or, most extremely, in a bathroom. Escaping is rarely as simple as walking through a door. There will have to be blood, real or emotional, left behind. Hermosillo himself has shed more than enough blood to make his films, but throughout, he has persevered in telling his stories. By the 1990s, the Mexican film audience and critical establishment finally admitted that Hermosillo's films were not only fascinating to watch, but eminent additions to the national dialogue at the beginning of a new century.
Chale Nafus is vice-president of the Austin Film Society.