Screen Studies - Mexico 1968 on Film: Screening State Violence
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Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film
Revolution and Rebellion in Mexican Film

Niamh Thornton

Niamh Thornton is a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies and Film at the University of Ulster, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

Subjects

Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Romance, War films

Place:

Mexico

Related Content

Mexico 1968 on Film: Screening State Violence

DOI: 10.5040/9781628928938.ch-004
Page Range: 103–130

Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968. Internationally, this event is best remembered for the infamous Black Panther salute by two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, an act which could be read as the performance of what was generalized unrest by civil society movements in many countries on a transnational stage (see Henderson, 2010). Often forgotten outside of Mexico is the student protest movement, which culminated in the massacre of a still unidentified number of students on the second of October of that year, 10 days before the opening ceremony. The event was subject to censorship in the local press and was sparsely covered abroad. Although the protests and violent army reactions were well documented by student filmmakers from the recently established film school, the first feature film to get local distribution was not made until 1989. This film, Rojo amanecer (Jorge Fons) [Red Dawn], while a powerful evocation of the massacre, was itself subject to government controls, which, in turn, discouraged other filmmakers. However, there are other films, both documentary and fiction, which are often overlooked by scholars in the consideration of 1968 on film. I shall consider the significance of these films in the context of the national imaginary of 1968 and its aftermath.

For the Mexican government, as evidenced in a recent exhibition in summer 2008 at the Museo de arte moderno [Museum of Modern Art] in Mexico City Diseñando México 68: una identidad olímpica, the Olympics was its moment to show that it was a modern, developed nation. As the first Latin American and Spanish-speaking country to host the Games, this was to be the opportunity to put lie to the Hollywood (and indeed self-styled) myths of the fiery Mexicans, with a holster and a sombrero, eager to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Fashion, architecture and design employed modern design rather than deploying traditional or folkloric elements. In this context, the student movement was seen to be a blot on what had been a smooth preparation and a massive building project. The president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–70), was firm in his decision that the student protests would be contained and the students would be silenced. There have been long-term consequences of the heavy hand of the government forces’ actions. The year 1968 was the beginning of a brave, new, modern Mexico, but not in the ways that the government had envisioned it. Instead, as Claire Brewster writes ‘[t]he Student Movement of 1968 marked the beginning of the slow, faltering, and yet to be completed path toward democratization’ (2005, p. 6). This has been a difficult journey and one with many deaths on the way. Here, I shall give some of the context and then consider the subsequent representations.

Context

The conditions under which this movement developed were not only local but also part of a global youth movement. This movement was spurred on, in part, by the apparent success of socialism in Cuba as a potential example of a new direction for change; a growing civil rights movement, as witnessed in places as disparate as the US and Northern Ireland and international protests against the US war in Vietnam. The increased globalization of mass media brought images of war and its consequences to an international audience. In addition, there were specific conditions in Mexico which brought about general unrest and organized protest. Brewster explains,

In Mexico, student numbers increased from 76,000 in 1960 to 247,000 in 1970. There were insufficient jobs for graduates, and universities became politicized as students demanded social justice, employment, and improved living standards. A youth culture developed, fostering a spirit of political activity that was not viable in other parts of Mexican society. Although the protestors were responding mainly to national issues, many showed awareness of wider concerns, as in their support for the Cuban Revolution and objection to the U.S. presence in Vietnam.

 --(2005, pp. 35–6)

As well as looking abroad for examples of a new youth movement as a potential force for change, these national issues were to provide an impetus for the protestors. The students were not operating in isolation. However, the government emphasized that this was a student movement, rather than a movement which was also supported by sectors of labour, in order to deny the validity of their demands for structural and political change. Depicted as an idle, burgeoning middle class, young people garnered little sympathy across the country. This sentiment is reflected in films that did not touch upon the events but revealed a certain anxiety about youth culture and portrayed it as dangerous and subversive, such as Los Caifanes [The Outsiders] (Juan Ibáñez, 1967) (see Zolov, 1999). As a result, the association of young people with the events in 1968, to the exclusion of other actors, de-politicized their demands and reduced their protests to a product of youthful excess. In addition, it has been memorialized as a student movement because most of the filmmakers were students. The footage they shot was of fellow students printing, socializing, debating and preparing for the marches. In most films there are a few shots to remind the viewer that it was also a movement which included workers. Nonetheless, the emphasis in film is on student actions.

As Brewster emphasizes, the student movement was part of a continuum which had begun 10 years earlier with protests by railway workers (1958–9), followed the next year with demands for wage increases by teachers and oil workers, then, in 1962 by strikes by telephone operators and in 1965 by doctors. The year 1966 saw the resignation of the Rector of the UNAM, Ignacio Chávez, following strikes and marches at the university. He was not seen to be capable of controlling the students and was made to be a fall guy. The protests, therefore, had begun long before international movements had created an impetus for change. The year 1968, seen in isolation may look like youthful rebellion sparked by an international fervour, whereas it was a logical step given the specific local and global conditions.

I shall briefly sketch out the events as they happened in 1968. On the 22nd of July, students from the Politécnico Nacional and the UNAM clashed. A special police force, the granaderos, were brought in to contain the student violence, using extreme force to subdue the skirmishes. As Rodolfo Alcaraz describes it with some irony in Historia de un documento [History of a document] (Óscar Menéndez, 1971), ‘[t]odo empezó con un simple pleito entre estudiantes de dos escuelas’ [it all began with a simple fight between the students from two schools]. On July 26th, the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, students occupied the UNAM buildings in protest against the granaderos, and the newly formed Consejo nacional de huelga [national strike council] made demands which included the disbandment of the granaderos. On the 30th of July, the UNAM buildings were attacked by the army. This was seen to be a violation of the integrity of the university grounds. However, this space was also important as the location of some of the sporting events in the upcoming Olympic games. For the government, it could not be seen to be a place outside of their control.

There were further protests, with another march by more than 200,000 students on the Zócalo, on the 13th of August. This culminated in the raising of an anarchist flag in front of government buildings. This act was interpreted as highly provocative. However, there is much debate as to who was responsible, whether it was the students, or the army providing an excuse to harshly repress the students. There were further marches including a silent protest to highlight government control of the media on 13th September. The army invaded the university again in mid-September, resulting in the death of several students, and withdrew at the end of September.

These events culminated in a demonstration in Tlatelolco. This is a highly symbolic space, also called the Plaza de las tres culturas [the square of the three cultures], where a central square is surrounded by three edifices: Aztec ruins, a colonial church and modern government buildings. These are all bounded by tall residential tower blocks. On the day of the protest, some student leaders occupied floors of some of these tower blocks, many of which are named after key dates or leaders in the Revolution, to give speeches. Thousands of students gathered at the square and were soon encircled by army tanks with low flying helicopters overhead. Among the protestors were a secret batallion of the army identifiable to one another by white gloves on one hand.

The events thereafter are highly contested. It has been suggested that the existence of this group was unknown to the rest of the army gathered to maintain order. Much of the testimony suggests that the secret group provoked the army which led them to attack the students, most of whom attempted to flee. The numbers killed have not yet been satisfactorily confirmed and vary from the official government number of 44 to more than 200. For some, the number could be as high as 400. This figure is claimed in México, la Revolución congelada [Mexico, the Frozen Revolution] (Raymundo Gleyzer, 1973) and is repeated within the film by the folk singer and civil rights campaigner, Óscar Chávez, who sings ‘mandó matar el gobierno/cuatrocientos camaradas’ [the government sent them to kill/four hundred comrades]. Over 2,000 were imprisoned for indefinite periods of detention. The consequences were to be longlasting. As Brewster sums up, ‘[t]he massacre brought an abrupt end to the student movement and left a generation devastated by death imprisonment, exile and terror’ (2005, p. 38). Many among this generation created the films analysed in Chapter 3. In the immediate aftermath documentaries were the first to appear, with the first feature only appearing in 1989. I shall discuss these and subsequent films in this chapter.

Filmmaking and film school

The 1960s saw considerable change in Mexican film. In 1963 the first film school opened. This coincided with the end of the Golden Age of Mexican film, which, had been dominated by the studios. The result was an increase in independent filmmaking. This was not an easy transition, nor, initially, entirely successful. Mora explains the difficulties that arose between the new filmmakers and the old guard,

The tension in Mexican film circles in the late 1960s was generated by the conflict between the entrenched bureaucratic/business groups in the official agencies and the leftist, intellectual, restless ‘outsiders’ being shaped by the universities. Aware of their country’s problems and inequalities, concerned by the cultural influence being exerted by Hollywood, these young cineastes and scholar-critics longed for a cinema that would deal honestly with Mexican reality.

 --(Mora, 1989, p. 111)

Evidently aware of the politics that shaped many of these new filmmakers, Mora’s assessment is highly contingent. This ‘Mexican reality’ was, in part shaped by their first-hand experience of protests and the subsequent massacre in Tlatelolco. Some of the work of these restless outsiders was rewarded in the 1965 experimental film festival, a short-lived event that was to mark the shift from the studio mode of filmmaking to the independent privatized form of production.[1] The other major change was to come in the form of the documentaries that emerged from 1968.

In the 1960s and 70s in Mexico, as with elsewhere in Latin America, documentary had a very particular role as both witness to dramatic events and political tool. Michael Chanan articulates this role,

Latin American documentary became involved in the creation of an alternative audiovisual public sphere at the level of community and its popular organisations, and sharing the same preoccupation to give voice to people normally excluded from public speech and outside the political power structures.

 --(2007, p. 203)

This is apparent in what has become known as Third Cinema. It is a cinema not defined by aesthetics, but which ‘addresses the issue of social power from a critical-but-committed position [. . .] to achieve socialist ideals’ (Willemen, 1989, p. 28) and ‘to develop the means for grasping history as process, change, contradiction and conflict: in short the dialectics of history’ (Wayne, 2001, p. 14). While there were filmmakers who considered their projects to be political and presented their films at festivals which supported the work of those who are defined as Third Cinema makers, such as the Chilean Patricio Guzman or Argentine Octavio Gettino, Mexican filmmakers are never defined in this way. However, the films they were making were part of a widespread new engagement with politics through documentary. The emphasis in Mexico at this time was of bearing witness and being present at a key moment in history that had significant political resonance. This is evident in the testimonies gathered by Olga Rodríguez Cruz (2000) of those who made the early documentaries about 1968.

As will be explored further in Chapter 5, there cannot be assumed to be a straightforward relationship between document and documentary (Rosen, 2001, p. 261), although, some of the films that were made in 1968 are studied carefully for their indexical quality. John Corner has described documentary as a ‘loose’ label (1996, p. 4), which has a ‘definitional problem’ (Corner, 1986, p. viii). Given the multiple debates that surround documentary, I shall take Corner’s definition as a working model to refer to those films ‘which reflect and report on the [sic] “the real” through the use of the recorded images and sounds of actuality’ (1996, p. 2). Corner is very aware of how readily this real can be altered by the multiple processes involved, and how the manipulation of these images and sounds immediately problematize his definition. This chapter will consider some films which push at the boundaries of the label and consider how the real can be represented though fiction and documentary.

Joanna Page (2009) has considered this definitional conundrum with regard to the blurring of lines between fact and fiction in Latin American film. She sees the

forays across the boundaries between fiction and documentary [to] have taken on specific resonances here, in models for cinema; at physical frontiers and in networks of cultural exchange; to represent the gaps and contradictions of post-Revolution or post-dictatorship memory; to acknowledge the already-mediatized nature of the reality of poverty and violence; or in critique of the illusions of modernity.

 --(2009, pp. 12–13)

This elaboration in her introduction to a collection of essays which consider a range of films that can be categorized as somewhere along the fiction-documentary spectrum is useful here. It points to the motivations and consequences of such forays. This chapter will consider how Mexican films have engaged with the idea of revolution when a conservative establishment has co-opted the term for its own political ends.

Documentaries

The first films to emerge from 1968 were documentaries. There is an official, government sponsored film, Olimpiada en México [Olympics in Mexico] (1969) by Albert Isaac, which represents the sporting and cultural events surrounding the occasion. This has been seldom re-screened and is of interest as a text which supresses more than it shows. It does not make reference to the student protests and massacre.

In contrast, a documentary which has had considerable reach and is acknowledged as important eye-witness reportage is El grito [the shout] (Leobardo López Arretche, 1968–70). It was shot in black and white on 16mm (mostly Bolex and Arriflex cameras) borrowed from the basement of the film school by students of the UNAM, some of whom were untrained (see Rodríguez Cruz, 2000, p. 27; Vázquez Mantecón, 2007, p. 195). From the eight hours of footage taken, it was later edited down to 102 minutes. For the most part, the voice over is taken from the eye witness account of the Italian photographer, Oriana Fallaci and other testimonies, mixed into a track with speeches by student leaders, others by the rector of the UNAM and the president, Díaz Ordaz, as well as ambient crowd sounds and music by Chávez.

With the exception of the music, the sound is largely non-synchronous. This is typical of films shot at this time in a protest movement with spontaneous action. The Bolex and Arriflex cameras used are lightweight with no recording equipment attached. Therefore, the sound recordists would have been recording wild tracks of crowds and speeches without necessarily synching these to the visuals (see Rodríguez Cruz, 2000, p. 32). It is rare in any of the documentaries of 1968 where there is a speech made directly to camera or where orators are shown while we hear their voices. This was a consequence of the scramble to capture visuals of the events frequently by untrained camera operators. In those moments when a speech is heard over images of crowds moving or being shot at and attacked by the army and police it provides a sense of coherence to the protestors’ ideological intent. They are, as it were, speaking with the one voice.

The film follows the student movement from early July up to the tragic events of the 2nd of October. The footage from this film is used and re-used in documentaries and fiction films both as an invaluable contemporary source and to designate period authenticity and political affiliation, as is evidenced in many of the films that are discussed here.

At 56 minutes, Dos de octubre, aquí México [2nd of October, Here Mexico] (1968) is a short documentary by Óscar Menéndez which is less well known and poorly preserved. More experimental in form and content than El grito, it is a film that can be usefully compared to La fórmula secreta [The Secret Formula] (Ruben Gámez, 1965), a film which won the Experimental film festival in 1966 and is inspired by Soviet montage and sound theory. Also known as Coca-cola en la sangre [Coca-cola in the blood], it considers how economic and historic conditions have resulted in poverty and hardship for Mexicans. By way of example of the techniques employed, it opens on a mineral bottle which is revealed to be attached to a drip on an unidentified person’s arm with dissonant, slow-paced music, then cuts to a bird’s point of view of the Zócalo [main square] in Mexico City, where the bird swoops and moves around the space not allowing the viewer to fix on any single object or person. This is accompanied by an orchestral score that determines the pace and tone of the scene. Similarly, Dos de octubre, aquí México is meditative in tone and uses aesthetic elements to heighten the mood. For example, a metronome sound always accompanies the soldiers’ presence on screen, and music is used in an ironic fashion to accompany images of institutional figures and monuments, such as Díaz Ordaz and the landmark Torre Latinoamericana. The film primarily focuses on the aftermath of Tlatelolco, with considerable screen space given over to footage from Lecumberri prison. The soundtrack (voiceover, music and sound effects) produces an experimental film, which has been largely ignored by critics, but whose aesthetic choices for an overtly political film bear comparison with many international films such as Memorias del subdesarrollo [Memories of Underdevelopment] (1968, released in 1973) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and La Battaglia di Algeri [Battle of Algiers] (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). The neglect of the film can partially be attributed to the fact that there are few copies in circulation and it is not well preserved. Dos de octubre, aquí México is a highly subjective work and can also be compared to city symphony films, in which an attempt is made to evoke a time and place (see MacDonald, 2001).

The account is told of how the filmmakers got footage of Lecumberri for Dos de octubre, aquí México in the follow-up documentary, Historia de un documento [History of a Document], also by Menéndez, made in 1971, edited in France, but not released until 2004 (see Rodríguez Cruz, 2000, pp. 46–7). This later film is made up of edited footage from the original as well as supplementary still photography taken by the director and others (uncredited). The voiceover in French gives background information of the events and the process of smuggling the cameras and film in and out of the prison. The music used is modernist in style except for two folk songs, one ‘Corrido 2 de octubre’ [2nd of October ballad] performed by a group called Tzotzil de Chiapas over the opening credits and establishing shots, which commemorates the events in Tlatelolco and, therefore, places 1968 firmly at the centre of the film. During this period the corrido form was re-appropriated by singers as a mode of narrating and recording the events in much the same way as documentary was. It was drawing on the history of the corrido as ‘an archive of popular history that provides insights into the opinions, values, grievances and heroes of common people’ (Marsh, 2010, p. 147). It thereby moved from being a form of nostalgia for past heroic times or supplementary to the action within the narrative (as in the films considered in Chapter 2), to being an extra source of historical record that reinforces the images on screen.

Historia de un documento is, in many ways, a re-visiting of the original content told with a different narrative, in the same political tone, with no new evidence put forward. It presents itself as an historical document recovered from 33 years ‘de cadena’ [in chains], claiming to have been prevented from distribution for this long. The implication is that, like the prisoners, this film now too can be free and memory can be liberated, as underlined in the sentence ‘¡2 de octubre, no se olvida!’ [2 of October will never be forgotten], cited at the opening. The film’s conclusion is that post-1968 Mexico could no longer trust its political institutions and the narrator claims that, as a consequence, Mexicans were politicized.

Menéndez returns to the same era with México, 68 (1992). The voice over opens with a meditation on the importance of remembering the past. As well as footage used in the previous two films, this time he speaks to protagonists and intellectuals who participated in 1968, including Chavez, José Luis Cuevas, Sergio de Alba, Alfredo Joskowicz and María Teresa Revueltas. In addition he interviews young students and gathers their opinions of the consequences of 1968 on their lives. They view themselves as ‘hijos del 68’ [children of 68], who believe that Mexico has changed for the better as a result of the student actions. This film intercuts the interviews in colour with the archive black and white footage, still images of student posters and banners and images from around the world (Vietnam, the Czech Republic, France) to advance the thesis that this was part of a transnational movement as well as having specific local factors.

Viewed side by side the three documentaries illuminate the event from the perspective of eye-witness reportage, which give them an air of authenticity. Compared to El grito they are more viewer-friendly as there are more nods to aesthetic technique. For example, the editing is more deliberate; the voiceover is written in a way that is evident that the audience may not be aware of the events nor the context; and music is used so that it acts to underline a political point, with discordant sounds used over images of poverty and death. Naturally, all choices made in direction and editing are deliberate and involve aesthetic decisions. Those of El grito are more raw and immediate, and are directed at a more knowing audience. This means that while El grito can be read as a more dispassionate document, Dos de octubre, aquí México, Historia de un documento and México, 68 are evidently campaigning films. Ironically, the techniques that they employ make them more aesthetically appealing. The continual re-working of the same footage into new films suggests that Menéndez is constantly trying to re-create the event for a new generation and to work through new ways of reflecting on a moment in history that has obvious personal as well as political significance.

Raymundo Gleyzer’s México, La Revolución congelada briefly deals with 1968 and the student movement. He was an Argentine filmmaker who travelled around Latin America filming injustices. Gleyzer was killed because of his political beliefs during the Dirty War in Argentina while in detention, as we are told at the beginning of the film. México, La Revolución congelada takes the imminent election of Luis Echeverría (1970–6) as a framing device in order to explore the consequences of the broken promises of the Revolution on the Mexican workers.

The filmmaker’s primary concern is the failure to distribute land among the people, and the subsequent poverty endured by agricultural workers in Yucatán and Chiapas. It begins with a brief history of the Revolution using both interviews with former combatants in Zapata’s army and archival footage, and interviews with landowners and farmworkers. In this context, 1968 is presented as further proof of a failed Revolution. The voiceover, in English, expresses it in the following terms,

[t]he student movement of 1968 revealed the rot in the frozen Revolution. The PRI reached a new low in suppression. The students with a conscience of a tortured people [sic]. The image of the regime as a stable democracy was destroyed by the bazookas, tanks and bayonettes.

The multiple images of 1968 shown in the film are stills. The protestors, army, police and fallen are frozen in time as photographs. These images tap into a long history of death in photography. As Sontag expresses it, ‘[e]ver since cameras were invented in 1839, photography has kept company with death’ (2003, p. 21). In her text, which is an extended meditation on the representation of war, Sontag underlines the function of the photograph to draw attention to moments of terror and conflict. She writes, ‘Look, the photographs say, this is what it’s like. This is what war does. And that, that is what it does too. War tears, rends. War rips open, eviscerates. War scorches. War dismembers. War ruins’ (Sontag, 2003, p. 7, italics in original). Here she emphasizes motion, action, pausing and looking. The viewer is stopped by the drama and horror of the image, which demands their attention. Therefore, the layering of multiple photographs of the dead and the violence meted upon them underlines the great wrongs that have been done to the victims. As moving images on screen there is less of a pause, whereas filming the photographs necessitates a pause, even for a few short beats to record the image accurately. This gives the impression of stasis, and, when contrasted with the footage on film of interviews with old men who had fought alongside Zapata, it suggests that a whole generation of young people who were embroiled in 1968 was destroyed and silenced by state repression, with no spokesperson available or willing to speak out.

In more recent times, and subsequent to the release of papers by the Vicente Fox government (2000–6) relating to the massacre, Carlos Mendoza has made two documentaries for Canal 6 de Julio televisión, Operación Galeana [Operation Galeana] (2000) and Tlatelolco, las claves de la masacre [Tlatelolco, keys to a massacre] (2002). They are pieces of investigative journalism using images from the UNAM, that is footage from El grito as well as some of the unedited footage, computer graphics, interviews, talking heads, still photography, army footage in 2002 and news reports from 1993 (Doyle, 2003, n.p.). It is evidently made on a small budget and is a campaigning film aimed at a local audience in an attempt to highlight the events and their consequences.

Documentaries of 1968 have gone beyond pure reportage and have involved considerable engagement by the filmmakers. The first, El grito circulated among political organizations as an underground film, much like the later Batalla en Chile [Battle of Chile] (Patricio Guzmán, 1975) did in order to garner support for the fallen and to seek justice. El grito’s primary function was to educate and keep alive the memory of the struggle. Despite its aestheticization of the event, Dos de octubre, aquí México had a limited release. Few documentaries were seen widely. However, the recent anniversary in 2008 saw the re-release of both El grito and those of Gleyzer on DVD with a wider potential audience and distribution. The 2000 change in the ruling party has resulted in greater openness and created the conditions where the first tentative steps towards examining the past can take place. This has led to new investigations of the past and a re-newed interest in the documentaries which told the story contemporaneously.

Feature films

There are a number of feature films which have addressed the massacre from different perspectives and narrative styles. Based on a true story, the first was Canoa (Felipe Cazals, 1976). It tells the story of four young University of Puebla employees who go out to a small town called San Miguel de Canoa on a hiking trip. They are caught out in bad weather and have to find somewhere to stay in the village. Due to their age, they are mistaken for students and are thereby accused of being seditious by the parish priest, who incites the fearful locals to banish the workers in order to protect the village from Communism. The hikers are given refuge by one of the villagers only for his house to be attacked, and then he, and the four men, are badly beaten. Told in a documentary style fashion, there are re-enactments and talking head interviews with villagers. The film opens with black and white footage, showing images of police brutality against the students. Despite the opening sequence, in the rest of the narrative danger comes not from the police or army but from ordinary, country folk easily mislead by the power of the church.

This was the first feature to tackle the events, albeit from a locus somewhat removed from the urban centre, with which it is normally associated. This could be interpreted as an important step and draws attention to the national hysteria and wider context which surrounded the student movement. Canoa also moves responsibility for the violence against the young workers from the government or the security forces onto the people and the church. In his text examining Mexico City on film, David William Foster emphasized how 1968 was one of the key events which re-configured how the city was imagined, irrespective of whether it was the subject of the film (2002). Therefore, he is suggesting that 1968 is closely associated with a crisis in a modern, urban Mexican imaginary. However, Canoa takes the events away from an urban setting into the countryside, thereby displacing this modern, urban clash and moving it so that it takes place against a backward rural space. This was a break with a traditional representation of the countryside on screen. As Miriam Haddu concisely states,

Moving away from idealized visions of the bucolic landscape, in the 1970s, Felipe Cazals’ Canoa (1975) defined a change in direction in Mexican cinematic representations of the rural countryside. Furthermore, Cazals’ film changed archetypal perception of the provinces as the paradise lost of the Mexican cinematic landscape, inhabited by a simple, virtuous folk.

 --(2007, p. 213)

If the classic cinema of the Golden Age had idealized the countryside, Cazals changed direction and showed a corrupt, backward countryside. It could be argued that he went too far. His is a vision fearful of the countryside as a space tied to the past, as represented by the church, inhabited by gullible and ignorant labourers. Laying the blame for the violence at the hands of the people and their willingness to be impelled into action by the priest’s anti-communist rhetoric is just the negative flipside to the previous romanticized vision. The police and army come on the scene as saviours, stopping an all-out massacre. This does not fit well within the historical context of 1968 and the armed forces’ implication in the massacre at Tlatelolco. With its use of techniques and tropes of both fiction and documentary film, Canoa is a transitional work, between the documentaries, which emerged in the immediate aftermath, to the feature representations that have subsequently been made.

A film which is often taken as the first to properly engage with the massacre is Rojo amanecer (Jorge Fons, 1989). Based on a play by Xavier Robles, this film was the first to allude to the events directly. Set in Mexico City, in an apartment overlooking Tlatelolco, it represents the events from the point of view of the family who live there: a stay at home mother, civil servant father, conservative grandfather, two radical university student sons, and a boy and girl who are of primary-school age. In sum, they are a representative cross-section of lower middle-class Mexican society. The action stays inside the apartment and captures the events as they unfold within the four walls. There is only one exterior shot. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere reinforced by many close shots. The family members leave and return to the apartment over the course of a single day. Gunshots are heard and bullets enter the house, followed later by students who come in to hide, and finally, the secret police who break into the apartment. The dramatic (melodramatic) ending concludes with the death of all but the young son who had hidden under one of the beds. Rojo amanecer was compromised by government censorship, which would not let the filmmakers shoot any outside scenes, and, initially, attempted to ‘enlatar’ [can] the film, a procedure considered in relation to La sombra del caudillo in Chapter 3 (see Velazco, 2005). This attempt to censor the film was unsuccessful as a result of a public campaign by writers, filmmakers and critics and Rojo amanecer, despite its low budget, was seen by millions (Davalos, 1990, n.p.). The topic was sufficient to attract a considerable audience, evidently eager to understand 1968.

The spaces employed in the film are very important. In part, because it was a play, which had been set in an apartment over the course of one day, there was considerable logic to keeping that same location. The apartment is also significant for other reasons. According to Velazco, it ‘es un microcosmos de la familia mexicana de clase media de los sesenta’ [a microcosm of the Mexican middle class family of the sixties], in Rojo Amanecer, ‘se vincula la atroz masacre del 68 con la “sacrosanta familia” de la que se dice baluarte el Estado mexicano’ [the terrible massacre of 68 is linked to the ‘sacrosanct family’ which is a cornerstone of the Mexican state] (Velazco, 2005, p. 71). This synecdoche of the nation state under siege is reinforced by the tight space in which it was shot. On the day of the massacre, these were private spaces overlooking the square which were occupied by students ready to give speeches and were later invaded by special forces to detain and kill protestors.

Another reason for only shooting interior scenes was budget (Velazco, 2005, p. 71). Few locations, and, in particular, highly controllable inside spaces are cheaper and quicker to shoot in. The scriptwriters, also, interestingly, claim to have been influenced by the Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) film, ‘El monstruo era más terrible en cuanto nunca se definía su aparencia física’ [the monster was more terrible when its physical appearance wasn’t fully defined] (Velazco, 2005, p. 70). They imagined the state forces as a monster. A single, small space with few shots looking outwards at the square populated with students, whose presence is only indicated by sound, works to create an atmosphere of foreboding. Velazco underlines the power of the heard but unseen in the film,

La estrategia de Fons consistirá en crear un contraste entre la calma y el silencio llenos de angustia que se respira en el interior del apartamento y el sonido intermitente de las balas, las voces, los gritos, los ruidos, los quejidos, los murmullos, las sirenas, la caída suave de la lluvia.

[Fons strategy consisted of creating a contrast between the tangible atmosphere calm and silence, which was full of anxiety, in the interior of the apartment and the intermittent sound of the bullets, voices, shouts, noises, moans, murmurs, sirens, the soft fall of the rain].

 --(Velazco, 2005, p. 70)

Velazco’s list gives an insight into how suggestive and evocative sound can be. The threat that is heard (sounds of bullets, screams and shouts of the crowds below and so on) and not seen reinforces the sense of fear in the film.

The film was a turning point in Mexican film. Haddu explains, ‘[t]he release of Rojo amanecer therefore, signalled a new era in terms of politics and political representation in Mexican cinema, paving the way for future explorations of the same’ (2007, p. 13). However, although its release and reception were groundbreaking, it was a flawed representation of the events. According to Maciel, the film

can certainly be viewed as a daring and critical cinematic interpretation of one of the most seminal events in the contemporary history of Mexico. However, a more in-depth reading reveals that the film is not entirely the heralded breakthrough or the complete demise of state political censorship.

 --(1999, p. 216)

He gives examples of the significant scenes that were cut and how they compromise the final film. In particular, he emphasizes the representation of the army,

[i]n the released film, the army is largely portrayed as orderly and peacekeeping. By denouncing and focusing on atrocities carried out by the secret police, the film is fully in keeping with the current political climate and suits the state’s purposes [. . .] it could be argued that by allowing the exhibition of Rojo amanecer, the state not only appears to be moving towards political democratization but also is sensitive to the national concern for human rights. Thus, the state seems to be on the verge of controlling a problematic rogue agency, the secret police, that seems to operate in defiance of even executive directives.

 --(Maciel, 1999, p. 218)

He also criticizes the violence as ‘sensationalist and exaggerated’ and some of the dialogue as ‘not altogether convincing’ (Maciel, 1999, p. 218). By this he seems to mean that it is didactic and over-explanatory. Therefore, while most critics recognize the considerable contribution this film has made to the representation of 1968, the compromises that were made have led to the film being severely criticized by Maciel and others. It is still an important film, not just because it was the first to represent 1968 from an urban perspective, it also conveys the chaos and confusion that the event conjures for many. It is imprecise in its details, but it is the touchstone for any future representations of 1968.

A lesser known and little examined film, ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? [Can we talk about August?] (1981) by Maryse Sistach is short, lasting 35 minutes. Sistach is one of a generation of women directors in Mexico who studied film at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC). This was her final year student project and her first film. She subsequently made her name with films such as Anoche soñé contigo [I Dreamt About You Last Night] (1992), Nadie te oye: Perfume de violetas [Violet Perfume: Nobody Hears You] (2001) and La niña en la piedra [The Girl on the Stone] (2006) (see Rashkin, 2001). The film revolves around the story of an adolescent boy and his relationship with a teenage girl who comes to stay in the family home. Their tentative love story is set against increasing tension in the city. The camera lingers on slogans painted on the wall, television news reports of student demonstrations, radio reports, students preparing and painting banners, and teachers and parents discussing the students’ activities. All this happens in the background as the young boy puzzles over how to negotiate an incipient adult world through what is still a child’s point of view. As well as the excitement and fear of the unknown, there is a build up of tension as the older girl gets involved in the student protests. The final scene shows the boy scramble across the rooftops in an attempt to follow the girl as she leaves the city in disgrace having been found in bed with him. These visual images of the boy chasing his innocent love are accompanied by the now infamous speech by president Díaz Ordaz given on the first of October 1968 saying, ‘hemos sido tolerante [. . .] pero todo tiene su límite’ [We have been tolerant [. . .] but there is a limit to everything]. The message is clear, after the second of October Mexico began a long process of change, and revolution was no longer the purview of the ruling elite.

This is a film which keeps away from the mass protests, but highlights them through individual involvements in the events. While the family is important to the film, the parents are largely figures of control and caring in the background. ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? is told from the young boy’s perspective, but not his point of view. That is, we witness the story as if accompanying him, with many over the shoulder shots.[2] Motivated by his crush and a desire to belong among the older teenagers he attempts to make sense of the political events and the activities. Not old enough to be allowed out to rallies, he merely acts as witness to what takes place behind the scenes, and happenings and shared stories he sees in his neighbourhood (as, for example, when we see him among a crowd who are drawn into a piece of political theatre).[3] The time period remains that of the run up to the 2nd of October. There is considerable tension and sense of foreboding in the final sequence: in the child’s hopeless chase after his dream of love coupled with the president’s ominous words.

The power of having Díaz Ordaz’s words heard over the visuals in this way can be compared to how the speeches given by the students are mixed with the visuals in El grito and other documentaries. In the documentaries, any speeches by officials, such as that given at the opening ceremony for the Olympics are contained within a particular space. At times, this is because it is taken from official footage, and others, because it is recorded from the television. By having his speech audible while the child moves through a public space gives the impression that it is part of the urban landscape and suggests that the president is omniscient. Where the speeches earlier suggested unity among the crowd, this speech works as a threat as it contrasts with the wishes of the characters in the film and coincides with a moment of loss for the boy.

¿Y si platicamos de agosto? more than any other film which addresses the period leading up to the protests, gives an insight into how the ‘1968 Tlatelolco massacre dramatically showed the intolerant, autocratic character of the political system, and increased income inequality undermined the notion of a perpetual Revolution that brought “social justice”’ (Schmidt, 2001, p. 27). The film is an attempt to explore the effect of the massacre on the everyday life of a family at the periphery of events, who mostly witness them at a distance. Juxtaposing dramatic historical events and the routine of family life rejects the myth that conflict and violence happens elsewhere, away from home, and contests the allegations that the participants were outsiders. The narrative role of the family in the film draws attention to what Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ (1995). He argues that ‘crises do not create nation states as nation-states’ (1995, 6), by which he means crises such as war with other nations or internal conflicts. Instead,

[d]aily, they are reproduced as nations and their citizenry as nationals [. . .] For such daily reproduction to occur, one might hypothesize that a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices must also be reproduced. Moreover, this complex must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times.

 --(Billig, 1995, p. 6)

Conflict may result in transformations of the spaces that are contained with the nation-state, but it is in the ordinary that they are formulated. What could be more banal and mundane than the family, While also being heavily weighted throughout history as a unit which represents the nation in microcosm. The tension between the oft repeated role of the family as representative of the nation and the family in counterpoint to the events that take place is a compelling element of ¿Y si platicamos de agosto?

The manner in which the film is shot refuses the elision of family and nation, and in this respect a comparison with Rojo amanecer is useful. In Rojo amanecer there is an almost tick box approach to showing an archetypal middle class family. In contrast to Velazco’s microcosm of the Mexican family in Rojo amanecer, in ¿Y si platicamos de agosto?, because of the decision to adopt a point of view observing the events witnessed by the boy from over his shoulder, we are not given any real sense of who his family are apart from what they mean to him. They are restricted to moving figures in what appears to be a stable family environment, but of little interest to him. By having the narrative and the camera follow the boy’s story the film moves away from the family as a unit of national struggle to emphasize the personal and devastating consequences of state actions on individual happiness. As in Rojo amanecer, events in ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? take place largely within the apartment, but there are also several scenes of outside spaces to help establish locale. This locale is not defined in terms of its historical importance. There are no major monumental spaces nor landmark features in the mise en scène. It is an urban location, but an anonymous one. It is evident that the film is set in Mexico City more through the girls’ discussions of their involvement in the protests than through any easily identifiable markers, as the film narrates the boy’s individual personal experience of his first love, his relationship within a family and community and the external influence of the state on their lives. The all-pervasiveness of Díaz Ordaz’s speech unifies the space aurally. Meanwhile, the boy is connected to others through his interactions with his family and his meanderings through his neighbourhood on his bike, playing with friends, attending school and going to local shops. The juxtaposition of these worlds in the film places side by side what Henri Lefebvre called the ‘near order’ and the ‘far order’. He explains that the conceptualization of the contemporary city

is situated at an interface half-way between what is called the near order (relations of individuals in groups of variable size, more or less organized and structured and the relations of these groups among themselves), and the far order, that of society, regulated by large and powerful institutions (church and state), by a legal code formalized or not, by a ‘culture’ and significant ensembles endowed with powers, by which the far order projects itself at this ‘higher’ level and imposes itself.

 --(Lefebvre, 2004, p. 101, italics in original)

For Lefebvre the city exists as an imaginary projection of itself, since no one can fully experience it all at once. This is particularly true of the large megalopolis that is Mexico City, even if it was on a smaller scale in the 1960s. The city therefore becomes a ‘mediation among mediations’ (Lefebvre, 2004, p. 101, italics in original). An individual must negotiate their way through the near order, which, in turn, must mediate with the far order. The choice of a child as a protagonist emphasizes the lack of power of the individual when faced with state brutality and adds a further layer of mediation. This is a child’s life rendered significant through his moment of sexual awakening set against a grand historical backdrop in which the state imposed terrible sanctions on those who transgressed the status quo.

Family and friends represent a future into which the protagonist does not want to move in El bulto [The Lump] (1992) by Gabriel Retes. It is set in the aftermath of the events of the 10th of June 1971, Jueves de Corpus [Corpus Cristi Thursday] when 80,000 students staged a demonstration at the Monument of the Revolution. It was estimated that 30–50 people were killed by Halcones [falcons], a secret police force. The protagonist of El bulto, Lauro (Gabriel Retes), goes into a coma after being brutally beaten at the march. He wakes up 20 years later in a very changed Mexico. His old comrades are now either rising high on the tide of the capitalist success that Mexico briefly enjoyed in the early nineties, or others are part of the political establishment. This is a bittersweet comedy that turns into a family melodrama in the final third. There are many mood changes in the film. It moves from the serious documentary-style footage at the opening in which the police are shown attacking demonstrators; then to the middle section when Lauro awakes and has to adjust to the changes in his life; until, later, he gets angry and frustrated with his family and friends; in the end, he reconciles with them and, what are, in his eyes, the compromises they have had to make. It is a film that starts with serious intent only to slide into silliness and excessive sentimentality. Nonetheless, it was the first film to address the incident of Jueves de Corpus, a period still largely ignored in the collective imaginary.

Cinemexicano, a website dedicated to cataloguing and highlighting canonical Mexican film, describes the film as an optimistic assessment of recent Mexican history,

Retes atribuye a Lauro las características de muchos idealistas de los setenta que se quedaron ‘dormidos’ viviendo en un México propio. Así, ante la sorpresa de El bulto desfilan los eventos del México contemporáneo: La primera visita del Papa, la Miss Universo, el Nintendo, el terremoto de 1985, el Premio Nobel, la apertura comercial y el Tratado de Libre Comercio.

Al principio es un México insoportable y difícil de creer. Al final, es un México aceptable, abierto y franco. Un México esperanzado en el futuro que puede que haya aprendido algo de los errores de la historia.

Retes attributes to Lauro the characteristics of many who Mexicans who were idealistic in the 1970s and stayed ‘asleep’ whilst living in their own country.

Therefore, a surprised El bulto sees events from contemporary Mexican history take place before him: the first visit of the Pope, Miss Universe, [the arrival of] Nintendo, the 1985 earthquake, the Nobel Prize, the opening up of markets and NAFTA.

In the beginning it’s a Mexico that he finds impossible and difficult to believe. In the end it becomes acceptable, open and frank. It is a Mexico with hope for the future and that could have learnt something from history’s mistakes. (n.d., n.p.)

Haddu, in contrast, is critical of the film. She writes, ‘[i]n El Bulto, the events of the past, such as the massacre at Tlatelolco in 1968 and the 1971 Corpus Christi killings, aside from their symbolic qualities, are revealed as having little significance for present day Mexico’ (2007, p. 23). She continues, ‘[i]t seems as though Lauro is stranded in an ideological time warp where rules of conduct, expectancy and morality are blurred’ (2007, p. 24). This film strays from the ideals of 1968 so far as to become a celebration of Mexican modernity, progress and capitalism. This deliberate erasure of the past through relegating it so completely to history is an offence to the memory of those whose deaths have not been completely recorded, and a period which has not been yet laid to rest.

A later film, Jueves de Corpus (Marcos Almada, 1998), as the title suggests, has the events in 1971 as the nexus of the plot. It is a police thriller set in 1992, which follows the investigation by detective Juan Tapia (Luis Reynoso) of a serial killer who is murdering wealthy and influential men with no obvious connection to one another. It gradually emerges that the murderer is the son of a man who was killed by the Halcones and is avenging his father’s death by killing them. The Halcones were set up by a government paranoid about the possibility of violent reaction to the events of 1968, and spied upon, interrogated and killed those they suspected of subversion. It is clear from the plot that the detective is unaware of this incident in recent history, although his superior, comandante Pineda (Mario Almada), has had direct experience of them. His own son was also killed by the Halcones.

Reminiscent of a Paco Ignacio Taibo II plot in which the whodunit becomes subordinate to the historical and political context being explored, the story is an evident opportunity to explain the events and circumstances surrounding Jueves de Corpus to a wide audience (see Thornton, 2008). Shot on video, often over lit, with soap opera style acting and reacting, static wide shots of people walking towards camera and so on is evidence of its low budget. However, it does broach the subject from a novel point of view. The film nuances the role of the police in society in a way that is not seen elsewhere in this period. In other films the police are a constant threat, often archetypal bad guys who are happy to comply with the mandates from above. In contrast, Tapia and Pineda are seen to work within a system that they and the film acknowledge is corrupt. They are idealistic and have to struggle against corruption to get their job done. However, they are not renegades, as the film shows that there are many others who are eager to see justice done.

In Jueves de Corpus the police force is not efficient, nor is equipped with much investigative know how or technical support. These are common men (and a few women) trying to get the job done. The film shows that the police are part of rather than set apart from the general population. At one point Pineda baldly states, ‘el sistema mató a mi hijo’ [the system killed my son]. This statement chimes with student protestors rather than the discourse usually associated with police chiefs. It is evidently a system he and others want to see changed.

Jueves de Corpus brings the aftermath of 1968 to a different audience and places the events into the thriller genre. It is easy to criticize genre films when they address serious topics in what is seen to be an entertainment package. The attempt to entertain is seen to undermine the serious content (Grant, 2007, p. 5). Yet, genre films attract audiences because of the familiarity of their ‘common elements’ (Grant, 2007, p. 2) and it is, therefore, the political message which differentiates this film from other similar police thrillers. The difference between this film and the inclusion of melodrama in El Bulto is that there is a shift in mood and tone in El Bulto which is jarring, whereas Jueves de Corpus is consistent in its generic approach. However, the latter has received little critical attention, perhaps because of the quality of its execution, but more probably because of the lack of artistic intention.

A feature film from the same period which deals with the aftermath of 1968 is Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? (2002) directed by Eva López Sánchez. (For more on López Sánchez see Arredondo (2001).) In keeping with contemporary trends in film production in Mexico, the film is a Mexico/Spain/Germany co-production. Consequently, while dealing with local concerns it does so using an international cast and crew. It was shot in Mexico City and Veracruz with support from the UNAM. Although set in 1971, the film opens with stills and moving images from student protests in 1968 and, on the DVD extras of the version released in Mexico, the director describes it as ‘una película en el marco político del 68’ [a film set in the political context of 68]. Other extras include a quotation from an historical account of the events by Rubén Aréchiga Robles Asalto al cielo: lo que no se ha dicho del 68 [Assault on the sky, what hasn’t been said about 68]: ‘[l]os estudiantes mexicanos del 68 fueron los primeros en vivir su adolescencia y juventud en un país que ya no era básicamente rural’ [the Mexican students of 68 were the first generation to grow up in a country that was no longer rural]. These extras are there to establish that the historical context is Mexico in transition. Interestingly, in the international DVD release none of these extras were included, the Mexican version provided an historical context that was not available to a transnational audience. This absence neutralizes the political message and the specificity of the historical backdrop to the story and feeds into an image of Mexico as a violent country.

Like Jueves de Corpus, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? is a thriller with a very sombre mood throughout. The story revolves around Bruno (Ulrich Noethen), a Spanish-born, German national, who was a former communist party member but turned from that when his comrades chose to take up armed struggle, hence his decision to move, now reluctantly turned police informant on his arrival in Mexico to take up a post as a lecturer at the UNAM. The other characters are his politically engaged students who are involved in a radical, direct action cell that he is charged with spying on. Inevitably, he sympathizes with their cause; he then falls in love with one of them, Adela (Fabiola Campomanes), becomes involved in their cause and is wrongly accused of murder. As a consequence, he goes on the run and later into hiding in the jungles of Veracruz with the aim of escaping with Adela to the US, where they hope to reinvent themselves. The thriller and melodramatic elements of the film serve to heighten the mood and give considerable urgency to the narrative. However, these aspects also undermine the seriousness of the subject matter. History becomes primarily a tense, narrative backdrop after the obligatory badge of authenticity in the opening. Notwithstanding this, there is a welcome move away from a focus on family and on the domestic (although the film retains elements of this) to a wider political and social context.

The title comes from a scene in the film when Bruno is asked ’¿de qué lado estás?’ [which side are you on?] by José, one of the students after the two watch El grito with other students at a secret screening. Bruno’s reply is ‘las cosas no son tan blanco y negro’ [things aren’t so black and white]. The rest of the film explores this taking of sides and, through Bruno and Adela’s relationship, it portrays Bruno as someone who has become compromised by his actions and is, therefore, unable to make any significant changes in society. For the hero of a thriller, Bruno is strangely passive. He reveals himself to be the product of international turmoil and thereby, a tragic victim of world historical forces. Born during the Spanish Civil War to German and Spanish communist parents, he was sent to the USSR as an evacuee. After the war he was reunited with his mother in Berlin, where he studied history and joined the communist party. He later entered the security services and spied on behalf of the communists. This resulted in his best friend’s death. Disillusioned with communism he fled to Paris, deciding thereafter to reinvent himself and move to Mexico. This backstory, which he recounts to Adela, signals him as someone who has been both subject and object of the drama of history and, on a narrative level, explains why he is so reluctant to get involved in the armed struggle that Adela and the other students feel they must embrace. As protagonist, he bears the burden of imbuing some meaning into the indecision over taking up arms. This is done through evocations of his troubled past. Drawing on a transcultural historical context in this way suggests that violence and conflict move in waves around the world, but also that they have severe personal consequences on individuals such as Bruno caught in their wake.

In this film the configuration of space differs from that in ¿Y si placticamos de agosto?. Where ¿Y si placticamos de agosto? is located exclusively in the city, Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? moves between the city and the countryside. The city is controlled by an all-seeing secret police force who are aware of Bruno’s movements and monitor when he transgresses their agreed rules. As representatives of the state, they are the far order who control the rebel’s movements. They are also a constant, if more distant, threat in the countryside. This is the difference between the city and the countryside. The city is controlled absolutely by the far order, whereas the countryside provides an opportunity to escape from government and police control. However, in the absence of the far order, there is another hierarchy which is corrupt and potentially more oppressive. Bruno realizes this when he finds that his only source of income is trafficking illegal goods and he sees his boss murder poor innocent people under suspicion for robbery. It is clear that he is taking out his anger on people who are essentially his indentured slaves. The rural spaces are not represented as a real alternative to the city, just another site of repression and danger.

Emily Hind has explored the representation of the countryside in recent Mexican film. She uses the term provincia [province] to describe ‘national landscapes outside of Mexico City’ (Hind, 2004, p. 26). Films such as Y tu mamá también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) ‘conceive(s) of provincia as the obliging fulfilment of Mexico City residents’ desires’ (Hind, 2004, p. 41).[4] Usually, the provincia signifies a space where the characters can escape their humdrum existence and the constraints of city life to be free to indulge in sensory pleasures. In contrast, in Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás? the countryside has similar constraints and limitations to the city, which prove more terrifying because the rules are unknown to the outsider.

Meanwhile for Bruno, the near order does not provide much support. Adela chooses to leave him and he is killed by Gabriel, the now teenage son of the man he was accused of murdering. Family is corrupted by conflict. Bruno’s own background was marred by his parent’s involvement in violent struggle and now the next generation is brutalized by a legacy of violence. In this pessimistic ending, Gabriel is destined to continue the cycle of violence, which Bruno’s life has demonstrated is negative. Violence connects the man and boy across cultures and experiences. López Sánchez portrays violence, irrespective of the context, as damaging on an individual and a societal level. The message is that through the end of childhood innocence, society is corrupted—an idea explored in ¿Y si placticamos de agosto? also, albeit in different ways.

Conclusion

The year 1968 continues to have a considerable influence on film in unexpected ways. For example, it is part of the backstory for one of the characters in the film that signaled a return for Mexican film to an international stage, Amores perros [Love’s a Bitch] (2000) by Alejandro González Iñárritu.[5] The period 1968–71 is referenced through the character ‘el Chivo’, a former lecturer and radical who is jailed for his activities, and, as a result, loses contact with his wife and daughter. His name, el Chivo, conjures up references to the term ‘chivo expiatorio’ [scapegoat] which was used to refer to the student movement of 1968. This activist turned assassin aims to reconcile himself with his upper middle class daughter after the recent death of his wife. This hope for a return to the family and his final decision to leave her a substantial amount of money earned from his work as a hitman is an interesting judgement on the inheritance of the period. Similar to El bulto, radicalism is converted into a very harsh form of capitalism. However, he is the only character in the film to achieve his aim, and to escape what is represented as a troubled, violent city. Thereby, implicitly he leaves behind the burden of history to escape into the provincia and has the possibility of reinventing himself anew.

As evidenced in Amores perros, family continues to be an important metaphor for the nation. It is the locus in which national dramas and politics are played out. As 1968 is an historical moment which has not yet been resolved, none of the perpetrators has been jailed and much of the truth is yet to be uncovered; many of the films are still concerned with seeking out the facts. In addition, it was a topic which was subject to much censorship up to relatively recently; therefore, the filmmakers have been pushing at the edges in order to have the story told at all.

In documentary, there were two definite periods in which circumstances and history impelled filmmakers to create. The first wave was during and in the immediate aftermath of the protests and subsequent massacre. There was a need to get the story out to the public, albeit one limited to political and social movements, and for the first time there were the facilities to do so with the recent creation of the film school. The second wave was the campaign for the release of the material from the archive. This was facilitated by the change from the more than 70 years of single party dominance by the PRI to new political power under PAN, in whose interest it was to discredit the past and by extension the PRI.

In fiction films, the representation of the army and police has evolved from the image of them as saviours in Canoa to the secret police in Rojo amanecer, the police as pawns of the system in Jueves de Corpus, up to the most recent depiction of a brutal, pervasive and sinister police force in Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás?. The evolution in the representation of the security forces reflects that there is less censorship over content and again there is a political agenda where it does serve the interests of some to represent the past as corrupt against a liberal present which can be free to analyse it. However, there are interesting temporal leaps in Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás?. While the earlier part set in Mexico City is firmly established in terms of time and place, in the later section when they flee to Veracruz time is less stable or identifiable. It is clear from the age of a character from young child to teenager that it must be at least the late 1970s however, the costume and the mise-en-scène do not clearly identify it as a distant past. It could be set in the present day. Therefore, the criticism levelled at the state could be understood to be directed at the contemporary government. Brewster underlines the importance of this evolving representation of the security forces after 1968. For her, ‘[t]he scale of the brutality used by the police and army decisively ended the myth, begun after the Mexican Revolution, of the benevolent, paternal state’ (2005, p. 7). The disillusionment with the police and army is not evident from early features; however, it has gradually evolved in recent representations.

There is an urban rural divide in the films about 1968. Canoa broke with previous idealized representations of the country and created a grotesque image of country inhabitants as compliant followers of a corrupt and brutal church. This over-simplification exonerated the government, police and army of responsibility and laid the blame on others. This was particularly significant as it was the first film to represent 1968 and bore a considerable burden of representation. Despite the fact that there was considerable rural activism, which provided the historical context for the student movement, such as those led by Rubén Jaramillo, these have not been represented in any significant way in feature films.[6] Although, as mentioned earlier, many of the documentaries are eager to place the student movement in its wider context and include mention of this rural unrest, fiction filmmaking has largely failed to do so.

Apart from Canoa, the city is another protagonist in the films about 1968. Even though it is set inside an apartment, the significance of that particular building resonates in Rojo amanecer. The characters make reference to their daily routine, the student protests and outside spaces that are never seen by the audience. Thus, it is firmly established where and when the events transpire. While there are outside spaces in ¿Y si platicamos de agosto? and El bulto, these serve as generic city spaces which evoke class, lower middle class in the former, upper middle class in the latter, rather than use monuments to establish setting, or referencing important city landmarks and their significance in the nation space. In contrast, in Francisca, ¿De qué lado estás?, perhaps with an eye to its international audience the camera moves through spaces familiar from the documentaries. The student activists are in university buildings, public spaces and smaller apartments evoking the earlier eye-witness accounts and giving the film a veneer of authenticity.

For the filmmakers, even in documentary films, there are considerable challenges to representing a terrible event that is not yet properly catalogued by historians. For Carlos Monsiváis, Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco was the best and only true account of 68, ‘[p]ero después de eso nada. Es que la matanza es hasta tal punto monstruosa que no hay modo de llegar’ [Since that there has been nothing. The massacre is so monstruous that there is no way to approach it] (Gliemmo, 1994, p. 22). Interestingly, his monster is a reminder of those from the Alien film that the makers of Rojo amanecer alluded to. The monsters are not just the perpetrators of the murders, but they are also in the horror of the events themselves. Poniatowska’s text is a polyphonic collection of the eye-witness accounts of those who had experienced the events first hand. Although many were contemporaneous to the events, the documentaries produced did not quite succeed in conveying their full horror. Neither documentary nor feature films have created a full and complete portrayal of the events. Perhaps, this is because the complete picture of what happened is still not known. Unlike the Revolution, 1968 does not have a sufficient body of work to map a pathway into the historical moment. There is a need for wider explorations of the events, which can never be achieved through one film, but through a multitude of different visions.



[1] See the interview with Marcela Fernández Violante ‘Inside the Mexican Film Industry: A Woman’s Perspective’, who gives a personal overview of this period (Burton, 1986) and Lash (1966) who reviews the first experimental film competition.

[2] For more on the particularities of a child’s point of view see, for example, Messenger Davies (2005).

[3] This is a enactment of what Augusto Boal called ‘invisible theatre’, where performers act out real-life scenarios in public spaces to inspire people to react and create potential for debate and real change. For more on this see ‘International Theater of the Oppressed Organisation’.

[4] Interestingly, this film was distributed under its Spanish title.

[5] This is a film that has been dealt with in detail elsewhere. See, for example, Shaw (2003) and Smith (2003).

[6] For example, Historia de un documento refers to Jaramillo and the significance of his death.