Note to the adventurous globe-trotter: If you happen to be looking for ground zero of the Mexican drug wars, Culiacán, capital of the northern state of Sinaloa, may be just the place for you. (Some 35,000 drug-related deaths have occurred there since 2006 and, as one informed observer puts it, “There aren’t enough living to bury the dead.”)
The leading man of Natalia Almada’s new documentary, El Velador, is a night watchman who keeps an eye on a unique and rapidly expanding graveyard in Culiacán. But the star of the film is the cemetery itself. Nowhere on Earth will you see examples of such wildly contradictory architectural situations, e.g., mausoleums, tombs, and crypts that teem with life, vitality, and color—not to mention electricity, heat, and running water. The movie contains very little dialogue, but that just adds to its overall poetry and dramatic strength. As the watchman makes his meditative rounds, the audience slowly learns more and more details of the horror of Mexican “narco-violence.”
Almada structures her film in a perfectly calibrated minimalist manner, and with such hypnotic visual rhythms that the overall effect is one of stoic and spiritual calm—a deliberate counterpoint to the mayhem of the underlying subject matter. (It must be noted that she’s not only the film’s director, but also its director of photography and editor.) It’s unlikely that there will be any solution to the region’s travails any time soon. But if there was ever a film that would make you want to visit a clearly dangerous heart of darkness, this is it. (El Velador was selected for the 2011 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.) I would encourage you to also seek out Almada’s other documentaries, including The Other Side and El General.
Chris Chang First things first: I want to ask how you are. I understand you’ve had an accident?
Natalia Almada Yes, I was in a car accident on Wednesday [March 30]—on my way to Haverford College in Philly. I have a fractured sternum—not a lot of fun—but it could have been much worse. I just have to rest a lot to let it heal. Thanks for asking.
CC Your film put you in danger in Mexico. And now the United States puts you in the hospital. Some people might see a bit of irony.
NA I suppose it is a bit ironic, especially since it happened the day after the film’s premiere, but such is life—chance, fate, mala suerte, who knows. The thing about filming in a dangerous place is that you become hyperaware of everything around you, whereas in “safe places” we are careless; we let our guard down. But all said, I was very lucky to have made it out of the cemetery alive (no pun intended) and I owe that to my production assistant Ramiro, who was always watching over me, and to the albañiles [bricklayers] and the night watchman who took care of me.
CC Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to this particular subject matter.
NA My family is from Sinaloa, a northwestern state which has traditionally been the drug heartland of Mexico. We have lived with the realities of drug trafficking for decades. I remember as a child the cowboys on my family’s ranch would talk about growing opium in the mountains. In Mexico we didn’t have a drug abuse problem like there was in the US, and, really, drug trafficking was just seen as a more lucrative alternative than farming beans. It was also always understood that the drugs were for the gringos. While some things have remained the same, there have been changes that have radically altered the spirit of these dinner-table stories.
CC Can you specify what changed?
NA Whatever ethical code existed that protected families and kept the violence between the narcos themselves has been shattered so that today the violence seems to permeate our communities. Perhaps this has simply to do with the reality that the drug trade has grown tremendously. Or perhaps it is Calderón’s declaration of war that has made violence more permissible, on all levels. Or perhaps it is simply human greed and power and the craziness of war. I don’t know what the single reason may be, nor do I think there is only one, but what is undeniable is that those same cowboys who talked about growing opium in the mountains are now fearing for the lives of their children—if they haven’t already suffered the loss. Between the lack of economic opportunities in Mexico and the seduction of a quick buck, it is very hard for them to keep their children away from the drug trafficking or the violence around it.
CC What about the cemetery?
NA I knew that I wanted to make a film about this violence and one morning (I was still half asleep) I became very curious about the cemetery. I’d shot an interview there in 2004 for my film The Other Side. I got my plane ticket within a week (I live in Mexico City most of the time) and when I got to the cemetery I was just amazed by how much it had grown. The mausoleums that in 2004 seemed huge now seemed insignificant. Most striking was the enormous hole that a tractor was digging for 300 more bodies. It was July 2009 and about 18,000 people had died. A year later, when I finished shooting, the death toll was about 35,000. The first hole was full and already covered with mausoleums, and a second hole was being dug. I was struck that it was a mirror of the violence and the socioeconomic realities in which such violence flourishes.
CC So your attraction is personal.
NA Sinaloa is home for me. I’ve had a pretty nomadic life since childhood but it is the place where my strongest childhood memories were made, the memories that make me who I am. And so I keep going back. I love the light, the heat, the people, the food. And I think that is what makes me want to look at the violence with some kind of humanity and tenderness.
CC When thinking about the “culture” of death in Mexico, I’m reminded of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—and I’m wondering about its relationship to El Velador. The documentary “silence” in parts of that vast book echoes the silence of the victims in your film. You share a family name with a major character, the psychic seer, Florita Almada.
NA I haven’t read 2666, but Bolaño seems to be on everyone’s mind lately. I don’t know anything about the Almada character in the book. But do you know who the Almada Brothers are? I’ve never met them, but they are supposedly my relatives—and they’re big B-movie stars. They made dozens of narco-churro video-homes.
CC That is uncanny. I did a quick check of IMDb and I have located your long-lost family! Mario, Fernando, and Horacio (I think) seem to have made an infinite number of narco-churros. I’m not exactly sure what that genre is, except I’m guessing crime-driven, low-budget Mexican features, made for TV?
NA Oh, my relatives definitely aren’t lost! I’ve just never met them—although I’m hoping to meet Mario soon. They are incredibly prolific. If you ever go by a Mexican video store just ask for an Almada Brothers movie. You will learn a lot about Mexican cinema—popular Mexican cinema. Video-home I think means straight to video—not even TV— but I’m not one hundred percent sure. And yes, most are crime-driven, low-budget B-movies.
CC I live in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and am surrounded by Mexican video stores.
NA It’s interesting that these videos are by no means a contemporary genre. For example, Contrabando y Traición, one of the most famous, is from 1977. It is based on a Tigres del Norte corrido, and corridos historically were like musical-newspapers, ballads in honor of popular heroes. The contemporary corridos are mostly about immigrants and drug traffickers. The corridos and narco-churros were probably the first attempt to talk about and address the problems of violence in the media.
CC I found all of this very fascinating and amusing until I came across a description of one Almada Brothers film that was much too close to real life. Regalo Caro, aka High-Priced Gift, has the following plot synopsis: “After a ferocious confrontation with the federal police, El Chacha gets away and is betrayed by his partner Mariano, who believes him to be dead. El Chacha soon becomes the most powerful druglord, and for his birthday, other druglords pay their respect by bringing him presents. Barbarino, a loyal servant of El Chacha, has no money to buy his boss a gift and decides instead to give him a gift of surprise: the head of his greatest enemy, Mariano.” Yikes. Your film, El Velador, involves a severed head that the audience never sees. Please explain to the readers the head’s significance—for you, personally. (Tough question, I know.)
NA Your memory is right. In the film, there is a news report on the radio about a severed head that was left on the tomb of a big drug lord. I had initially thought that this was a threat, but it was explained to me that this was, in fact, an offering. I do not show the head, as I do not show any graphic violence in the film—I believe that the graphic images of violence that we see in the press have produced a numbing effect that has made us fearful and powerless.
CC This is a key aesthetic and moral element of your film—especially in your use of sound.
NA The news report struck me on many levels. The reporter says that an employee from the cemetery found the head with a red flower in its ear. I’d been filming at the cemetery for about six months, so I had a very good sense of the place and the workers, and I could imagine all too clearly one of them stumbling upon such a horrific sight. The idea that this could be part of someone’s day at work seems deeply unjust. The violence extends beyond the perpetrator of the crime and the victim to all those who have to live in its shadow.
CC The violence extends directly into your life.
NA A caretaker at my family’s ranch was tortured and beaten while at work. He immediately quit his job out of fear. But a month or two later he came back asking for his job because he couldn’t find any other work. I don’t know how clearly these two incidents seem to relate, but to me they depict a much deeper violence. On the one hand the opportunities to make an honest living are scarce, and, on the other hand, they don’t guarantee any protection from drug violence. So put yourself in the shoes of one of these people. What would you do?
CC I would move to Brooklyn.
NA The other thing that really struck me about the radio report was the detail of the red flower behind the ear. In her essay “Regarding the Torture of Others” Susan Sontag wrote “The horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken.”
CC Sontag repositions accountability—is that what you mean? Then you, the filmmaker (or photographer) become more responsible (or accountable), or at least equally responsible?
NA Sontag was discussing the Abu Ghraib photographs. So, in that context, the photographer is the person committing the atrocity. I understand how out of context her statement may seem here. To reposition accountability so that the filmmaker/photographer becomes responsible for the act in the photograph probably isn’t entirely accurate. But the idea of shared accountability—that the photographer is a participant and not a removed objective observer—I find very valuable. The idea of “the horror that the photographs were taken” is one that we tend to forget when we look at photographs simply as evidence (which is the way I think most people look at pictures in the news).
CC To assume they were unmediated.
NA In Mexico the press is flooded with graphic images of the atrocities committed. To look at these reproductions in the newspapers without questioning the role that they play in how we understand and look at violence is a terrible mistake. I would probably go so far as to say that to not think about the role that they play in the violence is to be blindsided.
CC It is very difficult to see beyond the surface of this sort of thing. You just avert your eyes—and your mind.
NA If we reduce the idea of violence to the horrific acts that we see in the press, then we fail to understand the deeper systematic violence. All we see is the atrocity. We no longer see the humanity of the victim or the perpetrator, nor the violence that is inflicted on the community that lives within this context. The more grotesque the image, the more removed the spectator is from its reality. They disengage from implications and responsibilities. By not showing the photograph of the head or other images of violence I was hoping to place the viewer inside the violence. Does that make sense?
CC Arguably, it becomes more violent. You don’t photograph the head but you let the audience “listen” to the horror.
NA The imagination can sometimes be more powerful than a photograph. To suggest and to evoke rather than to illustrate is a way to engage and commit the viewer.
To me it was evident that whoever placed the flower behind the ear was posing the head for a picture to be taken. So there is a game at play in which the media is key—it is important to ask ourselves who is being served by the dissemination of these images and to what end.
CC Images are one thing, but it’s hard to imagine an actual severed head entering my day-to-day existence. As a sheltered American, I realize I’m also making somewhat irresponsible associations because of my distance from actual Mexican facts and experience. For instance, with Bolaño, I’m equating the violence of Ciudad Juárez with the situation in Sinaloa—two very different regions.
NA Yes, this happens often. Right now Juárez makes the news because it is one of the most violent cities in the world. Sadly Juárez has become synonymous with Mexico to those who don’t know the country. But I think a few things happen when we try to talk about Juárez, comparing it to other regions of Mexico. The femicides of Juárez have been going on since 1993. It is a mistake to conflate them with the violence that we are seeing in relation to the drug war.
CC When I Google femicide, the immediate reference is to “femicide in Juárez.” Sinaloa, in terms of violence, is equated with homicide. Juárez, in terms of violence, appears to be the female counterpart. Is that at all correct?
NA Not exactly. Juárez has the femicides and the narco-violence. But honestly, I don’t know that much about it—and I’ve never been—so I don’t want to speak out of place. Also, Juárez is right on the border, so there’s a different culture and a different set of problems because of its immediate proximity to the US. The maquiladoras [assembly plants] attract young single workers from the rest of the country. The city is a transit point for people and commerce, so its social makeup and the mechanisms by which it functions are quite unique. I read in the New York Times a few years ago an article titled “Two Sides of a Border: One Violent, One Peaceful,” and it described El Paso, Texas, as the third safest city in the United States, bordering Ciudad Juárez, a city being “ripped apart” by violence. The article discussed the fear that the violence in Juárez would spread to El Paso, “a tidy desert town.”
CC It’s all very black and white.
NA And it’s the kind of writing that perpetuates the notion of the border as a barrier from something dirty and evil rather than a shared space for which both sides are responsible. As you travel south things change—every 100 feet? Maybe.
CC It just makes me think that every 100 feet we have very different kinds of victims.
NA If I go back to your original question, what is most interesting is the idea of “silenced victims.” The women of Juárez are victims without question, but it is much harder to convince someone that the drug lords are victims, particularly when we see the horrific crimes that they commit spread across our newspapers. Yet, if we are a bit more dispassionate and look at the socioeconomic reality in Mexico, then our notion of the victim changes, and rather than victims, I think these are people who’ve been disempowered and much of that disempowerment has been achieved through silencing.
CC Now you are talking about the silent, yet living, victims?
NA I guess I wasn’t distinguishing between the living and the dead victims, nor was I thinking of silence as a result of their death. I was thinking of silence in relation to power, silence as a form of repression, whether it is direct or indirect. Your question caught me off guard because it made me realize that while the cemetery is obviously a place for the dead, I never thought that I was making a film about dead people. In part that is because the crisis that we’re living is so real and present, but also because the victims are so young and the people who mourn them are too. The cemetery is oddly full of life.
CC Let’s move, for a moment, from Mexico to Brooklyn. Every day I walk by a massive graveyard on the way to work. Green-Wood Cemetery is, to my mind, one of the most gorgeous and meditative places in New York City. It’s my graveyard. Just about everybody in my neighborhood walks by it every day—because it sits next to a major subway station. But I feel like everyone ignores it. Why is it that the sense of this space, the relationship the passerby has to it, feels so different from “your” graveyard?
NA Different cultures look at death differently. Octavio Paz wrote, “The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” I think Americans are completely opposite in this regard. You see it everywhere, from the difference between the chickens hanging with feathers in Mexican markets, to those skinless, boneless breasts packed in Styrofoam in American-style supermarkets.
CC There’s also the question of age—by which I mean the age of the residents.
NA Yes. I think the cemetery in my film is a bit different because the dead are so young, most are under 30. So there, death seems to have become a strange rite of passage. And for those in the same precarious path of life, they have to embrace death in this way so that they do not live in fear of it all of the time. Because they know it is imminent. Make sense?
CC One of the great things about your film is that it makes that “foreign” concept make sense! Your cemetery is different from my cemetery. It looks as if the living could move into yours. Mine is only for ghosts, or Goths, or Transylvanians. The tidy, clean glass windows of the mausoleums in your film almost seem to deny death. “The departed” have merely relocated to a different neighborhood.
NA A lovely way to put it! That’s exactly how it feels. One of the things the cemetery construction workers always lament is that their homes aren’t as luxurious as the tombs they are building. Especially given that some have electricity, air conditioning, marble floors—and that most of the workers make about 200 pesos a day (less than 20 dollars).
CC Apparently, some people believe the dead deserve to live better than the living. I can imagine what a poor worker must think as he constructs a mausoleum that looks like a luxury condo.
NA Many workers live in housing projects built and subsidized by Infonavit, a governmental agency. These are developments of hundreds of serial houses that completely erase any trace of the individual. When you think that many of the drug dealers and construction workers come from the same social strata, you can really understand the significance of the mausoleums which, above all else, seem to be expressions of individuality.
CC We’ve all seen the small photographs of the dead on gravestones, but in Culiacán you have posters, or, what are they, billboards? We say, in memoriam, “to celebrate the life of . . .“ but in Culiacán it really looks like the celebration has turned into full-fledged marketing.
NA They are lonas—which I think translates as tarps—large plastic banners. What I love about them is that the photographs are mostly taken from people’s cell phones, so their quality is terrible, which gives them a very innocent “home movie” feeling—not the nostalgic Super-8 home movies, but today’s pixelated equivalent. Also, people make fantastic collages on the lonas that are incredibly revealing visual homages to the dead.
CC I’m having another audio flashback: I am remembering a moment when you can hear a mother wailing on the sound track. Her grief is unbearable. You never see her, correct?
NA That is right. The mother and family are off camera. The mother’s wailing is a horrific sound. It gets under your skin precisely because we don’t see her, so we can imagine her as any mother, my mother, your mother. At the end of my first film, a short titled All Water Has a Perfect Memory, which is about the death by drowning of my sister, my mother says, “And I’ve thought so many times that since the beginning of time, a mother’s wail of agony, of losing a child, has probably always sounded the same, the same as mine. Always.” Something about that sound of the mother’s wail is absolutely primordial.
CC A sound, needless to say, that’s unforgettable. Your film has been called “a film about violence without violence.” I would argue that your use of sound is, at times, incredibly violent. I know we’ve mentioned this before, in terms of the severed head, but could you elaborate a little more on how you use sound to, so to speak, fill in the blanks?
NA I work with a very talented sound designer named Alejandro de Icaza. Much of our conversations were precisely about the violence of sound. Since violence is never visible, and yet the film is about violence, the only way to represent it was through sound. So, for example, the eeriness of the place and the claustrophobic quality of being trapped in the cemetery is felt through the deep constant rumble of the highway in the distance, and the hard buzzing of the cicadas. Also, sound makes the invisible present. So when you hear a tambora band in the distance, you are made aware of the forbidden, dangerous world that you can’t see. It is like children and their fear of the dark—what you can’t see, what you imagine, what you hear—is more ominous than what you see. Sound is like smell in that it seems to work on our subconscious much more strongly than the image does.
CC In the future you could easily make a horror film. Or perhaps you already have.
—Chris Chang joined the editorial staff of Film Comment in 2001. In addition to that magazine, he has contributed to Audubon, Frieze, Positif, and other publications. He is the author of Reel Work: Artists’ Film and Video of the 1970s and Va-Va-Voom!: Classic Hollywood Pin-Ups. He contributed an essay to the monograph James Casebere and wrote an introduction to a new edition of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for Barnes and Noble’s Books on Film series. He lives within walking distance of Green-Wood Cemetary and visits the graves of Lola Montes and Jean-Michel Basquiat whenever he gets the chance. Photo by Mark Anderson.