By Tim Jackson
What do these young Mexican filmmakers want? For us to bear witness.
In Mexico, cities and towns have become battlegrounds ruled by murderous gangs and drug cartels. Assassins called Sicarios are conscripted, often as teenagers, to instill fear, obedience, and acquiescence to drug lords. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reports over 11,400 events of gang-related violence across the country since the beginning of 2018, with more than 80 percent targeting civilians. Rival groups competing for territory and drug trafficking routes exacerbate the chaos. This drug-dealing mayhem has, for better or worse, inspired plenty of entertainment. Films like Miss Bala (2011), Savages (2012), The Counselor (2013), and Sicario (2015) graphically depict the mechanics of the drug trade and the terrorism of gang violence. Slick thrillers like Blow and Traffic put movie stars at the center of the action. Well-meaning films like Maria Full of Grace or City of God proffer sobering studies on the social scourge of narcotics. Even in music, the Narcocorrido subgenre romanticizes criminality with stories of drug lords, arrests, shootouts, and betrayals. A report on NPR quoted the alarming conclusion of one of Mexico’s most prolific corridistas, Reynaldo “El Gallero” Martinez: “The kids of Reynosa and Matamoros and many parts of Mexico learn the words to a corrido before they learn the National Anthem.”
Two new films by young Mexican directors break from narco-romanticism and conventional action structures. I Am No Longer Here (streaming on Netflix) and Identifying Features (streaming on Brattlite) reject conflicts that resolve in triumph, tragedy, or martyrdom. Instead, they make use of a kind of free-form narrative that highlights the emotional cost of living with fear, intimidation, and death. They are cinematic testimonies to a traumatized existence, aided and abetted by indifferent bureaucracies and paralyzed (or corrupt) politicians who are unable or unwilling to reign in organized crime.
Fernando Frias’s I Am No Longer Here alternates freely between past and present. Ulises (Juan Daniel García) lives in Monterrey in Northwestern Mexico. He is part of a group of teenagers who call themselves the Terkos (translated as “resisting change”). Violent gangs rule the city. The Terkos posture aplenty but have no real power. Their passion is Cumbia music, a genre popular in Mexico, that synthesizes African rhythms, European Hispanic progressions, and Andean melodies and harmonies.
Ulises stands out in a couple of ways: there’s his flashy dancing skills and his tribal haircut, with long, free-flowing bleached blond sideburns and rooster comb on top. Beneath the adolescent’s dour and tough facade beats a dancer’s heart. He whirls around in circles, arms flailing artfully, to the Cumbia music in a native dance. One day he is accused of helping to set up the murder of a rival gang leader; he is innocent, but is forced to escape across the border for safety. He makes his way to New York City where he applies for work; he gets a job cleaning a shopkeeper’s roof. He is noticed by the owner’s daughter Lin (the engaging Angelina Chen). Though Ulises speaks little English and the girl speaks no Spanish, she offers him a small storage room to sleep in. Whether her overtures of friendship come from a pure heart, pity, or mere curiosity is unclear. Ulises makes some money dancing for coins on the street but when a policeman tells him he needs a permit to busk, he runs away. Chronologically, the narrative is vague; Frias cuts back and forth between New York and Ulises’s past life in Monterrey. The teen is undermined by his debilitating insecurity, a lack of education, and a deep distrust of authority. Lin’s benevolence is the only element of hope in Ulises’s life and he is wary of her unmotivated kindness. He doesn’t know what to make of kindness.
In New York City, buskers everywhere exercise whatever talent they have to collect a few coins for the passing amusement of a jaded, even mocking crowd. We wait for a dash of romance or a moment of triumph that may never come. Each scene brings Ulises new, seemingly unsolvable conflicts. I Am No Longer Here’s impressionistic, stripped-down narrative is resolutely realistic: this is a life on the margins, filled with fear and uncertainty. There is no neat catharsis in the offing — rather, the film offers a lesson in hardship that demands empathy.
A similarly subjective approach is taken by Fernanda Valadez in her first film, Identifying Features. Its story is simple: a mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), searches for her young son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), who, after recently leaving home in Guanajuato for the United States, has gone missing. The film unfolds slowly, each scene fraught with a nervous ambiguity. Magdalena’s quest is tangled up in bureaucracy from its very beginning. Definite proof of her son’s whereabouts or fate is not easily found. She searches through grizzly images of incinerated bodies, items inventoried from the victims, bunkers of corpses in storage. Finally, Magdalena is called for an interview and is told there is a “very old man” who might know something about her son. She is advised by the police to turn back, but she quietly pleads: “I need to find my son.” The camera remains on her face throughout the torturous conversation.
Mercedes Hernández is a stunning presence: grim, persistent — as beautiful as a Diego Rivera painting. Finally, with the name of a general location to find the old man, she sets off on her own. Along the way she stumbles upon Miguel (David Illescas) in a remote shack that gangs have ravaged. His parents have been killed. Miguel’s circumstances are as dire and precarious as hers. “From behind, you almost look like him,” Magdalena tells Miguel, referring to her son. “From behind, we all look alike,” he responds. It is a statement that speaks volumes about the social anonymity (to outsiders) of the countless victims of random violence, poverty, and heartless immigration policies. To Americans they “all look the same.” Is there no meaningful future for people whose lives have been turned upside down through no fault of their own? The narrative’s deliberate pace concentrates on the mother’s desperate experience — Valadez demands that we consider the human cost of gang violence in Mexico. As the mother’s slow journey continues, her surroundings become increasingly satanic. Claudia Becerril Bulos’s stunning cinematography turns the world of the protagonist into an increasingly nightmarish and hallucinogenic place.
Both films revolve around small heroes in irreconcilable life struggles, cast with actors, in D.W. Griffth’s phrase, “untrammeled by technique.” There is more to be gained looking into the eyes of an actor who knows, and has possibly lived, these experiences, than by hours of Hollywood huffing, puffing, and gunshots. There is no redemptive resolution supplied. What do these young Mexican filmmakers want? For us to bear witness.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.