Female genius and “El Velador” (2011)
12 October 2012
Lordy. I’ve seen some fun and great movies lately — Looper, The Dark Knight Rises (that took me long enough) — but damn, what a sausage-fest. All the better the news last week that Natalia Almada has received one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation grants (popularly, but tragically, called “genius grants”).
This lump sum of $500,000 comes in partial appreciation of her cutting-edge work as a documentary filmmaker — and, FYI, Almada is the first Latina filmmaker to receive such a grant. See an example of her work: a one-hour version of El Velador (The Night Watchman), which is streaming online at PBS’s website now through December 2012.
It’s not a typical documentary. There’s no voiceover of the omniscient narrator. There’s very little talking at all, in fact, except for what we hear from the occasional TV or radio. Rather, you find yourself watching closely. For what you see is something you probably haven’t seen before. El velador, Martín, watches over a graveyard in Culiacán, in the Northern Mexican state of Sinaloa, across the water from Baja California — a graveyard where many of the most important leaders of the drug trade are buried.
The extreme wealth of the dead means that this is no ordinary cemetery.
Quietly, the camera follows Martín through his labor at the cemetery — walking the dirt roads at night, watching over the mausoleums during the day, spraying down the dirt roads with a hose to diminish the dust. Slowly, the TV and radio voices begin to fill you in on the degree of violence taking place in the area. One announcer explains that 1,100 deaths in the last month were attributable to the drug cartels. Even without any evidence that el velador is at risk, you grow anxious at the eerie calm of this place.
Meanwhile, the mausoleums possess a grandeur that’s disturbing on its own. Two, three stories tall, all pristine tilework and perfect cement art, it seems like a vast, uninhabited world of Mexican McMansions. During the days the young widows of these young men arrive to dust, sweep, and mop the mausoleums fastidiously, their young children using the rest of the space as a playground. Always these unusable mansions make a stark contrast with Martín’s shack.
At night you hear gunshots in the distance. A radio announces that 21,915 people have died in cartel-related violence since President Calderón took office.
But during the day the cemetery is all hard work and action, with a small army of craft laborers creating new graves and pouring the cement for new expensive mausoleums. They are unmoved when, one day, their work has the background soundtrack of a mother wailing for her dead son at a funeral full of weeping mourners. The director shows no evidence of that funeral, just the sight of hundreds of new graves being prepared by these expert laborers.
In an interview, director/ producer/ cinematographer Almada explains:
You can feel that violence has just happened because of the funerals and the deaths that are present, and then there’s always this kind of sense of anticipation of what’s going to happen, and yet nothing happens at all.
I wanted to make a film that has that kind of quality about it so you can understand what it means to live in a place of violence. And it’s not the way we see violence in the newspapers.
Almada’s craft is more than the kind of documentary film we’re used to — she’s at the forefront of a new generation of documentarians, many of them women, who show us that nonfiction film can be art. It’s similar to the lovely, contemplative, lonely Sweetgrass (2009), that paean to cowboys disappearing from Montana.
Some of the most remarkable new film work is being done in documentary format — don’t be fooled by the outdated notion that documentary means talking heads, sitting in front of cases of books. These documentaries remind us that real life is often weirder, and more interesting, than fiction. I can hardly wait to see what Natalia Almada does with that magnificent MacArthur gift of time and money.